Friday, December 5, 2008

A Fatal Attraction


But the vampire legend hardly needs substitutes. It is strong enough to sustain itself for a while yet. While Shales was correct to warn against unthinking exploitations, he also admitted that the True Blood series was reason enough to go back to the haunted well. Funny, addictive and at times horrifically violent, in a very funny and addictive way, True Blood is proof that Russell T. Davies, the executive producer of the latest and hippest incarnation of Dr Who, wasn't blowing smoke up our collective fundament when he said that "writing monsters and demons and end-of-the world is not hack work. Joss Whedon [Buffy] raised the bar for every writer - not just genre-niche writers, but every single one of us."

In True Blood, set in the deep-south backwater of Bon Temps, the bloodsuckers are the least of the grotesqueries. Freed from the need to snack on humans by the invention of synthetic blood, they now move among us, "living" their alternative lifestyle surrounded by caricatures of Red State America, knuckle-draggin', tobacco-chewin', Lynyrd Skynyrd wannabes with pick-ups full of weapons, watermelon and moonshine. The same humming aura of sexual threat and promise surrounds the vampires but an acute sense of identity politics is also prominent as America's culture war is reprocessed through the story of their "coming out of the coffin".

"I love the fact that these creatures are struggling for assimilation. I can relate to that in certain ways," the show's creator, Alan Ball, told The New York Times. Ball's work, including Six Feet Under and the screenplay for American Beauty, has often dealt with the notion that people are not always what they seem.

"It's very easy to look at the vampires as metaphors for gays and lesbians but it's very easy to see them as metaphors for all kinds of things. If this story had been done 50 years ago, it would be a metaphor for racial equality. But I can also look at the vampires and see them as a kind of terrifying shadow organisation that is going to do what they want to do, whether they have to break the law or not. And if you get in the way, they'll just get rid of you. So it's a very fluid metaphor."

The genre might be getting a little, ahem, long in the tooth but the creatures themselves remain so versatile that a new variation on the theme is never far away. Witness author Charlie Huston's bringing life back into the oldest and tiredest of genre tropes, the private detective story, by the simple trick of making his tough-talking, two-fisted shamus one of the living dead. The gothic setting of Manhattan is more than well suited to a crossover between the two noirs - crime and horror - and Huston has the writing chops to pull off the stunt where others don't.

When perceiving the growing hordes of vampires crawling towards us across the landscape of pop culture, I suppose the question must arise: why?

In part there is a simple element of reinforcing success. As Russell Davies pointed out, Joss Whedon set a challenge that a lot of creatives found impossible to ignore. More importantly, he also reminded studio executives that the undead do pay, sometimes handsomely.

Beyond the pragmatic, however, there is always something else working. The 1950s obsession with UFOs and alien invasion movies almost certainly had its roots in Cold War fears and the Russians' early lead in the space race. So why vampires, rather than, say, ghosts or werewolves or man-made monsters in the style of Frankenstein?

"When I pitched the show to HBO, they asked me what it was about," says Ball of True Blood, "and I said, it's about what it really means to be disenfranchised, to be feared, to be misunderstood. It's a metaphor for the terrors of intimacy. That's one of the reasons vampires have been such a potent metaphor and mythological motif for centuries. They show up in pretty much all cultures. It's the notion of separating that part which keeps us safe and separate from another person, both emotionally and physically. And how there is a certain loss of self that takes place when there is true intimacy. And I think that's really healthy. But it doesn't mean it's not scary."

The sexual power of our toothsome predators is undoubtedly a factor. "We did a focus group," Ball says, "and it was great because the women loved the romance and the relationships and the men loved the sex and violence. And I thought, well, that's kind of a cliche but I'm glad. There's something in there for everybody."

Beyond the merely prurient, however, lies the terrible attraction of the vampire, the feeling that while it would be awful to lose one's soul upon rebirth as one of the nosferatu, it would also be, well, kinda cool. You'd "live" forever, with superpowers and unnatural beauty, and your nightlife would really kick up a gear. The mundane concerns and frustrations of mortal life would no longer be yours. Of all the monster archetypes, none remain as intellectually appealing as the vampire. They seem to gain so much and give up only their immortal souls, and in a secular, materialist world that hardly seems to be any kind of loss at all.

Twilight opens on Thursday. True Blood screens on Showcase from February 10.

From the article A Fatal Attraction Sydney Morning Herald Australia