Friday, September 25, 2009

Genres & Judgments - The Overexposure and Rebirth of the Vampire

Vampires. If you haven't noticed (and how haven't you?), they're everywhere as of late. The hysteria surrounding the Harry Potter books has largely been replaced with the feverish furor regarding the Twilight series in the literary market, while television and Hollywood have quickly jumped on the bandwagon releasing hastily constructed adaptations and cheap knockoffs. In sum, there's a lot of bloodsuckers running around. Some are undeniably entertaining, while most of the others suck (yes, I went there). The following is a review of some of the more prevalent examples.
Since Twilight (2005) is the most popular of the recent vamp stories, I'll start there. I've not read any of Stephenie Meyer's books, but I've seen the first movie (from 2008), which was more than enough for me. Based on accounts from friends and coworkers who have read it, the movie was not nearly as good as the book. Never heard that one before. Based on my amazing ability to sit through crappy movies, I'm just trying to figure out how there was a good story to work with in the first place.
Quick plot synopsis for those who have not experienced either: new girl comes to town, meets broody cute guy, turns out he's a vampire, guy has the hots for her, naughty vamps come to down, think it's weird for nice vamps to not eat human girl, they decide to kill her for fun, the naughty ones are eventually stopped by the nice ones. Also, there is no sex in between the commas.
Not that you need sex in a vampire story, since one of the initial allusions in vampire fiction was the chomping of the neck was used as a replacement for sex in more antiquated times. However, since the nice vampires only eat dirty animals in lieu of tasty people, any sexual chemistry is pretty much thrown out the window. Instead, there's just a lot of extended eye contact sprinkled with a little smooching.
Jonny watching that for 120 minutes = yawn.
Part of this can also be argued as one of the ways Meyer has turned the vampire mythos on its head. As far as I can tell, most of what constitutes as rewriting the rules of the vampire is same thing as ignoring everything that makes a vampire a vampire in the first place. Besides the no human blood drinking, there's also no need to avoid sunlight and there are no fangs.
The Twilight vampires cannot be killed by direct sunlight. No, the only reason they stay out of the sun is because when it does hit their skin, they go all sparkly on you. This actually didn't bother me. At least there's still a reason for them not do go out in the sun; otherwise, they'd stick out too much. I find it lame because there's now one less way to kill them, but it could be worse.
What's worse is that they don't have fangs. This is where the movie completely lost me. Not once do they show a set a fangs. I can understand (and completely dislike) the fact that the nice vamps don't drink human blood. But they should still have retractable canine teeth. How else were they blood-sucking demons in the first place?

Thankfully, the vampires of HBO's True Blood (2008) most certainly do possess fangs. They use them to great effect, too, signifying a moment of lustfulness or just plain feeding time.
There's lots of other things to like about the show too. They use the case of the vampire to explore modern American ideals regarding religion, homosexuality and small-town existence, among other things. It's these subjects, in addition to the nudity and language, that make this a more adult experience rather than the largely empty, teenage-romance landscape of the Twilight books.
The second season of the show wrapped up recently, and while it began more interestingly than season one's fairly basic murder-mystery plot, it failed to pack the oomph of originality that I was hoping for when all was said and done. The rounding of vampire Eric's character and Jason Stackhouse's experience amongst the anti-vampire church were mostly excellently done, but the season's largest arc left me lacking. The blonde, superpowered girl and her vampire boyfriend are forced to stop a god-like being from enacting Armageddon? Where ever do you get your ideas, True Blood writing room?
Despite that redundant plotline, True Blood has become a must-watch show for me. It's not in the upper echelon yet, but it could be someday if they keep up the quality.

Next comes a show I doubt I will ever force myself to watch again, The Vampire Diaries (2009), aka Twilight: The TV Show.
Truth be told, I was expecting this show to be udder shit. It was better than I was expecting, but still completely uninteresting to me. If you like Twilight, you'll probably be satisfied with it, as it's clearly mining separate yet similar material (it's also based on a series of books).
Quick plot synopsis for those of you not brave enough to watch: broody, cute, vampire guy moves to town, meets newly-parentless girl, guy has the hots for her since she looks like his ex, turns out he has an naughty vampire brother who doesn't understand why he doesn't eat humans, they fight about it.
See how they mixed things up? The vampire moved into town. Copyright infringement averted.
Hard to say after only one episode if there'll be much nice vampire/teenage girl boning down the line, but the main vamp can stroll around in the daytime too, only it's because of a magic ring, further distancing it into the realm of originality. Writer's room of The Vampire Diaries, where ever do you get your ideas?

