Standards for Vampires

Why the story makes no sense.
Dec. 23 1998 3:30 AM

Standards for Vampires

Even the undead ought to obey a few simple rules.

"Plot Holes" is an occasional column about logical inconsistencies in movies.

Illustration by Stan Shaw

What happens to a vampire in the daylight? Does he explode into flame, as in John Carpenter's Vampires? Turn into a Pompeii-like ash sculpture, as in Interview With the Vampire? Feel a little short of energy, as in Bram Stoker's Dracula? Or merely require the use of a good sunblock, as in Blade?

Behaviorally speaking, vampires are all over the place. Not only do they differ morphologically from movie to movie, but they behave with stunning inconsistency even within their own films. Why, for instance, would a vampire who can hover a good 20 feet above the pavement have to scramble frantically over a chain-link fence when being chased by Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Why can't the Master Vampire in John Carpenter's Vampires, a creature who has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to disembowel and decapitate humans with a single swipe of his hand, manage to do anything more deadly to James Woods during their final epochal confrontation than just cuff him around?

The vampire is a species of the undead. Like any other species, it should manifest a certain behavioral logic that moviegoers can rely upon. What if I wanted to make a movie about, say, bears? And what if I found it more "interesting" creatively if the bears in my movie had fish scales instead of fur? Would audiences placidly accept such a frivolous reordering of nature? I think not! Yet when it comes to vampires, filmmakers feel free to reinvent the rules with every picture.

This has become such a problem in our society that I hereby propose a Uniform Code of Vampire Standards and Practices. In my opinion, there are four major areas that are in need of immediate clarification.

1.Mortality and Mortification. Vampires, declares Kris Kristofferson in Blade, are "hard to kill. They tend to regenerate." Fair enough, but it's past time for a meeting of the minds on this crucial issue. How, exactly, do you kill a vampire? It was easy enough back in 1922, the year of F.W. Murnau's silent classic Nosferatu. If a woman "pure in heart" manages to keep the vampire by her side all night until "after the cock has crowed," he is guaranteed to suffer what looks like a massive coronary and disappear in a puff of smoke. In the 1931 Dracula, however, which like Nosferatu is based on Bram Stoker's novel, Bela Lugosi has to be impaled through the heart in his coffin, whereupon he emits a strange little disappointed groan that remains a benchmark of decorum when compared with the hissing and writhing deaths of modern screen vampires.

In Interview With the Vampire, Tom Cruise informs us that the stake-to-the-heart method is "nonsense." Later he suffers a slit throat, is eaten by an alligator, and then what is left of his body is consumed in a fire. But only a few centuries later he bounces right back. In Buffy, vampires are much easier to dispatch: A simple wooden stake will do it after all--or, in an emergency, a broken guitar neck. In the 1992 Francis Ford Coppola version of Bram Stoker's Dracula, Dracula dies when he is impaled by a bowie knife wielded by an improbable London-based cowboy. But Anthony Hopkins, playing the film's mad vampire hunter, seems to put more store in chopping off heads than impaling hearts. In John Carpenter's Vampires, a vampire can't get real dead unless he is dragged out into the sunlight, though he can be considerably slowed down if his heart is pierced by a crossbow bolt or a giant crucifix. The vampires in Blade, however, can walk around in the daytime if they have prudent ultraviolet protection, but disintegrate on the spot when they are hit in either the head or the heart with a hollow-pointed bullet filled with garlic. (Blade, by the way, is one of the only contemporary vampire movies that bothers to regard garlic as a serious deterrent. In Blade, garlic is as dangerous a substance to a vampire as bad seviche is to a human: It induces instant anaphylactic shock.)

Proposed Standard: crucifixes and garlic to be regarded as nonlethal irritants. Vampire death to be assured by penetration of heart muscle by any foreign object or by prolonged exposure to sunlight. Decapitation alone not sufficient to secure desired death effect. A deceased vampire should not explode, disintegrate, burst, morph, or molder but should serenely resume countenance pertaining at the time of its transmogrification. (See No. 2, below.)

