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Local takes on the original Dracula put Twilight to sparkly shame

From graphic novels to rock operas, ATL likes its vampires Vlad to the bone


MADE UP MONSTER: Rob Thompson, creator and star of Dracula: The Rock Opera - DUSTIN CHAMBERS
  • Dustin Chambers
  • MADE UP MONSTER: Rob Thompson, creator and star of Dracula: The Rock Opera

Women screamed at the first sight of the new century's dominant vampire. Were they cries of terror? If only.

In autumn of 2008 I attended a screening of Twilight, the first movie based on the hugely popular series of teen Gothic romances from Stephenie Meyer. When new girl in town Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) saw dreamy high schooler Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) enter a classroom, the young ladies in the audience erupted with piercing vocal appreciation. Pattinson's pasty-faced but hunky 100-year-old vampire provoked a response worthy of the Beatles' first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

It's easy to see why tweens and teens would go for Edward, a tall, pouty leading man, passionately in love with Bella yet resolutely chaste outside of marriage. When direct sunlight shines on Edward, he sparkles like diamonds, making him both the perfect boyfriend and the perfect accessory. Apart from a craving for blood, however, he makes a pretty sorry excuse for a nosferatu. As Shane Morton, aka host Professor Morte of the local Silver Scream Spook Show says, "They really cut his balls off and turned him into a whining milksop."

One can only hope that the Nov. 16 release of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 2, the fifth and final film in the series, will close the lid on the would-be sexy, anemic undead that overcrowd pop culture. It seems like ages since vampires have been scary, or even minimally interesting, yet they've been unavoidable. As the title of the parody film Vampires Suck attests, Twilight is so boring that it doesn't even make good satire, like an old-school bloodsucker that fails to cast a reflection.

Twilight merely serves as the most prominent example of the aesthetic emptiness of a once-potent monstrous antagonist. Vampires have been a cultural mainstay for generations, but Joss Whedon's ingenious TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel" so thoroughly deconstructed the tropes of the undead, someone should have pulled vampires from circulation for a few years so they could regain their mystique. Instead, authors, filmmakers, and TV showrunners flooded the market with black-clad fanged poseurs, from the four Underworld films to the pumped-up monster mash Van Helsing to the CW's Atlanta-based production "The Vampire Diaries." HBO's "True Blood" is trash, but it at least makes an effort to put its hard-bodied antagonists in the steamiest, bloodiest, nakedest Southern trappings possible.

With any luck, Breaking Dawn Part 2 will provide a wake-up call for bringing back the father of vampires to show his misbegotten offspring how to commandeer the popular imagination. "With modern vampires, they all really start with Bram Stoker's Dracula," says Van Jensen, an Atlanta-based graphic novelist whose Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer offers a surprisingly faithful, vital take on the supernatural mythos.

The original Dracula isn't tame, isn't safe, and definitely isn't sparkly. In the Irish author's 1897 novel, the undead Transylvanian count exudes such a malignant presence, he practically emerges from the page. This fall, two innovative pieces of Atlanta-based art — Jensen's graphic novel series and 7 Stages' world premiere of Dracula: The Rock Opera — return the Count to his menacing, mesmerizing roots. The graphic novel and the rock opera may foreshadow a new trend in which adaptations strive to be as authentic as possible to Dracula's scary, old-school source. It's time to invite the real Dracula back over the threshold of our consciousness. He can't enter without our permission.

Bram Stoker begins Dracula with young English lawyer Jonathan Harker's journey to Transylvania to finalize a London land purchase for an Old World aristocrat. Despite the Count's veneer of gentility, Harker finds him innately repulsive: "As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me, I could not repress a shudder. It may have been that his breath was rank, but a wave of nausea came over me, which, do what I would, I could not conceal."

Dracula didn't look like a debonair gentleman in his first movie appearance, and he wasn't even called Dracula. The 1922 silent film Nosferatu didn't acquire the rights to Stoker's book, so it delivered a thinly disguised version of the story, with actor Max Schreck playing Count Orlok. When Marietta's Strand Theatre screens Nosferatu on Oct. 28 with live organ accompaniment, you can see the title character as a bald, ghoulish figure with a face like a skinned bat

The enduring image of the sexy vampire began with Bela Lugosi's career-defining turn in Universal Pictures' Dracula in 1931."I don't find Bela Lugosi particularly scary or particularly seductive. I've read that women would swoon over him and wonder, 'What kind of crack were they smoking?'" says Georgia Tech professor Carol Senf, associate chair of the School of Literature, Media, and Communication.

An award-winning scholar of Dracula and Bram Stoker, Senf acknowledges the erotic allure of vampires particularly for sexually repressed societies like Victorian England. Senf finds vampires equally fascinating as threatening figures from the past. "If you look at Stoker's Dracula, he's a medieval figure, a warlord. At a time that prides itself on being modern, we can get sucked into this primitive, animalistic behavior," says Senf.

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