x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Beautiful and dangerous, female vampires are the real femmes fatales

With the first half of the final Twilight instalment released today, we look at the allure of female vampires through the ages.

Kate Beckinsale plays Selene in Screen Gems' action movie Underworld: Evolution.
Kate Beckinsale plays Selene in Screen Gems' action movie Underworld: Evolution.

The dangerously seductive allure of a vampire's kiss has been with us since the dawn of cinema, and now even the most innocent young heroine has finally succumbed. In the latest Twilight saga, Breaking Dawn, Bella finally joins Edward on the other side of the bloodsucking inter-species divide. In other words, the most fluffy, sappy, toothless vampires in screen history just got a whole lot darker - and way more interesting.

Let's face it. Moody, broody bloodsuckers such as Edward have haunted hundreds of movies, but their predatory desires are usually grindingly obvious.

Women make more interesting movie vampires because their motives are usually more ambiguous, their emotions conflicted, their allegorical subtext so much richer. For recent examples, just compare the Underworld action blockbusters, the cult horror thriller Let the Right One In and the glossy TV drama True Blood. From femmes fatales to feminists, sex symbols to serial killers, female vamps have more bite - perhaps because, unlike men, they often reflect the deepest social and sexual anxieties of the culture that created them.

Based on a series of young-adult novels by the US author Stephenie Meyer, the Twilight films have been widely criticised for their passive human heroine Bella, an old-fashioned damsel in distress ruled by her romantic obsession with her floppy-haired vampire boyfriend. Meyer emphatically rejects this accusation.

"I am all about girl power," the author argues on her official website. "I am not anti-female, I am anti-human. I wrote this story from the perspective of a female human because that came most naturally, as you might imagine. But if the narrator had been a male human, it would not have changed the events. When a human being is totally surrounded by creatures with supernatural strength, speed, senses and various other uncanny powers, he or she is not going to be able to hold his or her own. Sorry. That's just the way it is."

Maybe so, but Breaking Dawn, which opens across UAE cinemas today, does contain some major shifts in the power balance of the Twilight universe. After consummating her marriage to Edward, Bella instantly becomes pregnant with a human-vampire hybrid baby. To save her life during childbirth, Edward is forced to transform Bella into a vampire. This leads to tension among the bloodsucking elders, and a lethal feud between Bella and her female vampire rival Irina.

On one level, Breaking Dawn taps into an ancient trend in vampire mythology. Bloodsucking female figures have long represented a kind of collective unease about outlaw women who threaten the settled social order. This notion stretches back at least 4,000 years, to when the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians of Mesopotamia - modern-day Iraq - believed in a feminine monster called Lamatsu, who was often blamed for miscarriages and unexplained infant deaths. Similar nightmarish creatures with names like Lilith, Lamia and Kuang-shi can be found in Greek, Indian, Chinese and Celtic folklore. In Europe, vampires first became a popular literary topic in 18th and 19th-century gothic fiction, although most of the folklore we now take for granted was invented by Bram Stoker in his seminal 1897 novel Dracula.

To date, cinema's most suave serial killer has starred in more than 100 films - most memorably embodied by Bela Lugosi in the original 1931 Hollywood version, Christopher Lee in a series of low-budget British features in the 1950s and 1960s, and Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola's lavish 1992 film Bram Stoker's Dracula.The Irish-born Stoker based his bloodthirsty Transylvanian count partly on the 15th-century Prince Vladislav Basarab, whose cruelty earned him the nicknames Vlad Dracul - "Vlad The Dragon" - or more commonly Vlad Tepes - "Vlad The Impaler". But the author was also heavily influenced by a lesser-known gothic tale about a female vampire, Carmilla, written 25 years earlier by his fellow Irishman Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. An exotic and highly eroticised figure, Carmilla has inspired more than a dozen films herself, including Theodor Dreyer's 1932 thriller Vampyr, Roger Vadim's 1960 drama Blood and Roses, and the kitsch 1970 Hammer horror production The Vampire Lovers.

The real-life roots of European fem-vamp folklore can be traced back to the notorious Elizabeth Bathory, a 16th-century Hungarian countess who abducted and murdered up to 650 people, mostly young women. Following her trial in 1610, she was spared death due to her aristocratic background, but was jailed in a small room in her castle. Since her death four years later, legends about Bathory and her crimes have multiplied. Terrified of ageing, she allegedly bathed in the blood of her victims in a desperate bid to remain youthful.

Transformed via Hollywood into a female Dracula figure, Bathory later spawned dozens of thinly disguised screen copycats, including Gloria Holden in Dracula's Daughter, Soledad Miranda in Vampyros Lesbos and Ingrid Pitt in Countess Dracula. Bathory even appears as a modern-day immortal in the stylish 1971 euro-vamp thriller Daughters of Darkness, and clearly inspired Catherine Deneuve's character in the director Tony Scott's 1983 debut feature The Hunger, an elegant Manhattan bloodsucker fighting to halt the ravages of old age.

In 2009, the French-born actress Julie Delpy directed and starred in The Countess, a serious biopic which aimed to reclaim Bathory from sensational vampire-queen legend. Although clearly still an unhinged killer, Delpy's blood-drenched heroine is also portrayed as the victim of imperial Europe's male-dominated political elite. That's why the lady is a vamp.

"Her whole myth blew out of proportion in the 19th century when they started to romanticise about her," Delpy says. "Even Bram Stoker was inspired to write Dracula by her. Her myth grew bigger throughout the centuries. I was interested in her obsession with youth and decay, and how women lose their power when they lose their beauty."

In line with the changing social and political attitudes of a post-Buffy age, modern female vampires are no longer projections of our darkest fears but sympathetic, fully rounded heroines in their own right. Kate Beckinsale's Selene in the slick Underworld franchise is a Matrix-style action-babe, her thirst for blood a minor background detail.

In Tomas Alfredson's 2008 Swedish thriller Let the Right One In, remade in English last year as Let Me In, the 12-year-old vampire-girl Eli becomes a kind of righteous angel of vengeance against school bullies and neglectful parents. In this bleak dramatic landscape, blood-drinking demons act like heroes while humans are the real monsters.

Like Bella in Breaking Dawn, female vampires are stepping out of the Twilight zone and embracing the messy, murky, morally challenging business of real human emotions.

Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1 opens in UAE cinemas today.