One other problem I have with all these three examples is the ancient vampire going head over heels for the teenage girl. Sure, all us fellas have a little Kip Winger in us, but have you actually spoken with a 17-year-old since you were 17? I have over a decade on that age and I have a bit of hard time understanding what their thought process is, so how the hell are 100-year-old guys supposed to look at them with undying love instead of rolling their eyes every few seconds? Oh, right, they remind them of an old flame. I guess growing up in a world without Chris Hansen makes it okay to go through a mid-life crisis, essentially engaging in pedophile behavior. I suspect these stories are going to create a pronounced divide of expectations between tween girls and boys over the next few years as they mosey on through high school. See, while little Jenny is envisioning the handsome boy who has superior intellect and who would rather wait, little Jimmy has been streaming Anal Princesses 23 and is going to come to the table with a completely different set of expectations. But, I digress...
So, there's plenty not to like about all these vampires on the screen. Which is why I read things.

Flying somewhat under the radar was the June release of The Strain (2009), part one in a trilogy from acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro and novelist Chuck Hogan.
The Strain is also guilty of delivering some rather run-of-the-mill story conventions, however, these vampires are anything but cuddly.
I know nothing of Mr. Hogan and his work, but I'm arbitrarily blaming what I didn't like about this novel on him, because knowing what I know about del Toro, his contributions are clear, at least in my mind.
The ancient lineage of the Vampyre? del Toro. The Jerry Bruckheimer-like formula to get me to care about characters I didn't want in the book in the first place? Hogan. The sage old slayer with his encyclopedic mind? del Toro. The mind-numbing dull, C.S.I. hackery? Hogan. The thing that isn't a fang, but way worse that these vampires have? del Toro. The rats? Well, that one could go either way, but it was definitely cool.
These vampires are scary. In fact, they are like no vampire you've ever heard of before. Like Twilight, these ones don't have fangs. Unlike Twilight, they have something much, much worse. This book is seriously scary when it chooses to be.
The novel clocks in at about 4oo pages, and maybe only a quarter of it is actually good. But the good SO out-ways the bad here, that I'm giving it a light recommendation.

Unfortunately for all these other recent vampire stories, I read Charlie Huston's Joe Pitt Casebooks before any of them came out. Book five in the series, My Dead Body, is scheduled to arrive in stores before the year is over, and you can be damn sure I'll have a review up when it does. In the meantime, do yourself a favor and check out the others in the series, starting with Already Dead (2005). These are hands down the best vampire stories I've ever been exposed to, and because they're more modern noir than anything else, they are unlike anything vampire you've seen as well. To tease just a bit more, the inscription inside book three is made out to "Mr. Chandler and Mr. Stoker," the masters of the detective novel and vampire novel, respectively. He honors their work admirably, to say the least.

So, one can only hope that Twilight films get more interesting, that True Blood continues to embrace it's ability to mirror American society, that The Vampire Diaries find an original thought, and that the sequels to The Strain tighten up and stop overestimating our interest in the minute science of inane subjects. If some of that happens, we won't look at vampires as the overexposed monsters that they are in danger of becoming, but instead as some of the more enjoyable fiction of this era.
Blood-Sucker Link of the Week:

Twilight for boys. [via Best Week Ever]

Maybe little Jimmy will be downloading this as well.
Finally, the song of the week.

"Devil Town" by Bright Eyes, Noise Floor (2006)
A really good cover of the Daniel Johnston song. His original is much more haunting, especially if you know anything about him. This version is a bit more accessible to the masses, however, which is why I'm sharing this one. Gotta give another shout-out to Friday Night Lights (the TV show) for turning me on to it.
Coming Up Next Week:
  • I'll be catching up with a slew of movies (including The Yakuza, finally!) after taking two weeks to post this entry, most of which I'd finished a while back (last week's migraine was an evil thing).
  • On the Netflix list, I've got The Night of the Hunter and Two Men in Town en route.
  • The Mad Men feature I mentioned last time will have to wait a week, mainly because I thought it was a bit too forced to be included in the vampire column and this one was going on a tad long as it was.

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