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Watching the Future
by Derek Johnson

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]

Installment 13
What Hath Twilight Wrought?

Bram Stoker -- Dracula
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
Once Bitten
I first read Bram Stoker's Dracula when I was eleven years old. At the time, it fit in nicely with my other reading, which leaned heavily on adventure fiction of the period, notably Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, the scientific romances of H.G. Wells (notably The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine), and Jules Verne's A Journey to the Centre of the Earth and The Mysterious Island. (Verne's classic novels predated these other works by a good twenty years, true, but there were enough similarities to allow me to assimilate them.)

At the time, I had only seen two screen iterations of the infamous Count Dracula, and both were in a comedic vein: Bela Lugosi donned his silver-lined cloak yet again to scare the bejeezus out of Bud and Lou (though not really anybody else) in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and George Hamilton became the most tanned vampire ever in Love at First Bite. (John Badham released his film version of the Stoker novel at the same time as Bite, but my mother was reluctant to let me see it.) Stoker's novel, however, made me rethink these rather silly efforts; here was a true quill adventure story, full of dread and horror, yes, but mostly I was fascinated by the concept of the vampire. I loved the dread and longing, I loved the idea that you could live forever only by dying. I was a preacher's kid, too, so the parody of Christianity that Dracula was bringing to England no doubt also held a certain fascination. And despite my utter lack of interest in romances, I thought its love story was compellingly portrayed.

As I grew older I grew less interested in vampires, but they still held some of their power. I read classic vampire stories such as Le Fanu's Carmilla, Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot, Skipp and Spector's splatterpunk classic The Light at the End, and, of course, Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. There were movies, some sublime (George A. Romero's Martin), some schlocky (Joel Schumacher's The Lost Boys), some truly frightening (Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark), and some just flat out ridiculous (Once Bitten, where vamp Lauren Hutton tries to turn Jim Carrey into her undead partner; yes, it's as bad as it sounds), but all still made me wonder why this archetype held such power.

By the time Francis Ford Coppola tried his hand at adapting Stoker's novel, though, I was bored with the entire concept. It's not that I didn't like Bram Stoker's Dracula -- in point of fact I think it's an impressive piece of filmmaking -- but I had grown weary of the whole concept, in part because of the surfeit of vampire works, in part because almost everything dealing with vampires fell into the same basic pattern, but mostly because I realized that being a vampire would, pardon the pun, suck.

Think about it. You've decided to join the ranks of the undead and live forever. But now you've got some heavy restrictions. You can't walk into sunlight, so bang goes your tan. (Not that I ever went outside much anyway, but you take my point.) You're restricted to a liquid protein diet (bad if you happen to enjoy food and drink). Your digs are now in some out of the way land where you can't get decent maid service, so your housekeeping goes to hell. (Okay if you like living with cobwebs and rats, but it's not exactly something to which I'd aspire.) You have no blood flow in your body, which means that you don't have a heartbeat (which likely is going to freak out any potential lover, unless you're James Marsters) and cannot get an erection. (I'm thinking that this would be a deal breaker.) Moreover, because you have no breath, you can't smoke after sex (which you can't have anyway) or do simple things like, well, talk. And after a hundred years of cruising and bruising with your undead counterparts (and really can't do the latter; because you have no blood, you won't develop bruises), I've no doubt the IRS would take an interest in your finances. I mean, have you ever seen a vampire with a financial plan?

For all of this, the vampire remains iconic, and since the release of Coppola's adaptation, most works involving them have concentrated on their romantic aspects, reaching great heights with the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer before taking a swan dive into silliness with the Twilight saga, both in print and film.

Twilight Rifftrax I was blissfully unaware of Twilight and its sequels until the release of the first movie in 2008. At the time I thought nothing of it; having seen a Rifftrax version of the movie just to understand why so many teenage girls (and an unhealthy number of grown women) found this particular story so appealing. I try not to be quick to dismiss popular books and movies, and try to give at least the benefit of the doubt to any work. I couldn't with Twilight, which neutered the very concept of the vampire, the werewolf, and sexuality itself. (I remember seeing a motivational poster which summed up the entire series as a young woman's choice between bestiality and necrophilia.) What had been rendered with enough tongue-in-cheek humor, intertextuality and ass-kicking bravado by Joss Whedon's series to make both a pop culture maven's and postmodernist scholar's eyes roll back in orgasmic glee had been reduced to the most hackneyed of soap operas. Had Mike Nelson and crew not roasted this particular bloodsucking turkey, I doubt I would have been able to finish.

I knew that sequels would come, and was grateful that the first seemed less successful than its predecessor. While the next chapter is in production and will be released in two parts, I've seen little enthusiasm for the next two-part chapter. Maybe, I thought, this particular fad would run its course.

Silly me.

I forgot that if somebody makes a buck in Hollywood, Gresham's Law follows.

Since the beginning of the year, no fewer than three movies have hit metroplexes in the vain hope of cashing in on some of Twilight's tarnished coin. All of them are love stories featuring some key fantasy element (aliens and fantasy beasts have replaced vampires), all of them oozing enough sap and cloying sweetness to induce diabetes. One was based on a novel that came right out of James Frey's Full Fathom Five company (and thus already suspect), one is based on a popular young adult title, and one is a "faithful" retelling of a classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale. And all three, taken together, make the entries in the Twilight series look like Bergmanesque masterpieces.

Beastly Interestingly, two of them star the same twenty-year-old English actor. Alex Pettyfer is the titular character in I Am Number Four, which I have reviewed elsewhere and so won't go over here, and is also the central character of Beastly, the recently released adaptation of Alex Finn's young adult title. I suppose it's fairly easy to see why casting agents would choose Pettyfer for their crass exploitation of… well, a crassly redundant franchise. He is good looking in a vacuous way, with pouty lips and a gaze that holds as much depth as a department store mannequin selling you designer clothes or underwear. He could be a fine actor, but when you consider even a short list of models turned movie stars (Christie Brinkley, Angie Everhart, George Lazenby), doubts form.

Actually, doubts form from the opening moments of Beastly, when Pettyfer's Kyle Kingston runs for class president of his high school (and a very exclusive one it is, too) and makes a number of comments about the privilege beauty brings. In no time he rebuffs the advances of Kendra Hilfertly (Mary-Kate Olsen), who just happens to be "a sister of the Dark Ones," to use Willow Rosenberg's term. The next morning, Kingston finds himself horribly disfigured with…tattoos. Now, if he were in my town, this man would have no trouble attracting a lot of female attention. But everybody, his father included, lives in a world of surfaces, and so he is shunned to a private home somewhere in New York City, where he is given a blind private tutor (Neal Patrick Harris, in a thankless role), and tries to win back his good looks with the love of Lily Taylor (Vanessa Hudgens).

You'd think that as modern fairy tales go, Beastly would be pretty harmless teenage effluvium. Personally, I wouldn't be against a version set in New York City, using some incredible juxtaposition with Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast. Even the high school elements could work. But it moves at such a glacially slow speed, and is rendered so vapidly, that at least in this town it sank with little more than a ripple.

Beastly was ghastly enough, and I thought, after the credits began rolling, that would be the nadir of this an intellectually and creatively bankrupt industry capitalizing on someone else's second rate success.

Red Riding Hood And then came Red Riding Hood, which made Beastly look like Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast.

It didn't have to; a trailer I saw during the winter of 2010 made me think that it just might show some chops beyond the usual camp silliness that mars most fantasy films that emerge half formed, like a premature Athena, from the heads of those Zeuses in short pants known as film studio executives. But Gary Oldman's scenery chewing, even in the trailers, was a bit much, as was the presence of Amanda Seyfried, who always strikes me as looking like a suburban teenager who has just seen the results of her pregnancy test in an after school special. That it was directed by Catherine Hardwicke, who showed some hints of artistry with Thirteen before slipping into irrelevance with Lords of Dogtown and finally not only hit rock bottom but tried to dig through with the first Twilight movie (bringing us full circle), only furthered my impression that we were going to witness something more akin to footage from Rwanda than the pages of Grimm's Fairy Tales.

And indeed, something might have come from this masquerade. As fantasy (yes, including Twilight) continues its juggernaut across multiplex screens and begins incorporating the DNA of other genres (action, romance, horror, reality television, and maybe, in the future, TMZ; I'm personally waiting for Justin Bieber to star in a musical version of Pinocchio, thus turning him into a real boy, or maybe a I'll nod off during a white trash retelling of Snow White, with Lady Gaga's career in a narcoleptic stupor that can only be kissed back into existence by Charlie Sheen), one holds out vain hope that the filmmakers will put the tropes to use in some interesting manner rather than resort to machinations so obvious that they bore even the most vapid audience member.

Not so with Red Riding Hood. I began snickering fifteen minutes into this newest cinematic enema and didn't stop until the credits rolled. The laughter proved contagious; shortly after my friend barked out his first guffaw, a pair of women sitting behind me began a sotto voce roast à la Mystery Science Theater 3000 so engaging that I had to struggle to keep up with their entertaining snark. We were lucky (or maybe not) that several of us were not ejected from the theater by security guards in ill fitting suits searching for clandestine cameras or cell phone use. If I had to show a dog like this, I'd be worried about early word, too.

What a scarring mess. Red Riding Hood, I'm sure, was supposed to deal with the tribulations of True Love among a pair of young darlings amid a monstrous threat to their small hamlet, but adds the most ridiculous elements, from naming the town besieged by a werewolf (wait, what?!) Daggerhorn to the lead character's desire to elope with the faux Byronic Peter (because it's got wolves, David Leslie Johnson ensures that even the most mentally challenged viewer will be able to get the most ham-fisted intertextuality), to Gary Oldman, whose cinematic presence used to be so rare that any role he took received notice, and now seems determined to follow in Jack Nicholson's footsteps by slapping each frame with a healthy dose of ketchup. If you wind up caring about the final mystery, then, frankly, you need to see better movies.

Twilight, what hath you wrought?

Sadly, there seems to be no end in sight. As mentioned earlier, a new Twilight movie is in development, and will be released in two parts. Although Edward-and-Bella fever has cooled, I hold little hope that it has broken. I'd personally love to see all of these Twilight fanatics seek out better vampire work, perhaps even visit the Stoker classic, but I have a feeling that they wouldn't be able to parse its multiple meanings. Worse, this audience, vampiric itself, might hunger for a new adaptation, with all of the rock-video quick cuts and shakycam techniques that, hey, worked for Cloverfield. And if they really want to appeal to the reality show crowd (the most morbid of all lifesuckers, who feast on other people's pain for their entertainment), they can move Castle Dracula to, say, a beach house in California. Call it Vlad's Place and add a laugh track and music from OneRepublic.

Stoker, meanwhile, would barf in his grave.

Copyright © 2011 Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.

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