Why the vampire movie is hard to kill

PAUL BYRNES
Last updated 05:00 14/04/2014

A depressed musician reunites with his lover, though their romance - which has already endured several centuries - is disrupted by the arrival of uncontrollable younger sister.

  Tilda Swinton
VEIN GLORY: Tilda Swinton in Jim Jarmusch's film Only Lovers Left Alive.

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The vampire movie is hard to kill, like the vampire itself. A stake through the heart and a string of garlic might rid your house of any unwanted undead, but you can't get away from them on your screens, large or small.

This is the New Age of the Vampire, complete with New Age vampires who don't like to bite people (the Cullens from the Twilight movies are not the only ones). Never before have the armies of the night been so numerous, so popular, so visible or so anodyne. There are neck-biting franchises everywhere - books, TV and especially movies, where they are sucking in billions in box office. The five Twilight Saga movies took in $5.5 billion and this trend is not about to end. The film website IMDB lists 26 vampire titles in production for 2014, including Dracula Untold, an origin story about Vlad the Impaler, and The Bloody Indulgent, a ''horror musical''.

These are not your dad's vampires, though. The undead are evolving in new directions. They have feelings and consciences now; sometimes they are the victims of hate crimes by humans.

The popularity is not new. Count Dracula, the Transylvanian tooth fairy created by Bram Stoker in 1897, has starred in at least 170 films, more than any other fictional character (followed by Sherlock Holmes). What is the universal appeal?

Flexibility, for one thing. Vampires come in an infinite variety, like Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans in the Harry Potter stories. They can be old or young (Kirsten Dunst in Interview with the Vampire, 1994), male or female (Dracula's Daughter, 1936), dramatic or comic (Mel Brooks' Dracula: Dead and Loving It, 1995). There are arty ones, alien ones, hundreds of exploitation ones. The late Spanish schlock director Jesus Franco was a specialist in the sub-category of erotic lesbian vampires. His Vampyres Lesbos from 1971 is a classic in the field.

Vampirism can mean whatever a storyteller wants it to mean. In Jim Jarmusch's sombre and nocturnal new film Only Lovers Left Alive, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are a married couple, living apart. He collects rare guitars in Detroit and makes intense personal music; she prowls the dark streets of Algiers in sunglasses and designer leather. They don't kill, relying instead on suppliers of black-market blood products, a metaphor for heroin use.

In Francis Coppola's Dracula, blood became contaminated, hence all those shots of corpuscles travelling through veins. It was the vampire movie adapting to AIDS. Among the most interesting new ones are the rutting Louisiana vampires who live on Japanese-made artificial blood in the TV series True Blood. These bayou vampires are sexy as Hell, and I do mean the real Hades.

Vampires are the aristocrats of the undead. There are lots of zombies out there too, but who wants to be one? Zombies are foul-smelling, grunting carcasses with legs, stupid as posts. Modern vampires are attractive and naughty, like rock stars. They do what they want, acting on desires that are all too human, but forbidden. They kill with impunity, they have enormous physical and mental power, and they can even mate with a human.

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If there is one thing that drives this whole speeding train of a genre, it is sex. Religion might be about the spirit, but vampirism is definitely about the body. Penetration leads to immortality, it seems. And for many vampires, this immortality comes when they're still young and beautiful, like Brad Pitt in Interview with the Vampire (1994) or Kristen Stewart in The Twilight Sagas. Forever young, I want to be...

Vampires have evolved in step with our changing beliefs. Bram Stoker did not invent the genre. The roots are much older, going back centuries, even before Christianity, but Christianity has always been the yin to Dracula's yang. Christians drink blood too, in a symbolic sense, during the Mass. Vampires are sometimes portrayed as fallen angels, with their own perversion of that ritual. The first major vampire film was Nosferatu, the German expressionist masterpiece from 1922, directed by F. W. Murnau, an unauthorised version of Stoker (for which they were sued by Stoker's widow). In nearly every subsequent film until the late 1970s, religion was a major thematic component. The various Professors Van Helsing used the Cross to burn the vampire's skin, or ward off attacks; holy water had the same corrosive effect.

Not any more. Religion has not quite disappeared from vampire movies, but it is far less prominent, partly because vampires now are just like us. That started with Anne Rice's first vampire novel, Interview with the Vampire, published in 1976. Her vampires had consciences; they killed, but not always with pleasure. Rice has said she took her lead from Gloria Holden's performance as Dracula's Daughter in the 1936 British film: ''It established to me what vampires were - these elegant, tragic, sensitive people.'' Rice had just lost her six-year-old daughter to leukaemia, and the book was written through a prism of grief and anger. Every vampire since owes something to Rice's reimagining. Vampires now have an inner life, rather than simply a hunger. They think and feel, and they are forever lonely, because everyone around them dies. Rice's vampires were always seeking love, but it never lasted.

Today's vampire is now human in almost every respect except feeding habits, and far less scary than they once were. That's what we've lost: the vampire that had real teeth and wasn't afraid to use them. They're all a bit wholesome now. It would be nice to see the return of the badass vampire, like the ones confronted by James Woods in John Carpenter's Vampires, from 1998. Woods plays the Vatican's chief vampire hunter, hunting Jan Valek, ''the original vampire'', played by Thomas Ian Griffith. Woods tells his new offsider, a Catholic priest (Tim Guinee), that ''vampires are not romantic''.

''Forget whatever you've seen in the movies. They don't turn into bats; crosses don't work. Garlic? You wanna try garlic? You stand around with garlic around your neck and one of these buggers will bend you f---kin' over and take a walk up your Strada Chocolata while he's suckin' the life out of your neck, all right? They don't sleep in coffins lined in taffeta. You wanna kill one, you drive a wooden stake right through his f---kin' heart. Sunlight turns 'em into crispy critters.''

Vampires without religion, vampires who don't make us afraid, are just not doing their job. Modern vampires have become decadent. Someone needs to take the genre by the throat and rip a nice big hole.

*Only Lovers Left Alive opens in New Zealadn on 1 May

- FFX Aus

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