Monday, 7 January 2008

The Contemporary Vampire Aesthetic

One area which I promised to focus on in this blog which has been pretty much neglected is contemporary Gothic culture, something I am part of, but seems to be hard to sustain surrounded by so many chavs and all the pressures of life. Vampire aesthetics informed the Gothic (Revival) movement of the 19th century as well as its 20th century manifestation.

I am a keen computer-game player (Is that a prerequisite for being a blogger? Possibly) and tiring of wargames I dug through my collection of PC games looking for something immediate. Computer games are my retail therapy. A few years ago I acknowledged that I actually enjoyed buying the games and reading the little booklets as much as I enjoyed playing them. I never pay full price but enjoy scouring charity shops for obscure titles. Consequently I have a few boxes of games I have never played that I turn to in moments of ennui (such as an extended Christmas holiday with bad weather) and came upon 'Bloodrayne' (2002; a very poor movie came out in 2006 surprisingly with Ben Kingsley and Michael Madsen). It features a half-vampire woman battling against various demons and mutants in Louisiana in 1933 and Argentina and Germany 1938. The story owes a lot to sources such as 'The Raiders of the Lost Ark' (1981) movie with the Nazis digging for powerful esoteric relics; the Anne Rice vampire novels set in New Orleans; the Blade comics graphic novels (1973 so to some degree in itself an element of the so-called 'blaxploitation' trend of the early 1970s as Blade is black; 1999-2000) and movies (1998; 2002; 2004) in that Rayne is a 'dhampir' half-human, half-vampire like Blade; it also has shared elements with 'Hellboy' (graphic novels since 1993; movie 2004) notably the Oberst 'Kommando' character resembles Oberst Karl Rupprecht Kroenen from the Hellboy stories and the Thule Society appears in both.

The game is surprisingly unbuggy for a first-person shooter game; the story is interesting (an organisation called The Brimstone Society but it is incredibly hard not because the controls are poor, they are good, more that so many opponents are thrown at you and water and poison gas are additional hazards that it is incredibly difficult to stay alive even on 'Easy' mode; fortunately the game designers provide simple facilities for cheats to replenish energy and so on, otherwise you would miss out on so much of the game. One notable characteristic of the game I have not seen in many others (but then again I am not a big first-person game player) is the ability to execute balletic assaults on opponents even with a function to slow down to 'bullet time' to allow the kind of violent acrobatics of the kind seen in 'The Matrix' (1999).

The game also taps into the 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' (movie 1992; series 1997-2003) with a female protagonist fighting vampires and demons and clearly aimed at the teenaged boy market. It also draws on the modern, almost fetish, styling of contemporary vampires and that started me thinking about when did vampires in books and movies change from having silk capes to leather trenchcoats and in fact has one approach replaced the other or are they running in parallel?

To some degree the styling for vampires has fed off the Gothic style in itself just as Goths have often modelled themselves on how vampires are shown. This stems from the fact that the explosion of popular vampire fiction in the 19th century portrays them in clothing of that time including capes and formal suits; long dresses and corsets. Movies reflected how the vampires were shown in 19th century fiction and we see such clothing replicated in Gothic clothing from the 1980s onwards. The traditional portrayal was strong in the Hammer horror movies of the 1970s and is sustained in many versions of vampire stories more recently, notably 'Bram Stoker's Dracula' (1992) and 'Van Helsing' (2004) though in Van Helsing's clothing with styles similar to something Blade would wear.

The shift from vampires being nobility in Eastern Europe to being more of an ordinary background can be seen as stemming from 'The Lost Boys' (1987) which portrayed vampires in a small coastal US town as a youth gang and referenced comic books as a source of information for fighting vampires. The vampires for the first time dressed in contemporary clothing of teenagers rather than the garb of nobility. Other movies showing similar vampires of ordinary status were 'Near Dark' (1987) with working class vampires in Oklahoma (in the small category of rural American vampire movies you can also include 'From Dusk to Dawn' (1996) set just over the border in Mexico) and to a lesser extent 'Fright Night' (1985) with suburban vampirism typical of the Buffy series, though with Peter Vincent played by Roddy McDowell referencing the 1970s Hammer horror movies with Peter Cushing and Vincent Price. The Buffy series early on shows that shift in series 2 with the arrival of Spike a British, kind of punk Vampire to displace the more old fashioned approach of 'The Annointed' and 'The Master' vampires who had preceded him in Sunnydale. It is unsurprising that vampire movies took this step. It was in line with the shift in other genres of horror movie too and the fact that mundane evil, the kind you could encounter in your own home is far more frightening than more fantastical horror. If you live in downtown Baltimore or Luton you are very unlikely to encounter a windswept Transylvanian castle. Even the more traditional style vampire movies had been moving in this direction with things such as 'Dracula A.D. 1972' (1972). However, making the vampire genre seem relevant to the teenagers queuing to see slasher movies was important commercially and would revive what by the mid-1980s seemed a very tired genre (e.g. 'Nosferatu' (1922) can be seen as the first vampire movie giving the films a 50-year lifespan even by the mid-1970s).

