"Eclipse," the third "Twilight" film was released on Wednesday to the vocal glee of millions of fans, young and old, but mostly women. Reviews for the latest installment have been grudgingly more positive than the last two, though at the time of writing the review aggregator sites suggest that the critical response is still largely split down the middle. Culturally, however, the invasion is complete. Merchandising tie-ins are everywhere, the media coverage is on par with any of the "Harry Potter" films, and the names of the main characters, Bella, Jacob, and Edward, are even gaining popularity for newborns. "Twilight" fans couldn't be happier at their embrace by the mainstream, but many non-fans seem to be reaching their breaking point.
I digress to note that I have not read a single "Twilight" book or seen any of the movies, though several young women and not-so-young women in my social circle are fans. When I was younger, I was a devotee of Anne Rice's vampire novels and had a brief infatuation with the male vampires on the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" television show, so I understand the mechanics of the fascination with this kind of genre material. And I've heard all the arguments about why the series is sexist, or empowering, or sets a bad example, or is all just harmless fun. These discussions have been enlightening, but I am not particularly inclined to take sides. What I'd like to address is the claim that the modern vampire has been neutered beyond all recognition, to the point where they really shouldn't be called vampires.
Neil Gaiman said as much in this recent interview with The Independent. It's a sentiment I've heard before, and I don't disagree with it. But what should the criteria be? The classic concept of the vampire is innately tied to fears of sexuality, similar to werewolves being an extension of our deepest primal instincts. The intimacy of bloodsucking, the necessity of staying hidden away in dark, secret, places, and the aversion to religious symbols can easily seen as metaphorical for forbidden love. The best known vampire story, Bram Stoker's "Dracula" is one of suspenseful seduction. All of this makes vampires prime fodder for romantic fappery, which modern authors like Laura K. Hamilton and "Twilight" scribe Stephanie Meyers have happily exploited. Instead of horrific creatures of the night, vampires are now more likely to be morally ambiguous, empathetic (or perhaps just pathetic) creatures of the "Twilight."
But I think no matter the variations, a vampire still needs to retain some element of the monstrous – Joss Whedon's and Anne Rice's brooding blood-suckers will occasionally forget their better natures and revert to ravenous neck-biting. By contrast, there's no hint of a real monster anywhere in Edward Cullen. Instead, the Cullens remind me of the family from "Tuck Everlasting," who had found a secret source of eternal youth and immortality, and kept to themselves in the woods, in a state of permanent pastoral bliss. The only supernatural element of "Tuck" was the mystery of the family's longevity, and the immortal characters were otherwise normal human beings. The same is true of the Cullens. They have super strength and the notorious sparkly pallor, but are otherwise awfully nice people. Technically vampires, sure, but you can tell their hearts aren't in it.
A few examples of the classic vampire do exist in the "Twilight" franchise, but only as traditional villains. They're portrayed as unenlightened creatures who choose to behave badly, and the assumption is that each and every one of them, from the decadent Volturi to the addled Newborns, could reject their monstrosity if they would only put a little effort into it. In that sense I suppose there is some lingering threat of Edward losing his self-control and draining Bella like a beer stein, but this never seems particularly likely. The popularity of the "Twilight" franchise depends on the male leads being non-threatening, so that teenage girls may better idolize them. Female viewers may have swooned for Bela Lugosi in his day, but horror and romance rarely mix now, as horror films have gotten more female-unfriendly over the years.
When vampires do appear in action and horror films, they tend to be one of two types. The recent "Daybreakers" had both. On the one hand, you have the "Twilight" style vampires who are mostly human with a few bad habits. On the other, you have out-and-out monsters who are little more than human-shaped killing machines. There aren't many in the middle ground, which Dracula and Count Orlock once occupied so nicely, where the vampires clearly were not human in action or behavior, but had enough human characteristics to pass for them briefly. I suspect it's really all the fault of Anne Rice, who revived the genre in the 80s with vampires who were are all ex-humans saddled with regrets, instead of truly preternatural creatures of inhuman origin.
In that sense, the classic vampire is a rare species in the popular media today. We'll be seeing plenty of "Twilight" knockoffs for a long while to cash in on the trend, and the occasional mindless horror movie that features vampires that are really interchangeable with demons or zombies. But the classic vampire? I suspect it'll be a while before that particular specimen truly returns to the spotlight.