What I have to explain this time round is a little strange, and the road we’ll have to walk to get there is, I think, even stranger. I should note first that I’ve been thinking a lot about vampire movies, about which we might, after rooting around, be able to say something that no-one else has ever said. And if you are to understand this New Thing About Vampire Movies—except it’s not a New Thing; it’s an Old and Secret Thing—then you are going to need to watch a short clip from a movie you’ve almost certainly never heard of, and when you watch it, you’re not going to think that it could possibly hold the key to anything. The movie is so obscure that I could only find the relevant scene dubbed into Russian, and even that sentence, once written, requires two intensifying corrections: I didn’t find the clip so much as fluke upon it while chasing down some other hunch. And the movie isn’t exactly dubbed into anything. It features some Russian language-school dropout—one guy; alone; an unaided Petersburg grumble—spot-translating all the dialogue, with the original soundtrack still running audibly in the background, such that he has to shout. Running this clip will be like trying to watch television in the company of a mean drunk. Plus it’s not even a vampire movie, which is what you were just promised. This is all pretty discouraging, I realize, but you’ll see: The clip does weirdly speak.
The film is Ken Russell’s Valentino, as in Rudy, as in hair anointed with jelly and liniment. It’s a biopic released in 1977, and starring Rudolph Nureyev as Rudolph V. At issue is a short scene in which Nureyev takes Carol Kane out onto a ballroom floor to dance the tango. Give it sixty seconds, and you’ll have seen everything important:
A spare cinematic minute—and yet the clip demands our attention by putting on display three things at once, three things that are intertwined even outside of this movie but whose intertwining is here oddly visible, as though lifted up for our examination. I’ll just count them off.
#1) The first thing you’ll want to bear in mind is who Valentino was. The basic facts will do: that he was Hollywood’s first superstar; that he was considered the prettiest man of his generation; and that he wasn’t American—he was born in Italy. The important point is that nothing in this thumbnail is wholly innocuous. A lot of people were unnerved by Valentino. Each of those bare data can and did yield something uncanny. That he struck so many American women as desirable was unusual precisely because he was Italian. He was the first non-Anglo man, after the big wave of southern and eastern European immigration, that large numbers of Americans deigned to think of as beautiful. People remarked on that a lot; the term “Latin lover” was apparently coined for him, even though, given the racial ductility of early Hollywood, he was most famous for playing an Arab. And there was if anything even more handwringing about Valentino the lover than there was about Valentino the Latin. Lots of male commentators said he wasn’t manly enough to represent their kind: that he was a dandy; that he was too polished; that he looked too soft; that he was a screen David sculpted out of talcum and pomade—and this, not as compared to John Wayne or Clint Eastwood—but as compared to Douglas Fairbanks, who agreed not to wear tights only when offered pantaloons.
But then the resentment of the nation’s swashbucklers did nothing to dent Valentino’s popularity. We’ve become accustomed, I guess, to how overtly libidinal the culture of female fandom is; we don’t much pause to remark on the orgiastic qualities of Justin Bieber’s every public appearance, their improbable pre-teen staging of the Dionysian Mysteries, but it might help to pretend that you’ve never seen archival footage of the Beatles and are thus having to face the squalling girl-crowds for the first time. When Valentino died unexpectedly in 1926—he was 31—there were riots in the streets of New York City. Lady fans started smashing windows and battling the hundred or so cops who were called out to restore order. Reports went out that women were killing themselves. That someone also ordered four actors to dress up as Italian blackshirts and tromp around the Upper East Side, to make it seem as though Mussolini himself had personally sent over an honor guard in Valentino’s memory, begins to sound like one of the day’s more pedestrian details.
#2) This should all help explain what anybody who’s just watched the clip will already have noticed, which is that Ken Russell has plainly instructed Nureyev to play Valentino as though he were Dracula: He silences the band just by raising his magical, mesmeric hand, tearing the sound from the very air…
…he activates what seem to be laser eyes; he leads a transfixed woman away from her circle of helpless male guardians and onto the dance floor, where he strut-hunches over her, arcing his shoulders into an insinuated cape…
…he mimes various attacks upon her neck.
