Sunday, March 05, 2006

Vampires and the nature of immortality – how popular entertainment offered the vampire true immortality. Part 4

Dracula learns a further trick in Hammer’s “Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires” (1973), by taking on the outer appearance of another. One wonders if that trick effected the film “Chi O Suu Bara” (1974), “The Evil of Dracula”, in which the western vampire shipwrecked in Japan (presumably Dracula), has hidden through the generations by stealing the faces of victims. This trick is highlighted further in the series of Dracula movies “Wes Craven presents Dracula 2000” (2000), Dracula: 2 Ascension” (2002) and “Dracula 3: Legacy” (2005), in which a different actor plays Dracula in each film, the Count changing his face as he passes through time. It is also worth pointing out that in the Wes Craven series Dracula is given a biblical origin when it is revealed that Dracula was originally Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Christ, and is made essentially invulnerable until he asks God for forgiveness.

The immortality of Dracula was best, and most amusingly, captured in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. In Buffy we have a different vampire to that described by Stoker. The soul of the vampire has departed, with the exception of Angel and later Spike, and the body is possessed by a blood demon, causing a human/demon hybrid with the memories and personality of the human intact. However, with the lack of a soul the id is given free rein. Yet the standard rules apply, beheading, staking (though wood is a necessity), immolation, holy items and sunlight all cause a vampire’s ruin.

Fans of the show, and its spin-off series “Angel”, will be aware of the necessity of resurrection within the show’s plot lines. In episode 2-22, “Becoming, part 2” Buffy kills Angel in order to stop the world being sucked into Hell. In episode 3-03 “Faith, Hope and Trick” Angel returns. Other vampires that managed resurrection were Spike, dying in the climax of the whole series to be resurrected in the “Angel” series (though as a non-corporeal entity at first) and Angel’s sire Darla, again in the “Angel” series. Yet these resurrections seem to be somehow lesser than those achieved by the ubiquitous Count. Dracula has the power of resurrection in his arsenal, whilst these characters were summoned back into existence by another, for reasons out of their control. Indeed there is a path to true vampiric immortality in the mythology of the series. In episode 4-03 “The Harsh Light of Day”, Spike searches for the Gem of Amara, a vampiric ‘holy grail’ that will make the vampire who wears it invulnerable. We see that it makes the wearer impervious to stakes, holy items and sunlight at the very least. The great problem with it is the fact that it is a ring, thus can be removed and the power transferred. The ring is destroyed in a follow-on “Angel” episode 1-03 “In the Dark”, making that route to true immortality inaccessible. Yet in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” there is a truly immortal vampire – Dracula.

The true resurrection skills of Dracula were shown clearly in the episode 5-01 “Buffy vs. Dracula”. Spike is dismissive of Dracula’s powers, “Nothing but showy gypsy stuff.” he tells Riley, but in truth his powers are impressive. Buffy stakes Dracula, a sure-fire way of killing a vampire in the series. After a brief Xander comedy moment we see the dust of the staking coalesce as fog and Dracula reforms, Buffy re-enters the room and stakes the Count once more stating "You think I don't watch your movies? You always come back." This time she waits, again the Count’s fog reforms to which Buffy says “I’m standing right here!” At this point the fog disperses, but we can assume he will reform again. The Count is truly immortal and has now improved his skills, he does not have to await a disciple, or a random bat ala “Scars of Dracula” (1970), to pour blood upon his ashes, he can now resurrect himself at will.

In other interpretations Dracula’s power seemed to go even further. In “Van Helsing” (2004) writer/director Steven Sommers makes the Count invincible except for one Achilles heel. In this there is no need for resurrection as death can truly not touch the Count, except in the form of a werewolf – how lucky that the character Van Helsing contracts Lycanthropy.

It is ridiculous, of course, to suggest that the development of Dracula and his powers was somehow conspiratorially designed by the various writers and directors, or even that the development was evolutionary instilling the further powers developed in one movie into each new film. Dracula is at the whim of each individual writer and director, and not even Bram Stoker’s baseline rules are sacrosanct. However the influence of the Hammer films on the various interpretations is as strong as the influence Bela Lugosi, in Universal Studio’s “Dracula” (1931), had on the Counts appearance.

Other films have depicted truly immortal vampires, other than Dracula. One such group of movie vampires who are those depicted in “The Hunger” (1983). These are worth mentioning as the nature of their immortality is so horrible. We can forget Miriam Blaylock, who is a true vampire and a separate species to humanity (a fact disclosed in Whitley Strieber’s novel, not in the film), it is her human consorts, created by her blood, we are interested in. They are long lived, if not invulnerable, but can be grievously injured. Worse, after a period of time, they begin to loose the ability to sleep, hit hyper-metabolism and age rapidly and irreversibly. They are, however, still undead. Trapped in their desiccated bodies, confined in coffins by their former lover, their undeath can be truly said to be a form of Hell. Unlike the Count there is no return to youth for these vampires. Strieber did allow, in the sequel novel “The Last Vampire”, for his vampires to be killed, but it took a monumental effort to destroy them, almost akin to Varney throwing himself into a volcano. In the original vision, however, they were truly immortal but it was an immortality no-one would wish for.

We can also look at the Jean Rollin film “Two Orphan Vampires” (1995). Whilst not explicit within the movie, the two vampire girls talk of their mishaps, which I interpreted as deaths. It seems, to me at least, that the two vampires have died several times and have been resurrected. Yet the vampires themselves are almost tragic, hapless and not the all powerful vampires of other movies and their tale is one more of tragedy than anything else.

Both these films, whilst based on novels, are one off movies. The horror of immortality instilled in “the Hunger” and the tragedy in “Two Orphan Vampires” are fine in that context, it is long running sagas such as the Hammer films that this ability to resurrect becomes a weapon for the vampire, a power to exploit. Perhaps there is a tragedy in this too. It seems Hammer decided that the Count was getting rather fed up of being resurrected by the time they shot their final Dracula movie “The Satanic Rites of Dracula” (1973). In this movie Dracula attempts to wipe out humanity with a deadly virus, this is suicidal, of course, as it would wipe out his food source. Normally a suicidal vampire would fear that some servant might get it in their head to poor blood upon his remains, but Dracula would be safe from this if all of humanity were gone. The flaw in his plan would, of course, be the danger of being resurrected by a random bat.

Perhaps the urge the Count feels in “The Satanic Rites of Dracula” are simply an echo of his deeply melancholy words in the 1931 “Dracula” when Bela Lugosi uttered the line "To die…to be really dead…that must be glorious." Or maybe it was an attempt to avoid a clairvoyantly perceived catastrophe, knowing that one day he would be found in the endless drifts of space in the ill conceived “Dracula 3000” (2004).

So, are vampires immortal, truly endlessly immortal. Yes they are, the movies and popular literature have made them so. The knowledge that we can squeeze one more Dracula movie into a franchise is irresistible. The thirst for the sequels coming from the public who want to see the Count rise one more time, from the studios, publishers and producers who can bleed a little more profit from his resurrection and from the writers who want to add their own twist to one of the greatest tales ever written.

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