The James Clayton Column: Vampires will never bore you

Has Twilight left us with vampire fatigue? As Byzantium emerges, James argues that there are plenty of stories left to tell in the lore...

Remember the My Chemical Romance song, Vampires Will Never Bore You? You probably don’t because that wasn’t the actual title of the track. Nevertheless, there’s no reason why the theatrical rock troupe can’t remix Vampires Will Never Hurt You with revised, more upbeat lyrics for a new cultural zeitgeist in order to assist the ailing undead.

The coffin-dwellers are suffering a public image crisis and an exhilarating, affirmative pop anthem would be the perfect thing to rally spirits. It might also attract armies of impassioned, hyper-emotional adolescents going through their teen goth rebellion phase. A mass macabre awareness campaign is called for and the vampires need fresh blood and fresh resolve to bare their fangs with fierce determination.

Why do they need this? Because our beloved bloodsuckers might be moving towards the endangered species list. There’s no danger of them dying out – they can’t because they’re already dead and their numbers aren’t so few that they’re verging on extinction. The risk is that vampires may be following in the trotter-steps of what was once the wild boar.

If this cataclysmic happening happens, vampires will lose their primal quintessence and only exist in a safe, sorry domesticated form. From there they’ll be minced up and sold at knock-down prices as hot dog sausages (hot bat sausages?) to children at multiplex matinee screenings. Those aren’t the children of the night, by the way, and they don’t make sweet music. What can you hear instead? That would be the sound of Bela Lugosi (who is dead) crying in the afterlife. He’s turning in his grave, but Dracula will not rise again to terrorise modern times because people no longer fear the Nosferatu.

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It’s an inevitable side-effect of popularity and mass media ubiquity, I suppose. Vampires are iconic, appealing monsters, but because they’ve saturated pop culture they’re now an overfamiliar presence. They are defanged and the special dread they conjure is diminished as audiences approach them with a stack of expectations and a cynical attitude of “Yeah, vampires. We’ve seen ’em before. No new ideas in Hollywood. Vampires suck. Ha ha! See what I did there?”

That cynic (he, she or it probably stopped enjoying films in 1987) might also be affected by the box office success of the Twilight series and other family-friendly depictions of vampires (Hotel Transylvania, Dark Shadows). By sanitising the fearsome folk villains and presenting them to children (so the children can eat them up and not vice-versa) moviemakers may have done irrevocable damage.

This is standard for any edgy subcultural concept that undergoes absorption into wider mainstream society. Cult aficionados get hipsterish and start bemoaning the fact that poseur kids don’t understand and that, in the case of my main monster of focus, “Vampires don’t sparkle or have soppy romances! These are vampires? These vampires suck! Ha ha! See what I did there?”

The good news is that vampires are probably in a better state than punk rock or fellow overexposed supernatural horrors, zombies (snarky cynic snorts: “Zombies? Gah! “Yawn of the Dead”! “World War Zzzzzzzz”. Ha! See what I did there?”) Still, in spite of the fact that they’ve become commonplace and consequently lost some of their power in the process, I disagree that vampirism has become clichéd and boring.

As Doctor Samuel Johnson so wisely said: “When a man is tired of vampires he is tired of life”. (Should that be “When a man is tired of vampire he is tired of undying afterlife”?)  I reckon the Doctor’s right and that the rejection of vampire movies is the sign of a jaded, uninspired and indifferent mind failing to appreciate a fundamental truth – vampires are truly fantastic in all senses of the word.

I’m writing this eulogy to the seductive dark ones of screen legend as Neil Jordan’s new film Byzantium drops into cinemas. In the past, Jordan has worked with werewolves for The Company Of Wolves and our sanguinary subject in Interview With The Vampire, but with Byzantium there’s an acute sense that everyone’s a little shy about discussing the supernatural creatures at the premise’s core.

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The film features Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan as a secretive mother-and-daughter pair who seek shelter in a seaside town. Their motive, and the reason they’re searching out quiet sanctuary? They are over 200 years old, and survive on human blood but the vampirism of the movie’s lead protagonists has been slightly underplayed in the hype and build-up.

