Thursday, 28 June 2018

Whampires

As a result of my colleagues extolling its virtues (thanks guys!) I just watched the 1998 Blade. It's a rollocking ride full of occasionally-dodgey CGI, but solid fun nonetheless.

Wesley Snipes as Blade. If he forgets his sword he'll dice his enemies with his unbelievably sharp cheekbones.

Blade, an early and progressive example of a black superhero, is counterpointed in the film by the evil vampire Mercury, who dresses almost entirely in white. I was struck by this, not least of which because the vampire-in-white is an unusual, but not entirely uncommon trope. Its this trope I want to unpack and explore.

Vampires wearing black is mostly due to modern post-Great Schism Europeans from the 17th century onwards coding black as representing the macabre, death and the devil. Romantics like Percy Shelley and Lord Byron embraced it as the garb of melancholy. It is from this inheritance that Dracula, the primogenitor of the modern vampire, is rooted. When the vampire gets his first real scene in the novel he is described as:
"...a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere."

Dracula in black from the rare 1901 edition. Socks and shoes optional.

There is a slight wrinkle to this. Dracula was of course a product of the Victorian era when black was very much in. This was thanks to advances in dye technology and the populace aping the queen's garb. Victoria wore black for nigh on 40 years in a mark of respect for her late husband. Stoker's vampire was, therefore, not entirely unfashionable.

Queen Victoria, looking cheery.

In the early to mid 20th century subsequently vampires are represented as being archaic (and so Victorian) and hence they wear black to indicate this and the evil they embody. Count Orlock in the 1922 Nosferatu (Dracula in all but name, for copyright reasons) wears entirely black. Bella Lugosi's Dracula is mostly black (with flashes of white and red) and Christopher Lee's costume in the Hammer films is much the same. It's only later in the 20th century that vampires' wardrobes seem to enlarge a bit with the films like Interview with a Vampire, and Bram Stoker's Dracula.

But vampires in white emerge early on and here we get to the meat of this post. They are a mix of codings and tropes initially conceived to convey a specific meaning, but later white is sometimes simply a way to identify one individual in a crowd.

Early on in the novel Dracula, mention is made of a 'white lady' who may or may not be the ghost of a woman holed-up in the walls of Whitby Abbey. Mina mentions that "there is a legend that a white lady is seen in one of the windows". The white lady is a staple of Western folklore - a common ghost as women tended to die earlier in childbirth. They are also unhappy souls, as women might often suffer being jilted, losing children and suffer in miserable marriages. Thus they would become  vengeful ghosts. Since the Classical era it was commonly held suffering was a reason for a spirit to remain in limbo. There are also links to the Keres of ancient Greece - were female death-spirits who controlled the fate of souls. She is white because this is the colour of innocence in the West, the colour of the shrouds sometimes used to wrap corpses, the colour of bones and the colour of mist, often associated with ghosts and the spirit. It is this inheritance that Stoker weaves into his novel in the form of the vampire brides.

Clearly an engraving wouldn't convince anyone ghosts were real, but this photograph is cast-iron proof of the existence of white ladies. 

The brides appear in Stoker's novel although their relationship to Dracula is not clearly explained. They are referred to as 'sisters', though this may be evocative more than anything. Indeed, Stoker later describes them as 'weird sisters' in a reference to the witches in Macbeth. The colour of their garb is not described in the novel, but in their first screen appearance in the 1931 Lugosi Dracula (they don't feature in Nosferatu) they embody the white lady folklore. They are an uncomfortable mix of innocent, ghost and succubi - frightening and erotic.

The sisters from the 1931 Dracula. Hand-wringing obligatory, apparently.

From 1931 the brides become a staple of the Dracula legend and appear in almost every adaption in their wispy, busty, gossamer form. They even get their own movie in the 1960 The Brides of Dracula and in more oblique (and pornographic) form in the 1971 Twins of Evil.

Mention should be made at this point of (poor) Lucy - Mina's friend in Dracula who is the first to succumb to the vampire's curse. In the novel the early mention of the white lady ghost prefigures the death of Lucy. While in the full flush of (living) romance Lucy is described as "...looking sweetly pretty in her white lawn frock..". In later screen adaptions Lucy is represented as another white lady in death, but not in Dracula the novel. Indeed, Stoker implied Lucy is buried and later emerges wearing black (one of the newspaper reports in the novel relays a sighting of a 'Woman in Black'). The 1931 film streamlines the plot and rolls some aspects of Mina and Lucy together. It is here when Mina/Lucy is seen post-bite in white indicating her shift to becoming an analogue of the brides, cementing her entry in the ranks of the undead women.

Bella Lugosi pulling that face you make when you deadlift something far too heavy.

The 1959 Dracula with Christopher Lee follows suit, and Lucy-the-vampire wears a simple (if figure-hugging) white smock.  In a stroke of costuming genius, Eiko Ishioka put Lucy in her coffin dressed in her white wedding dress in the 1992 Bram Stoker's Dracula. To the vampire-in-white-trope is now added the miserable failed-bride-to-be, robbed of her wedding day and denied the only future deemed permissible to a Victorian society woman - marriage and children.

Sadie Frost as Lucy facing off against Anthony Hopkins. Who wouldn't be scared if Hannibal Lector came at you?