A complicated series of observations follows on from this: We’ll want to say that the figure of Valentino has been filtered back through Dracula, and we can feel the force of that revision if we point out that Valentino was actually half-French and generically Continental-looking—you would not pause if someone told you he was German—and seems to have been typecast in Moorish roles only on account of a Mediterranean accent that no silent-moviegoer would ever hear anyway. Nureyev, on the other hand, is sweltering and Slavic and basically looks way more vampiric than the man he’s playing ever did. This could all easily seem like Ken Russell’s inspiration—to recreate, for audiences in the 1970s, the lost effect of Valentino’s magnetism by wrapping it in the easily read conventions of the vampire movie, with which, after all, it was roughly contemporaneous. You make one icon of early Hollywood intelligible by translating him into a second. It would be like deciding to make a movie about Greta Garbo, but then scripting her as Steamboat Willie.
There’s clearly something to this. But if we adhere tenaciously to that line, what are we going to say about the following images?
There is no mistaking the issue. Tod Browning’s Dracula came out in 1931, just five years after the Sheikh’s passing, and the stage versions that the movie was based on were running throughout the 1920s, when the oversized head of Valentino was first smoldering greyly down upon the bodies of American women. We can say that Nureyev was, in 1977, playing Valentino as Dracula, but we have to set against this the observation that Lugosi was already, in 1931, playing Dracula as Valentino. This is itself strong evidence that people were once scared of Valentino, but then we already knew that people—some people—were scared of Valentino, because he flaunted that off-white and insufficiently rugged form of masculinity, and because American women were really into it—or they weren’t just into it—they seemed hypnotized and made freaky by it. So the 1977 movie makes Valentino look more like a vampire than the real man actually did, but that’s because someone involved in the production intuited that Valentino had been one of the inspirations for the screen vampire to begin with. Heartthrob could be the name of a horror movie.
This all matters, because it helps us specify the contribution of Lugosi’s Dracula to the vampire mythos. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Nearly everything that makes the 1931 movie tick was taken over directly from Stoker’s 1897 novel, and for most purposes, you would be better off bypassing the movie and going straight to the source. The most efficient, if not perhaps the most perspicuous, way of naming Stoker’s achievement would be to say that he turned the vampire story into an ongoing referendum on the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. For real: Nearly every vampire movie that has ever been made is in one way or another a meditation on Nietzscheanism, deliberating on the idea that some people, the rare ones, might yet overcome morality and thereby form a new caste—or race or even species—a breed that never even pauses to consider what ordinary people think of as right and wrong. Here’s all the Nietzsche you need:
•The great epochs of our lives come when we gather the courage to reconceive our evils as what is best in us.
•Every exquisite person strives instinctively for a castle and a secrecy where he is rescued from the crowds, the many, the vast majority; where, as the exception, he can forget the norm called “human.”
•We think that harshness, violence, slavery, danger in the streets and in the heart, concealment, Stoicism, the art of seduction and experiment, and devilry of every sort; that everything evil, terrible, tyrannical, predatory, and snakelike in humanity serves just as well as its opposite to enhance the species of “man.”
Enhanced and predatory un-humans living in castles, exquisite people who have turned wickedness into a virtue or an accomplishment—if you’re in an intro philosophy class, and you’re trying to make sense of The Genealogy of Morals for the first time, the easiest way to get a handle on Nietzsche will be to realize that he wants to turn you into a vampire, which is superman’s nearest synonym, another word for Übermensch. Or other way around now: Modern vampire stories work by mulishly literalizing Nietzsche’s language, making you stare the superman in the face on the expectation that you will be sent running by his anaconda grin.
This should all become clearer if we break Stoker’s Dracula back into his component parts. What are the several things that the classic vampire story wants you to be scared of?
