The James Clayton Column: Vampire heroes – they’re good for you!

Feature James Clayton
4 Jan 2013 - 16:43

With Johnny Depp playing avampire in Dark Shadows, isn’t it about time we appreciated all the good things vampires do?

The premise of Dark Shadows is brilliant. To summarise, Dark Shadows is about an 18th century gentleman who’s turned into a vampire by an evil witch, is shackled in a coffin and eventually emerges from his prison tomb 196 years later to find himself in the baffling strange new world that is 1972 America.

Resurfacing in an era of television, automobiles and Alice Cooper, and dealing with the accursed condition of being an immortal monster ain’t easy. Barnabas Collins, however, must also face the fact that his nemesis has orchestrated the decline of his family’s estate and fishing business and that his dysfunctional ancestors are in severe disarray.

It’s not quite high-concept, and is in fact one of the quirkiest film foundations you’ll find at the cinema this year. It becomes an even more intriguing proposition when you note that it’s a star-studded adaptation of an obscure vintage American soap opera and that the director is oddball auteur (and Dark Shadows superfan) Tim Burton.

The movie’s masterstroke is in Johnny Depp’s casting as the beleaguered Barnabas Collins, and Dark Shadows is worth a watch purely for the sight of Depp theatrically vamping it up as a bloodsucker out of time. The film has flaws, but there’s a lot to enjoy in Burton’s latest feature, the central character being the main draw and best element in the gothic telenovella mix.

I don’t want to review the film here, though (that’s someone else’s job). What I want to review is the vampire’s role in achieving resolutions to problems and acting as a positive, progressive force in disordered circumstances. It’s all too easy to dismiss these beings as an evil undead menace that constitute a constant threat, but that’s not necessarily the truth. Look at them under a different light (one that won’t make them shrivel up and expire) and you may begin to appreciate them as entities that can effectively restore equilibrium to distressed plots and disturbed scenarios.

Taking Dark Shadows as the vampire-tinged flick of the moment, it’s plain to see that Barnabas Collins is the character with most narrative drive, stirring progressive momentum in others’ lives simultaneously. He’s barely even been out of the ground and slaked his bloodthirst before he’s galvanising his deadbeat family, rebuilding the fish-canning business, restoring the dilapidated Collinwood Manor and hosting a ball (or rather, “a happening” because in the 70s they have “happenings”).

Our paranormal lead protagonist becomes a community champion, boosting local industry, holding deep discussions with hippies and, most crucially, providing comfort and inspiration for his longsuffering relatives. He helps restore their fortunes and brings hope when the Collins family were ebbing into entropy.

The need to kill a few mortals and claim their vital fluids is obviously problematic, but for the most part the return of Barnabas Collins to Collinsport is a great thing. Far from being a fiendish dread creature, the vampire is a hero who brings out the best in people and acts for the wider good.

It’s not just Dark Shadows alone as a movie hailing the benefits that bloodsuckers can bring. If you’d care to consider another fanged curiosity from the 70s, look as well to George Romero’s Martin. Even if his granduncle abhors him, it’s my belief that the eponymous adolescent is a nice boy and positive presence in Braddock, Pennsylvania. He brings some fleeting pleasure to older women trapped in loveless marriages and entertains the bored residents of Pittsburgh with his late night chats to a local radio DJ.

I’m also led to recall a couple of what you might call ‘world cinema weird tales’. In Let The Right One In, when lonely schoolboy Oskar befriends Eli, the sweet little vampire girl next door, he gets protection from bullies and finds some much-needed joy in what appears to be the most miserable Swedish winter of the 80s.

In Park Chan-Wook’s Thirst, once Catholic priest Sang-hyun has got his head around his vampiric metamorphosis, he goes through a fresh spell of revitalised usefulness as a superman of action. With newfound vigour and (blood)lust, he sweeps into the life of Tae-ju and rescues the poor woman from domestic suffocation at the hands of a snivelling hypochondriac husband and an overbearing mother-in-law.

In both cases, banality and bleakness are eradicated by the intervention of a vampire. These bloodsuckers bring excitement and spikes of optimism to intolerable existences, and that extends into other texts and real life outside of art. The folklore figures are tantalising, ethereal entities from the beyond, and there’s a certain exhilarating exoticism or, indeed, eroticism about them that appeals to people. Large audiences continue to lap up vampire lore and pop culture portrayals of the pale undead folk and Twilight-mania is a perhaps the most obvious, outstanding indication of this.

The fact that teenage girls go crazy over Edward Cullen highlights just how seductive and sexually charged vampires are, and that can count as another point in the ‘pro-vampire’ column. The aforementioned Dark Shadows and Thirst are just two movies showcasing the sexual satisfaction provided by these supernaturals, and the message I take from a great many vampire films is that by hanging with them, you may ultimately open yourself up to the most awesome, otherworldly erotic experiences.

Humdrum human sex seems woefully inadequate when you start imagining nights with the Brides of Dracula, bloodbaths with Countess Báthory and wild orgies with the patrons of the Titty Twister bar in From Dusk Till Dawn.

Even those who aren’t turned on fanged terrors benefit from their presence, especially if they actively despise and oppose them. Without their enemies, the likes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Van Helsing would have an identity crisis and most likely slump into existential ennui without a purpose or a definitive nemesis to pit themselves against. Viewed from a different perspective, Count Dracula’s arrival in England is the best thing to ever happen to Van Helsing - the bored academic gets validation for all his years of research, a fresh adventure and the opportunity to grandstand as a hero.

It’s all thanks to vampires, and it shouldn’t stand that they be instantly cast out as creatures of satanic evil deserving nothing friendlier than a stake to the heart. They may in fact bring salvation and the figure of Dark Shadows’ Barnabas Collins reaffirms that.

I believe that vampires should be hailed as transfigurational heroes of the modern age, and adored as agents of change and icons of edgy cool. The truth is this: vampires are bloody great.

James Clayton is a sucker for bloodsuckers who enjoys listening to the children of the night (what music they make!). You can see all his links here or follow him on Twitter.
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