Tag: vampires (page 3 of 4)

Doing Bad Things Well

Courtesy HBO

There are lots of stories out there with vampires in, but few keep me coming back for more. I only made it through the first few chapters of Twilight. I haven’t touched anything related to the Cirque du Freak. And as much as I think that the Coppola/Oldman Dracula from 1992 is something of an ur-text for how vampires should be portrayed, I only watch it every couple of years.

True Blood is different. It’s not just the fact that it’s doled out to us episodically or that it’s on HBO, if you know what I mean. I could point to broad things like “scary good writing” or “excellent production values” (the occasional botched special effect aside) but I think there’s more to it. Let’s sink our fangs in a bit deeper.

Realistic Relationships

Courtesy HBO

Now, obviously, I’m not referring to a relationship between a vampire and a girl who might be part fairy as ‘realistic’. What I mean is, the way Sookie and Bill deal with one another, the trials they face and the problems that occur strikes me as not only realistic, but mature.

These are two individuals who care very deeply for one another. And unlike some of the other manifestations of such a relationship that are out there, these two not only go to great lengths in an attempt to secure each others’ happiness, they also communicate their feelings to one another to the best of their ability. Sometimes the words come out all wrong, and sometimes Bill loses his mind from starvation and nearly kills Sookie, but this leads me to the thing that really underscores the power of this relationship.

They want to work together to make the relationship a lasting one, because they love each other that much. Even when Sookie is so mad at Bill she could spit nails, to the point of pushing him away, it’s clear she still feels every bit as intensely now as she did when she first met him. And Bill would step aside to let Sookie be with someone who could give her children and not drag her into the blood-drenched world of his kind, because he loves her deeply and cares more about her happiness than just about anything else. It’s a nuanced and well-developed relationship that continues to be realistic in its portrayal of those in the real world, rather than becoming a parody or worse, some form of moralizing. I’m looking at you, Ms. Meyer.

Positive, Deep Characters

Courtesy HBO

Let’s face it. “God hates fangs” is one letter away from being a very real and very disturbing messages some churches love to propagate. True Blood is something of an Aesop (albeit a broken one) for many minorities that are discriminated against. A lot of fiction out there prefers to play this discrimination or stereotype for laughs rather than give us a positive view of what these people are really like. For example, while there is some good stuff in The Birdcage, for the most part it’s a madcap comedy. True Blood went in a different direction than comedic representation from the very first episode, with Lafayette.

In the Southern Vampire Diaries, Lafayette’s something of a minor character. In the television series, he’s come to play a pretty important role in the goings-on. He’s unashamed of who he is, unafraid to put a few extra touches on himself to look gorgeous and definitely willing to throw punches at folk who have a problem with him being who he is. Now, the fact that he’s a drug dealer and occasionally puts on webcam shows of himself aren’t terribly positive aspects of the character, but he’s made it clear that he cares more about the people in his life – his cousin Tara, Sookie, his mother, etc – than any cash he might make. He’s a pretty stand-up guy, when you get right down to it, and he’s always around to talk sense into folk when they’re being dumb.

Most of the characters show this sort of depth, but… not all of them are positive.

Compelling Villains

Courtesy HBO

With the likes of Eric and Russell Edgington running around, it’s clear that True Blood isn’t interested in making their villains one-dimensional cackling characters in the mold of Snidely Whiplash. As the show progresses, the raising of the stakes comes with more interesting and difficult to predict antagonists. Neither of the affecting forces in the second season, Maryann or the Fellowship of the Sun, can really hold a candle to Russell Edgington. What will it mean, I wonder, if Eric actually manages to take Russell down? Will that make Eric, by default, the biggest vampire bad on the block?

It’s not even clear if Eric is a villain, per se. While he was clearly started as something of an antagonist towards Bill and Sookie’s idea of a quiet life together, he’s shifted into more of a gray area. He’s a bastard, sure, and manipulates people around him without much thought outside of himself most of the time. But he does care about things – Godric, Pam, avenging his mortal family who’ve been dead over a thousand years – and more than once shows that under the quiet, confident smirks and deadpan remarks is a character every bit as deep and complex as the protagonists. Whichever side of the fence Eric ends up on, be it that of our heroes or that of himself first and foremost, I’m definitely a fan.

Those are just a few reasons True Blood works as a tale with vampires in, and why people like me are tuning in every week. Of course, having vampires that look like this doesn’t hurt, either:

Courtesy HBO

Unfortunately I won’t be able to see tonight’s episode until around Wednesday. Hopefully I can avoid spoilers, but I am dying to know what happens after Mr. Edgington’s little telecast.