•Stoker’s novel wants you to be scared of aristocracy. This is perhaps the most glaring point—that vampire stories are the one horror genre driven by naked class animus. The novel makes Dracula seem wiggy even before he starts doing anything supernatural, and it does this simply by making him lord of the manor. His comportment is excessively formal. He is, the first-time reader is surprised to note, seldom referred to as Dracula; the novel almost only ever calls him “the Count,” as though the key to understanding the character lay in his title. It is the very existence of the old-fashioned nobleman that has come to seem unnatural, which no doubt has something to do with his literally feeding upon the blood of the poor, peasant children stuffed into sacks. The movie updates all this, in some pleasingly goofy way, by putting the vampire in ’20s-era evening wear, the lost joke being that he never wears anything else, that he sports white tie everywhere—a tail-coat to play softball in, an opera cloak for when he’s bathing the dog—as though tuxedos were the only threads he owned. Dracula is the character who, having once put on the Ritz, can never again remove it. The vampire, we are licensed to conclude, is our most enduring image of aristocratic tyranny, generated by a paradigmatically liberal and middle-class fever-dream about the character of the old peerage, and anchored in the simple idea that it isn’t even safe to be in the same room as an aristocrat, so driven are such people to dominate others, so unwilling to tolerate a partner or co-equal. “Come here!”: A duke is the name for the kind of person who barks orders at free men as though they were his subordinates. That’s a routine observation, and it’s what ties Dracula back to the early Gothic novel or even to Richardson’s Pamela. But what’s peculiar all the same about Stoker’s novel is its timing, since by the 1890s, the traditional aristocracy in England was, if not exactly obsolete, then at least much weakened. The novel actually registers this historical turn, since the vampire famously lives not in a castle, but in the ruins of a castle, in the rubble of a superannuated class hierarchy, and—this really is an inspired flourish—he has no servants: he drives his own coach, carries his own bags. The Count is what they used to call come-down gentry, accustomed to apologizing to guests for serving them dinner on chipped porcelain. And the threat he poses is therefore not the menace of one who actually possesses power—this is how he is unlike Richardson’s Mr B or William Godwin’s Falkland—but of one who might yet regain it, the name for which regaining would be “reaction” or “counter-revolution.” Stoker’s Dracula is the greatest of right-wing horror stories, scared of foreigners and queer people and women and sex in general, but it nonetheless harbors a certain curdled Jacobinism, the exasperated sense that the European aristocracy should be dead but aren’t, and that the French Revolution is going to have to be staged over and over again.
So much for aristocracy. About those others…
•Stoker’s novel wants you to be scared of foreigners. This goes back to a simple plot point: Dracula sneaks into England from abroad—hides on a ship—slips past customs officers and curious locals. The vampire, in other words, is an illegal immigrant. You might object that this last is a late twentieth-century category, illicitly projected back onto the 1890s, and that’s true—but “stowaway” isn’t an anachronism, and neither is “smuggling.” What’s more, Stoker expressly aligns vampires, via their bats, with colonies and the Third World. Such creatures come from the “islands of the Western seas” or from South America. One character is pretty sure that this is no English bat! It “may be some wild specimen from the South of a more malignant species.” Perhaps most important, the screen Dracula is the figure who has single-handedly made life miserable for generations of Eastern European immigrants, who have had to endure endless rounds of “I vant … to sahk … your bludd!” in roughly the same way that teenaged Asian-American girls have been, since 1987, routinely subjected to obnoxious white boys quoting “Me so horny.”
•Stoker’s novel wants you to be scared of sex in general, though we can also make the point via the film: The first time we see Dracula attack a woman, all he really does is lean in for a kiss, though the street is dim and London-ish, and his victim is a flower-girl-for-which-read-prostitute, and these details inevitably summon overtones of Jack the Ripper, especially if you think Jack was a gentleman or the Prince of Wales.
