As we head into the Halloween season, one creature you don’t have to be frightened by anymore is the vampire. The species is making a startling shift from horrifying to helpful. And we’re not talking about tame Transylvanians such as Count Chocula or “Sesame Street’s” Count von Count.
Even the old-fashioned red-in-tooth-and-claw types are getting an image makeover in recent films and TV shows. Take Mick St. John (Alex O’Loughlin) on CBS’s new crime drama, “Moonlight” (9 p.m. EDT Fridays on CBS). He’s a private detective who, like every P.I. since Dashiell Hammett’s time, is passionate about justice. But he’s also haunted by dark, obsessive desires that he hides—especially from the dames.
But while the shamuses in pulp novels might spend their nights sucking down quarts of whiskey, Mick has a more unsavory thirst: for blood—straight from the jugular.
Yet he resists that need, standing fast in his conviction to do good.
Mick is the latest in a gaggle of goodie-two-shoes vampire cops, P.I.s and vigilantes who have emerged in pop culture over the past three decades, including David Boreanaz’s brooding, soulful vamp in “Angel”; the scandalously charming and pretty 450-year-old vampire Henry Fitzroy in Lifetime’s drama “Blood Ties”; Dougray Scott’s Brother Silus in 2006’s “Perfect Creature”; Rick Springfield’s 800-year-old vamp-cop in 1989’s “Forever Knight”; Aaron Gray’s suave vamp-cop in 2001’s “The Breed”—not to mention Wesley Snipes’ grim avenger in the “Blade” trilogy (1998, 2002, 2004).
Instead of getting their nourishment by turning the tables on their dinner dates, these vampires drink microwaved pig’s blood from a coffee mug, or use a hypodermic to inject synthetic serum, or find some other sanguinary source.
But are these reformed characters really vampires—predatory creatures who have epitomized depravity and moral corruption for more than two millennia in our culture?
To answer that, we have to look at the vampires’ long, bloody history.
While scholars contend that vampire myths have existed in virtually every culture, the vampire as currently constructed is a peculiarly Christian being—a macabre inversion of Jesus Christ.
Like Jesus, who Christians believe was resurrected three days after his execution on the cross, vampires died and were raised again. And, like Jesus, vampires ascribe great power to blood.
In a looking-glass distortion of the sacrament of Eucharist, vampires survive by drinking their followers’ blood. And they “turn” or convert others by sharing their own blood.
When the deranged Renfield in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” rants that “blood is the life,” he is talking about how Dracula can help him be reborn, an echo of the Christian “born again” credo.
Of course vampires, like the rest of us, have evolved over time. They, like us, live in a far more secular society than previous generations. In fact, in some cases, the undead are now depicted as being more religious (and moral) than their mortal peers.
In the season debut on Friday of Lifetime’s “Blood Ties” (11 p.m. EDT) for instance, detective Vicki Nelson (Christina Cox) expresses shock when she sees that her vampire/partner Henry (Kyle Schmid) is carrying a crucifix. But why shouldn’t he? Henry, the 450-year-old bastard son of Henry VIII, is a devout Christian.
Today’s new breed of virtuous vampire is a product of the four-centuries-long shift that brought about secularism. But the change has been slow: The good vampire character type is a very late product of the Romantic literary movement in the 19th century that gave birth to the modern antihero.
Stoker’s Dracula certainly is no one’s role model. He is a dangerous adversary, all the more horrifying because he is a complete unknown whose thoughts are cloaked from the reader.
The antihero, by contrast, is a morally ambivalent character who gets our sympathy precisely because we understand his conflicts.
Anne Rice uses this template masterfully in her Lestat novels. Taking a cue from real and fictional Romantic antiheroes such as Faust and Lord Byron, Rice romanticizes vampires as dark, tortured antiheroes who were “turned” into monsters against their choice. Vampirism for them is a curse, an affliction.
Viewed through the prism of traditional moral terminology, a vampire is a purely evil being who has been damned to lead a horrific existence. But writers and directors of late prefer to cast him as a victim.
