Twilight and Narratives of Immigration (Ten Years Later)

48141990.cachedWarning: this week’s post may have been produced under sleep-deprived conditions. It may or may not also have provoked me to revisit the series, and buy Stephanie Meyer’s gender-swapped anniversary edition of Twilight, entitled Life and Death

Part of my thesis deals with the overtly political aspect of monstrousness. When we make monsters, we often rely on aspects of politicised otherness (blackness, as with the Uruk-hai from The Lord of the Rings, or femininity, like in Species) to cue us in to the fact that these creatures are ‘evil’ or ‘unnatural’. More recently, in film, television, and other popular culture, we’ve used monsters for a completely different reason: to try and make immigrants cool again.

In the wake of the not-so-recent announcement that Twilight is getting a new instalment of sorts (in the form of six short films), I’ve been doing some thinking about the ups and downs of the franchise. Where does Twilight fit into the contemporary monster scene, particularly given its depictions of monstrosity and otherness?

You could safely say that I am not a Twilight fan, though I’ve read most of the novels and seen all the films. My bachelor’s thesis, entitled ‘The Horror of Dracula: Twilight and the 21st-Century Vampire’, looked at how Twilight and related tween vampire productions metaphorically de-fang traditional vampire narratives of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As a huge vampire fan growing up (the more evil the vampire the better), I found it difficult to connect with the new sparkly, vegetarian variety I was seeing everywhere. Like others, I worried that the days of the ‘real’ vampires were behind us.

So, so white. I feel like they're about to burst into song at any moment.
So, so white. I feel like they’re about to burst into coordinated song and dance at any moment.

A few years down the line, however, my attitude towards the Twilight franchise has mellowed. It may not represent my favourite kind of literature or film, but if nothing else the antics of its fans (and the slow death of Robert Pattison’s soul) have given me lots to think, talk, and write about. Twilight also spawned the hugely successful 50 Shades of Grey, which in turn led to a film adaptation that saw a massively successful opening weekend at the box office (if not with critics). Without this former fanfic, where would I turn for my go-to example of the commodification of amateur art?

Likewise, my attitude about the representation of race and foreignness in Twilight has shifted slightly in the face of my recent research into the role fan and audience response plays in the reception of a text. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely many issues with the way gender, race (specifically people of colour), class, and sexuality are portrayed in the Twilight franchise. I see how Twilight, like many other contemporary cultural products, either ignores or openly mocks the many people who do not belong to the cultural majority.

These Amazonian vampires are just begging for some post-colonial deconstruction.
These Amazonian vampires are just begging for some post-colonial deconstruction.

Despite the whiteness of its main characters, however, the Twilight series also has a surprisingly tolerant stance on immigration and integration compared to most of the attitudes out there these days. In horror fiction, the vampire is also generally not very welcome in the country he or she decides to set up residence. At worst, the vampire is a bloodthirsty entrepreneur who wants to suck that country (and its inhabitants) dry. At best, the vampire does little more than leech off the people he meets and the economy that supports him. Neither is really the model citizen.

The Twilight series even has more than one model of the resident alien, and the multicultural government. There are the Native werewolves who quietly if doggedly (pun intended) stand by their traditions, protecting their land against antagonistic outsiders. You’ve got the Volturi, who are essentially a vampire mafia, and who, from their base in Rome, impose their own strict laws upon all vampires for the ‘greater good’. The final instalments of Twilight even feature the equivalent of a vampire United Nations, in which the free exchange of cultures and resources is portrayed in an unabashedly utopian light. Twilight (both book and film) certainly promotes many unhealthy stereotypes about the people of colour it depicts, but unfortunately the racial diversity of its characters and casting still puts much of contemporary entertainment to shame.

Vampires of the world, all gathered around the campfire like one big happy family.
Vampires of the world, all gathered around the campfire like one big happy family.

