Vampires have fascinated audiences for over 2,000 years, and Twilight, the latest entry in the film catalogue of vampire lore, based on the spectacularly successful 2005 young-adult novel by Stephenie Meyer, hopes to enthrall a new audience. It may be a major hit, but for me, having devoted my writing to researching and pontificating about creatures of the night, the film is sadly bloodless. The sexless teens in the film don’t reflect the dark Victorian pleasures that Draculas usually embody. And a vampire film with no passion—well, that isn’t truly a vampire film.
Meyer imagines the curse of the vampire as the difficulty of restraining the monster within, overcoming the desire to consume human blood. It is easy to see this as her metaphor for premarital sex, a conservative agenda masked as a vampire tale.
Official trailer for Twilight.
Twilight has already sold out its opening weekend, and it's impossible to hit a newsstand without seeing the pale mugs of Robert Pattinson and Kristin Stewart, who star as Edward, an angsty vampire and his mortal lover Bella. All of a sudden, blood-sucking and fangs are hot again (as evidenced by the current popularity of HBO’s True Blood), and the Twilight stars will no doubt revive an interest in widow’s peaks and pale skin. Still, Meyer’s characters fit uncomfortably into the vampire family tree, with nary a bat or castle in sight.
Although Meyer admits that there are predatory vampires in the world, her central vampire-family members are self-styled vegetarians who shun the drinking of human blood. Edward, the youngest child, is perpetually 17, stuck in one awful high school after another. In her books (and in the film, which follows the text closely) her vampires are unaffected by sunlight (although they shun it because it reveals their special skin), super-strong, super-fast, and apparently indestructible (except by their own kind). They don’t eat, they don’t breathe, and they need no sleep (and no coffins). Some have additional gifts: Edward's foster sister sees the future; Edward reads thoughts. The mortal Bella seems to have no thoughts except slack-jawed adoration, and she is opaque to Edward.
Notwithstanding his incredible gifts, Edward is content to simply listen to his CDs, occasionally play the piano, and run up mountains and trees. In fact, with the exception one compassionate physician/vampire, the entire family is presented as a bunch of slackers whose big thrill is an occasional game of baseball. Once Edward meets the innocent 17-year-old human girl Bella, whom he describes as his "heroin" (presumably no pun intended), all he wants is to smell her, keep her happy enough to stay with him, and keep her safe. There is little danger here or remnants of the traditional pre-screen image of vampires: elegant, tall old men with protruding teeth, hairy palms, and foul breath (and who were still somehow irresistible).
Starting with Nosferatu (1922), vampires in film have always been powerfully magnetic, and in later versions appear young, handsome men. Bela Lugosi's Dracula (1931) set the mold, and later screen actors Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, Louis Jordan, Tom Cruise, and television actors like David Boreanaz exude sex appeal and dangerous thrills. Their "attacks" have—traditionally—been as much about seduction as about neck marks. An early critic of Bram Stoker’s 1897 masterpiece, Dracula, said that the book would shock and disgust, but admitted that he read the whole thing with rapt attention. Victorian audiences saw the book as soft-core pornography, reeking of sexual innuendo with several highly-charged scenes of kissing, sucking, and biting. For the Victorians, reading about vampires was like delving into the pages of Playboy.
An original Dracula: Bella Lugosi.
When vampires were sexy.
Curiously, Twilight is almost devoid of sexual content. Meyer is reportedly a devout Mormon, and this plays into every aspect of the story. The movie is advertised heavily as romantic, but there is exactly one screen kiss in the film, and a complete absence of sexual exploration. Edward is constantly described as a powerful babe-magnet, causing women to rush to fulfill his every desire, but when he briefly kisses Bella, she passes out.
Meyer imagines the curse of the vampire as the difficulty of restraining the monster within, overcoming the desire to consume human blood. It is easy to see this as her metaphor for premarital sex, a conservative agenda masked as a vampire tale. In both book and film, Edward struggles manfully not to be attractive to his object of desire, and he represses any expression of physical affection. Despite the frantic reaction of his teen fans, Robert Pattinson’s Edward makes this struggle uninteresting. His performance (perhaps it’s his forehead or his limited dialogue) reminded me of Lon Chaney’s Frankenstein-monster rather than a Byronic hero.
Admittedly, it’s hard to construct an appealing film from a story devoted to sincere efforts to have nothing romantic happen. There’s also little to make this an enthralling vampire story—the most successful versions have always included sex and gore, or both. Meyer’s book contains not a single scene of blood-sucking, and the film is equally shock-free. In truth, Meyer’s focus on self-denial left me ultimately bored. Perhaps my tastes were fixed by an early exposure to the traditional image of Dracula—a man dripping with bravura and danger as much as he is with blood—but escaping the ancient monster seems much more interesting than avoiding the company of the dull modern breed.
Leslie S. Klinger is considered to be one of the world’s foremost authorities on those twin icons of the Victorian era, Sherlock Holmes and Dracula. His new work, The New Annotated Dracula, was published by W. W. Norton on October 31, 2008.