Jeffrey Weinstock, The Vampire Film: Undead Cinema, Reviewed by Xavier Aldana Reyes

Posted by Xavier Aldana Reyes on October 02, 2012 in Reviews tagged with

The Vampire Film: Undead Cinema is one of the latest additions to the Short Cuts series published by Wallflower. Weinstock’s book is a particularly welcome addition because, although areas as wide-ranging as Chinese cinema, British social realism or musicals have all been duly covered over the past decade, there have been no further contributions to the horror genre since Paul Wells’ volume in 2000. The Vampire Film is also a perfect companion to some recent excellent monographs like Alain Silver and James Ursini’s The Vampire Film: From Nosferatu to Interview with the Vampire (1997, updated and reprinted in 2012) and Stacey Abbott’s Celluloid Vampires (2007), which have helped spark an interest in writing cinematic histories of this particular figure. Their purpose has also, to a large extent, been to situate the vampire in its various socio-political and cultural contexts. Weinstock’s allegiance to this treatment is made clear early on when he explains that vampires, as well as speculative fiction, are ‘inevitably anchored by history and are the converging lines of cultural forces’ (3). Whilst the author is quick to suggest that there is no such thing as a vampire subgenre, and that we should think instead of an inherently hybrid product that is easily reshaped and remade according to ruling cinematic trends, the book makes a case for the momentousness of specific recurring elements.

Weinstock opens with an introduction that lays out the various points raised throughout the book but also proposes some ideas about how we might start rethinking the vampire film in the twenty-first century. If intertextuality has become important to the articulation of contemporary vampire cinema, self-referentiality has not received equal mention. Weinstock’s study boldly announces that this self-referentiality makes the study of vampire films almost redundant (1), since they all engage to some extent with its tradition, folklore and representational history. In other words, the critic runs the risk of simply stating the obvious. Vampire films, particularly in the new millennium, are very aware of both where they sit within a large and growing literary and filmic tradition, as well as of where they deviate more dramatically. This means that vampire films define themselves through links to other texts – films and often Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1897 – but also that they return to a number of axioms that they accept or challenge. For Weinstock, the three governing principles of vampire cinema are ‘sex, science and social constructions of difference’ (19), and each forms the thematic axis for the main chapters in this monograph.

Chapter one starts by stating what would, to the Gothic scholar, appear at first a rather hackneyed notion, namely that vampires ‘deal explicitly in sexual desire ‘and that they are ‘the cinema’s most potent instantiation of sexual excess’ (21). To argue that vampires are unimaginable without a certain latent (and more often than not overt) sexual tension has become part and parcel of our understanding of what constitutes these creatures in the first instance. But Weinstock quickly moves beyond the easy conflation of vampires with ‘the Freudian Id’ or ‘the pleasure principle run amuck’ (22) to offer a nuanced analysis of the neglected figure of the vamp in the Theda Bara-led A Fool There Was (Frank Powell, 1915), itself a virtually ignored entry in the genre, that potentially rewrites our deep-seated connection of the vampire with the exotic/erotic dominant male. His later in-depth studies of Dracula’s Daughter (Lambert Hillyer, 1936) and the less established vampire films Vampyros Lesbos (Jesús Franco, 1971), Requiem for a Vampire (Jean Rollin, 1971) and Daughters of Darkness (Harry Kümel, 1971) help to breathe new life into the sexual hypothesis. Weinstock argues that ‘vampire movies constitute an explicit, pervasive and conflicted cinematic discourse concerning sexuality that both reconfirms and troubles conventional sexual norms’ (23), but also that this happens simultaneously at a gender level. Vampires are similarly read as hyperbolic performances of masculinity and femininity which provide contradictory and non-exclusive gender models and often posit heterosexuality as constraining or artificial (40).

The second chapter, and second overarching thematic concern of the vampire film, is its understanding of vampires as ‘the offspring of modern technology’ (62). The word technology is admittedly used in its loosest sense here. For Weinstock, it means both the scientific systems used to create, detect and destruct the vampire as well as his/hers literal cinematic figuration, i.e. the vampire is always a result of technological advances in make-up, special effects, CGI, etc. These ideas are explored through The Last Man on Earth (Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow, 1964), I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence, 2007) and Rabid (David Cronenberg, 1977), which exemplify what he terms ‘the infection vampire film’ (60), and also the ‘action vampire movie’ (66), where the emphasis shifts to the special effects and weaponry used in the act of destruction and/or cure. In both instances, the vampire ‘is recast as a naturally occurring or scientifically created pandemic that must be battled through scientific means’ (60), turning him/her into a cyborgian form of life. These ideas shed some light on the biological and genetic reimagining of the vampire film that has pervaded the genre since the influential Blade (Stephen Norrington, 1998). But Weinstock’s argument is even more ambitious, and he goes on to theorise cinema as always already vampiric. Using Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola, 1992), Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922), Vampyr (Carl Theodore Dreyer 1932) and Shadow of the Vampire (E. Elias Merhige, 2000) as his primary texts and Cronos (Guillermo del Toro, 1993) as a curious counter-example, Weinstock makes a case for the reception of cinema as a species of vampirism, draining the life of the persons represented and consigning them to eternity. According to this schema, the technological vampire is ‘a stand-in for the uncanniness of the camera itself’ (89).

The third and final chapter considers the cinematic vampire as radical racial other, or how it ‘emerges as the overdetermined condensation of a constellation of cultural anxieties and desires’ (95). Early blaxploitation films such as Blacula (William Crain, 1972) and Scream Blacula Scream (Bob Kelljan, 1973) are analysed here in conjunction with cult classics like Blood for Dracula (Paul Morrissey, 1974) or Martin (George A. Romero, 1977). Taking Arata’s postcolonial reading of Dracula as his starting point, Weinstock traces a brief history of the racialization of the vampire that leads to the complex monstering of black men. The vampire in films like Ganja and Hess (Bill Gunn, 1973) is ‘racialised as an “ethnic” outsider “passing” as human’ (107), something which leads to a marriage between ‘otherness’ understood as a racial category and as a marker of supernatural difference. This discussion is taken one step further through a look at more recent examples of vampire cinema, namely the Blade (1998-2004) and Underworld (2003-2012) series and their emphasis on eugenics and the insistence on the purity of monster bloodlines. Much like vampires have been used to negotiate anxieties regarding queer identity and difference, Weinstock reads the cinematic vampire as a reflection on anxieties regarding racism and the social integration of social minorities (121). His conclusion is that these films, in their championing of vampire heroes and situations where hybridity and miscegenation are celebrated, may actually act as much-needed tolerance pills.

As should be obvious by now, the breadth and scope of this volume is admirable. If this leads sometimes to a series of tangential arguments, these ultimately find a logical conclusion that summarises concisely over three decades of criticism on the cultural import of the vampire as social metaphor. Weinstock reinstates this idea in the closing lines, which propose that the vampire is ‘a symbolic supertext operating on multiple levels simultaneously’ (129). Drawing on classics and less well-known independent and European films, this book provides a perfect introduction to the vampire subgenre that does not completely abandon historiography whilst vouching for a more organic thematic arrangement. Essential reading for vampire cinephiles and horror aficionados alike.

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