To me, however, the white, Western vampires in Twilight are also immigrants of a very specific sort. Though sometimes they segregates themselves from the culture of Forks, Edward and his family largely integrate. Edward and his vampire ‘siblings’ attend the local high school, his ‘father’ holds a respectable position as a doctor at the nearby hospital, and the Cullens regularly enjoy a game of baseball, the American pastime. If anything, Edward and his vampire family are frighteningly normal, not Other. Twilight’s vampire characters are all white, yes, but read from a certain perspective their whiteness is taken to an extreme that is arguably no longer identifiable with (or is even a caricature of) mainstream ‘whiteness’. Playing baseball, driving Volvos – are these things eighteenth-century Americans would have appreciated? Is it not terribly, temporally colonialist of the twenty-first century to assume that American hobbies and consumer values would remain inherently unchanged for hundreds of years?

This scene feels almost like it's as much torture for them as it is for us.
This scene feels like it’s as much torture for them as it is for us.

Do I think that this engagement with themes of immigration and integration makes up for the other flaws in the series? No.

Does this mean that the Twilight franchise represents a positive response to the typically racist and classist portrayals of vampires in fiction? I’m unconvinced. I do find it to be an interesting line of thought, however.

Do you agree? Are you also disturbed by the fact that the Twilight series is looking increasingly progressive in the light of current Western politics? Let me know in the comments.

The Promises of Monsters

Rory Kinnear as Frankenstein's creature in Penny Dreadful.
Rory Kinnear as Frankenstein’s creature in Penny Dreadful.
If you’re not too keen on theory, never fear! What I say below is basically a more academic rewriting of this blog post

Next week I’ll be presenting at a conference called ‘Promises of Monsters’. In my paper, I’ll be looking at the way the Showtime series Penny Dreadful (and other monster mashups) use and abuse certain ‘promises’ or possibilities of the monstrous that have been popularised by literary critics. Though monster studies as an academic discipline is still quite young, the monster mashup can be seen to respond to many of its claims directly, using the language of monstrosity for commercial ends. Though they’re often marketed as a reinvention or subversion of cultural hierarchies, binaries, and stereotypes, the monsters of mashup (and the mashups themselves) fall short of these promises time and time again.

So what are the promises of monsters, generally speaking? One answer lies in Donna Haraway’s 1992 essay ‘The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others’, which is also where the conference gets its name. This is not the critical approach I’ll be looking at in this post, however. Haraway never really explicitly defines the monsters she is talking about. Those she describes are not quite the same as the fantastical, fictional monsters I am writing about, though the links are there.

Barney the Dinosaur is a different kind of monster than Adolf Hitler, though I'm sure many people on the internet would disagree.
Barney the Dinosaur is a different kind of monster than Adolf Hitler, though I’m sure many people on the internet would disagree.
Instead, we’re going to go with Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s introductory chapter to Monster Theory: Reading Culture (1996). In discussing what defines the typical or traditional monster, Cohen outlines seven theses. The first and most important is that the monster’s body is a cultural body. Cohen explains the creation of meaning through the monster as follows:

The monster is born only at this metaphoric crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment—of a time, a feeling, and a place. The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy (ataractic or incendiary), giving them life and an uncanny in-dependence. The monstrous body is pure culture. A construct and a projection, the monster exists only to be read. (‘Monster Culture’, p. 4)

Monsters may have a real-world presence, and they may be legitimately terrifying, but they are always first defined in the realm of narrative and imagination. These narrative bodies shape (and are shaped by) what we consider to be abnormal and deviant. Take the parallels between narratives about zombies and narratives about refugees as an example. I’ve also blogged about this in the context of what Judith Halberstam calls ‘zombie humanism’:

It's not rare to see refugees described and depicted as an invading horde.
It’s not rare to see refugees described and depicted as an invading horde.
In this approach to monstrosity, then, one must thus ‘consider beasts, demons, freaks, and fiends as symbolic expressions of cultural unease that pervade a society and shape its collective behavior’ (Monster Theory, back cover). A culture’s fascination with monsters would then suggest a desire to explore categories of ‘difference and prohibition’ (again, back cover).

