2012 was the year for vampires and the cinema. If the topic seemed somehow exhausted, there were plenty of reasons to look back at it, hopefully with a distanced and refreshed critical look. Indeed, earlier the past year, Jeffrey Weinstock had been determined to offer an all-encompassing theory on the vampire film by flaunting the very evident fact that ‘vampire movies […] endlessly and in so many ways talk about vampires and vampire movies’.  Vampiric self-referentiality helped Weinstock develop the concept of the ‘textual nomad’, an active viewing experience that engages with the vampire film’s intertextual performativity.  Vampires looking at other vampires projected from the past, in the present and into the future seems to be a constant trademark in the vampire film. Even the final instalment in the Twilight Saga, Breaking Dawn Part 2 (Bill Condon, 2012), teased audience’s ever longing expectation of a violent vampiric encounter with its prophetic vision of a battle between the Volturi and the Cullens. Nevertheless, the film looked tired and repetitive: the romance between Bella and Edward had already depleted itself. At the end of a highly successful franchise, a sense of closure could be equated with a cultural weariness about anything vampiric. Weinstock’s celebration of the vampire film’s tendency to refer to its own corpus perhaps arrives too late into the scholarly debate on this highly attractive theme.
Ken Gelder’s New Vampire Cinema was released almost at the same time as the opening of Breaking Dawn Part 2, perhaps a contentious time to keep on looking at the vampire genre. Unlike Weinstock’s all-encompassing approach to vampire cinema in general, Gelder decides to focus on vampire films from the past twenty years, including the Twilight films. Yet, it is difficult to determine if anything novel could be said about this. In his earlier work, Reading the Vampire (1994), Gelder had offered a satisfactory argument to understand vampiric intertextual references. He argued that ‘each new vampire film engages in a process of familiarisation and defamiliarisation’ that motivates a process of recognition and a sense of originality in the audience.  Weinstock’s own argument clearly emanates from Gelder’s earlier idea, thus confirming that a new critical approach to what vampire films seem to be doing over and over again seems hard to come by. Gelder decides then to offer the concept of ‘citation’ as a new approach to vampire cinema (p. vi). Although he is aware that ‘all films are systems of citation’, he emphasises that ‘vampire films do this in a particularly visible, performative way’ (p. vi). Vampire films explicitly ‘re-cite’, bring previous vampire films into themselves, thus sustaining the vitality of the genre. In order to prove this, Gelder embarks on an exploration of approximately forty vampire films. With examples from the United States, Mexico and Europe to far away locations such as Japan, South Korea and New Zealand, he attempts to establish how the concepts of authenticity, movement, remoteness and closeness and exhaustion can all be debated with the citational performance that vampire films constantly do.
For the first half of this study, Gelder evidently concentrates on the implications of citation in vampire films. His chapters on inauthentic and neighbourly vampires focus on citing in reference to originality and proximity. ‘Citationally promiscuous’ (p. 9) films such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola, 1992) or Shadow of the Vampire (E. Elias Merighe, 2000) effectively play with their authenticity: their intertextual references are too promiscuous, too evident of their debt to the vampire in the cinema. Gelder takes their inauthenticity for granted under the light of their citational performativity, as if that is what vampire films perpetually do. Even Ruben Kuzui’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) self-consciously parodies this characteristic of vampire cinema with a ‘lite’ (p. 16) version of vampire hunting. But bringing remote references and physical creatures to present times suggests another problem too. Vampires are at odds with modernity; their spatial and temporal remoteness seems to clash with the contemporary world, as Louis evidences in Interview with the Vampire (Neil Jordan, 1994) and Queen of the Damned (Michael Rymer, 2002).
Gelder is keen on further putting the idea of spatial proximity in terms of citation at odds when the vampire becomes our next door neighbour. In the second chapter, neighbourly and secularised monstrosity is pointed at in the Swedish films Frostbitten (Anders Banke, 2006) and Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008), as well as the latter’s American remake Let Me In (Matt Reeves, 2010). Gelder focuses on the premise that even though the vampire may become too familiar due to its proximity in the modern world, ‘its otherness is perhaps more unsettling than it ever was’ (p. 41). Uncanniness and reactions of horror depend here not on casting otherness away, but rather on ‘one’s receptiveness to the proximity of otherness, it seems’ (p. 43). This idea is similarly echoed in the Russian films Nightwatch (Timur Bekmambetov, 2004) and Daywatch (Timur Bekmambetov, 2006), where vampires and other fantastic creatures may live too close to each other: paradoxically the ‘vampire-as-neighbour’ (p. 47) may break intimate filial bonds; its monstrous proximity distances intersubjective relations.
With the concepts of authenticity, remoteness and closeness laid out, Gelder moves on to what is perhaps the strongest and most attractive chapter in his book: that of citational vampires contextualised under light of transnational cinema. Here, Gelder discusses how ‘vampire films from France, Japan and Korea […] are already transnational, designed among other things to interrogate assumptions about cultural and geographical distance and difference’ (p. 51). Gelder notices these vampire films ‘put the local and the remote into proximity with each other, juxtaposing them but also drawing them close to the extent that they come to inhabit each other’ (p. 51). Geographically and temporally speaking, the films in this chapter put monstrosity, other cultures and even other genres at odds. Vampire references become an ‘ex-citation: a way of setting something in motion, of summoning something (or of being summoned by something), and of being taken out of one’s self’ (p. 51). Perhaps this is most clearly stated in Irma Vep (Olivier Assayas, 1996), a film that attempts to remake the classic silent film series Les Vampires (Louis Feuillade, 1915) by hiring Chinese actress Maggie Cheung. The film simultaneously brings together spatial and temporal remoteness: a cultural encounter of the distant and the old with the new and the modern. Gelder suggests that the performative process of ‘revamping’ (p. 52) Les Vampires, a ‘juxtaposition/enfolding together’ of these different elements, ‘makes Irma Vep almost a vampire film’ (p. 52). With this sort of ex-citation, it is easy to notice the transnational circumstances, inscribed in a culture of global economy, that the film encounters to authenticate itself as a remake, thus also evidencing that it ends up being ‘a crisis of representation’ (p. 55). A similar approach is noticed in Thirst (Park Chan-woo, 2009), a Korean vampire film that is also a loose adaptation of Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin (1867).
