Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Changing Vampire of Film and Television – review

Author: Tim Kane

First Published: 2006

Contains spoilers

The blurb: Vampires have been a fixture of film since Bela Lugosi brought Bram Stoker’s Dracula to life on the big screen in 1931. Over the decades vampire narratives have changed and evolved with the appetites of their viewers. First depicted as formally dressed villains, vampires were later portrayed as supernatural beings with some human characteristics, and still later as sympathetic figures.

Focusing on 19 representative films and television productions, this critical study tracks the evolutionary changes of the screen vampire. Each film is evaluated in seven key areas including the act of the vampire biting the victim; the process of the victim’s infection; the physical appearance and demeanor of the vampire and the vampire expert; and the eventual destruction of the vampire. Appendices include a complete filmography of the films examined.

The Review: A scholarly work on the vampires of the silver and small screen is to be welcomed and I do welcome this input into the genre – even if the number and examples of films looked at are a little limited.

I can fully understand why Tim Kane cut the films and series used down to nineteen, it made the process of writing the book manageable (as he looks into each film in depth) but it also allowed him to choose films that fed most accurately into his theories. He argues that genre evolves (and I would not beg to differ) and cuts the vampire genre down into three main ages or cycles. However, this is where I part company to a degree and would argue that whilst it does evolve, it is also a malleable form that alters within and without these cycles. Kane’s study area, to me, was too small.

Firstly he looks at the Malignant Cycle 1931-48. He specifically misses out earlier films such as London After Midnight due to the lack of an actual supernatural vampire, I can respect that – though think there is a sub-genre there that warrants investigation and would, in itself, feed into and from more mainstream genre pieces. However it is the leaving out of Nosferatu that irks. He argues that the film, at the time, had little impact but I beg to differ. Certainly it introduced the destruction by sunlight aspect of the genre – no Nosferatu, no destroyed by sunlight. He claims that few films (other than the Remake and Salem’s Lot) used its vampiric form. We could add, of course, Shadow of the Vampire and Vampire in Venice. Further there is an oft used syntax in vampire films of the vampire’s shadow that comes directly from Nosferatu.

Nosferatu has a strong subtext of the vampire being a plague carrier and this leads to an entirely missed (by Kane) cycle within the genre. The plague carrier might begin with Nosferatu spreading pestilence but this evolves into I am Legend, where the vampirism is the plague all the way to Daybreakers. Indeed, whilst you could argue that I am Legend was a different type of plague, if one accepts that Nosferatu was a spiritual (or diabolic) granddaddy of Matheson’s opus then there is a direct connection into the evolution of the zombie flick also.

Kane actually briefly looks at the Vampire: the Masquerade game (later in the book) and mentions the impact that it had on films such as Blade and Underworld (though neglected to mention that it led to the series Kindred: the Embraced in its own right). However he failed to identify the impact Nosferatu had on the game – lending it an entire clan. It can certainly be argued that if you want to look at a genre as a whole you cannot ignore the impact of novels, comic books and games to tweak and guide the evolution as well as reflect the evolution – I found that visiting these media was rather selective in this study.

In the end, I think Kane actually left Nosferatu out because the vampiric form did not fit the model proposed. The Malignant Cycle vampire took on a suave, sophisticated form, and Nosferatu was far from that. Yet Kane admits that Universal bought the rights to the movie and all key personnel involved in Dracula had studied the film – so it must have had some impact on that production. What also needs to be pointed out is that the 1932 short (mainly clips) film from Universal, which married up Frankenstein and Dracula and was entitled Boo, did not use footage from Dracula but from Nosferatu. In other words scenes were viewed by the public in 1932 (rather than the film only re-emerging into public consciousness as late as the sixties) – for those interested Boo is an extra on Universal’s Frankenstein DVD.

That aside I felt that some key films such as the Vampire’s Ghost, were missed out (possibly because the root of the film is Polidori and not Stoker). More unusual was the inclusion – given the dates used for the Malignant Cycle – of El Vampiro (Kane dates the cycle as ending in 1948 and then throws in a 1957 movie). What I did notice was he claimed it to be important as it was the first film (post Nosferatu) in which the vampire had fangs. Not actually true. Both Valkoinen Peura (1952) and Dracula Istanbul’da (1953) pre-dated the film. Okay one might argue that I have cited an obscure Finnish and obscure Turkish film (as opposed to a Mexican movie) but remember that Valkoinen Peura won a golden globe (Best Foreign Language Foreign Film) and the Cannes Film Festival International Prize as well as being Nominated for the Grand Prize of the festival. This film will have made an industry impact.