Illustration by Stan Shaw

2. Transmogrification. We face no more challenging issue than the mechanics of "turning," i.e., becoming a vampire. In less sophisticated movies, everybody who is bitten by a vampire turns into one, usually after an unspecified incubation period. The artsier the film, the more elaborate the distinction between the merely dead and the truly undead. To the degree I could follow the tortuous logic of Interview With the Vampire, it seemed to be that the average victim dies a straightforward bloodsucking death. But every millennium or so a vampire meets that special someone. In order to "turn" this person, it is necessary for the vampire to drain the victim's tank and top it off at the crucial moment with a quart or so of his own blood, whereupon the thirsty recipient becomes a "new-born vampire weeping at the beauty of the night." In Bram Stoker's Dracula, by contrast, the new recruit must also drink the vampire's blood, but the transformation is far pokier, requiring weeks and weeks, and if the vampire happens to get stuck with a bowie knife before the process is completed, it immediately goes into reverse. Blade, like several other AIDS-conscious vampire movies, treats vampirism as an infectious blood disease. "Look at the polys," a beautiful young hematologist says to her colleague as she's performing an autopsy on a vampire cadaver, "they're binucleated!"

Proposed Standard: Vampirization to be contingent upon total extraction of victim's own blood and its subsequent replacement by blood of donor vampire. If more than 24 hours occur between initial suckage and revivification, victim no longer qualifies for living death designation and will be considered conventionally deceased.

3.Motility. Not to mince words: Can vampires fly? In the early days of the movies, before special effects, they had trouble getting off the ground. The bald, pointy-eared vampire in Nosferatu is barely ambulatory, in fact. He shuffles arthritically around his castle, and when he rises from his coffin he's as stiff as an ironing board. When Lugosi takes to the air it's in the form of a giant Asian fruit bat. (He also turns into a hyena and an armadillo, species that are similarly not native to Transylvania.)

In recent vampire movies the miracle of flight is well established. Cruise gathers Brad Pitt into one of many homoerotic embraces in Interview With the Vampire and soars with him high into the night sky. Gary Oldman turns himself into some sort of gigantic hominid-bat creature and flaps about in Dracula. The Vampire Master in John Carpenter's Vampires can fly down the road fast enough to catch a speeding car and can stick to the ceiling of a motel room. But at crucial moments in these movies the vampire always seems to forget he has these powers and ends up wrestling around on the floor of a dusty convent or abandoned factory with the earth-bound hero.

Proposed Standard: vertical flight only, to a maximum of 20 feet above the ground. Sustained flight permissible if vampire takes the form of a bat, owl, or other authentic nocturnal species. Vampire is specifically prohibited from turning into a flying homonculus. Once flight capabilities are established and demonstrated in a motion picture, they must be used consistently and logically throughout, without regard to the convenience of the filmmakers.

4.Dentition. Are fangs fixed or retractable? Lugosi managed to evade this critical issue--one never sees his teeth at all. Nosferatu's vampire is so eccentrically snaggletoothed that his fangs seem a danger only to himself. In the original Dracula novel, the hero notices Count Dracula's "peculiarly sharp white teeth" that "protruded over the lips" almost at once. In his baroque homage to the book, Coppola apparently could not muster the will to portray the character with such a pronounced overbite, and so Dracula's fangs descend only periodically, amid so much gaping mouth movement that the count looks like he's coughing up a hairball. The vampires in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in contrast, exist in a constant state of dental arousal. They're the exception, however. Almost every other vampire movie accepts the patently unnatural convention that a vampire's fangs are capable of receding into his gums. But since vampires are unnatural to begin with, maybe that's OK.

Proposed Standard: retractable fangs as default characteristic. Strongly recommend, when appropriate, on-screen discussion of physical requirements for said phenomenon--as when a character in Blade observes an "odd muscle structure around the canines."

This plea for a code of standards should not be considered anti-vampire. For the sake of vampires themselves we need a few simple regulations. With teeth, of course.

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