Review Essay: Recent Books on Vampire Films

Review of:

Gelder, Ken. New Vampire Cinema. London: Palgrave MacMillan/British Film Institute, 2012. ix + 155 pages.

Gelder cover

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Weinstock, Jeffrey. The Vampire Film: Undead Cinema. New York: Wallflower Books/Columbia University Press, 2012. 144 pages.

Weinstock Cover

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Despite their apparent differences in scope – Gelder’s book covers only the last twenty years of vampire cinema, whereas Weinstock discusses a more general history of vampire movies – Ken Gelder’s New Vampire Cinema and Jeffrey Weinstock’s The Vampire Film: Undead Cinema offer remarkably complementary readings of the vampire in film. In particular, both Gelder and Weinstock deal with the ways in which vampire films “endlessly and in so many ways talk about vampires and vampire movies” (1) in order to build “narratives around the vampire’s capacity not just to create a disturbance but to endure it and survive” (vi). Ultimately, these two books deserve to be read together as they work together to illustrate the importance and cultural value of vampire cinema.

Weinstock’s book is part of the Short Cuts: Introductions to Film Studies series and in many ways reads as a primer for vampire cinema. He begins with an introduction that riffs on Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s 1996 “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” in Monster Theory: Reading Culture (ed. Jeffrey Cohen, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996). and sets up seven principles, complete with corollaries, that guide the rest of the book:

Principle 1: The cinematic vampire is always about sex
Corollary 1.1: Cinematic vampires are marked by performances of hyperbolic gender
Corollary 1.2: Cinematic vampires are inevitably queer
Principle 2: The vampire is always more interesting than those who pursue it
Principle 3: The vampire always returns
Corollary 3.1: Vampirism begins at home
Corollary 3.2: The vampire always appears to come from someplace else
Corollary 3.3: The vampire is always in motion
Principle 4: The cinematic vampire is an overdetermined body condensing what a culture considers ‘other’
Principle 5: The cinematic vampire is always about technology.
Corollary 5.1: Vampire films are always about dfining the vampire, which is a necessary preliminary to destroying the vampire.
Corollary 5.2: Vampires are always cyborgs
Corollary 5.3: Vampire films are always about the cinema itself.
Principle 6: The vampire film genre does not exist
Corollary 6.1: The vampire film tradition is defined by generic hybridity
Corollary 6.2: Vampire films are inevitably intertextual
Principle 7: We are all vampire textual nomads

Weinstock’s discussion of these principles and their corollaries takes up three chapters and ranges over an astonishing number of films for such a slim volume. His discussion of vampire films from A Fool There Was (1915) to 30 Days of Night (2007) serves to support not only these principles, but also his claim that “The vampire . . . is a sort of ready-made metaphoric vehicle waiting for its tenor. Its potency, however, derives from its intrinsic connections to sex, science, and social constructions of difference. . . . the vampire film is always about sex, always about technology and always about cultural ‘otherness’” (19).

Gelder’s book similarly claims that his volume’s “aim is simply to try to make some sense of what these film do and why they seem to do it over and over” (v) and that

The films in this book all bring their vampires into the modern world, building their narratives around the vampire’s capacity not just to create a disturbance but to endure it and survive. . . . over the last twenty years or so the question of the vampire’s capacity to make this journey and live through it is now paramount. Vampire films stage an encounter between something old and something new, something ancient and something modern; the arrival of the vampire (which is invariably from somewhere else) brings with it both excitement, and catastrophe. (vi)

The five chapters cover what Gelder calls “Inauthentic Vampires,” “Our Vampires, Our Neighbors,” “Citational Vampires,” “Vampires in the Americas,” and “Diminishing Vampires,” coming to the conclusion that

There is something parasitical about vampire films . . . exhausting/regenerating them simultaneously, giving them just that extra bit of life, or half-life. The original vampire and the ‘last vampire’ bleed into each other; sequel and original soon become difficult to distinguish, just as parasite and host, vampire and victim, the remote and the proximate, periphery and centre, likewise converge and fold together. (107)

Perhaps inevitably, both authors discuss, at least briefly, the novel Dracula, highlighting its position as the ur-text of vampire movies. Gelder writes that

Even though they mark out their various distinctions and differences, vampire films always speak to other vampire films, and of course, to that urtext of Stoker’s which still, remarkably, seems to exert some sort of pressure on them, holding them in its grasp or perhaps letting them slip through its fingers. (v)

Weinstock notes that “At the centre of the vampire cinema solar system is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the vampire Ur-text that exerts a powerful gravitational attraction around which all vampire texts – literary, cinematic and otherwise – necessarily orbit” (17).