Marketing blurb has been surprisingly subtle as it talks vaguely about “a secret shared by the two mysterious women” and “deathly consequences”. The trailer makes the vampirism explicit but elsewhere it’s almost as if the film is coy about its core nature, almost as if it’s wary of stigma should it wear its vampires too boldly.

The impact of Twilight’s success and the proliferation of paler vampire screen portrayals is palpable here, and I can already picture people’s eyes rolling as they encounter “another uninspired vampire story”.

It’d be a shame to approach Jordan’s fresh feature with that mindset because, if anything, Byzantium sounds exactly like the kind of original idea that shows cinemagoers that movie vampires are interesting, and that interesting things can still be done with them.

If you’re still sceptical, perhaps you’ve got a generic idea of vampires haunting your imagination, and those homogenous pictures ultimately ring hollow. Across the globe and throughout history every culture has some kind of supernatural succubus tradition and a folklore figure feasting on the blood and souls of mortal humans.

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It’s a universal trope with numerous divergences and differing nuances, and just as that’s true for mythology, religion and literary traditions, so it’s also true of cinema portrayals. A quick fly over film history proves that vampirism can continually be reinterpreted in inventive creative ways making for a fascinating mix of great movies.

Twilight – phenomenal bête noire that sends many purists sparking – is a prime example of how pop culture can rework vampirism and continually breed many-a new mythos. There is no stale sameyness here and blanketing impressions like “vampires are overdone and tired” are tragically myopic and misguided. To contemplate the shiny skin of the Cullen Clan is to come to appreciate how adaptable the undead actually are.

Movie vampires are more than just a Bela Lugosi impersonation or a child-friendly spoof of the Dracula template. Sticking with Bram Stoker for a second, note how many unique filmic adaptations or variations of Dracula (or Nosferatu) there have been. It’s a timeless tale – partly because the title character is immortal and because Universal and Hammer Studios enjoyed making sequels – but the legendary Count isn’t ossified in a Lugosi or Christopher Lee mould (and they are marvellous moulds). Max Schreck, Klaus Kinski and Gary Oldman have all embodied the grand Transylvanian in their own unique fashion and so many more moviemakers have tackled Stoker’s story in their own style.

As it is with Dracula, so it is likewise with Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend – adapted for screen three times in three dissimilar flicks which do intriguingly different things with rich source material. Matheson’s 50s novel approached vampirism from a sci-fi perspective, and the melding of genres proves fruitful in cinema if you recall scintillating mash-ups like Near Dark (vampire western), Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (historical anachronism action vampires) and Twilight (vampire teen romance). Then Priest throws everything into the pot and blends dystopian religious sci-fi with martial arts battling and a western plot for an idiosyncratic experience to relish.

If none of those move you, go for vampirism as wrought by world cinema auteurs in, say, Tomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In (Swedish vampire childhood friendship tale) or Park Chan-wook’s Thirst (Korean Catholic priest vampire’s romantic domestic drama). Vampire cinema is a sub-genre of astounding range, and there’s something for every mood and preference on a tremendously lengthy film list – action-orientated, erotic, sweet, bleak, comic, sociopolitical comment, arthouse, beautiful, grotesque and so on, on eternal flapping bat wings.

From Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr to From Dusk Till Dawn; from Ken Russell’s The Lair Of The White Worm to Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos; from Hammer’s The Karnstein Trilogy to Tony Scott’s The Hunger; from Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders to George Romero’s Martin; from Mario Bava’s Black Sunday to Byzantium – across time, national boundaries and genre traditions, there is always someone doing something worthwhile and creatively remarkable with the lore.

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If the prospect of a new feature with fangs has you yawning, I’d suggest that you’re suffering chronic cynicism and that something has sapped your vitality. I’d advise you to look in the mirror to check your neck for puncture marks or look into your reflection (if you can see it) and ask it if it’s lost its essential vigour.

As My Chemical Romance sang (the bracketed bit whispered at a pitch higher than the upper range of regular human hearing): “(A few more) vampires will never hurt you”. Having been bitten long ago, I’m an insatiable sucker for the bloodsuckers, and I’m always more than happy for them to revive and thrive on cinema screens.

James Clayton is going to be a pain in the neck if you don’t put up crucifixes and garlic cloves to warn him off tonight. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter.

You can read James’ previous column here.