Following this reasoning, the Uruk-hai from The Lord of the Rings are coded as 'monsters' because of Western culture's negative associations with muscularity, black skin, and animalistic features.
Monstrous, but why?
Cohen’s second and third theses – that the monster always escapes and is the harbinger of category crisis – relate to the expression of the monster’s cultural body. The monster is constantly changing, and thus resists easy categorisation (‘Monster Culture’, p. 4-7). Cohen’s fourth thesis explores another fundamental mark of the traditional monster that reflects the first: it ‘dwells at the gates of difference’ (p. 7). Just as the monster’s body is constructed by the fears and obsessions of culture, it is also physically marked by what that culture considers as different. This alterity can take any form, but Cohen argues that ‘for the most part monstrous difference tends to be cultural, political, racial, economic, sexual’ (p. 7). Following this reasoning, the Uruk-hai from The Lord of the Rings are coded as ‘monsters’ because of the West’s negative associations with muscularity, rural culture, black skin, and animalistic features. Because of this inherently (bio)political aspect of the monstrous, through the monster ‘the boundaries between personal and national bodies blur’ (p.10). This is a quality that remains in the monsters of mashup, though the way the monster’s body is used to represent a social body or the nation-state is different in every case.

Because of its liminal position, the monster ‘polices the borders of the possible’ as well as signalling difference (thesis five; p. 12). By embodying what is forbidden, the monster also seductively hints at what might be possible should the reader choose to cross the boundaries it marks (thesis six; p. 16). The type of seduction enacted and boundaries drawn depends on the type of monster embodied. Critical work on medieval monsters simply shows ‘a morally and physically deformed creature arriving to demarcate the boundary beyond which lies the unintelligible, the inhuman’ (Of Giants, 1999, p. xiv), but with the development of modern systems of deviance and punishment, the monster has came to occupy a special place in the social hierarchy.

In The Silence of the Lambs (1991) .
In The Silence of the Lambs (1991), figurative monsters (morally) are also literal monsters (physically).
Using the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs as an illustration, Halberstam demonstrates ‘the distance traveled between current [late twentieth-century] representations of monstrosity and their genesis in nineteenth-century Gothic fiction’ (Skin Shows, 1995, p. 1.). For Halberstam, while the monster always foregrounds physical difference and visibility, ‘the monsters of the nineteenth century metaphorized modern subjectivity as a balancing act between inside / outside, female / male, body / mind, native / foreign, proletarian/aristocrat’, and so on and so forth (p. 1). Postmodern horror, on the other hand, tends to favour ‘the obscenity of “immediate visibility”’, and its monsters are ‘all body and no soul’ (p. 1). This again signals the increasing loss of  direct significance evident in the twenty-first century monster. The concept of the human is at once too basic and too abstract to mythologise in any straightforward way.

Cohen’s final thesis explores how monstrous difference can be (and often is) deployed in critical theory to ‘reevaluate our cultural assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, our perception of difference, our tolerance toward its expression’ (p. 20). Critical theory tends to view the monster as an inherently progressive figure, or even a rebellious one, standing for the marginalised and fighting against an unfair society. It is by playing this final characteristic that the mashup is able to turn the monster’s traditional function on its head, highlighting the paradoxical (in)visibility, the loss of metaphysical significance, and the liberal populist tendencies that mark fantastical monstrosity’s twenty-first-century iterations. These narratives appropriate historical traditions of the monstrous as well as historical monsters.

What does it mean to be a monster in the twenty-first century, and how do both the form of the mashup and the ‘burden of history’ (as Hayden White would put it) complicate this identity? You’ll have to come to the conference to find out – or wait a couple of years for my thesis to be finished. In any case, fulfilling the promises of monsters is arguably more complicated than it used to be. It takes the right bodies, interacting in the right way, to reclaim the monster as a symbol of progressive identity politics.

Reclaim the monster before it reclaims us.
Reclaim the monster before it reclaims us?
I love monsters and all their promises, and I sincerely hope the third season of Penny Dreadful puts the arguments I make in this conference paper to shame. Until then, it provides plenty of fuel for blogging.

 

Anatomy of a Cover

0ec06a8b4e7a3c88a15b846bf68cbb5dWe’re always told that we should never judge a book by its cover, but the truth is that a lot of work goes into making sure we do. A cover generally gives us an immediate idea of the genre, register, and target audience of a book. A good cover will also generate excitement and interest, and make a book stand out from the texts around it. Book design may even save the independent publishing industry, where according to The Independent publishers are ‘springing up to provide a certain kind of reader with what they want, more than ever: the book as beautiful, covetable, keep-able object’.

