Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Love at first bite

One of the stock, cinematic genres is the horror genre. This, of itself, is subdivisible into a number of sometimes distinct and sometimes intermingled themes.

There’s the creature-feature. Perhaps this plays to some subliminal, childish fear of the monster under the bed.

It takes an infinite variety of forms, but Frankenstein may be the cinematic prototype.

A variant on the creature-feature is the werewolf. But this has never had the dramatic potential of the vampire because the werewolf is a limited character. It’s either human or bestial, but nothing in-between. Not much room for character development.

Another seminal variant is the Island of Dr. Moreau—which was prescient in light of modern genetic engineering. Does man have a fixed, God-given nature, or is he just another animal, which can manipulate its own evolution?

Then you have the slasher films or splatter films. Psycho was a precursor to this genre—yet Hitchcock was a great artist who didn’t actually show anything, but left it to the vivid imagination of the audience to fill in the blanks.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was the true precursor—a movie I only know by reputation. In the age of computer graphics, it’s now possible to simulate every form of mutilation. Hence, slasher films have become explicit and sadistic to the nth degree of depravity. You only have to be subjected to the TV trailers to get the idea.

What does it say about moviegoers who see these films? That there’s a segment of the population who would be serial killers if only they could torture men, women, and children to death with impunity. For now they must content themselves with the virtual alternative.

A subdivision of the slasher movie is the revenge movie. Carrie is the camp classic. Vicarious catharsis for bullied boys and girls. What would Aristotle think?

Speaking of Aristotle, horror films like Final Destination update the old Greek conundrum of cheating fate. This raises some potentially interesting theological and philosophical questions, but a B-movie like Final Destination isn’t the vehicle to pursue those issues.

And, of course, you have simple gorefest outings like Night of the Living Dead—another film I only know by reputation.

From a Christian standpoint, the interesting aspect of the horror genre is the subdivision which concerns the occult, for the occult intersects with the Christian worldview.

When I was a kid, Dark Shadows was a popular TV show. At one level, it’s no different than boys who tell scary stories around the campfire or dare each other to go inside an abandoned house. Boys have a natural appetite for “spooking” each other, and I think that’s generally harmless.

On the other hand, shows like Dark Shadows probably did a lot to popularize the occult. And, nowadays, kids can get genuinely hooked on the occult by playing with a ouija board or other apparently innocuous high jinks. The innocence of youth is not as innocent as it used to be.

Some shows mix various genres. The short-lived Brimstone was one of the better entries.

Most occult horror movies are B-movies at best. Among the more distinguished entries are The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, and the Amityville Horror.

They all turn up on TV from time to time. The Exorcist and the Amityville Horror are allegedly based on real events. I’ve never seen both films from beginning to end. I find the subject matter too distasteful.

I don’t know how authentic they are, but I do believe that things like that really happen, and I prefer not to have those images indelibly imprinted on my memory.

For some reason, the vampire is a favorite character in the horror genre. And it’s interesting from a Christian perspective—although cinematic treatments generally fail to develop that potential.

Some vampiric films and TV shows satirize the genre, like The Lost Boys, The Fearless Vampire Killers, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

There’s also been the vampire with a conscience shtick (e.g. Angel, Forever Knight, Moonlight). Here a Pelagian vampire tries to redeem his wicked life through good deeds.

Others versions emphasize the romantic dimension. Interview with the Vampire, as well as the Frank Langella vehicle, are chick flicks. Interview with a Vampire is periodically shown on TV, but I’ve never seen the whole thing. It’s by and for the fairer sex. If Brad Pitt in a powered wig and silk stockings is what you’re looking for in a movie, then this is definitely the movie for you.

The Langella vehicle has a strong cast, but I only know it by reputation. A playboy vampire.

The grand daddy of cinematic vampires is, of course, Bela Lugosi. This is the stand-up comedian’s version of the Count.

In many ways, Christopher Lee was the definitive Count. Lee is a hit-and-miss actor. That’s because he’s not much of an actor. What he does on screen has little to do with acting. He’s a presence rather than an actor. The less he acts, the better.

When he succeeds is when a certain role is suited to his unique presence. The voice. The eyes. The haughty bearing. The pallid complexion. The aquiline profile. The gaunt, statuesque posture.