He moves on, at that point to the Erotic Cycle which he dates from 1957 to 1985. I don’t have a huge problem with the cycle he describes (or in how he describes the films within) but I should mention that the Japanese touched on the reincarnated love concept (in a vampire film) several years before Dan Curtis, in the movie Onna Kyûketsuki. We should also mention that many of the nineteenth century novels and stories had a very thinly veiled erotic aspect and that two of these, Dracula and Carmilla heavily shaped the genre. His mentioning of the McNally/Florescu Vlad Tepes/Dracula correlation was right and proper as, although their theory has been shown to be over-egged as Stoker simply borrowed a name rather than a history, their theory did influence many a Dracula inspired film.

I do think to look at the dates in such a restrictive band (for all of the proposed cycles) is wrong. To illustrate my point, the Suspense episode Black Passage would seem to fit inside the Erotic Cycle and yet dates to 1949. I think the Free Cycle (described at the end of the book as the potential way forward for the genre) is a better overall model for the genre In other words the variety of syntax and semantics within vampire film and TV narrative have always been there adding a variety to the genre, behind the main movements (which adhere to roughly the dates Kane suggests). The various interpretations of the vampire also open a whole different range of sub-genres.

The final cycle he identifies is the Sympathetic Cycle, dated 1987 onwards and, again, the films/series chosen fit the model well. I will mention that Kane is incorrect when he suggests that in Near Dark “Crosses do not appear anywhere in the film, either as scenery or tools to injure the vampires.” In fact the vampire Jesse’s gun has a cross engraved on the handle and the camera lingers on it to underpin that the icon (and religion generically) has no impact on these vampires – indeed they stay in the Godspeed Motel.

Now, after me writing all that you’d be forgiven for thinking I dislike the book. Nothing could be further from the truth. Actually I really enjoyed it; the writing was crisp and I liked the ideas Tim Kane explored. If I disagree, it is because he made me think about the genre and left me eager to debate. Sure, he restricted the breadth of films looked at to those that enhanced his theory but then don’t we all. Any errors were minor in terms of the theories espoused - for instance the Near Dark error - or potentially oversights - fangs - and the basic premise of the book is fascinating, worthwhile and adds a critical eye to a genre often maligned by academics.

Essential reading. 8.5 out of 10.


Anthony Hogg said...

I'm glad you got 'round to reading the book.

I think a lot of your criticisms are on the money. However, while Nosferatu has indeed been influential, I'd agree with Kane that it wasn't as influential at the time.

The vampires-destroyed-by-sunlight thing wasn't reintroduced into the movies until 1943's Son of Dracula and Return of the Vampire (1944). And, as you pointed out, Nosferatu didn't enter popular culture till the '60s.

I agree, to an extent, that films were left out of Kane's "Cycles" to fit the hypothesis better, but I think he was deliberately taking a mainstream approach to the field. No theory can apply to everything, after all, so I think his generic overview was intentional.

You're right about the cross on Jesse's gun, by the way. I was disappointed Kane didn't pick up on that one.

Overall, I really enjoyed your review. I'm starting to wonder if we'll be seeing a scholarly contribution to the field from yourself sometime soon, though! That'd be ripper!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Anthony.

Re the Nosferatu, I think that whilst a piece of cinema may not influence the public - it might influence the filmmakers. The very fact that Universal studied it pre their cycle gives it some degree of influence.

To me though it was left out bcause the form didn't fit. Indeed the influence it has had post 60s can't be escaped... one might argue that it became more and more influential as the decades whizzed by (how many vamp movies actually have Nosferatu footage! Helped of course by its public domain status)

Nothing wrong with the generic approach, other than it felt a little restrictive. I like the idea of Kane's cycles as main movements with sub-movements in a free cycle way as a model, is all. But hey, none of that takes away the fact that I enjoyed this a lot.

As I say, for students of the vampire film, essential reading