In films such as Larry Fessenden’s 1997 thriller “Habit,” Abel Ferrara’s “The Addiction” (1995), Lawrence Pearce’s “Night Junkies” (2007), and Bill Gunn’s visionary 1973 film “Ganja & Hess,” vampires are addicts whose illness is caused by a virus or a genetic mutation rather than a curse.
So how does the modern vampire deal with his undeserved burden? Usually in one of the following three fashions:
The first type of vampire focuses his power and bloodlust on a self-hating quest to rid the world of his own kind.
This is Snipes’ relentless mission in the “Blade” films. It’s also the theme of Lucy Liu’s film “Rise: Blood Hunter.”
Liu stars as Sadie, a reporter who is kidnapped, raped and tortured by the very real, very evil vampire Bishop (James D’Arcy). When she is “saved” by another vampire who “turns” her, Sadie goes on a suicide mission to assassinate Bishop and every bloodsucker she can find.
The most prevalent current template is exemplified by Angel, the title character in Joss Whedon’s brilliant, now-defunct series. Once a super-bad vamp, Angel spent decades spreading death, hatred and destruction across the world. But when a gypsy curse forced his human soul to return to his vampire body, Angel regained his conscience. He now tries to atone for his sins by dedicating his life to helping others.
Whedon’s is a Calvinist vampire who eschews sex because he knows pleasure will once again unleash the evil vampire within. He leads a monastic life of self-denial, terrified that any temptation might destroy him.
The remarkable 2006 movie “Perfect Creature” presents a novel strain of bloodsuckers. Vampires in this world are a human subspecies that arose as the natural result of a genetic mutation, one which has made them stronger, more intelligent and compassionate.
The “Brothers,” as they are called, are a scientific-priestly caste who dedicate their lives to the well-being of humans in exchange for voluntary donations of blood from the flock.
This delicate balance is disrupted when a rogue vampire begins preying on humans. He justifies himself by claiming that vamps who do not kill have repressed and denied their true nature.
Obviously, the recent transformation of the vampire in pop art is all about denial. Each of these types is only good because they struggle to suppress or sublimate the very qualities that make them into vampires—their bloodlust, their immortality, their prowess as lovers and as hunters.
This leads us back to the traditional moral position. No matter how the new generation of stories tries to defang them, vampires by their very nature cannot be good.
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VAMPIRES ON TV AND DVD
Good vampires on TV:
“Blood Ties” Fridays at 11 p.m. EDT on Lifetime.
“Moonlight” Fridays at 9 p.m. EDT on CBS.
Selected current and upcoming vampire DVDs (not for kids: All films are rated R or equivalent):
“Angel: Complete Series Collector’s Set”—30-disc boxed set. 20th Century Fox. Due out Oct. 30. $139.98
“The Blade Trilogy”—Day walker Wesley Snipes crushes vamp skulls, takes names. New Line. $52.98
“Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Collector’s Edition)”—New 2-disc set of Francis Ford Coppola’s lush version from `92. Sony. $24.96
“The Breed”—Cop buddy flick with slick vamp Adrian Paul and Bokeem Woodbine
“Day Watch”—Timur Bekmambatov’s follow-up to “Night Watch.” Due out Oct. 30. $27.98
“Frostbitten”—Gory, humorous Swedish entry; half the teen population turns vamp. Wellspring Media. $24.95
“The Habit”—Larry Fessenden’s powerful study of addiction set in New York. Fox Lorber. $14.98
“Interview With a Vampire”—Tom Cruise vamps; from Anne Rice book. Warner Home Video. $19.98
“Martin”—In G. Romero’s naturalistic `78 piece, a sweet boy pines for girls (and blood). Lionsgate $14.98.
“Night Junkies”—Edgy film noir. Allumination. $29.99.
“The Night Stalker”—Double bill of TV movies from `72 and `74 with Darren McGavin. MGM. $14.98
“Nick Knight”—Rick Springfield’s `89 TV flick. Anchor Bay. $9.98. TV show “Forever Knight” (3 DVD sets. $59.95 each).
“Perfect Creature”—Atmospheric sci-fi/horror. 20th Century Fox. $29.99
“Rise: Blood Hunter”—Lucy Liu in radical kill mode. Wow! Sony. $24.96