The similarities between these two books become most apparent when Weinstock and Gelder discuss the same movies, as happens often. For example, both authors analyze the cinematograph scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), in which Dracula speaks to Mina Harker in front of a screen showing clips of various films. Weinstock claims that it “shows us . . . the vampire present at the birth of modern cinema and the correspondence between the two – each creating legions of the undead” (77). Similarly, Gelder writes that “the scene self-reflexively puts Stoker, Dracula, theatre, the origins of cinema and Coppola’s film into a sort of mutually citational loop” (4).

Even when their analyses of films differ, they often seem to overlap, as, for example, in their discussions of the use of technology in the Blade films. For Gelder, Blade’s reliance upon technology is an example of his claim that vampire films often highlight the anxiety surrounding encounters of the new and the ancient – in this case, Blade and his technology (equated, perhaps, by the half-vampire’s name) are the “new” coming up against the “ancient” vampire regime. For Weinstock, the reliance upon technology in these films illustrates that “the silver-screen vampire, itself a product of cinema technology, is inevitably defined in relation to various technologies of representation, definition, detection, and destruction” (57).

Both authors also highlight the importance of what Gelder calls the “moment of recognition” in vampire films. Weinstock writes that

Vampire movies, like monster movies in general, are always about definition. . . . What the protagonists conclude about the nature of the vampire . . . has important ramifications not only for deciding how to combat the vampire but for understanding how the represented cinematic world works.

Gelder notes that “Every vampire film has its key moment of recognition. To recognise a vampire ‘for what it is’ turns out to be crucial to a character’s wellbeing or otherwise; it is also simply a way of saying, this is a vampire film” (vi). Weinstock’s claim that “vampire movies always define themselves in relation to previous cinematic representations of vampires and are often quite explicit about the revisions to the mythology that they are making” (127) could have just as easily appeared in Gelder’s discussion of what he calls the “citational” nature of vampire films. Ultimately, Gelder’s interest is in examining this citational nature of vampire films, Weinstock’s in discussing the principles guiding those films, but both offer investigations of the form and function of vampire cinema, and that similarity makes these two books particularly interesting and useful when read together.

Despite their many similarities, however, the ways in which the two works diverge means that one cannot simply stand in for the other. Weinstock’s conclusion that “what makes the vampire so potent is that it is a concatenation of sexual, racial and technological anxieties and longings – a sort of Rorschach ink blot of culturally specific dread and desire” (13) tied to the fact that “a fundamental characteristic of the vampire film tradition has been its tendency to morph and colonise other genres” so that, “like the vampire itself, the vampire cinema continually transforms itself and seeks out new victims to vamp” (17) reads as dramatically different from Gelder’s claim that

Vampires may be immortal for the time being, but they also carry with them a heightened sense of change, death and loss. This is the direction vampire films routinely take, in fact: offering the possibility of immortality and then cruelly snatching it away, or turning it into something that vampires cannot bear. (106)

The two authors’ takes on the mobility of vampires differs, as well. For Gelder, “vampires in the modern world in new vampire cinema – far from being able to move about freely and so on – are in fact condemned to a particular form of living that is precisely about registering the loss of one’s freedom” (94). For Weinstock, on the other hand,

Mobility and crossing of not only geographical but social and psychic borders is central to the vampire narrative. Either the vampire arrives from elsewhere to interrupt the day-to-day existence of his or her new locale or the protagonist arrives at a place marked by some fundamental social difference – the superstitiousness of backwater villagers, the lawlessness of Mexico or Santa Carla, California, etc. (96-97).

Weinstock’s book suffers a bit from lax proofreading, with problems on pages 49 (“Her’s”) and 109 (“Frost . . . becomes inhabiting” by La Magra”); Gelder’s book sometimes seems to sometimes lose focus (as, for example, in an inexplicable concentration on filming locations for the Twilight series that neither adds to the discussion of the films nor corresponds with any other film’s discussion in the book). Despite these minor problems, however, The Vampire Film and New Vampire Cinema together provide compelling discussions of over 150 vampire movies, offering insight into not only the vampire films themselves, but our continuing fascination with those films.

*Originally published in Monsters and the Monstrous: http://monstersjournal.net/

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