Monday, May 14, 2007

Biting Criticism: The Curse of Postmodern Vampires


Based on a friend’s recommendation, I recently rented the Russian horror/sci-fi/action blockbuster Night Watch. I’d long been skeptical about the film and the trilogy of which it is a part (the second installment, Day Watch, is currently in limited theatrical release), curious about the majority of somewhat positive reviews for it but finding little of interest in the premise or the previews I’d seen. My response to it was close to what I’d expected; as I told my friend, I wish there were a rating in Netflix’s user review system that signified, “I like this movie but I’m really, really sick of postmodern vampires.”

It’s a sentiment that applies to a lot of the bloodsucker flicks that have hit over the last decade or so, the progeny of a culture that discovered movies like The Lost Boys and Near Dark while playing White Wolf’s role-playing games and then went off to college to subsist on Hong Kong action pics for four years (or five, or six, or seven…) and got a girlfriend who owned autographed copies of all of Laurel K. Hamilton’s books. Suddenly, beginning sometime in the mid-90s, nearly every vampire movie that gurgled its way across the big or small screen featured attractive young actors in tight leather and dark denim, pouting like someone from a Calvin Klein ad in one frame and then brandishing the Terminator’s shotgun and/or motorcycle in the next. There was typically at least one sequence in which someone writhed orgasmically on a bed or bathtub, and another involving one of the vampire characters being shot by a human, only to shrug off the blast with a terrible one-liner. Wesley Snipes owes his summer home to this phenomenon.

The formula was stale before it had finished unspooling through the projector, and yet traces of it still plague the genre to this day, undermining some otherwise unique and engaging movies. Case in point, The Hamiltons, which came out at the top of last year’s After Dark Horrorfest crop (or at least the top of those films not named The Abandoned; I’ve yet to see that one).

The Hamiltons, a story about an trio of odd siblings orphaned and living on their own following the death of their parents, was also recommended to me by a friend and holds up to her promises of smart, compelling, character-driven horror. Its narrative organically integrates a lot of the traditional vampire conventions into a story that’s actually about more than just people being vampires. Its subtlety defies the aggressive nature of most modern vampire movies, forgoing hypercut chase-sequences and fight scenes set to pounding heavy metal in favor of quiet, methodical talks at a kitchen table and the drawn out, palpable anxiety of characters placed in uncomfortable situations. It’s a movie, not just a horror movie, and not even just a genre movie.

Yet despite its originality and nerve, The Hamiltons is slighted, and slighted heavily, by pandering to the lowest common vampire film-viewing denominator in the form of two characters who seem to have walked right off the set of Blade 4. By lingering on these two – a pair of sexually lecherous, morally antagonistic, OMG HOTT! young twins clad in stylishly dingy garb from Hot Topic – for a good portion of the film and fetishizing their actions, the directing team of the Butcher Brothers pull us away from the The Hamiltons’ core (the coming-of-age of its young and confused protagonist) and turn the proceedings into an MTV horror movie.

The twins don’t completely stake the heart of The Hamiltons, but they do perpetuate many of the problems of the modern vampire movie within the last realm of horror cinema once thought safe from their bite: the art-house pic. More importantly, they rob modern horror of yet another otherwise viable candidate for the overall horror pantheon.

In other words, like the seemingly immortal curse of the postmodern vamp, they suck.

But if you can get past them, maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of what the post-postmodern vamp film will one day look like – ambitious, thought-provoking, challenging, and naturally scary.

3 comments :

  1. The Ball & Chain said...

    As the recommender of The Hamiltons I feel compelled to defend the twins. I've found it interesting that you and I had such different reactions to them--I adored them, particularly Darlene, for reasons I'll describe below.

    I have two counter arguments to your critique of the twins. You say that they are a) postmodern and b) that the postmodern vampire is a stale formula that "panders to the lowest common vampire film-viewing denominator."

