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Critic At Large : Fangs For Those Memories

March 16, 1985|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Vampires are very hard to kill. Vampire movies have been equally death-resistant from early in the silent era. Like Westerns, the fang films have their ups and downs. Lately it's been the downs for both vampires and Westerns.

But on those rare moments when there is no night-blooming Transylvanian in sight, we can be sure he (or indeed she) is lurking around the corner, getting the act together in the editing room. And so it is again.

The other late morning I went over to the Laird Studios in Culver City (sacred to the memory of "Gone With the Wind," which was made on the premises) to look in on "Fright Night," a genuine vampire film, which Tom Holland wrote and is directing and that stars Chris Sarandon and Roddy McDowall.

More recently I've read that Sam Goldwyn Jr. is starting production on another vampire film, called "Once Bitten," a neat title. The last really, really big vampire hit was "Love at First Bite," that rompy piece of nonsense with George Hamilton from 1979, the year that gave us the lush and elegant "Dracula" remake with Frank Langella that did not ravish the box office. Win one, lose one.

The vampire has a very long history and is festooned with philosophical overtones, as I discovered in 1981 when I reviewed an engrossing scholarly book called "The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature" by James B. Twitchell (Duke University Press).

According to Twitchell, the first vampire story in English was written in 1816 by Lord Byron's young Scots physician, John Polidori. Byron and Polidori had met Shelley and his wife Mary in Switzerland and after what I presume may have been a wine-y party, they made informal challenges to see who could write the best Gothic.

Mary Shelley dashed off "Frankenstein," so we know who won. But Polidori, who killed himself at 25 partly over charges of plagiarism that Twitchell thinks were unfounded, had set the stage for Bram Stoker's "Dracula."

The notion of the living dead has roots deep in history. Dracula as a name seems to descend from the terrible Balkan Prince Vlad II, a k a Vlad the Impaler, who is said to have killed 20,000 Turks on a day in 1459, an unchallenged personal best. Dracul is Romanian for devil , as well it might be.

Vampirism has been used in literature as a kind of all-purpose symbol: for wistful dreams of immortality, naturally, but probably even more often as a cover for sexual repression (allowed to run free at night), for creative renewal, love-hate relationships with mother or daddy, incestuous longings and aberrant desires of many kinds.

Holland, whose first film was "Cloak and Dagger" with Henry Thomas and Dabney Coleman, has said that the vampire film is about seduction, although that aspect tended to be treated rather bloodlessly, so to speak, in the circumspect Hollywood films of yesteryear.

Beneath the shocks and the gore and the special effects (by Richard Edlund) is a subtext, Holland says, of noble, Apollonian love vs. rascally, Dionysian love.

"The way I've been directing Sarandon as Jerry the vampire to play is to forget vampirism even; what this is is an older man trying to take a younger man's girl away from him, so a lot of what this film is about is sexual jealousy."

Like "Love at First Bite," "Fright Night" takes place in the contemporary world but observes most of the classic conventions of vampirism, including sleepless nights, fangs and inability to see yourself in mirrors. One aspect of the vampire tradition the movies have never gone for is that the coffins vampires slept in were filled with blood, possibly an early exercise in sensory deprivation. It was probably a mess to clean up.

Holland has an interesting theory on the recent shortage of vampire films: "Whenever they do a parody that works, it becomes the death-note of the genre." Thus the success of "Love at First Bite" may have drained the vitality from the vampire genre.

The same reasoning, by no means unreasonable, could blame Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles" for the subsequent decline of the non-parodic Western. The Western now awaits a rebirth and it remains to be seen whether the mix of screams, laughter and the effects by Edlund, who oversaw the effects for "Ghostbusters," will find audiences for the vampire revisited.

On the late morning on the stage at Laird, unrecognizable in makeup that looked like the last painting of Dorian Gray come to life, Sarandon was thrashing about, breaking windows and mirrors in a frenzy and blood-thirst. It looked a scary hoot.

Herb Jaffe is producing for Columbia; the budget is $7 million and, as always with vampire movies, there is a lot at stake.

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