He did the Count for several Hammer productions, of which the first (1958) was the best. It benefited from having a great antagonist in the person of Peter Cushing as van Helsing.

There are different ways of playing van Helsing. One way is to play him as the stereotypical, Victorian scientist. Cool, rational, logical, secular, and single-minded. That’s basically how Cushing played him.

Lee also did a 1970 version, directed by Jesus Franco. On the one hand, it suffers at times from a low budget. But in some other respects it's superior to the 1958 Hammer production.

The BBC did a 1977 production starring Louis Jourdan. Jourdan is surprisingly good in part. His Dracula is, by turns, imperious and amoral. A commanding figure, but hollow.

This is also the most Catholic adaptation I’ve seen. Frank Findlay plays van Helsing as a devout Catholic. That’s another way to pull it off.

In his own production, Francis Ford Coppola also accentuates the religious angle, but restores the Rumanian background. Historically, Vlad was Rumanian Orthodox, but the default religious setting of vampiric movies tends to be Roman Catholic—in large part because Western filmmakers, to the extent that they’re familiar with any religious tradition, only know Catholicism.

Coppola makes the interesting move of turning Dracula into an apostate. When his wife commits suicide, and the Church refuses to give her Christian burial, so he renounces the faith and goes over to the dark side. God then curses him by transforming him into a vampire.

There is also a scene in which, in an act of revenge, Dracula essentially damns a character (Lucy) to living death.

Dracula’s blood is an anti-Eucharist. A damnatory chalice.

Coppola picks up on another theme—and that’s the cost of vampiric immortality. A vampire outlives all his loved ones.

At this point, Coppola introduces a Hindu motif. Dracula’s long dead wife has apparently been reincarnated as Harker’s fiancé. Coppola is nothing if not the syncretist.

This presents Dracula with a dilemma. He doesn’t want to lose her again. But if he turns her, he will destroy the very thing he loves. She will become like him. Another accursed, God-forsaken creature.

In the end, Coppola allows Dracula to undergo a deathbed conversion. Cheap grace. Salvation—Hollywood style.

The film benefits from the virtuoso performance of Gary Oldman. Anthony Hopkins plays van Helsing. Hopkins is a solid, reliable performer.

But since he doesn’t pretend to be a pious character, his use of Catholic sacramentals reduces them to magic tricks.

The film also suffers from the casting of Winona Ryder as the Count’s love interest. While she’s pretty, and brings a certain vulnerability to the role, she’s hardly the sort of woman a man would sell his soul for. If I’m going to damn myself for a woman, can’t you at least give me Greta Garbo or Sophia Loren?

Then there’s the casting of Keanu Reeves as Harker. In honor of Reeves, Hollywood should really create an Oscar for the world’s worst actor.

Nosferatu the Vampyre had two source of inspiration. It was, in part, an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, but it was also a remake of the 1922 German silent classic.

Unlike Coppola’s production, which relies on sumptuous sets and special effects, Herzog’s product makes use of evocative natural scenery—as well as the canals of Delft. I think Vermeer’s sensitivity to light is due to the reflected light of the canals.

In its way, Kinski’s assumption of the Count is just as talented as Oldman’s. But Kinski stresses the vampire’s loss of humanity. A vampire retains its human memories, but it’s basically a predator with a human I.Q.

In that respect, a vampire is a metaphor for the damned. They retain their memories, but with the loss of common grace, we wouldn’t recognize them as the men and women we knew in this life.

In most vampiric flicks, the women are nothing more the victims. But in Nosferatu, Lucy (Harker’s wife) is the heroine. In a sense, she reprises the role of van Helsing, but in a distinctively feminine manner. She can’t overpower Dracula. She can only destroy him by going on a suicide mission. She lures him into her bedroom and distracts him until the dawn. The rising sun does the rest.

Most of the better vampiric movies—and there aren’t many—adapt Bram Stoker’s novel, to one degree or another. And exception is Near Dark.

The character of the vampire can be romantic on either (or both) of two different levels. He can be treated as a rival to normal men, with their wives or girlfriends. An “alternate” lifestyle.

Or he can be a Romantic figure in the sense that enemies of the faith like Byron, Blake, and Shelley recast Satan as the antihero. Dracula is an Antichrist figure. A proxy for the devil.

Near Dark uses the Western genre as a vehicle to retell the vampiric myth. And it goes out of its way to deglamorize the vampire.

