Film and TV

With The Strain, Are Real(er) Vampires Back?

"Wait a minute," you may hypothetically be saying, "Back? What about Twilight? Or The Vampire Diaries? Or True Blood? Have vampires ever really left?"

I acknowledge that the handsome fops the liberal media have been passing off as vampires have remained in the public eye for years, but these simpering fashion models -- whether they're called "Edward Cullen," "Damon Salvatore" (jesus), or "Eric Northman" (because he's a Viking! Get it?) -- do a disservice to over a century of horror tradition by presenting the undead as misunderstood romantic foils and not, you know, inhuman predators from beyond the grave.

Fortunately, it looks as if we can thank the likes of Guilermo del Toro (The Strain) and John Logan (Penny Dreadful) for hosing off the sparkle dust and giving us vampires that are actually scary again. And it's about time.

I should start out by saying I haven't read the del Toro/Chuck Hogan novels The Strain is based upon, so a lengthy meditation on book vs show will (thankfully) not be in the offing. I will also say that, after watching the first episode of the FX series, I think there's potential, but there were also some pretty typical horror movie dumb-assery. For starters, it looks like they barely took one swipe with a file at Dracula's serial numbers before throwing a minor curve ball and making vampirism a parasitic infection (a concept not unfamiliar to zombie fans).

But one thing you won't see, as far as I can tell, are any of del Toro's vamps brooding about the burden of immortality or trying to steal kisses from teenage girls. The bloodsuckers in The Strain, like the Master and his progeny in Penny Dreadful, are monsters. Surviving on the blood of the living, they view humans as cattle, though will occasionally manipulate one to help achieve their sinister goals (and we met our first "Renfield" Sunday night).

But how did we allow ourselves to be led astray in the first place? As with most of the world's ills, I blame Anne Rice (or is it Ayn Rand?). It was the popularity of Interview with the Vampire and her subsequent "Vampire Chronicles" novels that steered vampires away from "undead fiends that must be destroyed at all costs" to "mopey fashionistas who just want to be loved." You can draw a direct line from Louis/Lestat, to Selene and the other Underworld Eurotrash, to Edward Cullen, and on to Bill Compton and his porn-y True Blood brethren.

I could lump Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer in there as well, but Joss Whedon mostly gave us historically accurate vamps, so I suppose he can be allowed a tortured hunk with sweet hair or two.

That's not to say others didn't try to rage, rage against the dying of the fright. There were scary vampire movies all along, most of them were either low budget or hard "R" enough not to appeal to teenyboppers. Jim Mickle got it right with Stake Land, Stephen Norrington and del Toro (again) got it mostly right with the first two Blade movies (and then David S. Goyer got it horribly wrong with Blade: Trinity), while David Slade did his best with 30 Days of Night, though he could never really capture the feel of Steve Niles/Ben Templesmith's graphic novel.

Similarly, vampire novels written by people other than Stephanie Meyer have always been out there. Some of note include John Marks' Fangland (a "reimagining" of Dracula set in 21st century New York) and Enter, Night by Michael Rowe. I also recommend Let the Right One In, both John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel and the 2008 film based on it.

So there were always other options, scurrying like tiny Mesozoic mammals away from the glittering behemoth of the Twilight franchise. But for several decades at least, vampires became something you didn't fear so much as fall in love with, or -- at the very least -- have sex with.

For real, I gave up on True Blood after one season. And believe me, it takes a lot for me to get to the point where I'm hoping a show has *less* nudity.

Even if these new shows offering old takes on vampires don't completely replace the fangless specimens we've been subjected to since the 1970s, at the very least we may have reached an era of peaceful coexistence between the two. Penny Dreadful gets a lot right (atmosphere, Timothy Dalton, naked Eva Green) but tends to be uneven. The Strain is starting out sort of X-Files-ish in that it's throwing a lot of stuff at us, most of which may not be revisited in later episodes. That said, it's comforting -- in a weird way -- to once again see vampires more interested in tearing our throats out than talking about their feelings.

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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar