One of the problems with exam leave is that the prolonged inactivity and isolation gives one little to do but think. Obviously that’s the intent: to think intensively about a particular subject and try to retain and consolidate a pretty large amount of information. Really broadly, for me to explain what, in theory, I know about Greek Society should take 2 1/2 times 12 times 50 minutes because that’s how long it took Dr Rosenbloom to explain it to me. Study therefore becomes a more focused activity, where main points are touched on, and areas of specialty chosen that will hopefully turn up in the finals.
Unfortunately, I am not especially displined and my mind tends to wander. I can sustain perusal of factual notes for only an hour or two at a stretch, and reading secondary material for somewhat less. Literature I am better trained to deal with.
In my various wanderings, I have returned to think a bit more about a topic that I’ve been discussing with various people recently: the Vampire Grammar. It occured to me recently that there are not a great number of good Vampire movies out there. I must have watched hundreds over the years, from Nosferatu to Bordello of Blood and back via way of From Dusk Till Dawn, and the movies that I thought were good were:
– Shadow of the Vampire
– John Carpenter’s Vampires (and this suffers a bit on re-watching)
– Interview with the Vampire
In comparison, I’ve watched far fewer Zombie movies. I think probably only about 10-15. Of these, I would more confidently list as good:
– Shawn of the Dead
– Dawn of the Dead (remake)
– Day of the Dead
Okay, so they’re not numerically superior, but they are a bigger proportion of what’s out there in their genre. 🙂 Possibly more telling are that badly done Vampire movies are often almost unwatchable (let’s not talk about 2004’s Vampires: Out For Blood or A Vampire in Brooklyn. Zombie movies seem to achieve a basic mastery of their topic with much greater ease. Even the campy Return of the Living Dead still manages to cover the basic Zombie concepts and be slightly watchable.
Well, my theory is in several parts, but boils down to the concept that the Zombie and his story have a simpler underpinning logic, and a stronger story grammar: broadly that they’re all pretty similar in plot and motifs. Vampires, in contrast, are almost all unique. The exact constitution of any given Vampire in any given movie will be slightly different from pretty much every other.
This very versatility probably encourages people to make more movies. There are simply more things to try and do with Vampires than Zombies. I don’t have hard numbers on this, and I suspect that Romero’s efforts have helped reverse the trend, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were twice as many Vampire movies as Zombie movies.
Thing is though, with their arguably longer history, and greater rate of production, why are Vampires the lesser of the two evils in cinema? You’d tend to think that more practice=> better skills. Perhaps this is the case, and it is merely that I have unrealistic standards, that is difficult to comment on. I am at a loss about how to easily catalogue and group the various failings of each Vampire movie either: their failings are as diverse as their mythology.
It seems to me that the key ingredient in the Vampire movie is the Vampire. This may seem a bit obvious, but in Zombie movies, for example, the key ingredients are the living characters, and in most action movies the vital bit to get right is the hero rather than the villain. Vampire movies, in my experience, stand or fall on their monster. Having said that, the Vampire is fundamentally differentiated from most monsters in that they represent both a menace and a choice: it is de rigeur for any vampire movie hero to be offered the chance at Immortality, and whether this dilemna is interesting is all about the hero. This seems to me to be the most common failing: the seduction is treated as a moment where the plot pivots rather than as a theme across the whole movie or a general guiding force in the plot. All too often, the choice is ad hoc, offered as a last-ditch “don’t kill me” plea from the woe-begotten Vampire.
Of the three movies I’ve selected as the best, this motif is not substantially present. Shadow of the Vampire explores a different kind of fall from grace: the seduction of fame on the part of Murnau. John Carpenter’s Vampires does have a minor character give in, but follows a more general cat-and-mouse plot borrowed from movies about serial killers. Interview with the Vampire picks up after the choice is made already, but I suppose you can argue that Louis’ dilemna is a prolonged and tantalizing choice of morality or expediency, in which he ultimately never makes a firm choice.
The difference, therefore, between a good Vampire movie and a bad one is the same as between “erotica” and “porn” in relation to sex. Erotica builds a story so that sex seems the inevitable result, while Porn simply and brutally does ‘what has to be done’ without regard to the niceties. A bad vampire movie takes the tropes and ensures by any means necessary that they’re included, a good one teases them out of a naturalistic and consequential world. Ultimately though, neither is about love, and just so: the best Vampire movies aren’t about the crudity of a moment of choice, but the act of living and what it means to really be human.
(The best zombie movies are about brains. duh.)