At the same time, the movie as a redemptive blood motif. It’s striking how often secular filmmakers raid the Christian cupboard to set the table.

The film is R rated for gore and bad language. I could do without either. However, it does have a dramatic function in this film. And it also benefits from strong casting all around.

Blacula was an uneven film. A B-movie distinguished by the performance of William Marshall. I never understood why James Earl Jones had a bigger career than Marshall. I think that Marshall had an even finer speaking voice, and he has a more imposing stage presence, which translates into a more imposing screen presence.

But maybe that’s the problem. He was too big for the medium. Too theatrical. Too dominating. But he’s fun to watch, especially as he teases the homicide detectives.

John Carpenter’s Vampires pops up on TV from time to time. No doubt it’s better seen on TV which—to judge by movie reviews—censors some of the language and violence.

The film can’t decide what it wants to be. On the one hand, the specter of rent-a-slayers who nonchalantly dispatch bloodsuckers as this were just another day at the office is clearly comedic. Equally comedic is the idea that the Vatican has subcontracted the job to the gentlemen in question.

When, however, the film tries to go “deep,” about a renegade Cardinal, apostate priest, infested cross, and so on and so forth, it takes itself way too seriously.

Forever Knight was a TV show with an interesting premise. Being a typical TV show, the producers and screenwriters lacked the imagination to develop the premise, so it degenerated into just another schlockfest.

But the basic premise of the show is that Nicholas de Brabant is a one-time Crusader who was attacked by a vampire and “turned” on his way to the Holy Land. That sets up an interesting tension.

At one level is the psychological tension. He was a medieval Christian on a quest to defend the Church. But in the very course of his quest, he is forcibly conscripted into the army of darkness. Against his will, he becomes the antithesis of what he set out to be.

In the TV show, he tries to redeem himself by good works, but that’s the wrong framework. The correct framework, especially in the setting of medieval Catholicism, would involve ritual purity and impurity.

Crusaders felt that the Holy Land, and especially Jerusalem, was sanctified by the life, death, and Resurrection of Christ. That’s what makes it the “Holy Land.” Cultic holiness.

To some extent this is a carryover from the OT, but with a couple of key differences. In Biblical typology, cultic holiness of Israel is fulfilled in the person and work of Christ. He is the true Temple, Paschal lamb, &c.

In addition, the OT ceremonial law cut both ways. On the one hand, it would possible to violate the ceremonial law and become ritually impure. But the ceremonial law also made provision for ritual purification.

But when we apply Catholic categories of ritual purity to vampirism, that doesn’t work. A vampire can’t enter a church. He can’t purify himself through communion or holy water or the sign of the cross. He can’t rest in hallowed ground. Indeed, these are weapons in Van Helsing’s toolkit.

Once he contracts ritual defilement, once he becomes a creature of the night, then holy things are fatal on contact. Like poison.

That’s the real reason a vampire can’t stand sunlight. It’s not that vampires are photosensitive, as if they suffer from an acute case of albinism. No, it’s all about the spiritual symbolism of light v. darkness.

It’s always a mistake when screenwriters try to explain vampires scientifically. These are fictitious creatures, and—what is more—their existence and their paranormal powers are distinctly occultic. That’s the consistent, narrative explanation.

Nicholas de Brabant might still be a Crusader at heart. Still be a Christian—in medieval terms. But as an unclean creature, he cannot escape his condition. He cannot turn to the good because exposure to the good is lethal to someone in his condition. He’s trapped inside.

The only way for Nicholas de Brabant to break free from his condition is if he converted to the Protestant faith! Embraced sola fide!

The conundrum is generated by certain theological and narrative assumptions. Challenge the assumptions, and that dissolves the conundrum.


  1. "The conundrum is generated by certain theological and narrative assumptions. Challenge the assumptions, and that dissolves the conundrum."

    Words of Wisdom to live by when engaged in apologetic, theological, intellectual, and spiritual discourse and debate with "vampires" who are Arminians, RC's, EO's, LibProts, secular liberals, and die-hard atheists.

  2. Steve, I think you may underestimate the dramatic potential in a werewolf character, whose true archtype is probably Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. The whole dynamic of discovering the evil inherent in humanity itself, even before it is artificially transformed into a monster, lies wide open.

