If you want to skip ahead, right to the glamour shots, go ahead. Nobody will stop you. But, if you’ve got the nerve to read some analysis, there’ll be a slight, surrealist detour.
A Vampire : Bites
The other day, I was thinking about the fang marks vampires leave on their victims.
(No, I’m not crazy. The doctor said the tests were inconclusive—joking! And if you think I have too much time on my hands, you should know, I was thinking about this during a staff meeting—joking! Well, kind of.)
Seriously, if I were to ask anyone, anyone on the street, what marks vampires leave on the necks of their prey, what would this everyman reply? I’m willing to bet that he would answer with some variation of the description below, uttered by a doctor reading from a coroner’s report in Dracula’s Daughter.
“Marks: two small punctures near jugular vein, resembling pinpricks. Swollen slightly. Faint discoloration.”
It’s a very graphic image—and I mean graphic not in the sense of bloody, but in the sense of supremely visually stylized. Two dots. Two points. Two pinpricks. Really, from before the 19th century to True Blood, we haven’t changed that mental image because of its sheer imaginative power. It’s so elegant. So simple. (This is the point in my train of thought when I noticed that my colleagues were kind of quiet in that meeting. Oh, you’re waiting for me to talk? Oh. Alright, now, about our core competencies…)
And then I was possessed by the spirit of Roland Barthes. For those of you who may not know, Barthes was one of the greatest critical minds of the past century and he was a big proponent of word games as research tools. (By the way, vampires also like word games, as Son of Dracula proves when Count Alucard—hmm—comes to town. They don’t like crosswords, though.)
Barthes’ methods, though rigorous, could verge on surrealism. Beyond just literary symbolism and thematic analysis in the often stale ways we’ve come to accept, Barthes played around with character names, sentence structures, even messed around with the order of his own texts so as to examine how the textures and the often superficial or surface qualities of works can tell you a lot about their deepest layers significance and almost certainly yield refreshing interpretations.
So, I ask you, dear reader, isn’t a vampire bite a bit like a colon?
You know, the punctuation mark. Dot. Dot. This thing, “:” That’s also quite a “graphic,” stylized visual figure, huh? I mean, what, the vampires don’t have any other teeth? How do they leave just two dots? That’s pretty vivid and colon-like.
Which begs the question, what exactly is a colon? (Stay with me here. I’ll get back to the horror in a second. Keep your eyes on the prize. Bear with my grammar fetish.) This is from the Merriam Webster Dictionary online:
1 plural cola : a rhythmical unit of an utterance; specifically in Greek or Latin verse : a system or series of from two to not more than six feet having a principal accent and forming part of a line
2 plural colons
a : a punctuation mark : used chiefly to direct attention to matter (as a list, explanation, quotation, or amplification) that follows
b : the sign : used between the parts of a numerical expression of time in hours and minutes (as in 1:15) or in hours, minutes, and seconds (as in 8:25:30), in a bibliographical reference (as in Nation 130:20), in a ratio where it is usually read as “to” (as in 4:1 read “four to one”), or in a proportion where it is usually read as “is to” or when doubled as “as” (as in 2:1::8:4 read “two is to one as eight is to four”)
Origin: Latin, part of a poem, from Greek kōlon limb, part of a strophe
First Known Use: circa 1550.
To condense this, as a mark, a colon (two dots, like a vampire bite) represents a separation, specifically one of time. When we see a colon, we know that something must come afterwards. It can’t end a sentence, only open into another clause. A colon is forever between two things.
Hm. Like a vampire dwells between life and death? Like a vampire bite, that ruby colon, ushers unsuspecting innocents into another state of existence?
And what about that word origin. Colon originally meant limb? As in a disembodied limb? A severed part of a poem, just as much as a severed part of a body? So, a colon is kind of the Leatherface of the punctuation world? It’s a connotation that continues on to this day. According to a professor I know, “In computer science, colons are used for slicing,” for chopping up data strings. Wow. Who would’ve known that this punctuation mark that we all take for granted has such a horror pedigree already.
A colon suggests incompleteness. Like a body without a soul. I think it’s interesting that we tend to define a vampire’s nature mostly in terms of absences: no soul, no reflection, constant thirst for, and therefore lack of, blood.
To make a long argument short (yeah, right), vampires, colons, and the mark of the vampire are all symbols or signs of severance. Two dots. No connection whatsoever. Isolated. Precise. Here, one is inclined to think of Lugosi’s luminous eyes, enhanced by penlight beams.
This “rhythmical unit of utterance” business also strikes me as quite apt, since the archetypal vampire, Lugosi, talks in a particularly odd meter: “What music THEY make?!” His words don’t seem to link together to form a sentence. They’re like beads lined up—that fail to string together as a necklace.
Again, we brush up against the paradigm of separation, disunity, fragmentation of speech. Why is it that our pop culture remembers Lugosi as Dracula much more than Nosferatu? I would argue that it’s because of the sound, particularly because of the discordant sound. Horror films, just as much as gangster films, benefited immensely from talkies thanks to the askew, jarring sound choices made by directors and actors.
Which brings me to glamour. The movie vampire is the nonpareil glamourous monster. Let’s remember that the Dracula of the novel is not the exotic matinee idol that Lugosi was and that the Laemmles had originally considered Conrad Veidt for the role. I do consider Veidt’s face beautiful, but glamorous? I wouldn’t entirely say so.
Glamour, I’d say, is an unnatural thing. In a good way. It’s not fresh, effortless loveliness, but rather studied aesthetic appeal. In my mind, true glamour approaches “dead perfection,” to rechristen a phrase from Tennyson.
Guess what, children? Turns out that glamour is unnatural and dangerous, completely justifying Hollywood’s decision to make vampires lacquered, smooth, and silky. Here’s another definition for you, folks.
1 a magic spell <the girls appeared to be under a glamour — Llewelyn Powys>
2 an exciting and often illusory and romantic attractiveness <the glamour of Hollywood>; especially : alluring or fascinating attraction—often used attributively <glamourstock> <glamour girls> <whooping cranes and…other glamour birds — R. T. Peterson>
Scots glamour, alteration of English grammar; from the popular association of erudition with occult practices
First Known Use: 1715
And, by the way, I am in no way the first person to use this glamour-grammer-spell link in film analysis. A friend directed me to The Avant-Garde Finds Andy Hardy, in which Robert Ray—perhaps the most genius person writing about movies nowadays—explores a similar crossover.
So, we can follow the whole circle of associations:
- Vampires seduce.
- Their magnetism is glamourous (in Hollywood at least).
- Glamour is a spell, as grammar was considered to be. It’s actually still mysterious and powerful for many people—myself included.
- A colon conforms to/is part of the rules of grammar.
- And vampires bite in colons.
All of these things, as unrelated as they may seem, enlighten the vampire as a film trope. He puts people under a spell, but there’s kind of underlying order to the way he operates, to his charms, and it’s all contained in the ruthless elegance of that dot-dot bite.
And, in case you were wondering, no hallucinogens were involved in the making of this blog.
I would be caught dead in this…
To my mind, there are two classifications of movie vampires (that aren’t teenage drags): horror vampires (lineage of Max Schreck) and glampires (lineage of Lugosi).
If I were to outline three features that characterize vampire glamour as a coherent aesthetic, they are as follows:
- Exaggeration, especially in terms of contrast,
- Simplification, that is, a lack of excess,
- An extreme tendency towards stasis (i.e. as far as possible from anything we’d characterize as alive).
Dracula (1931): The Standard
Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
Dracula’s Daughter, Marya Zaleska, reminds me of vampire Wallis Simpson (if she had been a vampire that would actually explain a lot). She favors tailored cuts, sharp lines, and a relatively minimalist, regal look in Louise Brymer’s designs.
