Friday, September 7, 2012

Buffy, Blade, Underworld, and Priest: Breaking the Vampire Mold of Count Dracula

I have a certain jealousy of anyone ignorant about vampire lore who reads Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  Imagine that person’s shock.  A series of journal entries, letters, and telegrams are provided in chronological order and document evil events that unfold against Jonathan Harker, Lucy Westenra, Mina Harker, Dr. Seward, Arthur Holmwood (Lord Godalming), Quincey Morris, and Dr. Alexander Van Helsing.  It’s like experiencing a first kiss, except this one is on the neck, transforming the innocent reader into a blood voyeur.

It all begins with Jonathan Harker’s journal.  He presents a slew of mysteries such as the locals in Transylvania crossing themselves at the mention of Count Dracula.  Harker is clueless, as is the uninitiated reader, about why he is given a crucifix before taking a the coach to Castle Dracula.  What harm could he expect as a solicitor from England who is called there on business?  Why do wolves stop howling with a wave of the Count’s hand?  Where is he during the day?  Why is he not reflected in a mirror?  And how, oh god how, does the Count crawl lizard-like on the castle when Jonathan sees him through a window?  Who are the sisters who materialize out of atoms of mist?  Why does the count want coffin-style boxes sent to London?  Harker realizes almost too late that he is a prisoner...

Throughout the novel the tension builds.  The ship that transports the boxes comes to shore after a storm.  A great dog, or maybe it’s a wolf, jumps out, and that’s the only surviving creature.  The captain tied himself to the wheel before he died, thus preserving the log he hid on himself.  Gruesome details are told.  One by one, the crew end up missing.  The ship is searched but nothing is found, that is, until one of the crew decides to open the boxes.  He throws himself into the sea, a more fitting death for a sailor.  But the captain must stay with his ship...

The boxes are sent to an abandoned chapel next to a sanatorium.  One of the insane, Renfield, keeps speaking of his “master” who has come.  Lucy Westerna, with the chapel a short distance from her home, has baffled Dr. Seward with her loss of blood.  She is saved on four separate occasions via blood transfusion by Dr. Van Helsing.  The only evidence are “two little red points like pinpricks” on her neck.  A bat has been seen at her window at night.  Van Helsing imports garlic and insists it is for medicinal purposes, but his study of ancient superstition is the real reason for its use.  Yet Van Helsing is too late.  After Lucy goes to her tomb, children are abducted at night.  They have the same pinpricks, and in each case they state that the “boofer lady” led them away.  Van Helsing leads Lucy’s former suitors, Dr. Seward and Quincey Morris, plus her fiancé Arthur Holmwood (Lord Godalming) to her casket.  She’s not there, but they do find her at night with an abducted child, and she has grown the long canine teeth, pale face, and dark red lips like those of Dracula.  Arthur consents to cutting off her head, filling her mouth with garlic, and driving a stake through her heart...

Mina Harker, Jonathan’s wife, has a bad dream of mist coming through the cracks of the door.  A man evolves out of the mist and bends down to her neck.  She grows pale.  But when Van Helsing and the others break open the door, they catch Dracula forcing her to drink his blood.  He escapes as a bat but not before telling her, “When my brain says ‘come!‘ to you, you shall cross land or sea to do my bidding.”  Van Helsing tries to touch a sacred wafer to her forehead, but it sears her skin.  The only way to free her is to kill the Undead, to put a stake into Dracula and cut off his head...

There’s so much more to the novel, but this basic summary gives what I consider to be the “vampire mold.”  Bats, stakes, garlic, mist, fangs, etc. are all present, but more importantly, the vampire is a cunning predator.  I believe this entire Dracula motif culminated in the character of Lestat in The Vampire Chronicles created by Anne Rice in the 1970s.  The movie version of  Interview With A Vampire (1994) starred Tom Cruise as Lestat and Brad Pitt as Louis.  They are essentially the Count Draculas of eighteenth century America.  If you’re not Lestat, Louis, or one of the other vampires, then you’re helpless, especially if you happen to be a woman.

But in the early 1990s a paradigm shift took place with the movie Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1992). 

The setting for Buffy is first in “Europe: The Dark Ages.”  A narrator states, “Since the dawn of man the vampires have walked among us, killing, feeding.  The only one with strength or skill to stop their heinous evil is the slayer - she who bears the birthmark, the mark of the coven.  Trained by the watcher, one slayer dies and the next is chosen.”  The slayer states, “And I shall be his sword.”  And the watcher says, “Let Satan tremble, the slayer is born.” 

What a setup, except the setting then turns to “Southern California:  The Light Ages.”  The watcher (Donald Sutherland) finds the next slayer (Kristy Swanson), but she’s a high school cheerleader.  Yes, this movie is a comedy.  Buffy has cramps when vampires are near; she laments that PMS is her secret weapon.  The watcher insists it is an alert system.  It’s a fun movie to watch, but the comedy has a hidden element to it.  I believe it emasculates, with humor and feminism, the vampire as predator.

