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Sunday, August 2, 2009

When did vampires turn from monsters to sex symbols? When did the undead turn sexy?

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For such a corpse-cold customer, the vampire seems to be sizzling hot these days. Not just hot, but drop-dead sexy (or is that undead sexy?).

Executive producer Alan Ball's stylish vampire series, "True Blood," stumbled a bit right out of the graveyard gates. But the HBO show gradually found its bat wings during its fledgling season and now is gliding through a bloody terrific second year.

Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" series continues to be a titanic teen sensation, with "Eclipse," the third movie based on her books, about to start filming. Johnny Depp has signed with Warner Bros. to play vampire Barnabas Collins in a big-screen version of the 1966-71 supernatural soap opera, "Dark Shadows."

And at 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 10, the CW will premiere "The Vampire Diaries," based on the young-adult novels by L.J. Smith and produced by screenwriter Kevin Williamson ("Scream" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer").

Although these paranormal projects are designed to appeal to different audiences, they have one thing in common. Each features at least one hunk-appeal vampire far closer in spirit and style to David Boreanaz's darkly heroic "Angel" than Max Schreck's rodentlike Orlok in the 1922 silent-screen masterpiece "Nosferatu."

Not bad for a creature who started in myths and legends as a repugnant predator and loathsome leech. Think about recent vampire series, from the short-lived CBS drama "Moonlight" to the Lifetime show "Blood Ties." The undead characters looked more like they had just stepped out of the pages of GQ magazine than the dungeon crypt of a castle.

That's also true of Bill Compton, the "True Blood" vampire played by Stephen Moyer. That was true of Boreanaz's Angel, as well as Alex O'Laughlin's Mick St. John on "Moonlight" and Kyle Schmid's Henry Fitzroy on "Blood Ties." And it will be true of the vampire brothers, Stefan and Damon Salvatore, played by Paul Wesley and Ian Somerhalder on "The Vampire Diaries."

It certainly is no mistake to say that the vampire has made the remarkable jump from monster to sex symbol. But it is a mistake to say that vampires have all of a sudden become hot.

Vampires actually have been hot for, oh, 190 years. It was in June 1819 that literature's first great vampire character, Lord Ruthven, was turned into a matinee idol as the central character in a hit play. Inspired by poet Lord Byron, Ruthven was the stuff that dreams (and nightmares) were made of.

The vampire had caught fire in the pop culture of the day, and theater audiences went bats for Lord Ruthven into the 1850s.

The vampire was hot in the 1840s, when the serialized magazine story "Varney the Vampire" had readers waiting breathlessly for the next weekly installment. The vampire was hot in the 1890s, when Bram Stoker published the most influential vampire novel of all, "Dracula."

Following the path cut by Ruthven and Varney, Dracula was at the same time fearsome and attractive.

"He's the seducer, bringing death and promising immortality," said Cleveland native Wes Craven, the director behind such horror hits as "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and the "Scream" movies. "He embodies social ambivalence about sex and death. That's not only remained incredibly potent, it has remained relevant."

The vampire was hot in the 1920s and '30s, when Bela Lugosi took Stoker's Count Dracula, dressed him up in evening clothes and turned him into a slick-haired vampire variation on the reigning sex symbol of the day, Rudolph Valentino - first onstage and then in a movie that ignited a horror boom and saved Universal Pictures from bankruptcy.

'Tall, dark and gruesome'

The vampire was hot in the '50s, when "tall, dark and gruesome" Christopher Lee began his record screen run as Count Dracula.

This is no reflection on the vampires of "True Blood" and "Twilight," but this terror territory was well-mapped long before they started hitting the covers of magazines. So how did the vampire go from fiend to fashion model, and, in many cases, hero? How did we get from the ghoulish Orlok to the steamy Bill Compton?

Stoker took us a long way down this road by enticing the reader with the appeal of dark and taboo temptations. He also hit upon the notion of the vampire as the ideal metaphor for our fears, hopes and desires. What does Dracula represent?

The metaphor works so well, each generation continues to reinterpret this book and the vampire.

Still, as fascinating and seductive as he is, Stoker's Dracula is pure predator. His one and only goal is dinner - and he's on a strict liquid diet.

For the 70 years after the publication of "Dracula," in Hollywood and literature, there was no significant advance on the vampire character. He remained for the most part a predator - a seductive predator, but a predator nonetheless.

A tortured soul on 'Dark Shadows'

The turning point occurred in 1967, and it happened by mistake. Facing cancellation, the year-old ABC soap opera "Dark Shadows" opened a chained coffin and out jumped a vampire named Barnabas. Here we go, kids.

Barnabas was played by Shakespearean actor Jonathan Frid, who wasn't sure how to portray a vampire. So he decided to emphasize the character's discomfort with suddenly finding himself in a new century. Viewers noticed, and the vampire started to get some fan mail . . . then a lot of fan mail.

The writers were stuck. They were going to drive a stake through the vampire's heart after three months. Instead, they picked up on Frid's interpretation and started presenting Barnabas as a tortured soul. Critics called it "the vampire as Hamlet."

Whatever you call it, this choice forever changed the course of vampire stories. For the first time, a vampire questioned his nature. "Do I have to be this way? Can I change?" For the first time, a soulless creature set out to reclaim his soul.

This set the stage for Anne Rice's endlessly introspective undead characters introduced in her 1976 best seller, "Interview With the Vampire." It blasted the way for Rice's Lestat, "Angel" and "True Blood." There almost never has been a time in recent history, therefore, when vampires weren't hot.

After "Dark Shadows," the vampire not only became more human, he became more heroic. And when Frank Langella gave us a blow-dried Dracula for the disco era in '70s Broadway and film versions, the vampire became sexier and sexier.

This evolution is lost on some.

"I really don't get it," said Richard Matheson, the fantasy writer who authored "I Am Legend" (1954), arguably the most influential vampire novel since "Dracula." "I've never found them attractive or sexy. They're animated corpses. They have bad breath and they drink blood to stay alive. What's sexy about that? How is something that ghastly considered even remotely romantic? I've never found them anything but disgusting."

Like the vampire hunter sharpening a wooden stake, he has made his point. But the legendary Matheson is in the minority.

Vampire stories are marketed to kids, teens and adults. We use vampires to sell cereal (Count Chocula) and teach children numbers (Count von Count on "Sesame Street").

Nightmarish vampires have continued to flourish in movies (think "From Dusk Till Dawn" and its imitators), but television, comic books, novels and films are just as likely to give us the vampire as detective or action hero.

Yes, we're a long way from the Borgo Pass and Castle Dracula.

Forbidden desires continue to be a strong ingredient in this alluring brew. But there also is an almost-biblical strain running through much of horror literature. What is the horror story, after all, if it isn't about confronting evil?

Redemption is a recurring theme, and if the vampire can be redeemed, is there hope for all of us?

By MARK DAWIDZIAK | Cleveland.com | Link to article





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