    I actually don't find the twins to be postmodern in the sense you've described. If the filmmakers are pandering to anything, it's the classical idea of the vampire as "sexually lecherous and morally antagonistic." That's straight out of the Victorian tradition of vampires as sexually transgressive bogeymen a la the lesbian Carmilla Karnstein and Lord Ruthven, Varney, Dracula et al, male seducers of the virgin female. Darlene's hair, makeup and dress in the dinner scene were old fashioned and brought to mind these "old school" vampires.

    What I do find postmodern about the twins is that they, and in particular the female twin, are not killed for their aberrant sexuality. Darlene thus joins the very sparse ranks of sexually aggressive female horror film characters--or any genre outside of porn, for that matter--that aren't punished for their "sins." Actually, can you think of another one? Off the top of my head, I can't. And to me that's ballsy and progressive, not pandering in the least. Also postmodern was how they upped the ante on the sex for a modern audience--instead of just biting into the neck of a chaste Victorian virgin as symbolism for sexual penetration, they give us incestuous debauchery on a platter. Which, having cut my teeth on V.C. Andrews' heaving bosomed incest "victims" as a young girl, I did find OMG HOTT! If I had a brother who looked like Wendell I'd kill chicks and make out with him over their bloody corpses, too. Who wants to look at ugly people in a movie? I can get all my ugly needs met just walking down the street.

    The second of your critiques I disagree with is that the postmodern vampire is a stale formula. This is purely a matter of personal taste. I don't find the formula stale at all--I can't get enough of it. I don't even take it as a "formula" within the overall vampire film pantheon, I take it as a subgenre, one that I call vampire as superhero, or super anti-hero. They are superhumanly beautiful, sexual and powerful, impervious to death and decay, and they get to use cool weapons and get away with the kind of mayhem that would get an ordinary person locked up, key thrown out. What's not to like? Again, just a matter of personal taste.

    I've seen this debate framed as "scary vampires vs. sexy vampires." I like both, but I think it's helpful to consider them as two separate subgenres rather than formulas within the same genre. There are people who aren't into the kick flick subgenre of action pictures, and then there are the rabid fans. I think the same applies to the scary vs. sexy vampire.

    The sexy, postmodern vampire is a subspecies of vampire that holds massive appeal for its fans, which I count myself one. I think the appeal is the fetishization of the monster within. I can relate to the fuckup, the outsider, the creature with a black heart, and wrapping that up in the package of a hot young vampire in skintight leather (again, reminiscent of a superhero costume) feeds that part of my soul.

  2. John said...

    I'm willing to go along with you on point the first, to a certain degree. While I didn't get a Victorian vibe from Darlene at all (unless we're talking about a modern girl aping Victorian trappings, which is, again, postmodern), I'd agree that the lack of "punishment" is progressive. That said, I get the feeling that this was more of a fortunate byproduct of the story being told rather than a key piece of the filmmakers' intent, but I'd probably need to watch it again in order to judge more accurately.

    I'll grant a greater value to the twins, but I still argue (from a position of fact) that they distract from the core of the film and (purely personal taste) that what they lend to it in exchange doesn't equal out. So I'm still left very impressed with the film, and I admire what it attempts to accomplish (and what it succeeds in accomplishing), but I'm still disappointed that it didn't teeter a little further away from what I'll call a visceral appeal and a little further toward an intellectual one.

  3. The Ball & Chain said...

    I can't say whether Darlene's lack of punishment was intentional, and honestly I hope it wasn't. I've been reading feminist horror film criticism lately (feel free to puke--I've been) and I'm really sick of reading gender issues into what I'm watching. I mean Jesus, sometimes a hatchet wound is just a hatchet wound, you know?

    I see where you're coming from with wanting the purely intellectual film untainted with the visceral, since we get plenty of visceral most of the time, and I think now I understand why you thought it was pandering. I guess I just like being pandered to. They're cute, especially the babies. Have you seen that little Hua Mei at the San Diego zoo? So adorable!