Thursday, September 4, 2008

It Started with One: A Short Essay.

Vampires. Yes, thanks to a Mr. Edward Cullen, vampires in the media are once again getting into the limelight. Since 1897 (the publication of Bram Stoker's Dracula), vampires have been fascinating and horrifying people, all around the world. There are times when it looked like they wouldn't rise again, especially when production studios such as Hammer Films in Britain and Universal here in the States were going out of business or weren't making a profit anymore. It would take a theatrical Hungarian actor to bring the Count to life on stage and eventually in 1931, to the silver screen. These adaptations of Stoker's novel weren't accurate, but were entertaining. Bela Lugosi went on the reprise his roll in several movies and spin-offs. A little known fact was that when Lugosi died, he was buried in full Dracula suit and cape. The part was his legacy.

Vampires in literature were fairly quiet during that time. Some scholars who were interested in such things found other early works like Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan le Fanu or the comic serial "Varny the Vampire." The Vampire in Europe was published by Montague Summers in 1921 and became a handbook on vampire legends. There would not be a major break through in literature for many decades.

The film industry went quiet also, maybe because no one wanted to see horror movies when true atrocities were being committed everyday in Europe. Horror movies started to make their come-back in the late 1950's so it was no surprise when it was announced that "Dracula" would be back in theaters. What would surprise people was the 6'5" tall, very handsome lead and the story taking on a much darker, sexually charged plot. Christopher Lee would then go on to beat Lugosi's record of playing Dracula in more movies and also in the theater. Peter Cushing must have an honorable mention since he has been the archetype "Van Helsing" and, in my ever humble opinion, the best. His most noted role though would be one of his last, as the fierce General Tarken in Star Wars. For the 50's and early 60's, the stories undertones were ahead of the times and people loved them.

In all of this history, however, no one had even thought of a so-called "good" vampire. They were evil incarnate. They were portrayed as people, neither living nor truly dead, glorifying in their damnation and servitude of darkness. From the earliest known texts of scholars, vampires were always omens of evil; creatures to be loathed and killed when found. Vampires shied away from churches and crosses. In some obscure pieces of literature, mostly short stories, vampires elicited some pity for their condition, but a victim too many always changed the minds of readers. Vampires were beasts to be feared; beings who did not deserve compassion.

All that would change with a failing television show and a very pompous man.

In 1966, a British Canadian was packing his bags in his NY apartment in order to travel to California. He was going to become a drama professor for Yale University. Jonathan Frid had excellent credentials, having a masters degree in direction and numerous stage credits. I believe he felt that he could achieve more at the University instead of on Broadway. According to his tale, it was almost the moment for him to leave when he received a phone call from his agent. His agent wanted to know if he wanted a role lasting 13 weeks on a soap opera. He thought that would be a good, short role to take and it would provide him with more income for the trip.

The 13 weeks turned into almost 5 years. Mostly because the creator had the craziest idea at the time...

Dan Curtis was a pioneer already of television. He's the man responsible for having commentary improve the boring sport of golf and even having the players wear microphones. As a producer, he was always looking into his next gig, the next big break-through to make him money. He had created a soap opera, "Dark Shadows" that was not doing well in the ratings. When it looked like the show would be cancelled, he threw in a ghost to see how the audience would react. The ratings jumped. Once that storyline was finished, the show looked as if it would be cancelled once again. Dan Curtis was going to scrap the show. One of his children told him to make it scarier. Curtis then decided to add the vampire.

The character of Barnabas Collins began like every other vampire in media and television. He was evil. A not-so-bright crook thought he was grave-robbing his way to fortune until a hand reached out and almost strangled him. Collins preyed upon the women in his family's small town first and eventually moved to biting his own descendants. He lied his way into the elite social circles of Collinwood and charmed everyone he met. His crimes during the supposed 13 week run included slaughtering farm animals, murder, kidnapping, torture, and stealing. The storyline was gearing up for the eventual steak in the heart.

Dan Curtis wouldn't hear the word "End." The ratings had soared and ABC was willing to let the show continue. The only problem would be on how to keep the character of Barnabas Collins interesting. One couldn't have him evil all the time; it would get boring, fast.

"Let's make him reluctant!" Dan Curtis was reported to shout at a writer's meeting. "A person who hates himself is always interesting!"

And that led to the story of a 175 year old vampire who knew he was damned, but was still trying to fight his baser instincts to help his new family and to find the love that was lost to him. In one storyline, Barnabas is made to recount his whole story to a writer who sells his book as a work of fiction. This would influence a woman to write probably the second best known vampire novel and series of all time. Barnabas Collins sadly never found his peace of mind nor his lost love, but in the end he did gain his humanity... how long, no one knows.

The woman I mentioned above is an Irish Catholic from New Orleans. She was living in San Francisco, where the story starts, when she finished her novel. Anne Rice completed Interview with the Vampire in 1973, just two years after Dark Shadows went off the air. She didn't think it was good so she stuck it in a drawer and forgot about it for three years. In 1976, Rice changed her mind about the manuscript so the book was published and became an instant hit. Her only rival during that era was possibly Stephen King with his release of Salem's Lot. In 1985, Rice released The Vampire Lestat and started the Vampire Chronicles. Movies were spawned but the only one that did well was "Interview with the Vampire," probably because of Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise in the lead roles.

There was another quiet period that was short lived for vampires. Hollywood was getting into the comic book adaptations so it decided to release one about a dhampir, a half human, half vampire. "Blade" was a good start, but the other movies didn't fair that well. Other movies were released, but there was nothing new to them so they bombed at the box office. I have to say that I did enjoy "30 days of Night." It was a very good film that should have gotten more attention, especially for bringing back the raw, animalistic, actually horrifying vampire. "I Am Legend" brought vampires to the forefront, but they were not the pitiful people of Richard Matheson's classic novel. The only movie to achieve that feat was "The Last Man on Earth" with Vincent Price. The last vampire movie I saw was "Let the Right One In" which is the best I've seen in a while. Even if you don't like vampires, see it because it's just a beautiful and thrilling story. The English version (since the one I saw is actually in Dutch) of the movie will be coming out in 2010. Let's hope they don't mangle it.

Anyway, the public was lukewarm about bloodsuckers in general. The literature had become redundant. As of now, there are several projects showing, in production, or pre-production that have sparked a new interest in the undead.

Twilight by Stephanie Meyers is a book and series that has gotten millions of people to read about Bella Swan, ordinary human, and her Adonis-like, vampire boyfriend, Edward Cullen. Meyers has put a new spin on these legendary figures, creating new laws that these vegetarian vampires follow. Really though, they follow the relunctant vampire model with a touch of teen angst mixed in for good measure.

"True Blood" on HBO is a pleasant surprise. I actually wrote most of this last week, but wanted to post it after seeing the show. Southern folk and vampires fighting for their rights, make for a new change and an amusing show. The southern accents are horribly done, but add to the campy quality of the series. Definitely not for the kiddies and squemish. The series are based on eight novels which I'm thinking of picking up once I actually have cash in my bank account (Damn you,Terminus and Fun!).

And once again, I'm hoping Johnny Depp makes the best damn vampire movie of the decade with the "Dark Shadows" movie. I found out about Tim Burton directing from current DS producers and beat out my movie sources. I hope Burton can return to his former glory since lately he hasn't done well at all. A closet fan-my brother (who probably became interested when he was forced to watch hours of the show since I hogged the tv and talked about it constantly)-argued with me that it'll be good, siting eras of the show they'll probably focus on and which haven't been seen on a screen in a while. One can only hope.

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