HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (12/1/12) - Edward’s grandly romantic predicament in the first film, Twilight (2008), is based on the whole idea of desire and the consequence of acting on it. Edward wants to touch Bella, wants to kiss her, and more. But being a vampire, if his romantic passion is not controlled, instinct might overwhelm reason. Even a kiss is dangerous, for Edward, acutely aware of Bella’s thoughts and physical changes, sensing her rapidly beating heart as she becomes increasingly aroused, might not be able to control himself. He might lose his mind and bite her, drink her blood, and, instinctually satisfying his vampire’s hunger, kill the girl he loves.
This is great stuff. Twilight’s director, Catherine Hardwicke, embraces writer Stephenie Meyer’s newly drawn vampire mythology with a disarming seriousness. Hardwicke takes Bella’s first person descriptions in Meyer’s book to heart, treating the hormonal transformations and the newly acquired feeling that go along with them as movie themes worthy of Shakespeare, who, along with Jane Austin, Meyer claims to draw inspiration from.
Meyer’s ideas translated as they are in the film Twilight reminded me - because of Hardwicke’s straight forward direction - of a Bette Davis movie, Warner Brothers, late nineteen thirties. The sex angle, discrete for sure, is conceived and illustrated to ignite the viewers’ imaginations in both grand and intimate ways. Think of it: Bette as strong willed individualist, Bella, falling for the romantic but mysterious (cue noir lighting) Claude Rains as Edward. Bette/Bella’s friends, busy eyeing Errol Flynn or as in Dark Victory, “little Ronnie Reagan,” find the exceedingly private, shadowy Edward weird; which is, of course, the very reason Bette/Bella can’t take her bright, photogenic eyes off him. As unlikely as it may seem, Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson (inspired Hardwicke casting) bring an unmistakable nineteen thirties sincerity to their respective roles; so brilliant are they at embodying Meyer’s old-time movie notions of romance and sex in the new millennium that we feel a genuine erotic charge every time Bella and Edward are close enough to touch. The whole idea that Edward stands in the corner of Bella’s bedroom at night, holding himself in check as he watches longingly over the sleeping girl of his century-old dreams is irresistible and sexy; just as irresistible, when Edward flies across the high school parking lot to intervene before an out of control auto crushes and kills his Bella. These moments dramatize in action a powerful eroticism, which, more than mere subtext, makes what’s at stake for these characters clear, while, at the same time, preparing us for what’s to follow in the rest of the series.
The first film is a wonderfully romantic piece, full and complete, within itself. After Twilight, from the Twilight Saga: New Moon to the recent Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2, the whole series breaks off into bits and pieces, some good and some bad, that simply don’t go together. From 2008 to 2012, this year’s finale, Summit Entertainment didn’t want to waste any time getting the movies out. Summit’s timeline, at odds with the director’s needs, created an unmovable obstacle. Hardwicke, therefore, passed on New Moon, and as she walked out the door, so did her cohesive sensitivity to Meyer’s material. The genuine glow of high style romance that gave the first film its palpable eroticism was replaced by subsequent directors with a slavish fidelity to the books and a kind of generic professionalism, equal to the films’ sadly generic CGI, that almost immediately dismantled all the delicately layered meaning that the first film so craftily built up. A wild and wooly marketing tactic now defined the series, emphasizing backstage relationships and character fidelities: camp Edward or camp Jacob: what side are you on? Summit Entertainment struck while the iron was hot. They didn’t trust the Twilight fans to remain faithful over an extended period of time, and, it seems to me, the whole notion that fans would continue to embrace Meyer’s vampire mythology if the movies that followed were as good as the first one never entered into it. Meyer’s hold over the whole show mirrored J.K. Rowling’s control over her Harry Potter movies, but like the quality of each writers’ prose, Rowling led with a superior command while Meyer, it seemed, followed the charge that others dictated.
By the time we get to Breaking Dawn, Part 2, the entire issue of desire and its consequence has been answered. In Breaking Dawn, Part 1, we’ve learned: if you wait for “I do,” before doing it, sex will be great. Not just great - what am I saying? - it will be explosive. Bella and Edward’s honeymoon suite is in shambles, completely destroyed after a night of the greatest, most energetic sex (not) depicted in a movie since Russ Meyer’s Super Vixens (Russ, no relation to Stephenie). Though we initially take the broken bed as a good sign that Edward and Bella are finally satisfied and all is right with the world, it actually foreshadows dark complications on the horizon. In Meyer’s universe, sex that good can’t go unpunished. After satisfying desire, the natural consequence would be: a baby on the way. But here’s the thing: not just any baby. One that’s half human, half vampire, and nothing but trouble for Bella and all those directly and indirectly involved. Let’s put it this way: love as a spiritual state becomes dangerous in the flesh, for sex, to Meyer (Stephenie, not Russ), though an undeniable component of love, must never be taken lightly or for granted; enjoy the orgasm and then suffer consequences; the greater the orgasm, the more life threatening the consequences.
