Thursday, October 28, 2010

The world is a vampire...

...but not one of those sparkly ones with the '80s rock band haircut and a thing for unremarkable white trash goth chicks.

Don't panic. I'm not interested in jumping on the Twilight-bashing bandwagon that trundles noisily around the Internet every time a new movie gets released, the stars appear on Letterman or the guy who plays the werewolf takes his shirt off again. I've seen two of the movies (the first was watchable but not my thing, the second was as much fun as herpes) and I've cracked the cover on one of the books. I got no further than page five, but I'm more of a Cormack McCarthy kinda reader than a Stephenie Meyer guy. So that's more about preference.
What really interests me is how a thirty-something mum in a conservative corner of the United States managed to turn one of fiction's most terrifying monsters into an object of romantic fantasy. And not just a Hugh Grant kinda romantic hero with his "er, um, I rather, you know, ah, that is to say" waffle, but one they can really get weird about.

Seriously, women completely lose their luggage over this stuff. Some just read it and move on, but others start websites, get tattoos, stalk the actors and generally act like teenagers seeing Justin Bieber for the first time (and for the BieberHaters out there, he's no more or less annoying than Justin Timberlake, N-Sync, David Cassidy or Leif Garrett in their day. This too shall pass). There are T-shirts available in little girl sizes with logos like "Forget princess, I wanna be a vampire!" There are screaming hordes of women in their thirties wherever the stars of the movies make an appearance. Someone made women's underwear with pictures of Edward the Vampire's face printed on them as a gag, and was immediately deluged with requests to buy them. Call me conservative, but THIS. IS. NOT. NORMAL.

But is it really about vampires?

Such is the pervasiveness of Bram Stokers original tale that people now know more vampire lore than they know their own national history. Everyone knows how to finish a vampire (stake through the heart), keep one at bay (crosses, garlic, running water) or kill their physical form (silver bullet). And if you're thinking "Wait, isn't that werewolves?" I think I just made my point. Since one of the earliest film versions in 1922 ("Nosferatu", an unauthorised rip of Stoker's book), we've been exposed to vampire mythology through hundreds of films. Dracula was famously played by Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, such that both were identified with the character most of their careers. The 1970s saw the Count Yorga films, a slightly different interpretation of vampires but still close to the original tale. Salem's Lot and The Lost Boys gave two different takes on the genre in the '80s (notably introducing the "hip young vampire" cliche), while Interview with the Vampire in the '90s brought us the idea of "Vampire as victim" with Tom Cruise's sympathetic portrayal. Woven through it have been innumerable other angles, including comedy ("Dracula: dead and loving it"), race ("Blacula"), gender ("Vampyres", about two lesbian vampires and no, it doesn't get any better than that), martial arts ("The legend of the Seven Golden Vampires") and action-adventure (Buffy and all her spin-offs). This overexposure has made vampires part of global culture, more familiar than any other character besides Elvis (though had he survived, no doubt he would have done a vampire film uh huh). Any fear we might have had of vampires faded long ago, powerless before Buffy's gag-a-minute dialogue, Leslie Nielsen's slapstick goofballery and the devastating tag-team power of Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, turning the Monster into the Object Of Desire one smouldering look at a time. And if you still doubt that the vampire myth has been completely de-fanged? Just watch One, ONE Wonderful Episode of Sesame Street, ah, ah, ah.

Dracula wasn't the only monster brought to life by western literature. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was one of the earliest horror tales that made its way into popular culture. Written by Shelley at just 19 years of age, it's now better known than anything her more famous (at the time) husband Percy ever wrote. In its day it was a tale that played on people's fears of the Industrial Revolution, and the first inkling of the fallibility of religion. It's called "The Modern Prometheus," a reference to the fashioning of the first woman from clay. The idea that Man could bring life to dead flesh horrified people, not just for squeamish reasons but because it called into question the very idea of God.
But what is it best known for now? Herman Munster, and Lurch, the butler in the Addams Family. Time and overexposure has turned fear and loathing into goofball cliche.

