Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Vampire Blogs: Underworld

This is part of a series of blogs I'm writing on vampires in literature and film. This is not a review, per se, so SPOILERS may be revealed. Read with caution.

I saw Underworld in the theaters, and I don't remember exactly how it came about. I remember I went alone, and I remember that the movie caught me by surprise. It seemed to have come out of nowhere. And I was amazed by its brilliance and creativity.

It's not often that Hollywood allows an original genre film to get made. Underworld was not a novel or a comic book. It was an original script. And boy was it different than any other vampire movie I'd seen.

For starters, Underworld takes it cues not from teenage angst, like its 1980s precedents, but from fare like Highlander or Forever Knight, where the supernatural is operating beneath the veneer of the regular world, and where it has its own codes and societies. Furthermore, Underworld plays up vampires and werewolves, two creatures that go together well, and creates its own beautifully realized history and mythology.

The movie works, and it works well. Its structure is quite well done. We follow Selene, a vampire assassin, who hunts down and kills werewolves (called Lycans in the movie). She believes that werewolves have killed her family and wants revenge. Then this really hot guy shows up, and Selene falls in love with him, and because of that, she starts asking questions, and her entire world unravels.

It's amazingly awesome. We know nothing about the world in the film, but pieces are revealed, bit by bit, until we are given the full scope of it, from the complex ruling class of the vampires to the rebellious Lycans, to the fact that Selene is really just being used by the vampires.

I think I love this movie so much because it really watches like an early Laurell K. Hamilton novel. There's so much detail put into the world. It's visually stunning. And on top of all of that, it's really a love story, and a love story about forbidden love to boot. (If you haven’t guessed by now—after 230,000 words about Jason and Azazel—forbidden love is my favorite kind.) Plus, did I mention the guys are really hot?

The sequel is nothing to write home about. It's an action movie with very little character development. The prequel, however, Rise of the Lycans, is a tragically beautiful story about doomed forbidden love, which made me cry. (I kid you not.) I hear there's a fourth film in the works. I hope it doesn't suck, but I'm not crossing my fingers.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Vampire Diaries, Season 1 Episode 14

Just a few thoughts upon finishing the episode.

The TV show has long played hard and fast with the source material, so that it really doesn't much resemble the original books. This new twist--Katherine, alive, roaming the earth but unconcerned with the Salvatore brothers--really kind of rubs me the wrong way.

Okay, I really didn't like the first book of The Vampire Diaries, by L. J. Smith, which was all I read. Mostly, I just hated Elena. However, I do remember that Katherine, in the books, commits suicide because she can't choose between Stefan and Damon. Far from being a horrible bitchy vampire, she was much more morally ambiguous, causing pain to the brothers, but apparently unable to help herself because of her love.

And in this, and this only, I really think that Smith is trumping the series with a much more complex idea. Evil Katherine vs. good Elena??

In the books, it was morally ambiguous Katherine vs. morally ambiguous Elena.

Don't get me wrong. The book was still horrendously plotted and disgustingly overwritten, but maybe there was a reason I hated Elena. Maybe L. J. Smith was going somewhere.

It's almost enough to get me to pick up The Struggle again. Almost.

The Vampire Blogs: Near Dark

This is part of a series of blogs about vampires in literature and film. This is not a review, per se, so SPOILERS will be discussed. Proceed with caution.

If The Lost Boys loses ground because it fails to take itself seriously enough, then Near Dark is prevented from being a great film for failing to have any fun with vampire mythos whatsoever. Near Dark hit screens the same year as The Lost Boys, so both have a 1980s feel to them. Near Dark is even scored by Tangerine Dream, the same people who did the music for Legend (another movie that seems like it should be good, but is simply lacking something). But Near Dark is no happy 80s romp across the vampire landscape. Instead, it is a heavy film, full of dread and despair. Its greatest sin is its ending, which reverses so completely the overall mood of the film that its impact is severely flawed.

