Book Review: Draculas, Vampires, and Other Undead Forms – Essays on Gender, Race, and Culture

Not yet another book on vampires!

You may be excused for reacting like this upon seeing this title: vampires have been done to death – in movies, in comics, in fiction, in non-fiction, in criticism… The only trouble is, there’s no real ‘death’ when you’re talking about the undead. They just keep coming back.

The eternal popularity of vampires, and new ways of interpreting them, is what this new book is all about. I must admit: I approached it with a somewhat jaded expression: “Surprise me!” And it did surprise me with its amount of fresh and intriguing perspectives on the nosferatu. The variety and richness of the essays collected here certainly offer many intriguing pages for both fans and scholars of the undead creatures.

The book is divided into three sections: Part I: Tackling Race, Gender, and Modes of Narration in America; Part II: Working through Change and Xenophobia in Europe, and the largest and most revealing section – Part III: Imperialism, Hybridity, and Cross-Cultural Fertilization in Asia.

In “Manly P. Hall, Dracula (1931), and the Complexities of the Classic Horror Film Sequel” Gary D. Rhodes writes about the planned but never realized direct sequel to Tod Browning’s Dracula, written by Bela Lugosi’s friend Manly P. Hall. He provides the synopsis and attempts to answer the obvious question: how come that Dracula, unlike Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), never became properly serialized.

Paul R. Lehman and John Edgar Browning find new things to write about in “The Dracula and The Blacula (1972) Cultural Revolution” viewing the latter in the light of the times it was made in (early 1970s) and the cultural climate – with inevitable racial topics involved in the Dracula canon and subverted or at least questioned in this blaxploitation gem.

“The Compulsions of Real/Reel Serial Killers and Vampires: Toward a Gothic Criminology” investigates the connections between serial killers and vampires (compulsion to kill; bloodlust; periodic and ritualized crimes), with examples from films such as Henry: Portrait of a Serail Killer (1987), Ed Gein (2000), Immortality (1991) and the inevitable The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Hannibal (2001). Caroline Joan (Kay) Picart and Cecil Greek provide some interesting insights, especially in ther comparison between the “blank”, “empty” killers (like Henry) and the charismatic ones (like Hannibal Lecter). There is also a telling contrast made between the real and “reel”exploits of Ed Gein.

Lisa Nystrom writes about “Blood, Lust, and the Fe/Male Narrative in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and the Novel (1897)”, in which various gender issues are compared and contrasted between Stoker’s novel and Coppola’s film, with a particular stress on the notion of “The New Woman”. The author claims, quite convincingly, that –parallel to the much more analyzed theme of xenophobia – there is another central fear which fuels the novel: fear of an independent, active woman (Lucy) who does not passively rely on her male provider (like Mina).

Co-editor, Caroline Joan (Kay) Picart, comes back with another essay, written together with Cecil Greek, titled “When Women Kill: Undead Imagery in the Cinematic Portrait of Aileen Wuornos”. It deals with the portrayal of a lesbian serial killer in the film Monster with Charlize Theron, and its inclusion here seems a bit forced. Still, it is a good essay which introduces an interesting point: that male serial killers in cinema are usually depicted in terms of vampire-imagery, while females are more often based on the Frankenstein figure.

Finally, for all the Trekkies out there, Justin Everett writes about “The Borg as Vampire in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) and Star Trek: First Contact (1996): An Uncanny Reflection”, where the Borg Queen is depicted as a foreigner and a sensuous devourer which affords her Dracula-type characteristics.

Thus ends part I, and opens part II: Working through Change and Xenophobia in Europe. The stress of these papers is on the racial, historical and cultural issues relevant for the Western attitude(s) towards the “exotic”, barely known, different cultures placed “behind the great forest”. Thus, Santiago Lucendo in his “Return Ticket to Transylvania: Relations between Historical Reality and Vampire Fiction” writes about the construction of fictional Transylvania and its real, historical basis. This is perhaps one of the best essays in the book, and it shows that vampirism is not so much a superstition imported from the East as it is “a series of fears and fancies projected (from the West) over a territory badly or totally unknown.”

Jimmie Cain continues along the similar ground, investigating “Racism and the Vampire: The Anti-Slavic Premise of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897)”: it shows examples of prejudice against the Slavic people (and Jews) in the late XIX century, especially their alleged connection to various contagious diseases and epidemics. Sadly, the essy is too short and, while insightful, leaves a lot more to be desired.

