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The SportsAlcohol.com Frankenstein Studies: Frankenstein (2016)

Nathaniel

SportsAlcohol.com cofounder Nathaniel moved to Brooklyn, as you do. His hobbies include cutting up rhubarb and laying down. His favorite things are the band Moon Hooch and custard from Shake Shack. Old ladies love his hair.
Nathaniel

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JESSE:
OK, Nathaniel, it’s time to talk about this Frankenstein 2016 redo that’s just come out on Blu-ray. I really should’ve sent this movie over to Rob and Sabrina with the probably foolish hopes that their contributions to the discussion could keep us from devolving into Josh Hutcherson fan fiction and analysis of the comic strip Luann, but we’ll do our best. This is such a new version of Frankenstein that it hasn’t even been added to the Wikipedia page of Frankenstein In Popular Culture (if you’re the one who updates this, please do), and it’s pretty stripped down. I’m sure some of that has to do with its direct-to-video origins, but I did see some value — perhaps more theoretical than actual — in doing up a “modern-day Frankenstein story” on pedestrian-looking city streets and sets that look a bit like redressed high school basements. Did the low-budget angle work for you, the Frankenstein enthusiast?

NATHANIEL:
Yeah, I’m often skeptical of that kind of low-budget (and modern day) approach for stories like this. But here, in restricting the adaptation and point of view primarily to the portions of the story where the creature is off on his own learning the ways of the world, they found a way in to the story that actually feels fresh for a while, and kind of appropriate spending tons of time in vacant lots and empty irrigation canals or whatever generic concrete-and-chainlink environs they shot in. It’s definitely an immersive approach, dropping you right in with a POV camera and little in the way of exposition. And I dug the way that, since this version of the creature remains pretty inarticulate, they incorporated some of the text of the novel as voiceover (or at least voice over clearly meant to invoke the novel, since some seemed tailored specifically to what we see onscreen and I didn’t have a copy on hand to compare it). But placing us so fully in the creature’s perspective, and extending his “cast out & beset upon by the cruelty of the world” period to make up the entirety of the film, ended up making it feel punishing to me. The grubby grisliness of it all (and how about the gore in this movie?) makes for some pretty memorable imagery, but it also ends up a little monotonous. And it felt a little weird rubbing up against the numerous homages to the Karloff films. Xavier Samuel really goes for it (perhaps because we watched this shortly before the Academy Awards, it brought to mind DiCaprio playing another revenant, at least in terms of drooling, screaming, and dirt eating), but he’s no Karloff. So the winky stuff made me miss the pathos of Karloff’s performances as the last half hour of the film heaped even more misery on the monster. Did that bother you at all? Or did that stuff even read as specific homage anymore?
Continue reading The SportsAlcohol.com Frankenstein Studies: Frankenstein (2016)

The State of the Modern Vampire

Maggie

Maggie is a for-real writer. We're kind of surprised that she would lend her name and her words to SportsAlcohol.com, but we're certainly not complaining. Her first novel, The Cost of All Things, can be ordered here.
Maggie

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Bona fides

By day, I am an editor of young adult fiction. I have read all the Twilight books (including the unreleased 100-page version of book one from Edward’s perspective), seen every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and attended a midnight singalong of “Once More With Feeling”), and I am straight-up OBSESSED with The Vampire Diaries and how BADASS AND AWESOME it is. I have read what feels like thousands of paranormal unpublished and published books. I have a working familiarity with all popular vampire lit, in that, if pressed, I could plausibly fake having read/seen them at a cocktail party. (Super cool cocktail party, bro.)

Caveats

I have not read the Vampire Academy books or seen any of True Blood. I was never in to Anne Rice.

Context

Let’s throw out some dates: Buffy the Vampire Slayer ran from 1997-2003. The first Twilight novel was published in 2005. True Blood and the first Twilight movie premiered in 2008; The Vampire Diaries premiered in 2009 (based on a novel published in the early 1990s). Anne Rice wrote about Lestat for decades before any of this—starting in 1976. Count Von Count has been enumerating since 1972. Bela Lugosi did this shtick for a long, long time. And of course Bram Stoker was on the cutting edge of the repurposing-folktales trend with Dracula (1897).

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So young!