Because the cover is such an important part of selling books, often the same book will have multiple different covers for various countries and age groups. Take the ever-increasing variety of Harry Potter covers as an example. Book covers also generally get an update when they’re reprinted many years later, as was the case with the subject of today’s blog post: Kim Newman’s series of alternate-history vampire novels, Anno Dracula. You may recall that I posted a few weeks ago about the second book in this series, The Bloody Red Baron, and how it deals with the balance between entertainment and ethics in its reproduction of WWI.

These books were originally released in the ’90s, when they were marketed to a very different audience. As you can see below, the original cover for Anno Dracula (the first book in the series; 1992) has a distinct Anne Rice feel to it:
Anno Dracula

The reprinting from Titan Books, however, has a very contemporary feel, and taps into the growing neo-Victorian market. In a blog post on Titan Books, illustrator Martin Stiff of Amazing 15 talks about how they arrived at the new cover, and what was discarded along the way. Martin was kind enough to let me reprint the post for you here:


For a series of books where the characters and plot span the entire twentieth century it was always going to be tough to come up with a series design which could evoke the period while also being consistent across the range.

We tried some more traditional approaches to begin with, a half-and-half style cover with a lady vampire and an image which suggests the particular decade the book is set but these felt a little boring, like we’d seen them a million times before.


Mulling it over we struck upon the idea of a continuing series of posters, with each designed in the style of the period. The first, Anno Dracula, is set in the 1880s, so I mocked up a faux Victorian music-hall poster. This sat nicely with the adult nature and looked quite sophisticated – and the central idea of the poster fashion changing with each title was a great concept. But for some reason the idea never struck home with everyone and it got shot down. But like any good vampire it was soon to rise from the dead…

Our next round of covers used a simple framing device and an ‘object’ – a blood-stained locket on Anno Dracula, an Iron Cross on The Bloody Red Baron and so forth. For a while this was the cover Titan used for sales purposes and it seemed for a while it was going to be the final cover too. Never completely comfortable with the concept we continued to fiddle with the cover and tried some versions which combined the ‘object’ idea and the ‘poster’ idea but again, nothing really worked as well as we wanted it too.





It’s very easy, after producing so many different ideas, to get a little bogged down with the approaches you’ve already tried so we went back to the drawing board and tried some entirely new directions. The concept with these were to use a well-known building which could illustrate the plot of each book (hence Buckingham Palace for Anno Dracula). We kicked about the illustrated church cover for a while, with different logo treatments and different colour ways, but again it fell at the final fence.


Finally – and as frustrating as this may seem – we went right back to the beginning! The original music-hall poster concept seemed to have lodged into people’s imaginations and more we deviated from it with the other ideas the more we all realised how much we liked it. We brought it back to the table and continued working on it (we rejigged some of the text, added new quotes, etc. – and we actually made it look like a real poster on a wall) and suddenly we had our final cover!

Part of designing a series of book covers is ensuring any ideas you might have will work across the entire range. So, using the principle concept for Anno Dracula, we worked up the second book – The Bloody Red Baron. We were lucky enough to find an evocative (and out of copyright) WWI German propaganda poster and with a little twist (the black clouds turning into bats) we hit upon a really eye-catching cover!


As you can see below, the final cover for The Bloody Red Baron ended up being slightly different, though the overall idea is the same:

AnnoDracBloodyCv

The next two books in the series, Dracula Cha Cha Cha (1998) and Johnny Alucard (2013), follow a similar pattern:

anno_dracula_chachacha

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What do you think? Do these covers make you want to pick up a copy?

If you’re interested in learning more about book cover design, BBC Radio 4 has a 30-minute podcast on The Art of Book Cover Design, with John Wilson. There’s also a nice TED Talks on the subject with Chip Kidd, associate art director at Knopf, and a video from Random House where they interview some of their designers. You may also want to check out Lousy Book Covers, a Tumblr account dedicated to sharing some of the best of the worst.

