Sunday, November 04, 2007

Horrorfest Report 2007 #10: I, Vampire! I Wish

Vampires are the kings of the undead, the ultimate state of monster immortality. The blood suckers have long since been the most romantic of the horror monsters and somehow the most classic. They don’t have the savagery of some monsters or the grotesqueness of others. They are the most human of all the monsters, idealized humans in many ways, despite their hemophilandering.

Well, there’s the rub, isn’t it? They are philanderers, usually handsome and rich, living off the sexuality of others. They are sexual predators, but not the sodomizing pedophiles that haunt our reality. They are monsters we might even aspire to be. But mostly it comes back to the sex thing.

As a teenager one of my favorite guilty pleasure horror flicks was “Fright Night”. Although it was rated R, it was a very juvenile take on the whole vampire mythos. Its hero, Charlie, is a teen who is obsessed with all the things I was at that same age, sex and things that go bump in the night. Like Charlie, I sometimes had trouble prioritizing the two. I mean who didn’t want to get laid, but it isn’t everybody who might just be living next to a real live… er, I guess that should be dead vampire!

Charlie and his friends are outcasts from the social scene just as every teen feels he doesn’t ever really fit in. Evil, Charlie’s strange friend who has the unfortunate fate of becoming the vampire’s first familiar, in particular seems to be loathed by all including his friends. Of course he would want to become a vampire. He finds that being a vampire servant isn’t any more rewarding than being a hero’s sidekick. The grass is always greener.

Chris Sarandon as the vampire epitomizes everything teens yearn for in becoming adults. He is idealized in every aspect. He’s handsome and has some strange connection with anybody he looks at. He seems to be rich and yet doesn’t appear to have any responsibilities. He even has a servant to do all the house chores. Who wouldn’t want to be this guy?

Canadian auteur Guy Maddin deals regularly in fantasy. His films often conjure up an idealized world where silent film and sound meet. His films look uncannily like some century old silent that was dug up from a vault and yet have sound and dialogue that exists as if it came out of the same time capsule. This somehow makes him the perfect director for a remake of the Bram Stoker classic “Dracula”.

Looking like something that could have been filmed even before Bela Lugosi’s Universal monster take on the original vampire, “Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary” remains a subject purely Maddin since it is based on the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s stage version of the tale. It is a silent film and it works as wonderfully as any version of this story ever has.

Filmed beautifully in 8mm and 16mm black and white, this version of the classic vampire tale once again stresses the sexuality of the vampire and the obsessive hormones of his victims. Focusing mostly on Dracula’s assault on Lucy while she is being wooed by three men, the dance emphasizes the perfection of Dracula versus the imperfections of the men. The doctor is obsessed with his patients, including the demented Renfield. The Texan is a sad caricature of American bravado. Even Lucy’s eventual fiancĂ© Lord Holmwood ― while the best of the lot — comes across as a bit of a sissy. For a time, I thought these roles were handled by female dancers. Maybe they were; their masculinity certainly seemed to be in question.

Dr. Van Helsing seems to be the only real man of the bunch. His only problem is he older and comes into the story after the creature already has Lucy under his spell.

Dracula is performed by a dancer of Asian descent, Zhang Wei-Qiang. This adds a mystique to the character that has probably become harder to define within the confines of the western world in modern times. Zhang has that special draw that Dracula requires and is somehow easily captured when contrasting western ideals with eastern races.

This film doesn’t deal as much with the characters of Harker and Mina as much as other versions, but there is a nice sequence when we are introduced to them at a convent. They disappear from the nun-filled courtyard to a private room and court each other with sexual advances that are not realized. The sequence is followed by Harker’s imprisonment within Dracula’s castle by his bride harem. Men are such slime when it comes to sex, are they not? Of course, this sexual fantasy isn’t exactly a pleasurable experience for Harker in the end.

Today, modern takes on vampires have lost much of the emphasis on sexuality in order to take advantage of the technological advances in makeup and special effects. Even the supernatural element has been lost to a great degree and vampires have evolved into some sort of gothic superheroes and villains in films like “Underworld” and “Blade”. Sure these superhero vampires dress in skin tight outfits as befit their comic book influenced world, but little actual sexual exploration finds its way into these films.