When You’re Evil

Russ Pitts’ triumphant return as an Escapist columnist prompted me to finally lay down some thoughts on villainy. A little roleplaying in World of Warcraft on my characters reminded me how much fun it can be to write for or portray a villain. My brother-in-law, when running Dungeons & Dragons is described as “an evil DM,” always bringing out the malevolence in his NPCs so that the player characters in his campaigns are always motivated to dispense a little adventurous justice. My father’s an attorney. I’m surrounded by villainy.

There are all sorts of villains, however, and every one of them sees themselves more or less in a positive light, if not convinced that they are the hero. Let’s stay with the D&D theme for a few archetypal examples.

Lawful Evil

Vader, back when he was awesome.

Some villains actually try to uphold the law. Sure, the laws might be corrupt or warped in some way, but it’s still a structure for peace and order. Police states can be peaceful, after all.

There are also villains who have a personal code of honor they will not violate under any circumstances. “No women, no kids,” for example. Sometimes they verge a bit into anti-hero territory, but for the most part, these villains don’t pursue villainy for its own sake – they pursue the law, or justice, as they see it.

Take Darth Vader. For the most part, when he is Darth Vader, he’s hunting down terrorists and insurgents, trying to stop a full-on rebellion against the established government. His methods are somewhat draconian and he isn’t one to compromise or even show remorse, but he’s pursing a noble end in the eyes of the Empire’s creators.

Neutral Evil

Eric Northman

Some people are motivated selfishly. They want what they want, and that’s it. Some are compromised in the pursuit of their desires by their morals or ethics, or the restrictions of society’s laws. Others… not so much. They’re seen as villains, but in their own minds, they’re just getting what they want.

Not quite as unpredictable as the upcoming alignment, but not as restricted as their lawful cousins, neutral evil characters are wild cards. They’re often as charismatic as they are ruthless, as fun to be around as they are chillingly dominant. They strive to be masters of their domain, and really could care less about things that aren’t the things that they want.

Look no further than Eric Northman of HBO’s True Blood for a fantastic example of both a Neutral Evil character who’s also a Magnificent Bastard. Even when he’s acting his most vampiric, speaking in cold, dispassionate tones about human beings like they’re slabs of meat, there’s something of a twinkle in his eye, the occasional twitch of his mouth that reaches for a smirk. We do see other sides of him, especially when it comes to his Maker, but for the most part he’s about as evil as Neutral Evil can get.

Chaotic Evil

We miss you, Heath.

You have villains who pursue the law or their own code of honor for the sake of those laws or that code. You have villains who just want what they feel is coming to them, even if they have to lie, cheat, or murder to get it. And then you have these guys.

Chaotic Evil villains aren’t necessarily crazy. They might, however, string you up by your nostril hairs and slap you around with meter-long pieces of rebar if you call them crazy. No, Chaotic Evil villains are motivated by a desire to destroy everything they see so something new can be built up in its place. Or perhaps they’ve had a vision of Hell coming to Earth to shake the complacent religious types out of their stupor and give them something worth fighting for if their faith is, indeed, true. They have a goal in mind, but the path to that goal isn’t exactly mapped out. If it were, the map would be covered in squiggles of blood and crayon. They may believe what they’re doing will ultimately benefit the world, in some way shape or form, but for the most part? They just do things.

Which brings me to the late Heath Ledger’s Joker. Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson and Mark Hamill have all taken turns playing Batman’s favorite monstrous clown, but Heath & Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan took the insanity to a whole new level. By removing some of the more ridiculous trappings of the character and focusing on his anarchistic mindset, the Joker came across as a true agent of chaos. He wanted to show people what he felt was their true nature. His goal was to bring down the carefully-crafted artifices of civility and organization some used to hide their deepest desires. He lived out loud, which is something any artist should want to do, but did it in a very violent and very infectious way. It affected everybody around him, as he probably knew it would. He just didn’t know how. Nor did he know for certain what he’d do next – just that something needed doing.

Name some of your favorite bad guys. Where do you think they fall? How do you think they see themselves? And how might their villainy be perceived as heroism by some? Food for thought.

My Vampires Are, In Fact, Different

Vampiress, from Van Helsing

A lot of my anxiety from pushing forward with a series of Lighthouse stories comes from the fact that there’s paranormal stuff out the wazoo out there. I mean, there’s a part of me that’s interested in getting a slice of that action, because apparently people suck it right up (insert vampire joke here), but I also know that a lot of the ground has been pretty trod. It’s a part of the speculative fiction market littered with Robert Pattinson posters from J-14 or whatever magazine caters to his fangirls this week, and love notes to Anna Paquin from her fangirls.