The point is extended when, later in the film, one weeping survivor uses rape language to describe her evening with the Count:
Survivor: After what’s happened, I can’t…
Fiancé: What’s happened? What’s happened?!
Survivor: I can’t bear to tell you. I can’t.
At this point we need to make a careful distinction. Those scenes both trigger images of sexual violence. And yet one of the vampire story’s more remarkable features is that it communicates a fear of sex even when that violence is largely removed. Indeed, an encompassing fear of sex—and not just of rape—is coded into some of the genre’s most basic conventions. Nothing in the entire history of the horror film is more iconic than the vampire bite, which, if you pause to think about it, is entirely peculiar: Imagine that vampire stories didn’t already exist … and now imagine trying to convince a Hollywood executive to greenlight your new movie about a creature who kills people by giving them hickeys, an honest-to-Christ Cuddle Monster, but scary, you promise him, enemy of scarves and turtlenecks. Or ask yourself for once why so many movies allow vampires to be repelled by garlic. That’s a simple extrapolation from the idea that if you eat too much spicy food—if you go to bed fetid, the reek of sofrito still on your ungargled breath—no-one will want to sleep with you.
But there’s more…
•Stoker’s novel wants you to be scared of sexual women in particular. There’s an underlying point here that is worth reviewing first: Most viewers think that vampires are foxy, which makes them really unlike other classic monsters. If that point is the least bit unclear to you, you might take a moment now to close your eyes and pretend briefly that you are making out with a zombie. But the most clarifying difference is the one we can draw between the vampire and the werewolf, both of whom are canonically shown perpetrating savage violence upon the bodies of women. What I’d like to bring into view is that both werewolf movies and vampire movies deviate from what is perhaps the most routine scenario in a horror movie—a rampaging monster lumbering after a panicked victim—but they deviate in opposite directions. Werewolf stories are the one horror genre that has a certain reluctance or regret or stop-me-before-I-kill-again shame built right into them. Slashers, who otherwise resemble werewolves, never wake up the next morning hating themselves for what they’ve done. No-one casts a chainsaw to one side in self-loathing. But in a werewolf movie, not even the monster is wholly willing. In a vampire movie, then, the point just gets flipped, in that not even the victim is wholly unwilling. Vampire victims collaborate in their own destruction, for the simple reason that men in capes have game. This means that certain types of utterly common horror sequences are largely excluded from the vampire film: People almost never flee from vampires, which means that the vampire flick is the horror subgenre least likely to borrow from action movies; most likely, in other words, to commit to a languid pacing—no chase scenes!—or rather, if a vampire movie does for once break out into a chase scene, you can be pretty sure it’s the vamp and not the victim who is on the run.
What we can now say is that this little myth about willing victims is most often told, in the vampire classics themselves, about women. The form’s conviction that highborn men are predators is counterbalanced by its confidence that this is exactly what many women want—to be preyed upon. The he-vamp awakens the woman to sexual rapaciousness, and the audience is expected to find this creepy. The survivor does sob and say “I can’t bear to tell you what happened,” but she has also just said: “I feel wonderful. I’ve never felt better in my life.” In Stoker, the woman who proves most susceptible to Dracula’s advances is the one who has already asked, even before the vampire has made his move: “Why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her?” More important, the novel makes it clear that becoming a vampire is one good way of getting that wish granted. Once she turns, the sexual woman does indeed get all the men—every major male character in the novel willingly opens his veins to give her blood transfusions—she becomes a kind of sponge, allegorically loose, soaking up all this male donation: a “polyandrist,” one of the men calls her. When the men, bearing whale-oil candles, go to visit her in her crypt, they “drop sperm in white patches” across the floor, like pornographic bread crumbs. They finally put her to rest by assaulting her as a group, standing in a circle while one of their number “drives deeper into deeper” into the “dint in [her] white flesh.” In the novel’s opening sections, three women stand over a young Englishman in the Carpathians: “He is young and strong. There are kisses for us all.”
