John Walsh: 'The vampire tale used to be a mix of bats, blood, cleavage and snobbery'

Tales of the City
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The Independent Online

You used to feel you knew about vampires. You put in the hours reading Byron, Bram Stoker and Sheridan Le Fanu, you watched Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee and George Hamilton (in Love at First Bite) deploying their mittel-European, Draculan accents ("Goot eeef-ning") and radiating elegant menace. And you picked up semi-scientific facts: vampires sleep during the day, are afraid of sunlight, water, garlic and crucifixes, feed on human blood and live for hundreds of years until they have a stake driven through their hearts by vengeful Transylvanian provincials, carrying flaming torches and poorly-spelt placards.

Vampires never did much in the way of chat or charm, but they trapped women in the palms of their manicured hands simply by looking at them, and left them either dead or gibbering with lust. Serving wenches with chests that strained against drawstring blouses went weak at the knees when confronted by these sneery aristocrats, and wound up dead behind the counter at The Inn. Posh teenage girls (for which read "virgins") in skimpy peignoirs were mesmerised by the implicit threat of sexual jiggery-pokery, and became transformed into wanton sluts. When the posh girl's father swore vengeance on the perpetrator, it was the signal for the night pursuit and the flaming torches. That was the vampire tale, a pleasing amalgam of snobbery, cleavage, moonlight, seduction, blood, bats, punctured necks, untrustworthy Romanian gentry and clergymen waving crucifixes. What's not to like?

I saw New Moon at the weekend, one of the new brand of vampire stories from the books by Stephenie Meyer, and oh, the crushing disappointment. Was this glum pair of students, played by Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, really the Fate-thwarted double-act that had caused teenage girls to faint in millions? They sparked so little electricity, he could have been commiserating about her homework. When she nestled in his arms, as passionately as a horse scratching itself against a tree, he drooped like a mime artist who'd just had his gig at Hammersmith Apollo cancelled.

More annoyingly, Edward-the-vampire refused to obey vampire rules. He walked around in daylight. He didn't appear bothered by water. He wore white foundation and crimson lipstick – it had to be lipstick, because it couldn't be blood. He and his family had weaned themselves off human blood, you see, all except one young scamp who has to be restrained when he sees a cut finger. Blood-lust used to be the driving-force of a vampire plot. Now it's a family embarrassment to be covered up, like a transvestite great-grandfather.

And the plot? It wheezed along for two hours, unable to get anywhere because of its own limitations. Edward cannot shag Bella, for fear of making her join the undead. Bella takes up with Jacob, a secret werewolf, who cannot shag Bella for fear of tearing her throat out. So Bella spends the film undebauched, untransformed and staggeringly uninteresting. She's defined only by what she can't (or won't) do. Eventually, you start to wonder, ungallantly, how much fun Bella would be in the sack, with her permanent sulk and her air of injured propriety.

And the talk! Vampires, as a rule, never used to discuss the ins and outs of The Life Vampiric; they wanted to get on with removing the draw-string blouse and the moonlit peignoir. When you're 150 years old, you've had enough bloody chitchat. Nor did werewolves, in the olden days, tend to converse at length about their feelings of guilt and alienation. In New Moon, Jacob does nothing but talk about his Awful Secret, running the risk that Bella may think it's Scientology or haemorrhoids. At one point he cries, "Now let ME talk!" and you think: Jake, seriously, enough talking, do something to the flipping virgin before she starts setting fire to things and impaling people with knives (remember Carrie?)

I can see the Twilight saga is a cosy, homiletic way to warn pubescent girls against having sex, in case their deflowerer is secretly A Monster. But it's shocking to see a noble tradition being monkeyed about with, in order to persuade nervous teen girls that modern boys – even modern monsters – are full of conscience, responsibility and remorse. They're not. Not very deep down, they're still, I'm afraid, like the original Dracula, aching to turn sweet, virginal Lucy Westenra into a trashed and draggle-eyed sex slave.