Zaleska’s one adornment, a huge jewel, serves a specific purpose: dazzling potential victims.
I also love how the make-up and wardrobe people set the naturalistic textures (fur, gardenias, curly hair) of potential victims against the slim, streamlined look of the Zaleska.
The camera is so infatuated with the Countess’ impassive, corpse-like visage that the last shot of the film consists of this fetishistic close-up… as off-screen male voices talk about how beautiful she was.
Mark of the Vampire (1935)
If you don’t like spoilers, don’t read this one. So, in this odd murder mystery, we learn that some vampires have been scaring the hell out of a little Carpathian town.
Wait, this is the apparition scaring people? I’m sorry, but I could never be scared by a vampire with hippy hair. That’s too much. Ratty and not nearly glamourous enough to suit me, even if M-G-M designer Adrian got the shroud-gown spot-on.
What’s with the Kabuki make-up? Vampires are exaggerated, but not this excessive. This is wrong somehow…
Um, Bela… vampires do NOT wear ’70s-tuxedo-style ruffled cravats. Puh-leez. There’s something fishy about this vampire. The undead know that less is more.
Guess what? COP-OUT ALERT! They’re not real vampires. Their vaudevillians: Luna, “The Bat Woman” and her sidekick. As Buffy could tell you, clothes tell you a lot when identifying vampires. When you’re dealing with the kinds of people (or things) who lack souls, you’ve got to take ’em at face value.
Son of Dracula (1943)
In this strange entry, the Count is no glampot. I adore Lon Chaney, Jr., but let’s face it, one could not describe him as angular, which fits his performance of a vampire past his prime.
The glamour comes in the form of his bride, Katherine, who shows an unfortunate taste for torch-singer beaded gowns while alive, but acquires the hard, impenetrable lacquer of the darkest femme fatales upon her transition to the undead.
She’s basically Kathy Moffats from Out of the Past. If redesigned by Satan. Smooth, matte, and menacing.
As color infiltrated the horror genre, the contrast between black and white, dark hair pale skin, succumbed to the red and white (or blonde) binary.
It takes one badass chick to wear a gown of all sequins and not look trashy. Countess Bathóry in Daughters of Darkness (1971), played by the achingly gorgeous Delphine Seyrig whom you might recognize from Last Year at Marienbad, will suck your blood when you least suspect it. She plays sweet one moment, the next launches into an erotic elegy about torturing young girls. And, yes, she could be Marlene Dietrich’s double.
All reasons why she stands out as the only vampire with the right to sparkle. Because she doesn’t, really. She conjures not an unpredictable, living sparkle, but rather an icy, fluid candlelit glint that glows around her, as though she were absorbing light, rather than emitting it. Even when she does break “the rules” of what we’ve come to associate with vampires by, say, wearing purple marabou feathers, she still radiates decay and decadence, as though she’d just taken her 30s-style togs out of a closet that had been untouched since that era. She is immutable and deadly.
Now, The Hunger (1983) owes a lot to Daughters of Darkness, as does Deneuve’s glampire, who epitomizes lost elegance with a punk edge. With an up-do right out of Vertigo, it’s so swirly and geometrical, perfect structured outfits, and red lips, her refinement presents a modern female counterpart to the continental sophistication, with a fringe of rawness, that Lugosi brought to Hollywood.
I particularly love how the V made by the brim of this militaristic cap mirrors the graphic widow’s peak of the archetypal vampire. The glasses remind me of bat wings.
Exaggerated? Uh-huh. This is Ilsa of the S.S. meets Coco Chanel. But excessive? Well, not really, if you remember that sunglasses are practical for vampires. This image could be easily reduced to a few elements. And, best of all, there’s nothing flashing, waving, fuzzing. All unnatural and spellbinding. It’s all stripped-down, slick. This is truly a daughter of Dracula.