Ken Gelder, ‘New Vampire Cinema’ (2012), reviewed by Neal Kirk

Posted by Neal Kirk on May 31, 2013 in Reviews tagged with , , , , ,

Gelder, Ken. New Vampire Cinema. BFI Palgrave MacMillan, 2012. ISBN: 978-1844574407

Before I sink my teeth into Ken Gelder’s latest book, New Vampire Cinema (BFI Palgrave MacMillan, 2012), first, some context. For numerous fascinating reasons Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga (2007-2008) was an overwhelming success. It announced the emergence of a demographic eager to consume vampire fiction.

As the books were adapted to their own successful film franchise, a glut of contemporary vampire films were also spawned. Vampires were seemingly everywhere as popular culture was yet again, enthralled in the vampire’s embrace. The cultural saturation of the vampire figure was among Gelder’s early interests explored in Reading the Vampire (Routledge, 1994).

New Vampire Cinema is the defato sequel to Reading the Vampire, with Gelder’s ‘Inauthentic Vampires’ chapter overlapping with his ‘Vampires and Cinema: From Nosferatu to Bram Stokers Dracula’. But in Reading the Vampire Gelder focuses on what he assumes are obvious and vast differences between vampire films, whereas New Vampire Cinema works the various efforts at differentiation into a more overarching homogeneity among the wider vampire film genre conventions.

Reading the Vampire concludes by wondering about the limits of the cultural fascination with the vampire. The vampire fiction of the late 1990s was a source of cultural fascination but as vampire fictions are also prone, Gelder wonders about the exhaustion that such pronounced cultural saturation can bring. This idea develops into Gelder’s concluding chapter in New Vampire Cinema, ‘Diminishing Vampires’.

New Vampire Cinema was published in the same year as the final film in the Twilight Saga, Breaking Dawn Part II (2012) was released. It seems the film was a victim of the diminishing returns of the same excitement it helped ushered in. In its illusory evocation of some action/adventure genre conventions and a general anxiety about fans no longer interested in the series, the film exemplifies a hesitation about where the vampire and the vampire film goes next. In the midst of this hesitation Gelder adds New Vampire Cinema, the broad aim of which is ‘simply to try and make some sense of what these [vampire films of the past twenty years or so] do and why they seem to do it over and over’ (v).

The Preface presents a comprehensive snapshot of Gelder’s observations, many of which revolve around several seemingly opposing dichotomies, which amass to the quirky traits of the vampire film genre. Gelder notes that there are several distinct factors that come together to make a vampire film recognizable, both in the sense that the audience recognizes a vampire film but also that the characters of the films have a vital moment of recognition. This recognition is the result of a tension between an obligation to classic vampire urtexts like Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and F.W. Murnaus’ Nosferatu (1922), and the genres constant disavowal of its source material, leading Gelder to assert that ‘every vampire film creates its own vampire mythologies’ (vi). Individually, a vampire film may appear highly diverse, but on the whole, remains clearly identifiable.

By exploring the reflexive nature of the vampire, Gelder arrives at the significant observation that: ‘[t]he vampire film is therefore always derivative, paying a kind of perpetual tribute or homage to itself. It is a very particular kind of genre that- for all its fascination with origins- is condemned at the same time to re-make and recycle, to copy, to plagiarise, to cite and re-cite […]’ (vi). This leads to an analysis of what is appealing about vampires and vampire films and New Vampire Cinema is largely a detailed exploration of the word ‘cite’ and its derivatives: citation and excitement.

The exploration of this term structures Gelder’s analysis and unites the threads of his observations about contemporary vampire films. Gelder defines ‘excitement’ in terms of movement, a setting in motion. This relationship to momentum is part of what ties the vampire to the cinematic apparatus. As Gelder aptly observes, contemporary vampire films often stage an explicit encounter between the vampire and the cinema as in Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) when Mina is literally seduced behind an early silver screen. Gelder tracks this fundamental relationship even when it is less overt. In all the forty vampire films analyzed, Gelder identifies a ‘cinematic moment’ that lends weight to his observations that: ‘vampires are ushered into the modern world by nothing less than cinema itself, the cinematic apparatus’, and ‘to talk about the vampire film is also to talk about cinema itself’ (ix). This potent relationship is the basis of Gelder’s interest in citation. Related to the setting in motion of the term excitement, Gelder uses the term ‘citation’ to,

‘account for the way that one’s encounter with a vampire is also an encounter with other vampire films, with urtexts like Stoker’s novel and Nosferatu, and so on. All films are systems of citation, referencing other films; but vampire films do this in a particularly visible, performative way, invoking their precedents, living under their shadows, returning to them over and over, literally re-citing […]’ (vi-vii).