Rutger Hauer plays Lothos, the stereotypical Dracula.  He even sports a white mustache and black cape as first observed by Jonathan Harker at Castle Dracula.  However, Buffy is NOT helpless against him.  Donald Sutherland, the Van Helsing of the movie, does not give Buffy blood transfusions or a necklace of garlic to survive.  He, in fact, trains her to KILL vampires.  In sum, Buffy is no Lucy.

By 1998 another paradigm shift occurs with the movie Blade.  Too bad Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt did not get to battle the anti-predator named Wesley Snipes.  In 1967, a black woman is brought to a hospital emergency ward; she’s pregnant and has been bitten on the neck.  It’s a vampire bite.  This is new territory.  What happens to the baby still in utero if the mother is bit?  Her son is born, but she dies.  This is the origin of Blade--a human-vampire hybrid. 

Abraham Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), the Van Helsing of this movie, invents a serum to keep Blade from having the blood lust.  When Blade saves Dr. Karen Jenson from a vampire, she says, “You’re one of them, aren’t you?”  Blade replies, “No, I’m something else.”

Whistler supplies the weapons, just like Van Helsing.  He states, “Crosses don’t do squat, but some of the legends are true.”  Vampires are still allergic to garlic, also to silver, and sunlight will kill them.  He injects Dr. Jenson, who is bitten, with garlic.  This may or may not stop her from undergoing the change to vampire.

After Blade’s birth, the movie shifts to a woman leading a man into a meat locker.  In the back room the lights are out, music is blaring, and people are dancing.  From the ceiling’s fire sprinklers, an orgy of blood rains down.  This is no ordinary rave.  The people grow fangs.  The man who followed the woman is the only human.  He is doomed until the “day walker” appears.  The ensuing music and choreographed fight scenes, in my humble opinion, inspired many a scene in The Matrix.  Blade kicks ass.  One hybrid, a room full of vampires, Blade doesn’t get a scratch.

In the end his hybrid blood, as well as pure bloods who serve on the vampire Shadow Council, are needed by Deacon Frost, the villain who wants to become a Blood God.  But even in bondage, Blade prevails when Jenson frees him.  Not even a Blood God can stop the ultimate anti-predator - the hybrid.

By the third installment, Blade Trinity, there is the “Vampire Final Solution,” which puts humans in warehouses, kept in comas, and harvested for their blood.  The vampire predators’ have gone to a whole new level.  But remember, the hybrid killed a Blood God, and in the third movie he has other humans to help him.

Another evolution in the vampire genre comes with the movie Underworld in 2003.  Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is the ultimate predator, but in this plot she goes after Lycans (werewolves) rather than humans.  She uses guns, lots of guns, and her Matrixesque fight scenes make Buffy look like a child.  No one wants to mess with this vampire.  Selene narrates the entire plot when the film opens:

“The war had all but ground to a halt in a blink of an eye.  Lucian, the most feared and ruthless leader to ever rule the Lycan clan had finally been killed.  The Lycan horde had scattered to the wind in a single evening of flame and retribution.  Victory, it seemed, was in our grasp.  The very birthright of the vampires.  Nearly six centuries had passed since that night, yet the ancient blood feud proved unwilling to follow Lucian to the grave.  The Lycans were fewer in number, the war itself had become more perilous, for the moon no longer held her sway.  Bolder, more powerful Lycans were now able to change at will.  The weapons had evolved but our orders remained the same, hunt them down and kill them off one-by-one.  A most successful campaign; perhaps too successful.  For those, like me, a Death Dealer, this signaled the end of an era.  Like weapons of the previous century, we too would become obsolete.  Pity, because I lived for it.”

When the Death Dealers follow a pair of Lycans into a subway, she is the only one to survive.  When Selene returns to her coven, she states, “We have a problem.”  The werewolves had developed UV weapons, blue irradiated fluid encased in a shell and packed into a gun clip.  This leads to an arms race.  The vampires develop silver nitrate encased in a shell which will go straight into the bloodstream so there’s “nothing to dig out.” 

Selene also figures out a conspiracy.  Kraven (master of the coven) is in league with Lucian (the werewolf who is supposed to be dead).  Selene awakens Viktor, the eldest of vampires, but also falls in love with Michael Corvin, a human who the werewolves are targeting.  He is part of the bloodline from the Corvinus Strain.  Vampires and werewolves come from the same ancestor.  With Michael’s blood, Lucian can create a werewolf-vampire hybrid.  Viktor calls this an abomination.  It’s why he had his daughter burned to death in sunlight, because she carried Lucian’s child, a hybrid of vampire and werewolf.  Thus the reason for the six centuries of war.

In the end, Selene becomes a Death Dealer against Viktor after she learns that he lied to her.  Werewolves didn’t kill Selene’s family, Viktor did.  He only kept Selene alive because she reminded him of his daughter.  The predator reaps what he sows.  Selene protects Michael by biting him, and with a bite mark from Lucian already, he transforms into the hybrid.  The bite is no longer an act of violence, it is an act of love.  Michael is saved from death since he’s wounded with silver nitrate - lethal to a werewolf, but not a hybrid. 