Near Dark is the story of Caleb, a teenager who lives out west somewhere. The depiction of western American life is dreary and lifeless. The filmmakers definitely capture the boredom of small town America. When Caleb meets Mae, an attractive girl, who seems like trouble, but is actually really, really sweet, he falls for her immediately. So much so that he lets her bite his neck. Agh! He's a vampire.

But, no, sorry, this is Near Dark. Therefore, becoming a teenage vampire is serious business, which leads to going on the run with a group of vampire drifters (including Mae, the only one who's nice). The film makes a show of finding out what makes these vampires tick, and even of being somewhat sympathetic to their plight. We feel very sorry for poor Caleb, who doesn't want to kill people. And there is also a little boy vampire, who feels very alone. The other vampires are sort of forgettable to me. I haven't seen the movie in quite some time, but I do remember the pervasive feeling of dread that underlined every scene. The situation was one of no escape, of constant travel, and of being a monstrous outcast for all time.

It's this attitude that makes the film pure gold. That is a new and interesting take on vampires. There is no mythic lore to discover, no history. It is simply is. And it sucks. (No pun intended, of course, because there are NO PUNS in Near Dark. This is bad, folks. Very, very bad.)

At this point, the film begins to run off the rails. I guess the writers suddenly realized they didn't have much in the way of a plot, so they drummed something up. The little boy vampire whose name is Homer (according to Wikipedia) decides he really likes Caleb's little sister Sarah and wants to turn her into a vampire. Caleb is against this, of course, but Homer is determined. Sarah somehow gets captured. Caleb's dad shows up and manages to rescue both Caleb and Sarah and then…

The film jumps off the track and becomes totally stupid. Guess what cures vampirism??

Blood transfusions.

Yeah, seriously, it's that simple. And it doesn't even have to be a big deal blood transfusion in a hospital. You can just rig one up in your barn. Presto-chango! You're cured.

I think what really held the 80s back in terms of vampire lore was their insistence that vampirism was something that had to be cured. (Okay, maybe not in My Best Friend Is a Vampire, but usually.) Once the idea of vampirism is embraced by a story and not treated as a problem to be solved, then creative ideas can really get going. (But I think I'm starting to compose the blog entry on Underworld, so I'll stop there.)

The end of the movie follows a predictable fight between vampires and humans, with vampires all getting killed, except Mae, who is allowed to get a blood transfusion, be cured, and live happily ever after with Caleb.

See, the problem with this ending is that it's not happily ever after. When Caleb began the movie as a teenager in western America, he was far from happy. Now he's returned to the same miserable existence. If the movie had, at the beginning, made Caleb someone who was searching for true love, then this ending would be satisfying. If the movie had made Caleb someone who craves adventure, but then realizes adventure isn't all it's cracked up to be and wants a simple life, that would also make this ending satisfying. However, the bleakness of the entire film begs for a different ending. You can't end a movie that is so completely a downer with a happy ending. It doesn't fit. Happy endings have to be set up somewhere earlier in the story. Just saying.

Overall, Near Dark is a must-see for anyone who loves vampire movies. It has moments of extreme beauty, both visually and emotionally. But the ending? Yeah. Terrible.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Vampire Blogs: The Lost Boys

This is the first of series of blogs I'm planning to do on vampires in recent literature and films.

It wasn't the first movie I saw about vampires, or even the best, but it's been one of my favorite films of all time since the moment I saw it. Joel Schumacher's The Lost Boys is a seminal piece of vampire literature, revolutionary in its own way, while also towing the party line and spitting out a great deal of trite trash in its wake. The movie is campy, witty, beautifully shot, haunting at moments, and even, on occasion, a little creepy. It's truly a puzzle of a film. While The Lost Boys doesn't have much going for it in the way of an original plot, its phenomenal look, sound, and feel catapults it to the status of classic.

The Lost Boys calls to mind immediate images. Kiefer Sutherland in his leather getup, his face slightly sinister, but boyish and charming at the same time. The vampire lair, with its Jim Morrison poster, trash can fires, and tapestry curtains. It also has a distinctive sound. There's nothing that compares to its haunting theme song, "Cry Little Sister," with its enigmatic (and vaguely incestuous) lyrics and that chilling children's chorus crooning, "Thou shalt not die."