The other two essays in this chapter deal more with cultural issues, such as the possibilities and traps of placing Dracula in contemporary world, in Pam Newland’s “The Grateful Un-Dead: Count Dracula and the Transnational Counterculture in Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)”. It opens the possibility for re-appraisal of this neglected film by stressing the way that conflicting cultural identities clashed and changed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and showing how they were reflected in products of popular culture. On the other hand, “Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) as a Legacy of Romanticism” by Martina G. Lüke goes back to XIX century Romanticism to investigate alleged links with Herzog’s masterpiece. I remain unconvinced by the proposal that Herzog follows the Romantic ideals in this film (or elsewhere), and certain similarities that the author finds seem to exist only on the surface level.

Finally, the third and largest section (occupying almost one half of the book) is titled Imperialism, Hybridity, and Cross-Cultural Fertilization in Asia, and it contains the most original, exotic, unexpected and thus most welcome topics in a book about vampires. It goes far beyond the “great forest” and the well-trodden ground of the Transylvanian count, all the way to the Far East. This section investigates the barely explored Asian vampiric folklore and its cinematic counterparts in movies made in Malaysia, Pakistan, Hong Kong and Japan.

“Death and the Maiden”: The Pontianak as Excess in Malay Popular Culture by Andrew Hock-Soon Ng deals with the portrayal of women in Malay cinema and shows how an endemic vampiric creature, “pontianak” (as envisaged by cinema) is a hybrid of Eastern and Western influences.

“Becoming-Death: The Lollywood Gothic of Khwaja Sarfraz’s Zinda Laash (Dracula in Pakistan [US title], 1967)” by Sean Moreland and Summer Pervez deals with a Western intruder and would-be-conqueror in an Eastern culture, where such a figure has different connotations than in the West.

Dale Hudson writes about the series of films about “hopping vampires” (the most well-known being Mr Vampire) in his “Modernity as Crisis: Goeng Si and Vampires in Hong Kong Cinema”. It is a long, minute, well-researched and highly informative essay not only about these particular films, but also about the cultural and cinematic specifics of the Hong Kong film industry in the 1980s and its relation to Western genre cinema.

Wayne Stein’s “Enter the Dracula: The Silent Screams and Cultural Crossroads of Japanese and Hong Kong Cinema” is a link between the previous and the following essay: it provides a helpful introduction into the cultural and spiritual basis of horror, evil and death in Japan and Hong Kong, before dealing with specific titles relevant for the theme of vampirism, including some manga (Blood: The Last Vampire, Vampire Hunter D, etc.) and even the unfortunate Hammer production in Hong Kong: Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires.

“Identity Crisis: Imperialist Vampires in Japan?” by Nicholas Schlegel investigates a little known trilogy of Dracula films made in Japan in the early 1970s: Legacy of Dracula, Lake of Dracula and Evil of Dracula. They were modelled upon the Hammer formula, but with some telling local specifics. Largely dismissed as derivative, these films are, according to the author, “much more than mere imitation of a successful British economic and aesthetic model. They are representative of a fear and anxiety of foreign rule and interference consonant in the period under which they were produced.” The essay certainly provides a well-argued minority opinion about the films that no one has taken seriously so far.

And finally, the last essay in the book, “The Western Eastern: Decoding Hybridity and Cyber Zen Goth(ic) in Vampire Hunter D (1985)” by Wayne Stein and John Edgar Browning deals with a manga which offers a weird amalgam of action, Western, horror, SF and fantasy. Japan’s fascination with and anxiety toward the West is analyzed here, but rather than as a mere symptom, the film is seen as offering a new mode of spirituality which blends the Eastern and Western Gothic/ness and transcends convention.

To conclude: with such a large scope, minute research, fresh perspectives and well-argued writing, DRACULAS, VAMPIRES, AND OTHER UNDEAD FORMS guarantees more than 300 pages of interesting and inspiring read which finds a perfect balance between the academic and popular writing. It is accessible, but not light; interesting, but not shallow; clever, but not self-indulgent; serious, but never boring. And most importantly, it may make you think differently about the various vampiric texts that you thought you knew well, and will certainly reveal many new ones.

DRACULAS, VAMPIRES, AND OTHER UNDEAD FORMS: Essays on Gender, Race and Culture
Edited by John Edgar Browning and Caroline Joan (Kay) Picart
Scarecrow Press, 2009

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