This serious-movie season, the war/political dramas (In the Valley of Elah, Lions for Lambs, etc.) are hogging the spotlight -- but can we please take a second to talk about the vampires? There are major developments going on in this particular branch of the horror genre. Check out the trailer for 30 Days of Night, which opens Friday, and you'll see the nocturnal blood-sucking types have gotten a much-needed revam -- um, makeover. And December 14 sees the release of I Am Legend, a big-budget adaptation of Richard Matheson's classic vampire novel. Unfortunately, while the trailer makes it clear that Will Smith will look buff, it gives us no hint as to what the bad guys will look like. However, it's a safe bet they won't have widow's peaks.
The look they've got in 30 Days has been a long time coming, especially since zombies got re-energized five years ago in 28 Days Later. Danny Boyle, in his terrifying treatment, made them enraged and super-fast. They could pretty much do parkour. The 21st-century vampires in David Slade's new film, like Boyle's zombies, have gotten a lot more athletic -- but they've also lost the impeccable manners that were once their trademark. (Obviously, zombies never really had these to begin with, although a recent parody by Ed Helms does grant them some decency). Bela Lugosi's Dracula had a posh accent; Klaus Kinski's German-speaking Nosferatu apologized for his rude entrances; Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt's Lestat and Louis were stereotypical French -- effeminate reciters of poetry. The new vampires, on the other hand, crash head-first through windows and speak in a barbaric-sounding tongue that is definitely not a Romance language.
Some critics, in discussing both this film and the post-apocalyptic I Am Legend, will argue that what we're seeing are vampires for the age of terror -- which is really just another way of saying they're bad-ass. Last year another familiar film character, James Bond, also went that route -- with smashing results. It would appear that vampires have gone through the same cycle: from fresh and vigorous early on, to sly and self-aware, to outrageous parodies of themselves, to a vicious, primitive -- or "pre-Biblical," as director Slade has nicely described it -- reincarnation. But while Bond came back to life sexier than ever, the whole un-evolved thing isn't quite as flattering to vampires. The fetching canines that used to oh-so gently puncture necks have been replaced by hideous rows of shark's teeth. Daniel Craig's Bond was a little less schooled than his predecessors in the art of seduction, but the new vampires don't even know what that is: Another good quote from the 30 Days director: "If the Anne Rice vampire is a metaphor for erotica, this one is metaphor for assault. Not for sexual assault but assault on human values."
If that's the case, 30 Days may be the only vampire movie ever made that doesn't even flirt with the idea of sexual violation. (The erect, bald-headed villain of the original 1927 Nosferatu and the 1979 Kinski remake really said it all. But the brood's ringleader here, played by Danny Huston, sports an Eisenhower-era flat-top.) Even more disconcerting, the filmmakers have eliminated the one real thing that makes vampires vulnerable -- daylight -- by setting their film in Alaska during a time of year when the sun never shines. No sex, no sun, no fabulous European architecture. These are grim times indeed.