On the Front Lines Between ‘Funny’ and ‘Offensive’

Art by Billy Ludwig.
Art by Billy Ludwig.

Seeing as today is April Fool’s Day (or April Fools’ Day, as Wikipedia pointedly suggests I should be apostrophising it), and most of the commentary on the day’s festivities seems to border on despair and desperation, I thought it might be fun to post something about the uses and limits of humour.

The line between what’s funny and what isn’t is a fine one, and is often purely a matter of context. Even when successful, humour is always a question of morality, politics, and aesthetics. One need only look at the recent Charlie Hebdo shootings and controversy to confirm this assertion. Humour can be used to point to both serious and trivial issues, and whether it is productive is always a question of perspective.

In the introduction to their 2005 essay collection Beyond a Joke: The Limits of Humour, Sharon Lockyer and Michael Pickering have the following to say about the distinction between what is considered funny and what is offensive:

It is generally regarded as being beneficial to laugh about things, including ourselves; to get problems off our chests and ‘see their funny side’; to look back on what was previously regarded as very serious, maybe even tragic, and ‘have a good laugh about it’. There are clearly many cases where this is so, but equally there are others when it is inappropriate to laugh, when humour does not sit happily with the general tenor of an event or situation, and when a joke is regarded as overstepping the mark, as being beyond a joke.
(p. 4)

In this definition of the border between humour and harm, the focus is on whether the object of ridicule is the person laughing, or some unspecified other. A few pages later Lockyer and Pickering use the example of a female Muslim comedian, who tells a joke about being felt up during a pilgrimage to Mecca. Were a Christian man to tell this joke, they argue, it would ‘shift from being a joke at the teller’s expense to a joke told at someone else’s’ (p. 9).

From the cover of Beyond a Joke
From the cover of Beyond a Joke

Nazi jokes and humour are often the target of these kinds of questions. Is the Japanese ‘Nazi chic’ trend excused by the fact that the perpetrators aren’t German, and weren’t even alive during World War II? At what point are we responsible for the images and ideas we appropriate?

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the borders of the humorous. I recently finished a first draft of a chapter on humour in the novel-as-masup (Jane Slayre, Wuthering Bites, etc.), which is also under review as part of an upcoming book collection. In these mashups, the question of humour is mainly one of triviality. The very idea of combining Jane Austen and zombies or sea monsters is so silly it almost crosses the border of humour in the other direction to become boring. Even for those inclined to be disturbed by the potential defacement of a literary classic, is it really worth getting upset over fiction? Because I’ve been working on it so much I’m a bit tired of the whole genre at the moment, but I’m also writing on a tangential paper for the upcoming Material Traces of the Past in Contemporary Literature conference in Málaga, Spain (naturally the location had nothing to do with my decision to attend).

Art by Billy Ludwig.
Art by Billy Ludwig.

For this paper I’ll be looking at how the creation and inversion of ironic distance complicates readings of historical fiction in the twenty-first century. Rather than looking at the nineteenth century as I do in my chapter, I’ll be covering some texts set during the two World Wars. The first is Kim Newman’s The Bloody Red Baron (1995 | 2012), an alternate history novel that imagines Count Dracula leading the German forces during WWI. The second is Billy Ludwig’s manipulations of old photos from WWII, modified to include iconic images from Star Wars.

The Bloody Red Baron was a largely uncontroversial novel, both at its original 1995 release and at its reprinting in 2012. Ludwig’s photomanipulations have seen some moderate internet blowback, however, as has the similar If Star Wars Was Real photo series. This comes despite the fact that the two sets of images clearly mesh well aesthetically, partially due to the fact that George Lucas drew liberal inspiration from both World Wars when creating the Star Wars universe, as fan and historian Cole Horton demonstrates. When you get down to it, both texts are technically doing the same thing: inserting fantastical characters and images into historical contexts. What makes the one potentially upsetting, while the other is accepted as harmless?

The 2012 reissue of The Bloody Red Baron has some flashy new cover art.
The 2012 reissue of The Bloody Red Baron has some flashy new cover art.