•Stoker’s novel wants you to be scared of deviant sex above all. One point can be made without qualification: All the vampires in the original Dracula are gender-benders. That this is true of those kiss-hungry Transylvaniennes should be immediately apparent, since it will be true of nearly any she-vamp—these lady-penetrators busting the jugular cherries of straight men.
The vampiress is how the very possibility of a certain rather sweeping gender reversal comes out into the open—becomes visible in everyday life, available for the contemplation of suburbanites and middle schoolers. She and her male victims are pop culture’s only iconic image of pegging. In Stoker, the man “waits in languorous ecstasy” while he assesses for the first time the feeling of “hard dents” against his “super sensitive skin.” The point will seem accordingly less clear with regards to Dracula himself, since a man-vamp sinking into a crumpled woman preserves orthodox sexual roles. That Dracula’s manhood is nonetheless unstable discloses the intensity of the novel’s preoccupation with sexual confusion: In one of the book’s more striking scenes, its several heroes bust into the bedroom of a woman they’ve been guarding and find Dracula clasping her head to his naked breast, which he has just gashed open so that she can lap at his blood. The image is not only a riff on oral rape—though it is that, too: a forced blow job. It is also—and rather more literally—a breast feeding, a demonic nursing, with the vampire willing to set aside all his usual male roles in order to take up the position of the monstrous mother, with a chest that runs red and a child at his bosom struggling to be reborn.
So that’s a dense set of associations—aristocracy, foreigners, sex, women, and queer people—and the film does a reasonably good job of preserving this tissue of meaning, a much better job than, say, Whalen’s Frankenstein does at protecting the many-sided allegory that had originally been built up around its monster. But the movie isn’t just a translation, because to those established associations it adds one of its own. The screen Dracula isn’t just an aristocratic holdover. The vampire is the movie star himself, and in all the famous images of Lugosi we see early film beginning to mediate on itself and on its own eerie power. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, not that Browning’s Dracula has simply added a new association to Stoker’s list, but that it has found an innovative way of encapsulating that list’s concerns. The Valentino vampire isn’t just a supplement to or replacement for the queer and foreign aristocrat; he is the queer and foreign aristocrat, issued in a new format. What we see in Dracula is film recoiling from its new modes of supercharged male charisma, and you can begin to make sense of Lugosi’s performance if you think of it in terms of any film set’s hierarchy of actors: Van Helsing kills Dracula; Edward Van Sloan, who you’ve never heard of, kills Bela Lugosi; a character actor kills the leading man on behalf of the drab, male masses for the overriding reason that the women who’ve come to the theater with them find him too dishy.
#3) So those are two of the things that the Nureyev clip intertwines: Valentino and vampires. The third thing has everything to do with Carol Kane’s hair.
There’s real a problem here. The movie has been careful to give Nureyev a tallowy comb-back; he would hardly be credible as Valentino without it. But what’s striking about his partner’s tresses is that they are so obviously of the 1970s. The movie, after all, is set in the 1920s, whose iconic hairstyles for women were all short—bobs and Dutch boys and such—but Carol Kane’s hair has been frizzed and teased into fiberglass—it is simultaneously long and fro-like, a headdress of cotton candy. For comparison…
Valentino with Natacha Rambova
The biopic dancer’s most unflapperish do, in other words, breaks the movie’s historical frame, anchoring the production in its own present of 1977 and allowing that decade to worm back into the Coolidge era. More precisely, it tends to transform the ballroom into a disco and the tango into a proto-Hustle. Look again at that shot of Carol Kane and especially at the lighting: One doesn’t typically think of the 1920s as spangly. What we can say now is that Nureyev isn’t just playing Valentino as a vampire—that idea, at least, we’ve been able to explain; he is playing Valentino as a disco vampire, and this is going to reopen the puzzle of the clip. We know that some people really hated disco, but was anybody actually scared of it? This brings us to another movie—the movie we actually need to be thinking about—which is 1985’s Fright Night. Disco, they once said, sucks.
One response to “Staying Alive, Part One”