But The Lost Boys is also a movie that features lines like, "You're a vampire? Wait till Mom finds out." The movie features a splatter-gross ending, complete with, yes, "death by stereo." Furthermore, the big reveal at the end of the movie is "the blood-sucking Brady Bunch" and a crazy Grandpa vampire hunter.

These things hardly seem to fit together. And yet, somehow, they do. The Lost Boys is more than the sum of its parts. It's a hodgepodge little movie that seems to transcend itself at almost every turn.

There's nothing new about its premise or plot. It encapsulates the eighties teen vampire film, borrowing the basic premise of First Bite and My Best Friend Is a Vampire. This is the essential trope of vampire and werewolf movies dating all the way back to the 1950s—the vampire as a metaphor for teenage sexuality. Being a teenager is rough, what with puberty and attempting to interact with the opposite sex. Who of us doesn't feel monstrous at some point during adolescence? It's not a new idea or a new metaphor, but The Lost Boys does manage to put its own spin on it.

Sure the plot elements come at their usual plodding pace. Michael, a new kid in town, goes to hang out with a motorcycle gang of bad boys who are in trouble with the law. Typically, he does this to impress a girl. While hanging with them, he is tricked into drinking blood and throwing himself off a train bridge. Cue the after-school-special-type message. "Drugs, motorcycle gangs, and loose girls are bad news, kids. Just say no."

And indeed Michael is punished for his rebellious teenage ways. The penalty is a craving for blood, floating in his bedroom, perpetually wearing sunglasses, and being attacked by the family dog.

The second plot line of the movie follows Michael's little brother Sam. Apparently, the original script was meant to be a Goonies-type vampire send up, with all the characters as eight-year-olds. It's obvious that Sam and the Frog Brothers have their basis in the original script. Though the boys are clearly meant to be thirteen or fourteen in the movie, they really behave like they are much younger, with Sam crawling into bed with mother at one point because he's scared, and with their decision to kill the vampires with super soakers filled with holy water. For my money, the whole last half of the film, after the love scene, is pretty forgettable.

The one cool thing that the movie did have going for it was a bit of a mystery. Who was the head vampire? (Never mind that this business of there being half-vampires who go back to normal when you kill the head vampire is the silliest thing I ever heard in my life.) Max was the main suspect. Well, hell, he was the only suspect. But when he was cleared after eating garlic, seeing his reflection, and not being affected by holy water, it simply made his reveal in the end all that more surprising. It fooled me, anyway. What the heck? I was sixteen.

Joel Schumacher apparently got hold of the script and said he wouldn't film it unless it was about teenagers. It was his idea for the whole of the teenage cast to walk around in ragged gypsy glam, and certainly, as the director, we must credit him for the look and feel of the film, which are absolutely magnificent.

If The Lost Boys reaches for greatness, it can only be in its attempt (probably unconsciously) to comment on male roles in the post-feminist society of the 1980s. The movie features a single mother, whose sons are extremely protective of her. Max, the force of evil in the film, is insistent that "boys need a mother." He has been searching for a woman to complete his family.

Michael's descent into darkness happens because he is attracted to Star. It is his attempt to impress her that destroys him, and ultimately his attempt to protect her that redeems him. Michael may not be the best teenage son ever, refusing to have heart-to-hearts with his mom about his new problem of turning into a vampire. ("I'm dealing with things, Mom. Things you wouldn't understand.") But just try to attack his mother. There's no way Michael will let that happen.

The Lost Boys dives into the gender morass and comes out confused. Pursuing women, it seems to say, is either evil or dangerous. Protecting women, however, is the path to greatness.

In the end, The Lost Boys is a fantastic film, almost in spite of itself. Maybe it's just moments here and there. Maybe the moment when Michael screams, "What's happening to me, Star?" and the moment when David whispers, "Be one of us" are simply acted so well and filmed so well that their inherent cheesiness is absorbed into something really believable. I think we can thank Schumacher for this film. His direction brings something stunning to the material, elevates it higher than itself.