One answer might be the visualness of photography. It’s inherently more confrontational than text. With a novel we have the right not to read, or to ‘look away’, as it were. In her 1968 article ‘The Social Control of Cognition: Some Factors in Joke Perception’, Mary Douglas argues that humour needs to be permitted as well as understood in order to be perceived as a joke. There is nothing particularly offensive about any version of The Bloody Red Baron’s cover art, or the book’s title. You never know where Ludwig’s photomanipulations might pop up, though, confronting you with something you have no chance to opt out of.

A woman runs for her life from an AT-AT.
A woman runs for her life from an AT-AT.

Another answer might lie in the question of celebrity. In The Bloody Red Baron, Kim Newman mainly hijacks famous historical figures. By stepping into the public spotlight, these figures have abdicated their right to privacy – at least to a certain degree. Additionally, many of these famous figures remained far from the front lines during the war. The same cannot be said for the lowly foot-soldiers and everyday citizens featured in many of the Star Wars photomanipulations.

What do you think – are these images offensive? If so, where do they cross the line?

The Good, the Bad, and the Book Trailers

http://t-ry.deviantart.com/art/Reading-the-monster-395926279Happy World Book Day (a few days late, and also only in the UK and Ireland)! This week’s post will be a short one, because I’ve got a big deadline on Friday that I should be focusing on, but I’ll try to start you off on an interesting trajectory. Naturally, the part of Book Day most people probably noticed were the pictures of book-themed costumes that popped up on social media, but the official website also shared this list of YA book trailers, citing them as ‘a brilliant way to bring books to life for audiences of all ages – and often encourage young readers to pick up a book they might not usually choose’.

I have to be honest and say that I don’t often watch book trailers, although I know there are actually a lot of good ones out there (particularly for young adult titles). Most times I don’t see the appeal of having a book visualised in that way, given that I tend to be attracted by very print-centric writing styles rather than big cinematic stories. The exception may be when I see something like this video for novel-as-mashup Jane Slayre, which advertises the book while also giving us a look at the way an author expresses themselves:


A few days ago I sent off for a copy of Seth Grahame-Smith’s new book, The Last American Vampire, which is being advertised as the sequel to Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. I would have ended up reading this sooner or later, given the subject matter, but what ultimately got me interested in having it RIGHT NOW was this book trailer:

Is this not one of the most gloriously ludicrous things you have ever seen?

Some books definitely lend themselves to trailers better than others. Perhaps the reason I enjoy watching trailers for monster mashups is that I’m half expecting each of them to be snatched up by Hollywood. It makes me curious to see how the story will play out on-screen. Maybe it’s the fact that trailer mashups have become a real art, or that I like to see book mashups tackle multimedia crossovers as well as a genre ones. Or maybe it’s just that my treasured Sunday afternoon on YouTube is the perfect stage for the silliness that is this Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters trailer:

Sadly Pride and Prejudice and Zombies had no book trailer (than I can find), but the video for prequel Dawn of the Dreadfuls more than makes up for that oversight:

What about you, internet? Any book trailers to recommend, or violent objections to the book trailer industry in general?

 

What They Do in the Shadows is Basically What We Do, Too

Whatever I had been expecting from vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, it wasn’t what I got in the end. And I mean that in the best possible way. Where to start? With plot, I suppose, though that may be the least interesting part about this film. What We Do in the Shadows follows a film crew documenting the lives of five vampire flatmates in Wellington, New Zealand, in the run-up to the annual Unholy Masquerade Ball.

what-we-do-in-the-shadows-image-1
Meet the boys.

They may be eternally youthful in the stories, but in pop culture vampires are kind of old. It’s more or less all been done before, and there’s a lot of baggage to engage with. What We Do in the Shadows runs us through the stereotypes of vampire folklore and cinema. You’ve got Petyr, a silent, Nosferatu-esque vampire who’s over 8,000 years old. Then there’s the medieval noble Vladislav (a.ka. “Vladislav the Poker”), a tongue-in-cheek reference to Vlad the Impaler, often cited as the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Next up is Deacon, a mere 183 years old, who considers himself the “bad boy” of the group and enjoys pulling the turning-food-into-worms gag from The Lost Boys. The most recent addition is the two-month-old Nick, who goes around telling people he’s “that guy from Twilight”. The description is more accurate than he knows: he doesn’t make a very good vampire in the traditional sense, and honestly he’s kind of a douche. Plus all of his bragging eventually brings a vampire hunter down on the house, with upsetting consequences.