Vampire Academy the book series became popular on the heels of Twilight—the first Vampire Academy book came out in 2007—but it’s more a descendent of Buffy than Bella. (Which from a publishing perspective makes sense. Books take a long time to write. It’s extremely unlikely Richelle Mead had read Twilight when she wrote her book.) Unlike Bella, Rose kicks ass and is sarcastic as a Guardian—a role similar to Giles’s Watcher. Unlike in Twilight, romantic complications are secondary to a mystery plot. These vampires are “different,” like Twilight vampires, but each vampire story must distinguish itself from the previous ones in some way, and the time was right for more vampires of any stripe.

In tracing the popularity of the books, it doesn’t hurt to add in a dash of being sent to “special school,” a la Harry Potter—but it’s also, I will self-righteously note in a futile attempt to get everyone to stop comparing everything to Harry Potter, one of the foundational tropes of children’s literature forever and ever, from What Katy Did to A Wizard of Earthsea to Sideways Stories from Wayside School and beyond.

So that’s the world that brought us these books. The zenith of vampire hype. Readers were desperate for more, publishers scrambled to fill the demand (see the resurgence of The Vampire Diaries, a 20+ years old series), and a great rush of books filled the void. The world into which this movie was released is very different than the 2007-2010 vampire heyday. We’re inundated with them (see first paragraph). Twilight is over, and we’re looking for the next Hunger Games instead (see future SportsAlcohol.com post on Divergent). Vampire Academy feels out of its time from the get-go, from its straight-up title to the slightly-but-not-quite parodic tone.

Secrecy

Part of the fun of the classic vampire story is the process of learning that vampires are, in fact, real. There’s a period of creepy suspicion, where things might be normal-ish, and then the fangs come out. That’s 80% of the first Twilight book. It takes Elena around six episodes to piece things together on The Vampire Diaries (and it is so satisfying to see her ask sensible questions and not allow Stefan to get away with half-answers). It’s the thrill of arriving in that creepy old house and wondering what secrets your host is hiding.

Once the information is out, the story automatically becomes much more complicated. Are there other vampires? How do you become a vampire? Are vampires people, or are they some sort of other? Do they have a conscience/soul? Why doesn’t everyone know about them? Do they have enemies? (Often the natural enemy of the vampire is the werewolf [Twilight, TVD]. Which can lead to things like Underworld making a tiny amount of sense. Note: There’s no such longstanding tradition of gargoyle/Frankenstein conflict.) How do you kill them? Sparkle in the sun: y/n?

For the most part Vampire Academy dispenses with the thrills part of this formula and starts answering the questions, thus leading to Jesse’s complaint that the movie is all mythology. But I see this less as a complaint with the actual movie but a problem with the medium of this particular vampire story. After a while, things get complex in every story, if the story’s going to remain interesting, and books and TV shows have a lot more time to develop their rules and backstories than movies do. The Vampire Diaries has one of the most dense and complicated backstories I’ve ever experienced. (For example, here is how you become a vampire: 1) ingest vampire blood, 2) die, 3) re-animate, 4) grapple with your life choices and bloodlust, and 5) ingest human blood. The process can take days and there are multiple opportunities for interruption. Narratively, it’s a goldmine.) AND YET all this mythology is also amazing and flawless in every way. They can afford to feed us the mythology a morsel at a time. A movie doesn’t have that luxury, so it’s straight to spelling things out in voiceover and on-screen text.

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Flawless

In most of the vampire stories I’ve mentioned, the vampires have some interaction with the outside world. That’s where the primary tension comes from: Who knows/who doesn’t, who’s hiding/who’s hot on their trail, which innocent people are likely to be slaughtered if our heroes don’t get their acts in gear. Vampire Academy, with the exception of one scene in a mall, does not feature with normal people at all. This means that the story has to rely on the mythology and the politics of the world for tension.

Granted, stories like Twilight and The Vampire Diaries and Buffy eventually, somewhat inevitably due to the murderous nature of vampires and the danger of their worlds, dispense with “normals” and become just as internally-focused as Vampire Academy. Twilight is taken over by the Volturi. The whole world fills with Slayers. There’s like one normal human being left in The Vampire Diaries and even he’s been possessed occasionally. But again, that’s a more understandable place to end up when we’ve seen hundreds of hours or read hundreds of pages about these people.

