Count Orlok, the star of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, was not only cinema’s first vampire but also its ugliest. He was tall and spindly like an overgrown but not very evolved insect. He had rat teeth, bat ears, a head as smooth and bulbous as a dinosaur’s egg and badly tailored suits. His eyes were weary, wary and haunted, and you could practically see the stench of death wafting off him. If that miserable beast had remained the template for blood-sucking freaks, a million goth kids would be Jonas Brothers fans today. There was absolutely nothing sexy about Count Orlok.
Today, of course, it’s a different story. Robert Pattinson, the young English star of the new movie Twilight, is tween America’s latest heartthrob. In the movie, he plays Edward Cullen, an ageless blood-sucking hottie with the creamy pallor of a slightly consumptive Abercrombie & Fitch model and stylishly haunted hair. To prepare for the role, he did more sit-ups each morning than one suspects that Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney did in their entire lifetimes, collectively. He also had to wear a lot of lipstick. But that’s how it is these days. We require that vampires meet the same high standards that we impose on cell phones and Jennifer Aniston: Each year, we expect them to grow sleeker, more streamlined, increasingly beautiful.
Because the vampire has shown a remarkable ability to actually fulfill such expectations, it stands as Hollywood’s most sought-after fiend. In his book The Dead Travel Fast, journalist Eric Nuzum notes that Hollywood has produced 605 vampire movies for theatrical release over the years, along with hundreds of TV episodes and made-for-TV movies. Dracula, meanwhile, has been portrayed in movies 43 times, a figure not even Sherlock Holmes or James Bond can match. He is, in fact, the most frequently portrayed character in cinematic history.
With the thick, lumpy features of a Brooklyn butcher, Bela Lugosi barely qualified as handsome, much less beautiful. But as the eponymous anti-hero of Tod Browning’s Dracula, he sure had style! That slicked-back hair. Those white silk ties and dashing capes, the touch of guyliner around his eyes. An entirely new kind of monster, he was seductive rather than threatening, civilized rather than animalistic and probably a pretty good dancer to boot. He taught us that it wasn’t just the repulsive that was scary; that which filled us with desire could be terrifying, too.
Alas, just as the impulse to create ever-more repulsive monsters ultimately leads to parody, so does the impulse to create ever-more beautiful ones. In Interview with the Vampire, Tom Cruise spent most of the movie sporting the frilly and revealing blouse of an 18th-century barmaid. And while he may have been a cold-hearted murderer, his glossy golden curls exhibited such body and shine that it felt as if one were watching history’s longest, bloodiest shampoo commercial. In the book version of Twilight, Edward Cullen apparently looks more like a ritzy jewelry store than a tormented soul trapped between the living and the dead—he has “cold, marble lips” and skin that “sparkle[s] like thousands of tiny diamonds.”
What’s next: a vampire who has eyes like a Gucci handbag? And why do we only burden vampires with this escalating beauty requirement? Look at Frankenstein’s monster—he’s got the same flat head and green complexion that he had in 1931. Would it kill him to buy a flattering hat and hit a tanning salon on occasion? Or get a little work done? Bolted together from the spare parts of indigent corpses, he shouldn’t find a nose job to be a daunting procedure. And how about the wolfman? Every other male star in Hollywood dutifully undergoes laser hair-removal treatments to rid themselves of unsightly back fur; what’s his excuse?
Vampires, meanwhile, would benefit from a little glamming-down. As it is, they’ve gotten so beautiful that they have it easier than rock stars when it comes to finding willing victims. This has led to indifference and a reluctance to commit. Dracula had three wives; Edward Cullen is a 108-year-old virgin. Ostensibly, the latter insists on keeping his relationship with Bella chaste because he doesn’t want her to suffer the fate of perpetual youth and killer abs that he himself endures. But is he really so noble, or is he just keeping his options open until some more beguiling prey comes along? Originally, vampires were ugly, rapacious beasts whose unchecked sexual aggression made them scary. Now, they’re fickle beauties whose malevolence stems from the fact that they just might not be that into you.