Vampires with bite

There are as many opinions on what makes a good vampire as there are copies of Dracula. Whether you like them scary, brooding or barely present (as in the first episode of the new From Dusk Till Dawn) they’re as big a presence in the cultural landscape as rivers are in the physical one.

This open minded approach to others’ tastes isn’t going to stop me being opinionated though, so here, in no particular order, are some of my favourites, and why I think you should like them too.

The Seine

With its slow, graceful curves and sneering French boatmen, this is- oh wait, you wanted the vampires not the rivers?

You know, that would fit the theme of my blog better…

'One more lame joke and you're next, Knighton.'
‘One more lame joke and you’re next, Knighton.’

Dracula

Bram Stoker may not have been the first author to write about vampires, but he’s the one who energised them as a cultural touchstone, who defined the modern myth and made us want to keep coming back for more.

Like many Victorian novels, Dracula’s a bit of a slow, cumbersome read by modern standards. But the group of characters arrayed against the monster is interesting and the atmosphere chilling. You can feel the icy mist creeping in off the sea by Whitby on every page.

If you’re a fan of Dracula, and of all things Victorian, then Whitby is well worth a visit. It inspired a lot of the atmosphere in the book, and if you go up to the ruins on the headland you can feel why. Plus it has a Victorian-style town museum full of the most amazing collection of random stuff, including a hand of glory, a machine to predict storms using slugs, and a sundial made from a cannon ball that killed a man.

What Stoker did was to take that Victorian obsession with collecting oddments from all over the world, in his case mostly fragments of myth, and forged them into something cohesive. He made the modern vampire.

Spike

If you’ve seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer then I probably don’t need to say any more. If you haven’t then shame on you, but I will explain.

Spike is a great example of a character who grew far beyond his creators’ original intent. Starting out as a villainous vampire version of John Constantine – trenchcoat, blond hair, British accent, cigarettes and bad attitude, all present and correct – he evolved into a character at the comic and emotional heart of the show. By turns tragic, pathetic and awesome, he was a tormented soul with a sense of humour, not just one more whining emo vampire.

Spike had such variety of character, such interesting relationships with the others, such twisted motivations, such great lines, that after the show ended he was transferred straight into its sister show Angel, just in time for that series’ great final season.

Spike showed that vampires could be more than villains without losing their dark edge, and that everything Joss Whedon touches turns to awesome.

The Count

OK, OK, so he’s not a classic vampire. But I love puppets, I particularly love Muppets, and the count shows just was a cultural touchstone vampires have become. When even little children can laugh at these monsters then horror has done what it does best – taming our fears, allowing us to live with them.

One, ha ha ha ha ha ha. Two, ha ha ha ha ha ha. Three, ha ha ha…

The Vampire Lanois

The Afghan Whigs made dark, brooding, soulful rock music. Who better to craft an instrumental named after a vampire? It rolls straight on from the previous track Omerta, so here’s both of them in their grinding glory.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u-HPZmOjIak&w=560&h=315]

Vampires everywhere!

I admit, my selection got slightly random towards the end. And there’s a reason.

A cultural icon isn’t at it’s best when it’s always presented the same way. Not every superhero should be dark and grim or fun and shiny. Not every president on film should be heroic or noble or even corrupt. It’s when we shine a light on something from a hundred different angles that it becomes interesting, giving us new ideas and understandings.

So who are your favourite vampires? What angle would you shine that light from, and why? Answers in the box below, before the darkness consumes you…

 

Picture by davidd via Flickr creative commons

From Dusk Till Dawn – another Netflix hit?

Netflix have created a TV series of From Dusk Till Dawn, the crazy gangster vampire film. Having just watched the first episode, it seems to be doing the same weird thing the film did, which is to give us a crime drama at the start and will move on to the other stuff later, rather than mix the two smoothly together.

I don’t have a problem with this in principle, but it creates some problems with audience expectation. Viewers looking for horror and supernatural mayhem may get turned off by this first episode, which revolves around a stand-off at an isolated roadside store. Those who find themselves enjoying this interesting crime drama may get annoyed when it goes crazy later. Or maybe everybody will go in with full knowledge of the original, and it’ll work out nicely. Who knows?