Another aspect is that vampire movies have rediscovered the analogies to disease. In the era of prevalent syphillis of the Victorian era you find a number of analogies to the illness. The 19th century saw an interest in the workings of the mind particularly of obsessions which formed the foundation of the science of psychology and psycho-analysis in the 20th century. There was also the issue of eugenics and of 'blood' often on a racialist (and in turn provoking racist views) and the characteristics they implied. It is unsurprising that with the era of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s that people have that as a background and vampirism is portrayed as a disease. Maybe the first contemporary movie to engage with this was 'The Hunger' (1983) maybe influenced by the venereal herpes outbreaks of the 1980s as the lead vampire is eventually destroyed by all those he has 'infected' through draining their blood. In 'Near Dark' the hero's vampirism is cured through a blood transfusion. The disease perspective is notable in 'Blade' (1998) as Blade takes an antidote to his illness and works with a doctor specialising in blood conditions to develop antibodies to vampires. In 'Blade II' things go further with vampires seeking to genetically engineer and even more ferocious type of vampire creature. Similarly in 'Underworld' (2003) werewolf scientists are working at selective breeding in order to create a werewolf-vampire hybrid. In this movie vampirism is not simply a disease but one being addressed through genetic engineering. Thus, it plays on concerns and fears of the present day in the way that some 19th century vampire stories did.

So the vampire was made more of the mainstream and tackling contemporary concerns. This meant that really anyone could become a vampire, opening up a wider range of character types than the simple count in the castle on the hill side. Vampires even became the heros. Blade is a half-vampire and wipes out vampires, though in 'Blade II' (2002) he allies with a kind of vampire special forces unit. In 'Underworld' the heroine, Selene is a vampire herself very much wrapped up in the traditions of the species; though interesting the lead vampire, when revived is connected to a very high-tech drip system to revive him. With vampires as heros you need something far more evil still for them to fight. In 'Underworld' the heroine battles werewolves and conspirators among the vampire community. In Blade II, it is against the mutant vampire creatures and similarly in the computer games 'BloodRayne' and 'Vampire The Masquerade Bloodlines' (2004) against mutated creatures coming out of vampire backgrounds ('Vampire The Masquerade Bloodlines', a first person/third person shooter/slasher had a fascinating storyline featuring different clans of vampire operating in Los Angeles each with different characteristics and a culture with different vampire organisations. The morality of it is deliberately ambivalent. However, it must have been the most bug-infested game released commercially and took years of patches even after the production company Troika had collapsed to make it playable. The fact that so much effort was put into it showed how engaging the storyline and settings were. It is the only game I have played which has had truly frightening locations and settings).

It is probably unsurprsing that vampire movies touch on disease because as there has long been an association between vampires and sexual activity. As someone noted Dracula is all about fore-play, nibbling at the women without actually going for the intercourse an approach to sex that some women would appreciate. Dracula was generally portrayed as suave and enchanting and also promises love that lasts an eternity; elements often missing in contemporary men's approaches to 'wooing' a woman. He wears dark, sleek clothing and lives well. The vampire women are always beautiful, voluptuous and dressed provocatively. This aspect has further influenced the aesthetic of vampire movies and certainly with the 'Underworld' movie and its sequel 'Underworld: Evolution' (2006) has crossed over into fetish clothing with Kate Beckinsale's character eschewing velvet dresses in favour of a rubber catsuit and long boots. In the same way Goth styling with corsets and long leather coats has found fetishists butting up against it in style; sometimes to the great unease of Goths, though many are open-minded they tend to seek more complex relationship with sustained equality between the partners whereas the fetishists often seek power exchange (though typically within what is beneath the surface an equal relationship). In addition, whilst the Goth clothing is similar there is a great deal more intellectually to being Goth than simply dressing up sexily. Thus, the lines are muddied and with the Goth clearly leaking into mainstream fashion especially in winter styles for women with purples and blacks and corsets, one can see how what is established as the vampire aesthetic in movies, books and games actually begins straying into our lives, most particularly of people like Goths most easily influenced by it. In the age of the 'kidult' and women dressed in pink and fluffy, this provides a far more mature, serious, even dangerous look for people seeking something different.

So where does the vampire genre stand in 2008? Well in terms of novels I could not hope to even scrape the surface of the number being written. Authors such as Anne Rice and Poppy Z. Brite have been joined by many others in writing both historic and contemporary vampire novels. A third Underworld movie is predicted if Kate Beckinsale gives her costume back to the studio after using it for her Halloween outfit this past year. Vampire stories are likely to stay popular in these nervous times as they touch on physical, medical and mental concerns we have; provide action; are sexy and give us a look that appears grown-up.

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