Even before Breaking Dawn, Part 1, the logic of romance, instilled by Hardwicke, as opposed to any other kind of logic, colored my viewing. The series’ mixture of the mundane with the fantastic, made real by Hardwicke’s light but sincere touch, focused eroticism over sex, dramatizing what’s at stake for these characters, while at the same time, keeping our attention focused on the development of their - Edward and Bella’s - relationship. We stay as far away as possible from any questions of logic that Meyer’s vampire myth in general and the Cullen clan specifically, might otherwise solicit. Would the series have remained consistent if one director had handled the entire show, we’ll never know - though I believe, in the back of my mind, a single vision, complimentary to Meyer’s, would have given a more substantial form to the epic’s overall progression. Be that as it may, once eroticism energetically gives way to PG-13 sex, and the destruction of property, the entire issue of Bella, pregnant with her half vampire baby, leads to the question: how is it possible for a vampire boy to father a child? When I ask friends this question, they look at me like I’m nuts. Who knows and who cares, right? Perhaps. But as Meyer’s logic seems to break down with each film in this series, her use of vampire mythology to explore teenaged emotions and sexual urges makes less and less sense; that is, the vampire world becomes more of a gimmick than a seriously considered fantasy world, like Harry Potter's, or Anne Rice’s; Meyer’s vampires are creatures not of myth, but of fable, and her story, it would seem, does not explore the sexual emotions of young people as much as it gussies up the entire sex angle to warn young people that sex may be fun, but it’s risky, dangerous, for keeps; and, beware, after a moment of fun comes a lifetime of pain and misery.
Once Bella has sex, the embryo inside her, half human, half vampire, does not bring happiness or joy. That little amphibious looking spark of life is in fact a scary creature literally sucking its mother’s blood and life away. After an arduous period of pregnancy, more harrowing in its horror movie way than anything else we’ve seen in any of the movies, Bella’s life must be sacrificed during birth.
Rosemary’s baby turned Mrs. Woodhouse into a shrunken, frail skeleton (though not augmented by CGI) like Bella. But Rosemary’s child was not conceived in love and harmony, with her husband on their wedding night - after both had endured the longing torment of abstinence. Rosemary was drugged by her husband, who had made a secret deal with a coven of elderly witches behind his wife’s back, and was raped by a scaly creature - the Devil himself. Strip away the romance of Meyer’s vampire series - as indeed Summit Entertainment did when they rushed the movies, slam-bang, one year after another into the cinemas - and what have you got? Well, let me put it to you this way: as Rosemary is deceived by her husband, it feels to me that we’ve been deceived by Meyer’s crypto-sexist sentiments. Twilight is not a vampire romance, it’s an abstinence lesson told as a vampire fable, elevating, rather clumsily, a complete horror and distaste for sex acts and sexuality in general, to the level of pop art.
Meyer’s vampires are rooted partly in the same vampire lore as Bram Stoker and more recently, Anne Rice. But unlike Stoker and Rice, Meyer’s vampires are not creatures of the night, monsters who look upon the living as food, cattle to be butchered. Meyer’s vampire’s not only walk around in the sunlight, glittering like sparkling candy in the open air, they have integrated themselves into their human community. Edward, along with his vampire brothers and sisters, attend high school. Why? To fit into the community, or, to give Meyer an outsider for Bella to become interested in?
The TV show,True Blood, combines a form of mysticism with their brand of vampire, which, in a general way, justifies the fact that they can mess around with humans or, I assume, each other. But in the Twilight Saga the superhuman powers that go along with being a vampire are neat, but not mystical.
What Dracula and the Anne Rice stories have in common with the Twilight Saga is the promise of immortality. If you become a vampire you can live if not forever (they never do, really) but for a long, long, long time - longer than humans. What you give up to live that long is an element of humanity. Part of the myth’s power, therefore, has to do with a vampire’s ability to walk among humans, but not actually be human. For blood, you see, is like a drug; drink it and give up all that connects a human being to the earth, to each other, and to a particular time and place. Sensuality in any form is connected to the drinking of blood and the taking of live. The physical functions a human being enjoys or endures are no longer experienced or endured by the vampire. That’s part of the bargain: the life, or if you will, lifestyle, is all about blood.
Now, Edward is dead, or rather, undead, which means he died and was reborn as a vampire. Being dead means he has no heartbeat (or does he?). Blood, even if only the blood of animals, nourishes Edward, keeps him physically vital. But what about his body? Without a heartbeat, how does he have become aroused? This being a PG-13 movie, the details of his wedding night with Bella are to be imagined, yes, but it sure looks like they’re going about it the way you and I would go about it. And, of course, afterward, the baby is proof that something exploded from Edward into Bella.
