Striking the Balance:  Terror, Desire & Robert Pattinson

By D. MacDowell Blue

When a sound version of Dracula finally made it to celluloid, the first such movie to feature a real (as opposed to pretend) vampire, a choice faced the filmmakers.  How to portray the vampire?  Taking their cue from the Balderston-Dean play, they decided the title character would ooze sinister charm—an archetype that owes far more to Polidori’s much-earlier work The Vampire than to Bram Stoker’s novel.  Actors considered for the lead included Lon Chaney (ironically enough, the great silent star died of throat cancer first) Conrad Veidt and Frederick March, but in the end the role went to tall, thin and suave Bela Lugosi. 

Flash forward seven decades or so.  Another major studio prepares to adapt another vampire novel to the screen.  Herein the choice is more subtle.  The male lead in Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight is written as handsome, gallant (if moody) and highly ethical. 
A more pressing question is that of casting.  Who shall play Edward?  Fan favorites included Orlando Bloom, Tom Wellin and Hayden Christensen.  But in the end the role went to Robert Pattinson—up until then best known for portraying the doomed nice guy Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  Initially (and this is sometimes hard to credit now) fans reacted badly to the news.  They soon changed their minds for the most part, especially once the teasers and trailers began showing.  One might even call this evidence that sometimes professional casting directors and filmmakers actually do know more about how to do their jobs than the average moviegoer (although there remains a die-hard group of fans who still reject Pattinson in the role).

What Meyers herself said about the casting which bears repeating:  “There are very few actors who can look both dangerous and beautiful at the same time…”  Herein perhaps lies the core of what connects the years-ago casting of Bela Lugosi and the more recent decision to go with Robert Pattinson.  More, it highlights something that goes into the casing of most vampire parts, at least the ones where the vampire is a major character.

Consider Nosferatu.  F.W.Murnau’s unauthorized adaptation of Dracula saw the vampire as a snaggle-toothed horror whose bug-eyes promised disease and nightmare.  Yet then look at the major motion pictures and later television series in which vampires were leads.  More, look at the ones that proved most popular, made the greatest connection with the largest number of fans.

Going down the line of a major filmed production of Stoker’s Count, we have Carlos Villar (Spanish Dracula), Lon Chaney Jr. (Son of Dracula), John Carradine (initially House of Frankenstein), Sir Christopher Lee (Hammer’s multiple Dracula films), Frank Langella (Broadway and then the Badham film), Louis Jourdan (BBC’s Count Dracula), Gary Oldman (Bram Stoker’s Dracula), Gerard Butler (Dracula 2000) and Marc Warren (another BBC Dracula).  A quick examination of these actors reveals a quality in some ways surprising for being cast as a reanimated corpse feeding leechlike on the living—all are quite good-looking men.  Looking at other major vampires, we have Jonathan Frid (Barnbas Collins on Dark Shadows), Chris Sarandan (Jerry Dandridge in Fright Night), Geraint Wyn Davies (Nicholas on Forever Knight), David Boreanaz (Angel on Buffy and then his own show), James Marsters (Spike on the same programs), Kyle Schmid (Henry Fitzroy on Blood Ties), Alex O’Loughlin (Mick St. John on Moonlight), and even Gerran Howell (Vladimir on Young Dracula).  This list is incomplete but the essential pattern holds—attractive men portraying semi-cannibalistic monsters.

One might well note that the entertainment industry tends to cast attractive people in lead roles.  True enough.  But return to Meyers’ comment about casting Edward Cullen.  She spoke of not only physical beauty but a quality of danger.  In one interview she came out and said that the story doesn’t work unless we the audience believe Edward might kill Bella.

Which brings up another point.  In the world of Twilight, vampires kill when they feed.  Count Dracula or Barnabas Collins can return to the same (increasingly eager) young lovely to slake their lust/thirst time and again.  Not so Edward Cullen.  His bite carries with it venom to incapacitate a victim with agonizing pain.  Indeed, becoming a vampire requires infection without killing—a feat relatively few vampires can accomplish.  The taste of blood causes them to frenzy.  Twilight vampires are also powerful, easily capable of crushing rock with their fingers, impregnable to almost any kind of attack.  Sunlight, crosses, garlic, wooden stakes—useless.  They are also the fastest things on earth, many of them armed with psychic powers like the telepathy, precognition, or the ability to inflict psychic pain. Meyers created what in many ways are the most terrifying undead in fiction, unstoppable killing machines whose “kiss” is a tiny taste of hell for those horribly unlucky enough to become their prey.  A far cry from the orgasmic reactions of Kate Nelligan or Veronica Carlson!

Yet they are also the most beautiful.

By contemporary standards, Robert Pattinson (who has now “become” Edward Cullen in many people’s eyes) is a very attractive young man, to the point of being pretty.  Yet as a vampire he is many times more dangerous than his fellow blood-suckers in popular fiction.  Even those created as obstacles to the leads’ survival, a la 30 Days of Night or From Dusk ‘Till Dawn are wimps compared to Edward.  While some might regard this as nothing but coincidence, perhaps a better understanding lies in the nature of the vampire as a character.

A vampire is a predator of humans, upon what was (presumably) their own kind.  This situation became fodder for storytellers precisely because of the conflict between how such a creature must exist.  While a vampire may well avoid any emotional entanglements with its prey, better stories generally lie in the idea of seduction rather than attack.  Luring one’s victim to their doom tends to have more drama than pouncing on an unsuspecting straggler from the human herd.  Especially dramatic (i.e. filled with conflict) is when the victim in some sense knows they are flirting with danger, if they realize their lover can/might/will leave them dead.

Much of the success and failure of different vampire stories lies in how well this conflict ends up dramatized.  For example, Blood Ties suffered from the flaw that Henry’s
status as a vampire really posed little or no threat to Vicky.  Theirs was a fascinating game of cat and mouse, but really not very different in dynamics than that between the leads in Remington Steele or Cheers.  Likewise the series Moonlight had the curious case of a vampire who feels extreme guilt for doing nothing really wrong.  Mick St. John has no long list of crimes under his belt like Angelus or Nicholas Knight.  Nor was his vampirism particularly deadly, since (like Henry) the only ill effects seem to be the same as any blood donor endures.  Compare this to Barnabas Collins, whose bite destroys his victim’s free will or Spike, whose vampirism is literally a case of demonic possession and comes with a desire to torture for fun.

Robert Pattinson’s Edward is moody but also passionately devoted.  He is patient and protective, very old-fashioned but amenable to learning.  Of all the fictional vampires here listed he resembles most a male model and behaves like the perfect boyfriend.  Yet of them all he is naturally the most inherently deadly.  The vampires of Twilight make Brian Lumley’s wamphryi seem like poodles in the predator department.  Is this really a coincidence?  Perhaps not.  Maybe what this reveals is the more terrifying the vampire, the more effort must go into making him (or her—consider Angelique on Dark Shadows or Carmilla in The Vampire Lovers) attractive and/or sympathetic.  Go too far one way and all you have is a monster who’s not bad looking.  Too far the other and what you find is a potential boyfriend with some exotic issues.  Strike the right balance and some lucky actor gets the chance to play an archetype of terror and desire.  In this case, said lucky young man is Robert Pattinson.



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