Coming to the post-Hammer modern era the coding of white for vampires becomes more multifarious and complex. White vampires lose their connections to the white lady folklore, sometimes for good reasons, at others seemingly for reasons of fashion.

Jim Jarmusch's 2013 Only Lovers Left Alive is a rare example of white being a well thought out choice. Eve wears white as a counterpoint to Adam, who embodies the Romantic ideal of a vampire. Tom Hiddleston is all sulks and moping emo while Tilda Swinton is far more perky and positive and her garb refers to her fall from grace in the Garden of Eden.

 Tom Hiddleston as a sleepy toddler nuzzles Tilda Swinton's hung-over mother.

Seemingly arbitrary but undeniably stylish is the aforementioned Mercury from the 1998 Blade. I'd love to have a well thought out reason why she might be in white, but I don't. Nonetheless, she embodies a degree of then-fashionable heroin-chic with her bony silhouette, dark eyes and lips which tap into the zeitgeist of the time.

Arly Jover as Mercury. What vampires look like after a heroin binge.

Next we have the The Twins from the 2003 The Matrix Reloaded. I list them here because they are a good example of the way the vampire myth has been explored in different ways in the post-Hammer era. In a series of movies where most people dress in black, it's not unreasonable that dressing a pair in white to make them stand out struck the costume department as a good idea. Along with dreadlocks and pimp jackets. There is some convoluted back story to them being older versions of the series' Agents, which will have to suffice for any reasoning. I say this in a slightly disparaging way because their appearance was greeted with some not-unreasonable hostility by those claiming The Twins were emblematic of Hollywood's negative portrayal of characters with albinism.

The Twins created by The Wachowskis, showing they might possibly know more about gender politics than racial politics.

Following from this topic I want to finish with a few nods to modern vampire-eque characters who are white, even though they don't wear white. I want to name-check Elric from the Michael Moorcock novels and Prince Nuada from Hellboy II: The Golden Army. While vampires have always been 'deathly pale' these two take this to an extreme with their head-to-toe albino appearance.

Elric of Melniboné with his 'confused' face from trying to unpick Moorcock's cosmology.

Luke Goss as Prince Nuada Silverlance. The look you get when your boy band career finishes.
 
To conclude this whistle-stop tour, vampires-in-white (or 'whampires') have come a long way since the white lady folklore of European history, bleeding into pop culture and bumping into political topics of intersectionality and racial identity along the way. If you have any examples please post them in the comments. I realise I shamefully haven't covered off comics or video games so examples from these categories would be ace.

6 comments:

  1. Engaging analysis - perfect for the morning coffee. I rewatched the Matrix 2 and 3 the other day, as it happens, and for what it's worth I was struck by how diverse the casts were. They were answers to questions we never asked, but solid, fun films nonetheless.

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  2. In John Carpenter's Vampires, both the protagonist (James Woods as Jack Crow) and the antagonist (Thomas Ian Griffith as Jan Valek) both wear black, symbolic of their shared viciousness and brutal natures.

    This is turned around in its sequel (Los Muertos), wherein the protagonist (Jon Bon Jovi as Derek Bliss) is often seen wearing light tan-coloured clothing, were as the antagonist (Arly Jova as Una) is wearing a light grey shift. Even the secondary character Zoey (played by Natasha Gregson Wagner), suffering under the vampiric curse, wears a white woollen jumper.

    Seen in the Interview With A Vampire sequel, Queen of the Damned, we are shown that when a vampire goes into torpor, they become a statues of alabaster or white marble.

    In the film Ultraviolet, Milla Jovovich's vampire character (or Haemophages as they're called in this world) wears adaptive clothing that changes to a variety of neon colours, but also she is seen in some scenes wearing both black and white.

    I'm also curious about the photograph you chose from Hampton Court showing a 'White Lady'. You state that it's cast iron proof of existence of White Ladies, now I'm unsure whether you mean that assertion as sarcasm, or as a statement of personal belief? I only ask because given the way the White Lady bends around the contours of the wall, skirting board and floor, I personally would conclude that she is either some kind of chalk drawing or maybe created using a projector.

    Anyway, I hope the films listed are helpful in emphasising your point. :3

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  3. If you want further illustration, Olivier Ledroit who made the Elric illustration above has drawn a comic called Requiem (written by Pat Mills) with all varieties of vampires as well, stunning imagery.

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  4. Thank you for this article! I can't help it: Hannibal Lecter was, in the first movie "Manhunter", indeed written with an "o" but not played by Anthony Hopkins yet. :)

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  5. I never consciously thought of this, but it does all really come together when laid out so clearly. I'm trying to think of other examples from Buffy or Carmilla or something, but there's nothing coming to mind.

    Mercury, I kind of suspect was just a case of someone in the costuming department saying "Y'know, if Arly Jover was in white and surrounded by all these other vamps in black, that would look awesome!"

    Also, while poking around online to find the actress's name, I discovered that she was more recently in a flick called Axolotl Overkill, which I might have to watch purely on the strength of the title.

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  6. An interesting piece, I thought Udo Kier could have been used in a more interesting way in Blade. Also Pat Tat has done some quite mediocre designs in his years as a production designer(Justice League? Batman vs Superman?) so I would say his high point was Dark City, also the Dark City Strangers remind me of Genestealer Hybrids, Ian Richardson even has a psychic duel with Rufus Sewell.

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