The Soul

What makes a person “good”? This is an essential question of most vampire stories. Vampires must drink blood to survive, and certainly, cutting people open tends to lead to their demise. But it doesn’t have to. There are plenty of ways to feed without becoming a killer: stealing from blood banks (questionably moral, but not intentionally murderous), animal blood, synthetic blood, and just taking a sip.

For most vampires, though, it’s not that simple. The state of being a vampire and needing blood to survive is often physiologically (and metaphysically) different than you or I saying “I’m hungry and would like a sandwich.” I’m talking about bloodlust, the extreme desire for human blood. Deeper than a craving, and uncontrollable, and definitely sexual. Moroi in Vampire Academy don’t appear to have bloodlust, but Strogoi definitely do. And Strogoi, not coincidentally, seem to have been stripped of their soul.

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Kitty!

The soul! The thing that makes us “human” and “not murder-y.” In The Vampire Diaries, the cleverest show that ever was, vampires can choose to switch on and off their “humanity.” If they switch it off they do not give a fuck and will murder you where you stand, and it takes a ton of convincing to get them to turn it back on again. In Buffy, vampires (with two exceptions) don’t have souls at all, so it’s usually okay to dust them.

In Twilight, the lines aren’t as rigidly drawn. Vampires who drink human blood tend to be more soulless and cruel than those who only drink animal blood, but the red-eyed ones still have a full range of emotions, and they’re able to decide not to murder whenever they want. And even the animal-blood “vegetarians” are totally ruled by bloodlust—they’re doing their best to repress their desires, but they can’t change who they are.

It’s not just the vamps that enjoy bloodlust. I don’t know what the word is that would be equivalent to bloodlust, but there’s something definitely… enjoyable… for humans getting their blood sucked. They never cry, they never seem to be in pain. They seem quite content (wink wink). Vampire Academy uses this idea to talk about slut-shaming—a good dhampir would never ever let a moroi feed off her. Though Lissa saying the words “slut-shaming” in a public speech makes this subtext way too obvious, it’s a pretty interesting idea–how do we get these ideas of morality and purity? Do they make any sense?

(As a [long] side note, romance with a vampire is pretty much always disturbing when you consider how young a human is compared to a vamp, and Edward’s constant bloodlust makes Twilight’s romance even more chilling. At least in Buffy, Angel isn’t seconds away from ripping Buffy’s head off. Without bloodlust, the non-blood-drinking 24 year old falling in love with the 17 year old in Vampire Academy seems positively tame, though it gave me an icky feeling at the time.

It’s become a cliché to pile on vampire stories for their icky age issues, and that’s all true, but I think it’s important to be able to define why it is that people enjoy watching vampires and humans fall in love in the first place. It’s not simply some weird obsession that only silly teen girls fall for, and to pretend that there aren’t real and interesting reasons for the popularity of these stories is to discount something potentially interesting about why we keep reading and watching these stories:

1) The vampire must change his life for her and go against his nature to be with her
2) The vampire has known hundreds of women over hundreds of years and this one is special
3) The vampire is mysterious (see section on Secrets)
4) The vampire is very handsome

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Kiss or murder?

Look at that: Vampire Academy has none of this!)

The obsession with the soul and what it means to not have one shows up in a lot more than vampire fiction. Why else are there so many TV shows about serial killers? As a society—maybe as a species—we’re deeply afraid of a creature as smart as us (or more so), as attractive as us (or more so), but who have no conscience, and who really, really want to see us dead. Because you can’t tell by looking at someone if they’re evil. And that’s true of everyone, not just vampires.

At least in Vampire Academy, everyone’s role is very clearly designated. It’s comforting to be able to assign rules to psychopathy, and to be able to identify and fight psychopaths with your personal guardian (or slayer or witch or werewolf). That might be the true appeal of vampire stories, beyond the sexy sparkliness of it all: They give evil a reason for being, they invent backstory to understand cruelty and loss, and they tell us how to fight it.

I was going to write an “In Conclusion” header but I have no conclusions, just more random thoughts, and this is a million times tl;dr, so I’ve got to stop now.

Recommended Reading

For unusual takes on sex/death, bloodlust, love, psychopaths, rules, and more.

Holly Black, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

Robin McKinley, Sunshine

Scott Westerfeld, Peeps

A. M. Jenkins, Night Road