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A New Reason to Get Out of Dodge

Trends: Vampires have come in all shapes, sizes and levels of social standing, and now John Carpenter has seized the chance to rework the myth into his new film, a western.

October 30, 1998|ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the rank epistemology of vampire lore, bar-hopping doesn't loom as a dominant trait. But times change, and so do vampires. At the movies these days, chances are you'll find the sun-starved scamps skulking at the local nightclub, if they're not moping, that is, or plotting to take over the world--the other dominant modern-day vampire modes.

If it is true, as some wise man somewhere surely must have said, that each age gets the demons it deserves, then we live in truly wicked times, not only because of the hordes that haunt us but also because of the kind. We've got vampires: biker vampires, gangster vampires, debonair and slightly gray vampires, upbeat vampires, depressed vampires. . . . You'd almost think we were a nation of bloodsuckers.

For filmmakers to slip into such well-worn grooves can be daunting, which is why John Carpenter never attempted a vampire movie before.

"It's all been done: the gothic churches, the castles . . the Edwardian costumes, all of the gothic romance novel cliches," the veteran director says. "I just don't want to be stuck in a movie like that."

So the maker of the original "Halloween" movie and countless other fright fests waited until he got a chance to do something different. But what could possibly be left? Fanged libidinous heads of state? Vampiric tap-dancers from Vermont?

Just this year, the summer hit "Blade," starring Wesley Snipes, showed young vampires as spoiled-brat party animals whose elders met in a corporate-like boardroom to run their vast business empire--until the more ambitious youngsters rebelled.

And the shape-shifting blood drinkers in "From Dusk Till Dawn," the 1996 Richard Rodriguez film, operated a biker bar and strip joint to lure in unsuspecting travelers.

If Bela Lugosi could rise from the dead he wouldn't recognize his kin.

This trend of stretching the vampire myth to accommodate wildly disparate visions isn't new. "Billy the Kid vs. Dracula" hit movie screens way back in 1966, with John Carradine as the toothy count let loose on the barren plains. And offbeat variations reached theaters even before that--the genre stretches to 1922 with F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu." "John Carpenter's Vampires," then, has a way to go to break new ground.

The movie, which opens today, once again puts us in western territory, right down to plot points and scenes that tip a hat to Howard Hawks and Sam Peckinpah. Carpenter describes his movie as sort of a present-day western with fangs. In James Woods, then, we have the fearless vampire killer as a scrawny John Wayne. And that would make the vampires what? Killer Apaches? The dreaded bloodthirsty Dalton gang?

"Kids for years and years have worn fangs and capes at Halloween," says Carpenter, explaining why more conventional vampires didn't appeal to him. "It's not really frightening anyone anymore. I don't mean that it can't be done, that it can't be reinvigorated, but I'm certainly not the one to do it."

Suave Count Departed From Stoker's Beast

Ever since Lugosi donned a cape and rhapsodized about the howling of wolves outside his crumbling castle ("What music they make!"), the classic prototype of a movie vampire has been an Eastern European aristocrat with a heavy accent and hypnotic eyes. What many people don't know is that the popular 1931 movie (and all other Draculas) deviated in varying degrees from the Bram Stoker novel on which it was based, making the count more debonair, less beastly.

And the book, the most famous vampire novel but hardly the first, bore little resemblance to the Balkan vampires of folklore, which often were hideous creatures or rotting, reanimated corpses. So our conception of the classic vampire is itself an adaptation, shaped to reflect the morality and needs of its day.

"Dracula," which has never gone out of print, has become a subject of academic study attracting feminist, post-colonial and deconstructive analysis. It has been adapted into movies, plays, musicals and children's books and used in many other forms. Earlier this month the Winnipeg Royal Ballet presented the world premiere of a new ballet based on the book.

"What makes the vampire such an enduring prototype is its adaptability," says Elizabeth Miller, an English professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland and a leading authority on vampire literature. They continue to fascinate, in her view, because through adaptation they continue to speak to our times.

In Stoker's 1897 novel, when Dracula arrives in London from his mysterious homeland, he threatens the morals of Victorian England with his transgressive sexuality. He lures away women in the night, mingles his blood with theirs, unleashes desires that cannot be denied. Before he reaches England, there is even a hint of homosexual danger when he drives his three brides away from a potential victim by declaring, "This man belongs to me!"

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