Gelder has chosen such a wide variety of films to identify how the vampire genre works performatively within its highly citational process. What he also wants to prove is that, once vampiric ex-citation has been put into motion, it tends to disrupt the locality of the film itself: it opens up a problem through the concept of the vampire rather than closing it down. If Weinstock embraces the positivity of vampire textual nomadity, Gelder insists that a vampire film’s constant citational structure brings a perpetual shock to the vampiric encounter. Thus, despite the possible local and allegorical post-World War II implications in the Japanese films Blood: The Last Vampire (Hiroyuki Kitakubo, 2000) and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 2000), strong vampiric references tend to ‘distance and displace’ the films from such allegorical ‘predicament’ (p. 61). But this distancing process seems to infiltrate into Gelder’s own study too: once the vampire film as a system of citations has been determined as motivation and predicament, the following chapters seem to turn away from this central enquiry.
Although the last two chapters in New Vampire Cinema still suggest vampiric excitations, there is greater focus on modernity and exhaustion. The vampires in the Americas that Gelder approaches face the problem of how ‘to blend in, or stand out, in some other, different place’ (p. 75). In films like Nadja (Michael Almereyda, 1994), The Addiction (Abel Ferrara, 1995), Habit (Larry Fassenden, 1995) and Vampire in Brooklyn (Wes Craven, 1995), he identifies how the vampire is restrained in modern urban settings. In the Twilight saga, he notices how Bella’s, Edward’s and Jacob’s love triangle risks allegorical readings on class and race in relation to possible post-colonial anxieties. Gelder then moves across the US-Mexican border to explore how Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos (1993) briefly incorporates Catholic imagery into the vampire genre, yet still flaunts the vampire’s awkward stance towards modernity. Back to the border, Gelder takes a brief look at what he calls ‘Tex-Mex vampire films’, where ‘associations between vampires, outlaws, badass behaviour and the old American frontier’ are brought together (p. 97). From Dusk Till Dawn (Robert Rodriguez, 1996), John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) and their sequels contain a high degree of violence and gore and depict the Mexican border as a ‘decadent, primitive fantasy space that is a dead-end for almost everyone who goes there’ (p. 99). Gelder argues that allegorical interpretations of the relationship between Mexico and the United States in these films are virtually non-existent, and stresses how both series rather stick to ‘a trash or pulp aesthetic that is already associated with its ‘Tex-Mex’ setting’ (p. 99).
In the final chapter on diminishing vampires, Gelder evaluates some recent films where these creatures are exhausted and in danger of disappearing, whether by being cast out of society or by clinging to now useless ancient hierarchies and consumption patterns. Yet, Gelder notices that this exhaustion also entails a sense of regeneration (p. 107), an act that may put vampires in synch with new situations to perpetuate themselves. In film series, such as the Blade and Underworld trilogies, vampires are in ‘perpetual struggle’ (p. 111) and refuse opening up towards modernity and new forms of survival. Thus, old vampires must die and new racial hybrids offer new possibilities of existence, such as the lycan-vampire creature in Underworld (Len Wiseman, 2003). The vampire thus becomes an ‘endangered species’ (p. 123), pointed out in films such as Ultraviolet (Kurt Wimmer, 2006), The Breed (Nicholas Mastandrea, 2006), Perfect Creature (Gleen Standring, 2006) and Daybreakers (Michael and Peter Spierig, 2009). In this last film vampires have depleted all sources of nourishment: very few humans survive, and some vampires attempt to maximise supply and demand in an economic blood crisis. Gelder reflects that this film might be ‘about as close to a political allegory as a vampire film could be’ (p. 131). References to world financial crises and Australian post-colonial hauntings seem to abound in this film: ‘vampires – like consumer capitalism itself, or like a virus – seem to be everywhere’ (p. 132). As blood becomes scarcer and a possible cure to vampirism is eliminated, the film ends with a gloomy picture of ultimate consumption: vampires perpetually prey on each other in the struggle to remain as they are.
The breadth of Ken Gelder’s enquiry is impressive and thought provoking. It is undeniable that the premise of systems of citation proves useful in understanding our own interaction with vampire films. It is a complex performativity of generic and thematic citations that incite and excite the audience’s knowledge of vampiric lore. Rather than just assigning the vampire a metaphorical role, Gelder wants to prove the potential critical approach of the vampire as an insistent citational performer. Unfortunately, what promises to be a fascinating evaluation falters halfway through the text. Gelder’s growing attention to matters of modernity, exhaustion and political allegory suddenly set the idea of citation aside, and a lack of conclusion prevents the recovery of such an incisive line of enquiry. Like the climactic action sequence in Breaking Dawn Part 2, Gelder has excited his readers, yet fails to end his study with his cohesive central exploration leaving the audience somehow disappointed. Whilst Gelder sometimes seems to state too obvious observations about several of the films he approaches, the concept of the citational vampire should not be ignored. On the contrary, it certainly provides a strong critical approach to recent vampire cinema. It is just a matter of inciting Gelder to explore it more thoroughly to fully understand its relevance on all the films he explores in this book.
Ken Gelder, New Vampire Cinema. (London: BFI-Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).