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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Vampires: It's the new black

Who knew bloodsucking would be so marketable?

Talk about vamping it up – the stylish and sexy undead are hogging the culture spotlight

Johanna Schneller | The Globe and Mail

The undead sure are lively. Everywhere you look in entertainment these days you see vampires.

First there were the books, three different series of neck-biter novels, bestsellers all. The Vampire Diaries , the young-adult series by L.J. Smith (five have been published, with two more on the way), centre on a teenage girl named Elena who falls for a hot bloodsucker named Stefan.

The Sookie Stackhouse series (also known as the Southern Vampire series), written by Charlaine Harris, features Sookie, a cocktail waitress in steamy Bon Temps, La., and Bill Compton, the courtly, 173-year-old vampire who alternately protects and ravishes her. (On the July 10 New York Times paperback mass-market fiction list, Harris's books held seven of the top 25 spots.)

And Stephenie Meyer's monstrously successful Twilight series details the chaste but super-deep love between the mortal Bella and the vampire Edward, high-schoolers in drizzly Forks, Wash. Two graphic novels based on Twilight are due soon from Yen Press, drawn by Korean artist Young Kim and closely vetted by Meyer. And yet another trilogy of vampire novels, this one from the film director Guillermo del Toro, begins with The Strain , about Manhattan vampires run amok.

Then there are the TV shows. Starting Sept. 10, The Vampire Diaries will become a CW series, produced by Kevin Williamson ( Dawson's Creek ) and starring Nina Dobrev as Elena and Paul Wesley as Stefan. Over on HBO, True Blood , the kudzu-shrouded, plasma-soaked, 18A-rated series adapted from Harris's novels by Alan Ball (who also created Six Feet Under and wrote American Beauty ), is currently number one. With Oscar winner Anna Paquin as Sookie and her real-life fella Stephen Moyer as Bill, the show, now in its second season, lures 3.7-million viewers every Sunday night at 9; with repeat airings and downloads, the viewership jumps to more than 10 million. The ratings have risen 85 per cent since the series premiered last September, and more than a million season-one DVDs have been sold since their May release (Amazon is already taking pre-orders for season two).

Finally there are the movies. Last year's Twilight , directed by Catherine Hardwicke ( Lords of Dogtown ) with Kristen Stewart as Bella and Robert Pattinson as Edward, has grossed $382-million (U.S.) worldwide. Fans devour daily updates from the Australian set of its sequel, The Twilight Saga: New Moon , directed by Chris Weitz ( About a Boy ) and due out Nov. 20. (One recent hot flash: Edward and Bella kiss in it OMG)

Also released in 2008, the Swedish film Let the Right One In , about an adolescent vampire named Eli and the troubled kid, Oskar, who befriends her, was a cult favourite, ending up on a number of year-end best lists, including the Toronto Film Critics Association's. According to IMDB, it's getting an American remake courtesy of writer/director Matt Reeves ( Cloverfield ), along with a dumbed-down American title ( Let Me In ).

And rolling out across North America this summer is Thirst, from Korean horror-meister Chan-wook Park, in which the love between a priest and a married shopkeeper gets even more complicated when he turns her into a vampire. (To promote the film, Focus Features sent critics a hospital-style blood bag full of fruit juice, complete with a straw.)

So there was plenty of bloodlust on display at last week's ComicCon convention in San Diego, Calif., the annual geekfest that draws about 125,000 fans – and almost as many Hollywood marketers eager to garner their support. Weitz brought clips fresh from the set of New Moon , Harris signed Sookie novels for 150 pre-ticketed worshippers, and folks from The Vampire Diaries TV show and the Twilight graphic novel shilled their wares.

Why are we going batty for vampires? For one thing, these are not your grandparents' monsters. Creepy capes and heavy hair oil are out; today's blood-suckers are ethereally beautiful. In Twilight , Edward and his “family” are the coolest kids in school, with the sharpest clothes and the hottest cars. When they enter the cafeteria (in slow-mo, naturally), they stop traffic, and when sunlight accidentally hits them, their skin glitters as if they swallowed a disco ball. In True Blood , the vampires are sexy beasts, all smouldering looks, tattoos and tight black leather. (Their sheriff, Eric, recently tore a victim's limbs off while sporting high-lights foils in his blond hair.) So many mortals flock to the vampires' bar, Fangtasia, to mate with them that they've earned a nickname: Fang-Bangers.

Another reason vampires are so popular: Their habits can be adjusted to suit any audience. The PG-rated night-crawlers in Twilight and The Vampire Diaries experience passion without sex. The vampire boys clearly desire the mortal girls, but they're all about respect and restraint and withholding. Edward doesn't want to rip Bella's throat out, no, he wants to lie in a forest and hold her hand. He doesn't even kill people – he's a vegetarian (meaning, he only sucks the blood of animals).

On HBO, however, everyone's getting well and truly laid, with plenty of nudity, high-speed humping, and close-up blood slurping.

As well, vampire stories often surface during times of economic or societal gloom, because they play to our worst fears and secret yearnings. On one hand, they personify the idea of dark forces at work, chaos beyond our control, hushed-up conspiracies poised to destroy us. On the other, who better to fantasize about during a recession than decadent hipsters with mansions, flexible morals and a really swinging nightlife? They're haughty, selfish, excessive – all things we can no longer afford to be. In Blue Bloods , a young-adult book series launched in 2007 by Melissa de la Cruz, the vampires descend from establishment families and attend a posh private school on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Just as we suspected: The rich are ghouls

Today's vamps are also eternally youthful, with no surgery required, which is why the fashion world has embraced them, too – recent magazine spreads and ads brim with pale wraiths sporting red lips, black-rimmed eyes and killer stiletto booties. All of which means that we'll be living with vampires, if not for centuries, at least through summer 2010, when the third Twilight movie comes out.

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