Thursday, January 10, 2013

Vampires 101: No Stalgia is Good Stalgia


When DRACULA was first published in 1897, it was an attempt by Bram Stoker to breathe life into the vampire legend. Either by design or by accident, he combined different folk tales to create a new version of the vampire, a monster from legend that was still relatively shapeless as the 19th century was winding down.

It wasn’t an especially groundbreaking book in regards to its narrative. While Stoker succeeded in crafting a story dripping with oral sexuality, its villain behaved pretty much like the villains of the VARNEY THE VAMPIRE “penny dreadful,” and John Polidori’s THE VAMPYRE. Even its epistolary style of telling the story through journals, letters and press clippings was old hat by 1897.

But DRACULA managed to hit at the right place at the right time, and played to a variety of Victorian phobias that had been brewing for decades. What made it really special, though, is that Stoker created a modern novel for modern audiences. Unlike many of its predecessors, DRACULA was set in the world inhabited by its readers. Even the locations he was forced to invent, such as the fantastic Transylvania landscape conjured mostly from his own imaginations, probably looked how the people of England in 1897 imagined them to be, complete with wandering packs of wolves, superstitious peasants and quaint meals.

Say what you will about the truncated stage adaptations of DRACULA, but they succeeded - for a time - in maintaining the story’s contemporary setting. When the play was adapted for the screen by Universal in 1931, it also set the story in “modern” London.

"I'm gonna break my foot off in Peter Murphy's ass."
But, a funny thing happened along the way to the 21st century. DRACULA gradually became tied to the era that first spawned him. Universal Studios occasionally reinvented the character in order to make him relevant to changing audiences (and to tailor him to whatever actor was playing the part) but Hammer hit the reset button in a big way in 1958 with DRACULA/HORROR OFDRACULA. It was the start of a new franchise that re-established Dracula as a creature from the past. But, even Hammer felt the need to upgrade the tale by the time the Swinging ‘70srolled around. Not only that, the last film to feature CHRISTOPHER LEE as the Count took place in a dystopian future.

Since then, there have been a few attempts at resurrecting DRACULA for modern audiences, but most of them have only paid lip service to Stoker’s novel. Most straight adaptations (such as the JOHN BADHAM and FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA films) have embalmed the tale in the year in which is was written. The more faithful these movies are to Stoker’s novel, the less they have in common with it.

Subtext, schmubtext.
HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS is among the best of the Dracula pastiches, if for no other reason than it captures the spirit of its time in a ruthlessly vicious manner. The story is strikingly similar to Stoker's, thanks mostly to a careful distillation of the original DRACULA novel over the previous seven decades. While the sexuality of the vampire is mostly downlplayed in the film, the idea of “vampire as pestilence” is pushed to the forefront, a theme which is at the heart of Stoker’s novel. But HOUSE turns the concept of pestilence on its head in a reckless, rebellious manner that shows a keen understanding of its audience.

Movies like THE EXORCIST, THE OMEN, ROSEMARY’S BABY and their knock-offs shared a common sentiment that the next generation was something to be feared. A lot of adults couldn’t tell the difference between The Beatles and The Monkees, and probably assumed any kid with long hair was setting up a Manson Family franchise in their neighborhood. Unlike its contemporaries, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS gives the middle finger to these sentiments in a bloody, nihilistic manner. If the world has anything to fear, the movie argues, it’s of previous generations' inability to change. Barnabas Collins is the embodiment of “Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30,” a man who can’t stop himself from repeating the mistakes of the past no matter how much harm he does. He was Richard Nixon with fangs.

Jonathan Frid's time at the White House is more fondly remembered, though.
Curiously, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS also exhibits something I think of as “The Varney Effect.” DRACULA owed a huge debt to the VARNEY THE VAMPIRE “penny dreadful” serial published in the 1840s, and most movies that riff on Stoker’s novel with a lack of devotion to the source material often wind up making VARNEY THE VAMPIRE by mistake. The similarities between the Barnabas Collins story and VARNEY are numerous, right down to both having portraits of look-alike “ancestors” hanging in the family mansion. Varney also takes advantage of the knowledge of his ancestral home by using secret passages to assault women in the night before fleeing to his own home located on adjoining grounds. This will all sound familiar to fans of DARK SHADOWS.