And Stoker's original Dracula was a story of equal power. The vampires didn't glow, didn't form happy, functional familes and get around in period costume, and they certainly didn't fall in love with misfit teens. What they DID do was treat humanity the way we treat cows or sheep; with a casual contempt for life and freedom. In Stoker's tale, the arrival of Dracula in London was a calamity, more akin to the coming of the Black Death than the appearance of a nice young chap with an eye for dull schoolgirls. The heroes of the story are the mortals who try to fight the menace in their midst, risking their lives to stop a monster they barely understand, and cannot hope to match. Yet anyone will tell you that this tale is the seed from which Twilight sprang, right?


Consider this simple plot:

A terrifying menace appears in distant lands. People are violently killed; survivors realise the menace must be stopped before it reaches civilisation. They race against time to prevent a catastrophe.

What's the story? There are a hundred answers or more: it neatly describes Alien, Outbreak, 28 Days Later, Life Force, The Swarm, Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain (or just about any other Michael Crichton story), Them, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and countless others. It's a popular theme, and one that will no doubt stay with us as long as there are cinemas.

Now try this one:

A powerful but lonely man falls in love with an unremarkable but good-hearted woman. Circumstances force them apart, but the strength of his love for her sees him fight through all obstacles, defeat a rival for her affections and win her heart.

Sound familiar? It's Bridget Jones (and its sequel), it's Pretty Woman, Cinderella, Snow White, My Fair Lady, An Officer and a Gentlemen, Pride and Prejudice and probably every trashy romance novel ever written. It's no less popular a theme than the whole 'uh-oh, apocalypse' story above (though perhaps with a different audience), and has kept the Mills and Boon crew making pink-covered books for a long time.

You can see where this is going. Bram Stoker's Dracula fits squarely into the first category. The original Count Dracula is a malevolent evil, determined to reach the fertile feeding grounds of 19th-century London, where he and his kind can feed on humanity forever. There is no love around the vampire character, no romance; he is the darkness in a story with precious little light.

And Twilight? If you picked it as plot number two, help yourself to a prize from the second shelf. It's a teen romance film, about a powerful figure who devotes his life to protecting a fairly innocuous woman because (I am reliably informed), she smells nice and he can't read her mind. I've seen guys fall in love because the girl owns an X-Box, so I'm not about to criticise. The hero can be Snow White's prince, Elizabeth Bennett's rich gentleman-about-town (ever noticed nobody seems to have jobs in Jane Austen books?), the fighter pilot of An Officer And A Gentleman, Julia Roberts' billionaire businessman (oh look, Richard Gere again) or Bridget Jones' well-connected diplomat chap, it matters not: he simply needs to be strong and influential and willing to devote his valuable time and resources to the unlikely focus of his romantic desires. Perhaps the story's popularity reflects every woman's desire to be loved for simply being herself. Or maybe it reflects a desire to have a strong protector, or to be fought over by weirdly, implausibly, air-brushedly handsome guys. I dunno.

None of this really matters here, because the point I'm trying to make is that Twilight is Not A Vampire Film. There might be vampires in it, but that's incidental. It's a Lonely Hero/Girl Next Door tale, same as thousands that have gone before. Stephenie Meyer's master-stroke, inadvertent though it may have been, was to build on the portrayal of vampires as Romantic figures cursed by their immortality, and to weave it in with the simplest elements of every little girl's dream of being carried away by the handsome Prince/Knight/Lawyer/fighter pilot/other masculine figure. Decades of exposure drained the horror from vampires, and made them as good a hero figure as any, a concept unimaginable when the myth was first presented to our eyes. Anna Paquin and her many half-naked co-stars in True Blood have completed the emasculation, solidifying the idea of vampires as simply misguided, in need of nothing more than a good woman to set them straight.
I'm not saying there's anything wrong with it. People like these books, and more folks reading can hardly be a bad thing. I'm simply saying that sparkly Edward and his girl troubles are a long, looong way from the bleak castle in Romania where we first met a vampire.

And if it still doesn't seem strange? Imagine replacing the vampire in Twilight with the Scary Monsters of our own time. Putting Bella in the arms of Edward the Vampire is like putting her in the arms of Ridley Scott's Alien. Or if the species gap makes this seem a bit strange, try putting a zombie from 28 Days Later in the role of romantic hero. If Twilight's anything to go by, you'll only need to wait fifty years or so for the first zombie romance movie.