With this constant evolution of vampire lore, where else can the mythology go?  What more could be expressed that Dracula, Buffy, Blade, and Underworld have not already covered?  The answer is Priest.  This movie changes the paradigm to what I can only describe as an alternate universe. 

Priest is set in a western world without the Reformation.  There are no Lutherans, Baptists, Mormons, etc.  There is just one religion, the Catholic Church with its all-male hierarchy.  The movie begins with Paul Bettany’s character walking in a crowd, his head tattooed with a cross that stretches across his forehead and goes down his nose.  Like Muslims who pray facing Mecca, all the people in Cathedral City look the same direction while they do the sign of the cross.  It seems the tallest building has a glowing white cross in a circle.  The refrain, “To go against the Church is to go against God” is repeated on the streets.  Women’s rights never take root in this universe.  However, the Priests who are recruited to battle the vampires can be both male and female, though they must remain celibate.  In fact, the movie literally goes Old Testament with Bettany’s wife marrying his brother after Bettany is recruited as a Priest.

The most impressive aspect of this movie is that the traditional vampire mythos is redefined as a war of two different species.  Vampires look nothing like humans, and they are in the battle of the fittest to be the top predators.  Vampires are without eyes, and sort of look like the chest buster from Alien.  Like Buffy and Underworld, the movie begins with a narration:

“This is what is known.  There has always been man and there have always been vampires.  Since the beginning the two have been locked in conflict.  The vampires are quicker, stronger, but man had the sun.  It was not enough.  And so it went like this over many years.  The two races destroying not only each other but the world itself.  Facing extinction, mankind withdrew behind walled cities under the protection of the Church.  And then the ultimate weapon was found - the Priests.  Warriors with extraordinary powers, trained by the Church in the art of vampire combat.  They alone turned the tide for man.  The remaining vampires were placed on reservations.  And fearing the power of the weapon they created, the ruling clergy ordered the Priests disbanded.  The former warriors to be integrated back into a society that no longer needed them.  And as the years passed, the few surviving priests faded into obscurity like the vampire menace before them.”

When Bettany’s brother and former wife are attacked by vampires, a sheriff named Hicks comes from his small outpost of Augustine to tell the Priest his brother is wounded, and the daughter abducted by vampires.  Monsignor Orelas, the head of the clergy, refuses to believe this story and calls it the act of wasteland bandits.  The Priest, then, goes against the church and breaks the rosary beads tied to his cross.  I find this ironic since Dracula’s Jonathan Harker is not Catholic but accepts a rosary tied to a crucifix for protection.  In the alternate universe the cross is useless against the vampire, and the Priest turns his back on it in order to save what’s left of his former family.

The Priest leaves Cathedral City to search for his daughter.  Other Priests are sent after him for disobeying the clergy.  When Bettany goes onto the Nightshade Reservation with Hicks, he tries to extract information from a vampire Familiar (a human who is infected by a vampire and thus becomes its slave).  The Familiar says, “Look around you.  Look what you’ve done to them.  They once ruled this land, they were warriors, they were gods.”  The Priest replied, “They were murderers.”  To which the Familiar states, “They were what nature made them to be, just like you.”  What the Familiar does not state is that the Vampire Queen had secretly bred a new army of vampires.  She also corrupted a captured Priest by making him something more than a Familiar.  He’s the first human vampire, and this priest-vampire hybrid is stronger than the Priests. 

When the hybrid talks to Bettany’s daughter, he states, “I want the same things that you want.  I want to be free from a life of suffering and sacrifice.  To no longer be told that your every desire is a sin.  After all, if you’re not committing sin, you’re not having fun.”  In reply she asks, “What are you?”  The hybrid states, “The church teaches us that the eyes are the windows to the soul.  And that since vampires evolved without eyes, it is a soulless creature to be eradicated.  And I have seen the soul of the vampire, and let me tell you, it is far more pure than that of any man...” 

These words lit me up.  The disturbing theological implication is that evolution itself is demonic.  Mother Earth evolved a Queen Vampire as “nature made” her “to be,” soulless and without God.  Yet the converted vampire Priest does see a soul.  What does this all mean?  There is never chance for reflection since the vampires are loaded on a train and headed for Cathedral City.  They’ve already wiped out the town of Jericho and crucified three Priests.   

What I’m left with in this movie is all the ingredients for a Reformation that were caused by the threat of vampires.  The Church is in denial about that reality.   And as Luther was a sincere priest who rebelled against Rome, Bettany does the same in his alternate universe against Cathedral City in order to save it.  Luther has the Bible translated into the vernacular for the laity who do not understand Latin, but in a different manner the Priest disseminates the knowledge of the vampire threat to the masses by throwing a severed vampire head toward Monsignor Orelas.  I can’t see Bettany remaining celibate when his fellow Priestess admits to her love for him.   Not unlike Luther who married a former nun.  I sure hope there is a sequel.  Oh has this vampire story come full circle from Dracula.  There is no longer the predation of the “King Vampire” upon women.  Now the Queen Vampire is the predator who blood rapes a male Priest! 

As long as these innovations continue, I think vampire mythology will continue to be quite entertaining...even as the role of the predator continues to change.

By Mark Schelske