Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Halloween Monster Special: Vampires

Ironically, for someone whose favorite television shows are Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel the Series, I’m not really all that keen on vampires. For every decent vampire movie, there’s at least three frou-frou Anne Rice lamers clogging up the genre. Also, there are really only so many “vampires as not-very-subtle metaphor for sex” stories I can watch before I get bored. Yes, yes, we get it, vampires and werewolves represent our Id longing to burst free and have bitey/furry sexy funtimes blah blah...you know what a zombie is a metaphor for? Dead people chewing on your brains. (Well, okay, and sometimes political corruption and mindless consumerism, but mostly the brain chewing.) And most ghost stories just wanna scare the piss out of you. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy Moonlight in its brief, melodramatic season, and I have all the episodes of True Blood still sitting on my Tivo awaiting my attention, but bloodsucker stories that engage me are few and far between. So here are a few vampire tales that don’t suck.

First, naturally, is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Of course, if you haven’t already seen this series, I suggest you add the whole thing to your Netflix queue ASAP. But if you don’t want to commit right away, Hulu has a good selection of early episodes. Over seven seasons, Buffy battled not just vampires but trolls, demons, gods, rogue slayers, witches, and all manner of otherworld beasties. But the series’ most memorable arc came in the second season and revolved around a trio of memorable vampires, two of whom had been or would go on to be paramours of the titular slayer, and the other of whom was just unsettling. And luckily, the entire arc is available for free viewing on Hulu. Start with Surprise, where Buffy’s vampire boyfriend Angel gives her the birthday gift that keeps on giving – syphilis! Just kidding, vampires (probably) can’t spread STDs. Though apparently, if you’re dying of syphilis and then get turned into a vampire and then get staked by your ex-boyfriend’s new slayer girlfriend only to get brought back as a human by an evil law firm, you will resume your dying of the syphilis you had hundreds of years ago, but that’s okay because the crazy lady that your ex-boyfriend drove mad then vamped will (at the behest of that evil law firm again) re-vamp you and you’ll be in good health again…until that pesky mystical pregnancy, anyway. But that’s a second season arc on another show. Look, it’s complicated, okay? Just rent the DVDs. Anyway, after Buffy and Angel sleep together, Angel loses his soul (the thing that made him a good vampire instead of a, y’know, homicidal maniac) thanks to a sex-makes-you-happy-makes-you-lose-your-soul clause in the Gypsy curse that gave him said soul in the first place, and Angel and becomes Angelus in Innocence, one of the most gut-wrenching hours of television you’ll ever see. This leaves Buffy with the grim task of hunting down her erstwhile lover and trying to stop him from bringing about the apocalypse. The arc continues in Passion, Becoming Part 1, and comes to a devastating conclusion with Becoming Part 2. This is vampire melodrama done right. Set aside a rainy weekend afternoon to marathon these five episodes.

If you want the Buffy or Angel vampire-centric story experience without having to set aside big blocks of time for the whole Angelus arc, both shows do offer good stand-alone episode options that are both available online. Check out the Buffy second season episode, Lie to Me, and the Angel first season episode, Eternity, for some good commentary on vampire lore in popular culture.

Buffy and Angel are now off the air but live on in comic form. But before Joss Whedon rendered his most famous creations in 2-D, he’d written another vampire slayer comic miniseries that’s since been compiled into a trade paperback. Fray follows a vampire slayer hundreds of years into the future, when vampires and demons have been gone for centuries but make a sudden, and devastating, reappearance. The comic has a great visual style, mixing the zippy high-concept gleaming future of rich people with the hard-scrabble grimy future of poor people that Whedon would later revisit in his doomed series Firefly. Fray is a fantastic, stand-alone story that is a must for both Buffy fans and general fans of the vampire genre.

Okay, enough Whedonverse. I should acknowledge that Joss Whedon and, yuck, Anne Rice do not have the vampire market cornered. So my next recommendation is Dracula 2000. Dracula 2000 is not the definitive vampire movie – I honestly don’t even think I know what is – but it’s a little fresher than some of the other, staler offerings that have come out in recent years. It makes great use of its New Orleans (pre-Katrina) setting and walks a fine line between camp and genuine creepiness. It’s the basic Dracula story re-imagined for a modern setting, with some cool narrative twists that deepen the mythology of that most infamous of bloodsuckers. It’s an underrated little gem that’s worth checking out.

Since it was a book that brought vampires into popular culture lo those many years ago, it’s only fitting that I recommend two vampire books worth checking out. First is I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson. It’s been made into a movie three times – The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price, The Omega Man starring Charton Heston, and the recent Will Smith blockbuster I Am Legend – with varying degrees of faithfulness to Matheson’s original work. Last Man comes the closest until it goes a bit astray in the end, and I Am Legend does a decent job of keeping the general spirit intact while of course ballasting it up to be a Will Smith blockbuster, but then they went and fucked with the ending again. The original novella is a quick read, most people should be able to blow through it in a day or two, and it’s worth checking out to see Matheson’s vision without the filter of directors and stars and all that hullabaloo. It’s also a more interesting take on man vs. monster than we usually see.

Finally, you might have noticed my neglect to mention the newest vampire phenomenon and upcoming movie, Twilight. Well, I haven’t read it. I bought it, and I hope to read it before the movie comes out, but only so I can join in on all the making-fun-of-sparkly-sparkly-emo-vampires fun my friends are having. You know what I did read when I was growing up? The Vampire Diaries by L.J. Smith, the original four book series about a human girl and her love triangle with two vampire brothers. Yeah, Twilight is pretty much old news to the L.J. Smith generation. The books were hard to find for a while, but they’ve been repacked into two attractive volumes designed to capitalize on the Twilight phenomena, along with some of L.J. Smith’s other teenage supernatural drama series like my personal favorite, The Secret Circle. These books helped turn me on to writing and reading and supernatural stories when I was younger. I haven’t re-read them in probably over ten years out of fear that they won’t be as good as I remember considering my tastes have changed slightly in the ensuing decade, but the new bindings might be enough to lure me in. And who knows, maybe a re-read of the books that started it all for me will cure me of my vampire fatigue.


Sex Mahoney for President said...

With an ending that memorable, you'd think that it would be the one consistent theme in all the movies, but I guess that's just a little too unsettling for American popular audiences.

Sex Mahoney for President

smd said...

Yeah, I guess no one likes imagining us humans as the monsters that go bump in the night, but that's exactly the twist that makes I Am Legend interesting and keeps it from being, well, just another blockbuster featuring Will Smith whaling on baddies. (And I say this as someone who genuinely enjoyed the Will Smith version, but it could have been so much better with the original ending intact.)

Sex Mahoney for President said...

It wasn't a bad movie, up until the end. I was digging it, and I'm a hard sell.

Sex Mahoney for President