Russian director Timur Bekmambetov has brought this vampire as superhero idea to its highest degree with his “Vampire Watch” series. He wowed audiences with his visual wizardy in the first film of the trilogy “Night Watch”. He has been accused by US critics with visual excess in the second of the series “Day Watch”, which hit American theaters earlier this year and is now available in an unrated DVD.

Interestingly enough, “Day Watch” seems to have reintroduced sexual desire into this series, which was mostly battle fantasy influenced in the first film. In this film we see the hero in a romantic situation with one of his co-workers, a fellow Night Watcher who helps police the vampires to keep the light and dark in balance. Their situation is complicated when the hero must switch bodies with another female co-worker in order to escape prosecution for the murder of a Day Watcher, who exist to make sure the light does not over power the dark. We also see a villainess who desires a much younger vampire but is trapped in a relationship with the primary villain. The young vampire is not affiliated with either the Day or Night Watch, but represents the freedom of youth the villainess is on the verge of losing forever. She is clearly the most sexual creature of the proceedings.

While again no actual sex is explored in the film, the super powers of this unique mythology of vampires is the focus of the film. But anyone who has paid any attention to comic books knows full well that super heroics are very closely related to sexual awareness. Most superheroes become aware of their abilities during puberty as a reflection of how greatly the human body changes during this point in our maturity. And so vampire flick emphasis on super heroics is not as far a cry from the classic origins upon which the most popular of monsters is based as is might seem.


t-rocc said...

nice. Fright Night is a classic. i'm intrigued with the highlighting of vampires in these Russian films. i had tok Night and Day Watch for sub-sword and sorcery types of fantasy films, it's nice to hear that something more sinister is behind things.

did we ever get any sort of judgment from te critic in you in the films discussed here? or is this just a stop to consider sex and the supernatural?

Andrew D. Wells said...

I’m glad you picked up on the fact that I was not really offering any sort of judgment on these films. It’s something I’ve been trying to work toward with these Horrorfest reports. I want them to be something different that just mini-reviews of the movies. As you may have noted I have worked much harder to categorize my reports into themes this year. With some themes, as with the vampire and zombie films, I have tried to make more general observations over all the films in the theme. With some, like the Stephen King report, I’ve stayed with my more traditional mini-reviews. It depends on how the movies within each report relate to each other.

I am so used to writing just reviews for films. I’m trying to make a conscious effort to move away from that when I can. Sometimes that means a judgment can naturally be made, sometimes I stay away from any judgment to focus on theme.

I did offer a clear opinion on “Dracula: Pages from a Virigin’s Diary”, saying it was “wonderful”. Of course, not many people have a taste for silent horror films these days. If you are a fan of classic silents like “Nosferatu”, “The Phantom of the Opera”, or “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, you will love this film. Even if you admire the old Universal monsters like “Dracula” or “Frankenstein”, you will find much to admire in this film.

As for “Fright Night”, I did call it a guilty pleasure, but that also means I like it. It is fun in the way it plays with its own campy-ness, and I was quite struck by how direct it is about the sexuality involved. It’s such a goofy high school movie version of the vampire myth. It isn’t a film that continues to scare me, but it is a lot of fun. I think the same things can probably be said about “The Lost Boys”, another classic for us in high school. Maybe I’ll check that one out next year.

I did not mean to imply there was something more sinister behind “Night Watch” and “Day Watch”. Yes, they center around vampires, but Bekmambetov really seems to be trying to create his own mythology for them that has little to do with human life. It is a sword and sorcery fantasy, although I would place it a good step above the sword and sorcery mythology presented in the “Underworld” films.

I really enjoyed “Night Watch” a good deal because he did so many things I’ve never seen; even the goofy back-flipping work truck was unusual enough for me not to be totally turned off by it. With “Day Watch” the adrenaline has dropped a little bit, and we get a slightly easier to follow story. But it is less ambitious than the first. I was a little torn, happy they had simplified this new world vampire mythology to a more manageable level, but it all seemed a little more superficial.