This kind of logic, I contend, never went into Stephenie Meyer’s thinking, for her vampires are not really vampires when you get right down to it. They are the fanciful figures she uses to sell her regressive sexual primer. To be logical about the Cullen clan, or anything else in the film, would stray from what eventually is revealed to be her didactic intention. Breaking Dawn, Part 2 is riddled with blatant lapses, top to bottom. Since it’s the last movie in the series, these things are more evident than before, in the other films, because the final summing up brings everything she’s got into the glittering sunlight.
Why, for instances, does it take the European vampire crew the entire movie to get their gothic butts to Washington State? The Cullen clan has time to crisscross the entire globe more than once to gather “witnesses” before Michael Sheen and all the rest arrive to make all their evil, kooky faces. (Sheen gives one of the most maddeningly entertaining performances in the entire movie. Every time he’s in close up you wonder, what’s this guy thinking?) I’ll tell you why: it’s because 1.) Summit Entertainment, following in Harry Potter’s footsteps, decided to divide Meyer’s last book into two money making parts. And 2.) no one seriously considered the time lapse to be a problem. Why? Because this is a fable, a fairytale; who cares about everyday logic? It’s not important. Trouble is, dividing Breaking Dawn into two parts, the film makers severely limited the momentum their narrative would have had if Bella’s pregnancy and Nessie’s birth had immediately been followed by the confrontation with the old-world vampires. So to pad out the running time, a good hour of Part 2 is spent with characters endlessly sitting around, whispering about how bad things are getting. Since nothing else is really going on, all we can do is sit there and ask the questions that I’m asking now.
A friend of mine told me the Cullen clan whispers because, as vampires, their sense of hearing is acute, like Roderick Usher’s in Edgar Allen Poe’s story. Well, it looked to me like a group of actors out on a limb, with little to go on, unable to make clear and solid acting choices. Frankly, the actors looked lost most of the time; and self conscious because they didn’t have anything to do but stand around and look concerned. Director Bill Condon was more at home with wedding scenes and the honeymoon build up in Part 1 than anything else. Once he got Edward and Bella in bed together, what happened after sex never seemed to settle convincingly into dramatic place. Bella’s pregnancy, the complications during birth - everything followed, point by point, because that’s what happens in the books. These movies were rushed into production, with little time to think about translating the books’ action into a cinematic narrative. There is a difference. The big moment during the birth, when Edward gets in there, his mouth all bloody, was so out of character with anything we’d seen Pattinson do in any of the movies. The effect was shocking, and not in a way that served the story.
A lot of the reviewers complained, along with the fans, about the CGI baby in Part 2, but I thought it was rather appropriate. Ridiculous, yes, for sure. But given how Breaking Dawn, Part 1 and Part 2 brings Meyer’s hatred of all things sexual to the forefront of this series, a computer animated baby with a weird, knowing smile and those icky little fingers clutching at the air seems an appropriate thing to emerge from Bella’s battered womb. That CGI baby is the culmination of all that comes before Nessie’s mystifying, clunky entrance into this group of half conceived, none-vampire-vampires.
Breaking Dawn, Part 2 is a truly terrible movie. As entertainment, it’s a slack paced, toothless spectacle; a movie about vampires and love without any blood or sex; its got terrible CGI effects, actors who can do nothing but whisper as they play parts that may have been characters in 2009, but are now merely props for the marketing department to sell; and, after all is said and done, the series finale tells us: the consequence of desire is misery, pain, social upheaval, and (a form of) death. Years from now, when all the teens who flocked to each of these movies return to them, looking for the thrill they once felt, what will they discover?
I’m thinking that those who grew into adulthood, maladjusted and terrified of everything real in the world, will think the movies hold up. But those who ended up learning more than their parents know from the internet, will probably laugh and think, how silly.
Between New Moon and Breaking Dawn, Part 1, all the stuff about shape shifting Native American boys, who transform themselves from shirtless, chiseled underwear models to CGI wolves, made me think somewhere along the line they’d become important to the story. An entire history attending this subplot makes the wolf boys natural enemies of the Cullen vampire clan. Jacob, played, as we all know, by Taylor Lautner (a grotesque combination of baby face above, muscleman’s body below), the third wheel in the Bella-Edward romance, shows up now and then with his shirt off. We’re supposed to feel the tug of suspense over the possibility that Bella might pick Jacob as her boyfriend over Edward. But since this never seems a genuine possibility, the complication, like the entire wolf deal, never really comes to anything. Jacob threatens Edward and the vampires, but never follows through. By the end of the second film, we know he’s all bluff and muscle and of no consequence to the main story whatsoever. Occasionally, the CGI wolves are neat, but, given nothing substantial to do, they end up being eye candy for teenage girls (and boys, I would guess), and that’s about it.