    Stephen King, in his "Danse Macabre" isolated three proposed monster prototypes, very similar to what you've written here.

    He suggests:

    1. The Vampire: where the monster is quasi-sexual in the weird sort of way that always seems to attract the head cheerleader to the bad boy at school.

    2. The Werewolf: as above, with the struggle between good and evil within one person.

    3. The Thing Without a Name: Which, when done correctly, gets its scary-ness from mystery and the unknown.

    I think King would put a lot of the Norman Bates type killers in the Werewolf category, for instance.

  3. I think King is leaving out the "nature as monster" idea from the list. You can see this in recent movies like "The Happening", as well as stuff like "Day of the Triffids" and even things like Jaws or disaster movies. I think these tend to hit a bit closer to home because of the amount of things in nature that are powerful enough to crush us. We're kind of squishy, after all. This seems to be a more subtle type of "monster", although some of them find other ways to be more over-the-top (such as the gruesome deaths in The Happening).

  4. Yeah, I'd also suggest the generic Ghost category, noting that many ghost stories center around the idea that evil acts in the past continue to demand justice, even after a long passage of time.

    Stephen King suggests that horror fiction is the most puritanical of genres. Without puritan concepts, he proposes, we wouldn't have horror stories.

  5. Regarding King, I think the thing he's got going for him is, of the modern high caliber horror authors (such as Dean Koontz, John Saul, etc.), he's the one with the closest understanding of the nature of man. That is, he understands that evil is real. Granted, he's no theologian; however, the way that King can depict ordinary people with a hidden dark-side that comes through is masterful.

    That's probably what I enjoyed most in Bag of Bones (my favorite King novel). As you read about the town the events take place in, you gradually go from a feeling of slight unease to the realization that the people of this town are capable of doing any evil. There's an undercurrent--a "common depravity" that opposes common grace.

    In my opinion, that's what works in horror. As Gordan relayed, horror does play on our "puritanical" notions--it's essential. If you do not create a sharp line between good and evil, and if evil is not a real threat, then there is no tension.

    From a purely story-telling side, the other thing that King has (and that Koontz has as well) is the ability to create realistic characters. You believe the characters. They're just like normal people, and therefore you care about them. They're not one-dimensional cannon fodder. When the bad guys are going after them, you don't want the bad guys to win. And you know (especially in King's books) that while there's a better than average shot that the good guy will win, it'll come at a price difficult to pay. There's no free lunch to escape evil, and that makes it more realistic.

    Character is something, incidentally, that M. Night Shyamalan completely missed in The Happening. Not to ruin it for anyone who wants to see it, but don't bother. The film makes no attempt to build empathy with the characters. Frankly, you don't care enough about them. The movie tries to compensate for this by increasing the gore, but it was so over the top that the gory scenes hurt the movie. They were a distraction to the mood. Instead of building suspense, they built disgust because you saw them for what they were: cheap tricks in lieu of talented writing. But if you still want to see it, don't say I didn't warn you :-P

  6. Seconding Peter's endorsement of Dean Koontz. If you are looking for a primer or how-to on fiction writing, you could do a lot worse than Koontz's "How to Write Best-Selling Fiction." That book will make you want to be a novelist.

    My only demurer re: Koontz is that he is generally so good at setting up the conflict and increasing the drama and tension right off the bat, that it's sometimes difficult for him to deliver the goods at the climax, and he's resorted to stuff that's just goofy in order to get out of the corner he's painted into.

  7. Mr. Hays:

    I know that, from time to time, you write briefly about the "deathbed conversion."

    In this article:
    "In the end, Coppola allows Dracula to undergo a deathbed conversion. Cheap grace. Salvation—Hollywood style."

    Do you believe that there has ever been a legitimate "deathbed [Christian] conversion?"

    Respectfully curious about your opinion,
    Kevin S.

  8. Kevin S.,

    The thief on the cross comes to mind (although I grant you that "deathbed" is probably too comforable a term)...and aside from Scripture, how could anyone really know?

  9. Kevin S. said:

    "Do you believe that there has ever been a legitimate 'deathbed [Christian] conversion'?"

    I don't have any objection, in principle, to the idea of a deathbed conversion. But in the context of the movie, Dracula is saved at the end even though he shows no signs of contrition for his many atrocities over the centuries, much less saving faith. A genuine deathbed conversion would involve repentence and faith.