Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Latterday vampires

Outi Hakola writes about contemporary vampire movies in the Lähikuva [Close-Up] magazine of the Finnish film scholars, in its issue 1/2011, that has just come in the mail. She examines the phenomenon of the Twilight movies (US 2008, 2009, 2010, two more forthcoming), the True Blood tv series (US 2008- ), and the Vampire Diaries tv series (US 2009- ).

Outi Hakola observes that in contemporary vampire fiction the male vampire has become an identification object, and an ideal partner for the female lead. She refers to an impressive amount of current research in which this phenomenon has been examined.

Personally, as my knowledge of the horror genre lags largely a quarter of a century behind, I have been puzzled. Even the Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In I found incomprehensible. Hakola's remarkable essay confirms that a volte-face has taken place. The ultimate monster has become a love object.

The traditional vampire movies, including Coppola's Dracula and Interview with the Vampire, were clear about the evil of the monster. The vampire is the Devil, an incarnation of death, whose erotic fascination makes him even more dangerous. In more psychological terms, the vampire was a manifestation of the death instinct, the death drive, or a catalyst for them.

In social and historical terms, the modern vampire was a monster of Romanticism, which developed a counter-imagery to the rationalism of the Industrial Revolution. In the cinema, the early vampire figures seemed to reflect indirectly the fall of the European empires (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia), and post-WWII Hammer vampires seemed to reflect the fall of the British empire. Those decadent noblemen still radiated a power and a glory that, however, had no longer any foundation in reality. They were ghosts from a vanished world. Since the 1960s it has become difficult to make traditional vampire movies except in pastiche.

In agreement with Stephen King's reasoning in his excellent study Danse Macabre my angle to horror fiction has been that it gives us approaches to discuss the issues death and madness, those overwhelming issues that we cannot help confronting but that exceed the limits of our comprehension. Horror fiction may be serious or ridiculous, but the issues it deals with are among the greatest.

The traditional vampire is an incarnation of death, but is this the case with the contemporary vampire, as well? Life is a struggle, death is easy. Life is messy, death is cool. If the contemporary vampire is still an incarnation of the death drive, is American vampire fiction telling us to stop fighting, to succumb to it, to fall in love with the death instinct? To love death?

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