Finally there’s Viago, the primary narrator. A dandy from the 17th century who is basically a mashup of Louis and Lestat (you probably know them as Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt) from Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire, Viago tries to keep the peace between his flatmates, feed on victims without getting blood all over his antique furtiture (unsuccessfully), and entertain the camera crew, all while pining for his lost love Katherine.

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Poor Viago. He can never quite keep the house clean.

The film may be a mockumentary, but it also uses a lot of horror tropes, mostly for the sake of a joke. The typical melodrama found in contemporary vampire movies is turned on its head to highlight how ridiculous classic phrases and scenarios sound when taken even slightly out of context:

“Leave me alone to do my dark bidding on the internet!”
“Whatcha bidding on?”
“This table…”

The typical glamour of the vampire lifestyle also gets flipped around in the mockumentary. Like Ann Rice’s bored and decadent vampires, you can see that the five flatmates in What We Do in the Shadows basically make it as vampires because they were (and are) so bad at being people. Ironically this is also what makes them sympathetic as people.While we’re laughing at their quirks and misfortunes, ours feel small in comparison. Their mistakes may have bigger and bloodier consequences – though is blood harder to get out of upholstery than red wine? – but most of us can empathise with their failures and frustrations. And if that fails, we’ve still got Stu the IT guy.

You rock, Stu.
You rock, Stu.

What I honestly didn’t expect was how funny or engaging I would find this movie, something that has to do with how good of a parody it is on several levels. It takes a poke at a lot of different things – pop culture, New Zealand, bachelors, the elderly, support group slogans (“werewolves, not swearwolves”) – but it also does a great job at using vampires to pick apart our ideas about loneliness, immortality, and just generally being human. Ironically, this makes What We Do in the Shadows a good vampire movie in addition to a good parody. Though some have accused the film of being shallow, for me it was a much-needed breath of fresh air in the otherwise stale crypt of vampire cinema, and it delivered everything we want from our vampires in this specific place and time.

Without casting any literal reflection themselves, vampires still manage to reflect our needs, interests, and emotions, even in 2015.

taika_waititi_s_new_film_what_we_do_in_the_shadows_1670679555
They know what we want more than anything right now is ghostly floating teacup antics.

 

New to the Reading List (11/12/2014)

New books 12/12/2014The second round of the books I ordered from the library have now arrived, and two of them were in hardcover no less. Not something you see every day, and certainly not in the “popular fiction” realm of theory, which tends to be relegated to trade paperback – not too shabby, but not quite as satisfying as a nice hardcover edition. This week’s haul includes:

Levine, Elana, and Lisa Parks, eds., Undead TV: Essays on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008). This one is a long shot, but I’m hoping it will have a few interesting articles relating monsters (and slayers) to posthumanism, and to cross-media adaptations.
Khair, Tabish, and Johan Höglund, eds., Transnational and Postcolonial Vampires: Dark Blood (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Who could resist a book with this title? I read more of less all of the contemporary theory on vampires out there while I was writing my BA and MA theses, but this is a new one. Again, hoping for some good approaches to adaptation and monstrosity.
Byron, Glennis, and Dale Townshend, eds., The Gothic World (London: Routledge, 2014). This one is on the list purely because of the authors and the subject. A new overview of the Gothic (particularly focussed on new media) by two scholars who have done good work on the Gothic together in the past is a must-read text. And because it only just came out no one else had requested it yet – though I’m sure it would have made it to the library eventually.

Today I hop a flight back to the Netherlands for the Christmas holidays, and tomorrow bright and early I’ll be headed into Amsterdam for a Dutch-language day conference called Well and Unwell: The Body in the 19th Century. Hoping to meet lots of people with similar interests there, hear some new ideas, and also to start building up a Dutch network of contacts. You never know where a good job might open up.