The theme of citation runs throughout Gelder’s work, and is a significant contribution to ongoing vampire research.

Thus far, I have paid close attention to Gelder’s brief, but rich Preface. The reason is that after identifying these traits about new vampire cinema, they are, somewhat obviously, recognizable throughout Gelder’s book. It is not so far-fetched to suggest in chapter one, that E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire (2000), a film about the making of Nosferatu, affords an opportunity for reflection on the vampire’s authenticity or lack thereof. It follows that despite Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 efforts at restoring an authenticity to Stoker’s Dracula, this same urge should be undercut and rendered the source and subject of parody in Fran Rubel Kuzui’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992). What the  ‘Inauthentic Vampires’ chapter does well is trace the relationship between vampires and the cinema, which helps establish Gelder’s emphasis on the momentous excitement of the old vampire in a new age, and the citation inherent in both vampire fictions and films.

This leads into an important discussion of the more evident factors of the general concept of genre in chapter two, ‘Our Vampires, Our Neighbours’. This chapter considers some recent Swedish vampire films, Frostbitten (2006), Let the Right One In (2008), and its American remake, Let Me In (2010). It also addresses the Russian films Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006) that seem to be doing something different within the genre, while remaining recognizably vampire films. In a clear example of these films acknowledging their genre conventions, but also attempting to differentiate themselves, the vampire Eli, in Let the Right One In tells her neighbor, Oskar, that he has to invite her into his apartment. Anticipating the crossing to the line of genre demarcation, Oskar witnesses a bloody scene when he asks ‘What happens if I don’t’, and Eli enters anyway. Gelder argues that, in a neighborly gesture of sympathy, Oskar relents and invites Eli in, establishing this as a moment of recognition: he recognizes Eli as a vampire, but also makes a space for being neighborly in the renewed ‘purity’ of the vampire film genre. Oskar’s closing out of his mother, in favor of the vampire next door, doubly emphasize this.

I regard chapter three, ‘Citational Vampires’ as the strongest chapter. This is partially because it addresses a collection of transnational films that are less readily available and have received somewhat less critical attention. Its strength also lies in Gelder’s close reading and analysis, rather than extensive summary. Gelder’s exploration of the term ‘citation’ is most convincingly exemplified here, principally in his discussion of the ‘not quite a vampire film’ (52), Irma Vep (1996). Through a complex network of reference and citation, Gelder provides an apt critical discourse that begins to break down what might be at stake in the Japanese animation, Blood: The Last Vampire that is set on an American Airbase in Vietnam, in the early stages of the Vietnam War. Through the network of citations, the films discussed problematize national cinema readings, and offer some new terrain for vampire scholars and enthusiasts.

After looking at some of the international films that do things somewhat differently in chapter two, chapter four considers ‘Vampire in the Americas’ that also attempt to operate in a continuum of difference within the recognizable vampire film genre. This chapter comments on several films from various times and locations and the end result is, unfortunately, jumbled. There are many intriguing observations like Gelder’s reading of the significance of the indigenous werewolves of the Twilight series, but the sheer volume of material largely obscures these.

The final chapter, which acts as the conclusion, also covers a considerable amount of information, this time working through some prominent vampire franchises including the Blade trilogy, and the Underworld films. This chapter contemplates the vampire as a now hollow commodity, a resource that has been overtaxed. Vampire films reflect this, construing the vampire as a species in crisis, diminished to the point of near extinction. By the Blade Trinity (2004) installment of the franchise, Blade is unable to recognize his own pseudo-origins as the cycle of vampiric recognition renders him impotent in the modern age of vampire films. The Australian film Daybreakers (2009) casts the vampire as a resource management allegory, with the vampires now so overpopulated that their human food source is nearly extinct.

For all the traits contemporary vampire films seem to confirm and disavow across the board, Gelder’s global scope allows an often-overlooked appreciation for a film’s local reception. One of the more subtle aspects of Gelder’s assemblage of films is the significance of their transnational idiosyncrasies:

‘American directors who adapt an Irish novel or ‘remake’ a German film, French directors who hire a Chinese Hong Kong actor or shoot a live-action remake of a Japanese anime, a Mexican director who shoots a film about a black American vampire slayer on location in Prague or casts an Argentinian actor as a vampire in Mexico City […]’ (viii).

These ‘encounters’, as Gelder calls them, complicate any easy sense of these films as representative of particular ‘national cinema’. Despite Gelder’s deliberate troubling of national cinema readings, the lack of any definitive conclusions on this, or his other salient points, is missed. It is as if after identifying the vampire as diminishing, Gelder removes the ground upon which to stage his conclusions. One positive of this, however, is that the conversation about vampires, for both the scholar and the enthusiast, can continue with an expanded toolbox.

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