1. The Horror of Dracula (1958), was considered terrifically violent when it came out, mainly because it was the first major vampire movie to be filmed in Technicolor. The blood is vibrant, more red than red; smeared across Christopher Lee’s mouth, his Dracula becomes an image of intense savagery. This Penny Dreadful melodrama, written by Jimmy Sangster, set the tone for many of the Hammer Films that followed. It made Lee and Peter Cushing international stars, and director Terence Fisher emerged as a major horror film specialist. The film is fast and furious, though you never feel rushed. And it looks spectacular. A testament to the Hammer Films production staff, for the movie was made on a very low budget, shot in less than a month.
2. Back in the day, casting Tom Cruise as Lestat had everyone in the world in an uproar. When I originally saw Interview with the Vampire (1994), I thought he was okay. Over the last Halloween, I watched it again, for the first time in ages, and I was pleasantly surprised, not just by Cruise, but by the whole film. Even back then, Tom Cruise had that unearthly drive that stamps every character he plays. As Lestat, Tom’s focus and aggressive nature reads as a vampire’s animal nature. He performs his scenes as if each line and gesture is a fatal assault; the effect is breathtaking. Brad Pitt as Louis doesn’t get to show off the way Cruise, and, really, all the other actors do, but being the one understated vampire in an eccentric world of wild, unearthly creatures, his presence is finely felt. Kirsten Dunst as the forever porcelain skinned child, Claudia, one of the most startling predators ever gracing a movie screen, is the film’s most wonderful creations and performances. Neil Jordan’s vision for Anne Rice’s opening vampire act is dense and otherworldly; you can almost smell the fetid air that traces each moves these vampires make. I’m thinking that one of these days, Interview with the Vampire will be rediscovered by fans, Anne’s, and horror fans in general. When that happens, this dark, bloody, transgressively funny movie will be celebrated as a classic.
3. One of the most astounding reconstructions of the vampire myth is Katherine Bigelow's classic Near Dark, released in 1987 before Anne Rice's vampire obsession paved the way for today’s vampire trend. There's nothing nice about Bigelow’s grungy clan, vampires depicted as old time outlaws. These undead cowboys have traded horse and covered wagons for an SUV with covered windows; their blood-drenched playtime, a feeding frenzy of joyfully orchestrated cruelty and destruction, culminating in an unforgettable scene where the equally ratty patrons of an end-of-the-road bar are one by one slaughtered, for nourishment and fun. Even Stephanie Meyer's wolf boys wouldn't have a chance in full moon hell against these creatures of the night.
4. Innocent Blood (1992) is the one time that director John Landis gets it right. This modern day vampire-gangster pic works primarily because Landis and company play it straight. The outrageous stuff doesn’t get pushed; we laugh because it’s all so damn strange. Anne Parillaud, just out of her star making role in Luc Besson’s La Femme Nakita, plays Marie, a vampire who gets mixed up with Robert Loggio and his gangster crew. Anthony LaPaglia is the good human who joins forces with Marie to take down the mob. The cast is amazing, and each of the bad guys get their prime moment to turn, as they say, into the undead. Don Rickles, as the mob’s lawyer, is worth the entire film.
5. Thirst (2009), a film by Chan-wook-Park, the South Korean auteur responsible for the Oldboy trilogy, redefines vampirism with a Catholic priest as his subject. The priest volunteers to be a test subject for a new vaccine and dies in the process. But he really doesn’t die, not in the traditional sense of the word. What follows is shocking, sad, and often quite moving.
6. Tomas Alfredson’s vampire masterpiece, Let the Right One In (2008), ended up on ten best lists as diverse as Fangoria Magazine and The Wall Street Journal. If I tell you that this little Norwegian film focuses on many of the same themes you find mangled in the Twilight series, you must understand that Alfredson goes off in completely different directions to explore them. To begin with, the movie starts out as a kind of child like romance between 12-year-old Oskar and the girl who lives in the apartment next door. Her name is Eli and she’s also 12, but she’s been that age for 200 years. What’s astounding about the movie, apart from a story that simply holds you by the throat for its entire running time, is the marvelous way old vampire myths are respected. Unlike the Twilight movies, where you have to stop and think about how the vampires live, and all, Alfredson either implies circumstance, or in some dramatic way lets you know what’s different. The film is brutal, yes, but also very touching. Oskar and Eli’s romance is as darkly thrilling and moving as any you can think of before or since. Let the Right One In streams on Netflix and is also available through Amazon Prime. Don’t be afraid of the subtitles. See it. Right now.
Nick Faust is a local actor and director who has done it all. He has worked on theatre and film projects all over the world. The Sugg Street Post is happy to have Nick contributing in-depth movie reviews and will continue to share them with our readers.
Sugg Street Post
Written by Nick Faust