Bela Lugosi's Dead, Vampires Live Forever August 4-September 30 at BAM
Though Bram Stoker's original novel only infrequently addresses the sexual threat that its titular character poses, Dracula, and all of the scads of fiction that it has spawned, is unequivocally about doing it. Or, more specifically: why people do it, foreplay leading to doing it, and the consequences of doing it. Count Dracula is the ultimate outsider, a menace whose malevolent motives are only discovered after his seductive charms have worn off and his victims can no longer stop him. He's a swirling mass of projected traumas and taboo fantasies, and the focal point of a self-sufficient fictive mythology. Drac and his victims' identities constantly change, but much of the rules and the archetypes behind the vampire mythos Stoker established have remained constant over the last 113 years.
With a whopping 33 titles in its program, BamCinematek's "Bela Lugosi's Dead: Vampires Live Forever" program begins with a couple of eccentric Dracula adaptations that play around with Dracula's identity as an invading menace. F.W. Murnau invests a cartoonishly alien quality to his Dracula in silent German Expressionist classic Nosferatu. By making Max Schreck's Count Orlok a bald monstrosity with elfin ears, jutting filed teeth, claw-like hands and a hideous beak nose, Murnau leaves no way for the viewer to understand, let aloneappreciate, how he's able to charm other people. One has to grapple with the incongruity of Dracula's paradoxical identity as an ugly charmer. He has no chance of assimilating into society, no hope of being able to win over people with anything but underhanded tactics, making him the universal poster child for xenophobic groups everywhere.
Horror of Dracula, the canonical Hammer Horror take on Stoker's story, and George Melford's Dracula, a 1931 Spanish-language production shot on the same sets used earlier that year for Tod Browning's famous Bela Lugosi vehicle, both go the opposite route: Horror's Christopher Lee makes no attempt to conceal his British accent and Melford's Drac, Carlos Villar, speaks fluent Spanish, rendering the Count's foreignness only skin-deep. He already has succeeded in sounding like one of the natives, making it that much more difficult to pick him out as the ultimate sex freak. And speaking of skin-deep, let's not forget Blacula, though the less said about that revanchist blaxtaploitation staple—that sics a black count on a group of unsuspecting honkies—the better.
It's interesting to note that in Stoker's story, Dracula's threat is not initially confronted by someone who can combat his charms, but rather by Jonathan Harker, a weak-willed man effectively turned into a eunuch by Dracula's powers of persuasion. Harker's floundering is especially well-established in Guy Maddin's film version of the ballet Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary. Its Harker stand-in is a character named Guy Maddin , another manifestation of the Canadian director's unique tongue-in-cheek cinematic autobiography. "Maddin" is impotent, confused and possibly gay, though he does allow himself to be seduced by Dracula's harem just as Harker is in Stoker's book.
The eponymous antihero of George Romero's Martin is an equally conflicted figure bedeviled by sexual insecurity. He undertakes his first serious and sexually active relationship while afflicted with what may be only an imaginary case of vampirism. Young Martin is so impotent that he doesn't attack his victim with his teeth like other blood-suckers do, but rather with chloroform and a syringe, removing all traces of physical contact or "the sexy stuff," as Martin bashfully calls it.
The more typical flip side to that form of emasculation is the transformative rape fantasy paradox Dracula's female victimsexperience in Stoker's story. After being reluctantly seduced, cloistered women like Lucy Westera gradually transform first into anemic rape victims, then sexual predators. In Dracula's Daughter, Universal Studios' direct sequel to Lugosi's Dracula, the Count's daughter resurfaces only to alternately lament her fallen condition, then to ask her Karloff look-alike of a manservant to fetch women for her to seduce and then to rinse the blood out of her soiled blouse. The female vamp in Claire Denis's truly mystifying Trouble Every Day is similarly guiltstricken: chained up in her own home,she can't easily lure men inside to feed on them, though a few somehow still manage to slip in. The blood that soaks her clothes, face, arms, etc. is the perfect refutation of the post-feminist tenant that sexual revolution merely means a lack of inhibitions.
Alternatively, the most satisfyingly cathartic avenue for vampire films to explore is one that Stoker's story never envisioned, specifically the sexual apocalypse that Dracula threatens to unleash but never does. Last Man on Earth, the worst of the three film adaptations of Richard Matheson's novella I Am Legend, stars Vincent Price as the sole survivor of a vampire-like plague. Tobe Hooper and Dan O'Bannon's incoherent scifi clunker Lifeforce treats vampirism as a planet-wide epidemic so strong that it's capable of turning Patrick Stewart into a transvestite— just in case the sheer kink of the scene was lost on the viewer, Hooper tarts up classically trained Stewart in eyeliner and lipstick as Mathilda May's evil "Space Girl," a clothing-liberated psychic vampire, invades his body.
Amongst the featured titles, Lifeforce is special in that it's so horrible, it inflicts a uniquely unseemly terror. Horndogs and cult film buffs alike will get a big kick out of seeing a constantly naked May bring on the apocalypse, but everyone else will know the true meaning of fear when they see a spaceship that looks like an IUD designed by HR Giger ejaculate a laser from its mushroom tip after getting an interstellar stiffy. If Bela Lugosi's dead, camp killed him.