When you borrow the skeletal structure of DRACULA, you’re really appropriating the structure of VARNEY. You’ll see the same thing happen in Tim Burton’s DARK SHADOWS film released in 2012 to much different effect. To his credit, he experiments extensively with the vampire story archetypes, using many of the plot points from DRACULA only to knock them down. It doesn't really accomplish anything because the credited screenwriter, Seth Grahame-Smith, doesn't do anything significant with these ideas.

The script also doesn't really know where to go with the vampire legend, trapping it firmly between the rock of Victorian tradition and the hard place that is the "superhero" vampire of the 21st century. Burton’s film twists the “pestilence” of the vampire into a power to be envied. In HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, Barnabas spreads his own disease with careless abandon, inadvertently ending his bloodline through his misdeeds. In Burton’s film, though, the disease is a power to be coveted, and will be shared only with a select few. It becomes the source of Barnabas' salvation in the movie’s final scene, where he “shares” this curse to remake a woman in his own image. The “Bitches Be Crazy” subtext of the film is hard to miss, but I never noticed how gross it was until I typed that previous sentence.

"Now try on the Jack Sparrow costume."
The addition of Angelique to the story changes the overall DRACULA dynamic quite a bit, giving the vampire something to worry about other than a “Van Helsing” surrogate trying to put a stake in him, while also stripping him of his role as “invader.” The movie devotes a lot of time to domesticating the vampire as though he was a stray cat, but it never quite overcomes its own quaint revulsion for its era. While the villain of HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS was an “elder generation” villain, the script to the Burton film desperately wants to be counterculture. Johnny Depp’s interpretation of Barnabas Collins has him rescue/create a soulmate in the movie’s climax, delivering our antihero from social solitude. But it also has him murder a bunch of “hippies” in a throwaway gag because, you know, hippies are stupid. Or something. In fact, there’s something revealing in Tim Burton’s re-imagining of Barnabas Collins as a fringe character who also feeds on other fringe characters. As an artist, Burton lacks the self awareness to see himself in his own work. Much like Hot Topic, he is hawking phoney rebellion and iconoclasm for corporate entities that understand neither concept.

Burton also decided to embalm DARK SHADOWS in a bygone day, which might have dangerous side affects for the property. DRACULA was designed to be a modern tale, but was confined to the past by later generations who can’t differentiate between story and artifice. Until 2012, this chronic sense of nostalgia never appeared to be much of a threat to DARK SHADOWS, a show that was hardly set in its own time even when it first aired.

It will be interesting to see if Burton’s film will have an impact on future interpretations of the story. It’s probable that we’ll see Collinwood revived to a contemporary setting at some point in the near future, but I’ve seen enough comicbooks “rebooted” over the years to know that revisiting a property’s heyday is an irresistible lure for some creators. If it’s achieved nothing else, Burton’s multi-million dollar reliquary might have trapped Barnabas Collins in a timeline he’ll never escape now that the character is so firmly ensconced in the minds of casual audiences as a campy, kitschy antique with about as much relevance as go-go boots and 8-track tapes.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Beautiful article. I really enjoyed this one. Reading through all this made me think of another all time favorite story of mine, The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas. Did you know that John Polidori was the doctor to Lord Byron. And during the famous time of when Frankenstein was told by Mary Shelley, Lord Byron wrote a scary story to tell his friends called Fragment of a Novel which supposedly Polidori ripped off and wrote The Vampyre. In turn, his famous vampyre, Lord Ruthvan become so popular in contemporary literature that Dumas referred to the Count of Monte Cristo resembling the famous vampire, Lord Ruthvan. I feel Barnabas is also similar, the stately Lord and Count combined. If only Seth Graham-Smith was influenced by classic literature perhaps this past years Dark Shadows would have been better written as a screen play.

-FushigiFox
(P.S. excuse the drunken rant at the end)

Cousin Barnabas said...

"The Drunken Rant at the End" would be a good name for a podcast.

Anonymous said...

hehehe, I also forgot to mention about the time after Frankenstein and The Vampyre, the relationship between Lord Byron and John Polidori soured. Really fun to read the history of literature influences. ok, I should put myself to bed. website is looking great. Oh, and I think i made a mistake, I think Lord and Count are the same? my brain is befuddled at the moment. So probably shouldn't be posting comments in this state anyway.

-FF

willmckinley said...

Barnabas Collins was "Richard Nixon with fangs" WTF???

Cousin Barnabas said...

Well, not LITERALLY. But Nixon is as good a symbol as any for the kind of self-destructive conservatism I was referring to.

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