Vampires. When was the last time anyone felt genuinely afraid of screen vampires? Max Schreck's Count Orlok in F W Murnau's 1922 classic Nosferatu can still induce shudders, but frankly, it's all been downhill ever since. As one critic put it: "To watch Nosferatu is to see the vampire movie before it had really seen itself... before it was buried alive in clichés, jokes, TV skits, cartoons and more than 30 other films."
Bela Lugosi, Universal's king of the jugular-drinkers, or Hammer's bloodshot, public-school Dracula, Christopher Lee, always felt as harmless as a funfair ghost-train ride. And while the attraction of falling on Isabelle Adjani's neck cannot be denied, even Werner Herzog, Teutonic heir to Murnau, was unable to add much to the genre in his 1979 film, Nosferatu, Phantom der Nacht.
In the 1980s, Aids – and an attendant fear of blood – proved a fillip to a genre that still proves irresistible to film and TV makers. There have been at least three major new North American television dramas this century (Moonlight, Blood Ties and Angel, the Buffy spin-off) but none has supplied the dread or, indeed, the pity that could raise the subject above its genre roots. There was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, of course, Joss Whedon's witty, sometimes profound take on the subject. I was intrigued to learn that the Oscar-winning screenwriter Alan Ball, who has been adapting Charlaine Harris's best-selling Southern Vampire Mysteries novels with True Blood, had never watched even a single episode of Buffy.
"No, never, or read an Anne Rice book either," says Ball, the writer of American Beauty and creator of Six Feet Under, HBO's morbidly funny mortician saga. "I saw some movies as a kid growing up – they used to show really cheesy horror movies in the afternoons at my local cinema..."
So why has Ball gone from burying the dead in Six Feet Under to raising the undead in True Blood – a logical step in some respects, but not for a writer so resistant to genre fiction? "I got into Charlaine's books quite by accident," he says, "while waiting for a dentist's appointment, in fact. It was just a little paperback, and on the cover the tag line said, 'Maybe having a vampire for a boyfriend wasn't such a good idea.' I thought it was kind of funny.
"I started reading and I couldn't put it down, and the minute I was done with it, I wanted to read the next one. I was somewhere in the middle of the fourth one and I thought they would make a great TV series, so I called HBO. After both American Beauty and Six Feet Under, which, in various ways, are both meditations on mortality, I think I was just done. Especially after Six Feet Under... five years of staring into the abyss [was] enough." Ball was, in short, ready to have a ball.
"Frankly, I never expected to do another TV series after Six Feet Under until I came across these books," he says. "HBO asked 'What do you think this series is about?' And I knew they wanted some sort of one-sentence theme and I had nothing, so I just kind of opened my mouth and 'It's about the terrors of intimacy' just came out. And they kind of liked that."
Set in the deepest Deep South, amid the trailer parks of northern Louisiana (Ball is from Georgia), True Blood is also located in a world where vampires have made their presence known to humans ("They've come out of the coffin") because of the development by a Japanese biotech firm of synthetic blood, which the vampires claim fulfils their nutritional needs. Anna Paquin from X-Men plays Sookie Stackhouse, a human waitress with telepathic powers who has fallen for a 173-year-old vampire, Bill Compton (played by the saturnine British actor Stephen Moyer).
"Because technically Bill has no brainwaves, Sookie doesn't really hear his thoughts," explains Ball. "So for the first time in her entire she can relax and be herself and not be on her guard about people's private, innermost thoughts." However, prejudice against vampires is still strong, and Sookie's friends and family disapprove of her choice of boyfriend. There are plenty of little jokes studded around (one bumper sticker reads "God hates fangs") and, with Ball himself being openly gay, I wondered whether he was writing an extended metaphor about the struggle for gay and lesbian rights.
"Obviously, there is a metaphor there – that's built into the whole notion of the vampire rights amendment and vampire marriage. But that's because of where we are in history now," he says. "If it was 50 years ago, it would have been civil rights for African-Americans. If it was 100 years ago, it would have been equal rights for women.
"Certainly, the vampires seem to be going through a lot of things that gays and lesbians are going through. To me, that's not what the show is about... that's window dressing, a fun slant on the culture wars. To me, True Blood is a love story, it's adventure, it's sexy, it's scary – it's a big, surprising, old-fashioned, Saturday-afternoon movie serial."
An old-fashioned, Saturday-afternoon movie serial with lots of graphic sex. One of the novel things about True Blood is the notion of "vampire sex", an energetic form of love-making that can prove fatal. "There are people who are called 'fang bangers' who hook up with vampires because sex with vampires is really good," says Ball. "Vampire blood is a kind of hot black-market drug – like a combination of ecstasy and Viagra."
Ball says he worked hard to keep the creakier, more baroque kind of cliché at bay. "I had some rules," he says. "No opera music. And I did not want to give the vampires stupid contact lenses – first of all, because we're a TV show and it takes about half an hour to put those in, and we have seven or eight pages to shoot on any given day. I also felt like, 'let the actors act it'."
The sort of trailer-park, Walmart environment that the show takes place in also helps in avoiding a lot of those clichés, he adds. "But you can't avoid them altogether – they still have fangs and they still bite people. We actually made a big point of designing the vampire fangs so that there is a physiological basis for them. They are very similar to rattlesnake fangs and they lay flat along the roof of the mouth until the vampire is hungry or aroused."
The centre of the show is the romance between Sookie and her boyfriend, who happens to be a century and a half older than her. "I wanted to explore what it means to be 170 years old, what it means to be in a relationship that entails being fed upon," says Ball.
There's no disguising the very real chemistry that exists between Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer, who have been an item since they started filming their scenes together. "Anna pursued this role aggressively," says Ball. "She even went blonde for it – something she was afraid to do in real life because she thought it was superficial.
"Bill was harder to cast. Most people, you give them fangs and they go mad – mimicking things they've seen already. The thing about Bill I wanted to capture is that he's tragic in a lot of ways – he's a very traditional tragic romantic hero, not unlike Mr Darcy or Mr Rochester."
True Blood marks a departure for a writer who has made his name penning original material. How did he find adapting somebody else's work? "I didn't feel I was having to twist something to make it mine, because I would feel kind of creepy doing that," says Ball. "A lot of people in Hollywood would think I was being naïve, but being a writer myself I feel a certain obligation to the writers of the original material."
In any case, True Blood has been a hit in the States, drawing more viewers than the cultish Six Feet Under. Is it attracting a different sort of viewer? "I think it will attract a lot of the same audience, but there are definitely people who might not respond to Six Feet Under who will respond to this. We did a thing for the Paley Festival [the William S Paley TV festival in LA] and it was really interesting to see the fans. (There were) a lot of very young people, of course, some goth people, and a lot of middle-aged women. Actually, when HBO tested the pilot, they said to me this is the highest-testing pilot since The Sopranos. Basically, women love the romance and the love story and men love the sex and violence."
'True Blood' starts tonight at 10pm on FXReuse content