It’s a weird thing to make in many ways, but Netflix have proved that they know what they’re doing with drama, and even supernatural drama. House of Cards is astonishingly good, and Hemlock Grove showed that they could do a decent version of urban fantasy. The supernatural element is much better foreshadowed here than in the From Dusk Till Dawn movie, and it looks like the central characters will run into the vampires for more reason than just accident. Kudos to the show’s writers for building a smoother setup than their source material.

One of the great advantages of TV streaming services like Netflix is that they have the confidence to make interesting TV. The fact that they’re dipping into genre drama is a great thing for those of us who want to see gangsters fight vampires. And maybe if we’re lucky, next time Netflix will try mixing up their dramas in newer ways. After an evening of House of Cards and From Dusk Till Dawn, I would love to see the supernatural hit Washington next time. Who’s up for vampires in the White House?

Anyone else been watching any of the Netflix original shows, and if so what did you think?

The Man Whedon

I don’t think it’ll surprise you to read that I’m a fan of Joss Whedon. If you’re reading this, you probably are too. Over the past couple of decades Whedon has been responsible for some of the funniest, smartest genre television ever.

The past month has seen the UK release of two Whedon films – the long-awaited Cabin in the Woods, and a little thing called the Avengers. And each one, in its own way, does something new and exciting with cinema.

I’ve never been to the cinema on my own before, but Cabin’s release persuaded me that the time had come. Mrs K has many fine features, but a taste for horror isn’t one of them, and most of my cinephile friends live in different cities. So I found myself, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, sitting in a darkened room full of strangers. And man, was it worth it.

I know it’s a cliche to say this by now, but it’s hard to talk about Cabin without giving away too much. Suffice to say that it takes a familiar subgenre, and a not-entirely-novel reorientation of that genre, and turns them both into something far finer. It’s Whedon’s mastery of character and dialogue that makes the film so watchable, but it’s his mastery of genre that makes it fascinating. He melds fantasy and science fiction in ways that make perfect sense, and which create a palpable sense of tension. This might be confusing to the casual viewer, though it will be familiar to fans of Whedon or regular comic book readers. And the interaction of character, genre and plot is finely done. Every character adds something to the film, is interesting in their own right, and moves the plot along in a way which feels perfectly organic. And every one of them gives an insight, usually unspoken, into the nature of fantasy horror and its viewers, without becoming clumsy or detracting from the pleasure to be taken from the film as a genre work. Whedon’s brilliance isn’t just that he combines a celebration and a critique of his genre, but that the two are so closely interwoven that they become one and the same. And through this it celebrates the very nature of genre fiction, and the way that we can enjoy it more, not less, by acknowledging its quirks and flaws.

The Avengers is, on the surface, a different beast. Big budget meets big franchise in a blockbuster of seat-shaking proportions. This time in the director’s chair, Whedon again demonstrates his mastery of the fantastic. He succeeds in something that I didn’t think would work, combining the disparate elements of various sci-fi, fantasy and spy superheroes, residents of separate genres but a shared comic universe, in a way that is accessible without ever becoming unbelievable. He relishes the absurdity, contrasting action and humour in a way that deflates the risk of something over-serious and over-blown. He again brings on the characters, making a remarkably large group of heroes interesting and likeable, while creating compelling conflicts between them. And, like any good superhero story, he uses action to advance both plot and characterisation. Despite the length of the film, I didn’t feel that even a single moment was wasted. And while this was a purer celebration of its genre than Cabin, it also demonstrated the value of a creator who has an understanding of genre and takes a delight in its workings.

It’s often said that character and plot shouldn’t be separate things in fiction, that they should be derived from, and drive, each other. Whedon has shown, twice in one year, how this should be done, while also showing the remarkable things cinema can do. He shows that a critical mind and a sense of wonder aren’t incompatible, even on the biggest screens. The man is a big damn hero.