Then I remember something I thought was said by Marc Schuster, but consulting my notes I see it was spoken by Larry Kane, legendary Philadelphia newscaster and himself an aspiring novelist:

“Don’t believe that just because something has been written about that you can’t write about it.” (“They didn’t necessarily do a good job,” he added a few sentences later.)

So yeah, plenty of stories out there involving vampires and werewolves and wizards and angels and demons and stuff. Some of them even involve paranormal investigators, like the B.P.R.D. or Fringe division. Okay, Fringe division is more about pseudo-science so close to the supernatural it might as well be the supernatural, but I’m going full supernatural instead of the Fringe route. I can’t compete with Walter.

Courtesy JJ Abrams
Seriously. Nothing I do will be this cool.

But I’m trying to go at it from a new angle. I have some history and mechanics laid down. So I need to work on setting and characters, find ways to distinguish why they’re different and why readers should care. I need to engineer the ways in which readers will be captivated by these folks, be they humans or otherwise, and might even fall in love. This will involve collecting my disparate attempts at putting this together and, well, putting it together.

I’m still in the brainstorming stages. Please forgive my ramblings.

Player versus Player – Who’s the Villain?

Grumpy Bear

I’ve been accused, in the past, of being something of a care bear when it comes to PvP content in games. Thankfully, there’s help, even for someone like me. I’m slowly rediscovering what it means to take joy in the misery of other players, thanks to my return to Team Fortress 2. Along with a resurgence of a competitive nature that more often than not takes the form of a stream of expletives, as 2Fort is SRS BZNS*, it’s given me cause to think about what makes good and not-so-good PvP content in both tabletop and on-line games.

In single-player games, it’s good to have a single villain or a group of antagonists that clearly stand between the player and their objective. And straight-forward dungeon crawls often benefit from pitting multiple players against a single intelligence, be it a human GM or a programmed AI that respawns enemies as you click your way around the dark tunnels. As much as the Steam game Torchlight evokes the nostalgia of hours spent exploring the many and varied underground demon-guarded caches of loot in Diablo II, it misses the benefits of many people diving into the game to face more powerful enemies in the name of grabbing shinier equipment. But I’m wandering off my point, which is that in those cases, it’s good to have a single bad guy. But what happens when your potential player base expands beyond a handful of intrepid adventurers?

Sometimes, you just have to pit one group of adventurers against another. There are a few ways to do this.

1. Always Evil, All The Time

Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines

In the old World of Darkness, most notably in Vampre: The Masquerade, factions were a completely player-based thing. While the threat of the Antideluvians coming back to life and consuming their children in an orgy of blood-fueled Armageddon was an ever-constant threat, most of the night-to-night problems were caused by one group of vampires (the Camarilla) fighting against the other (the Sabbat). What was the cause of this conflict, you ask? The Sabbat’s evil.

Now, no vampire can really be described as 100% “good,” no matter what Team Edward might say. Even your most approachable and human-friendly blood-sucking fiend is still a blood-sucking fiend.
But if the Camarilla are vampires who talk nice to their cows before killing them in a humane way in order to carve them into delicious well-made marinated steaks, the Sabbat laugh as they kick the cows mooing into a giant meat grinder to churn out the greasiest, nastiest, cheapest “heart-attack-on-a-bun” burgers possible, selling them to the public at $10 US a pop as ‘classic American hamburgers’. There may or may not be babies in there, too. Baby cows, hopefully. Though I wouldn’t rule out kittens.

This conflict is built into the core game. There’s no ambiguity or much room for interpretation, one side’s less evil and more amenable towards humanity, while the other is thoroughly nasty and definitely not family-friendly. While it can be fun to be the bad guy every now and again, having your entire motivation be puppy-punting grandma-incinerating nastiness all day every day gets a bit old after a while. Which might be why that game ended.

Anyway, future iterations of the World of Darkness would see factions be more ambiguous in certain ways, and rather than saying “X and Y are locked into AN ETERNAL STRUGGLE FOR SUPREMACY UNTIL KINGDOM COME,” it’s much more “Here are some factions you guys can play in. Decide for yourselves how they get along. Have fun!”

2. Affably Evil, or Evilly Affable?

Courtesy Valve

Team Fortress 2 is a bit like that. Neither RED nor BLU is clearly defined as being on one side or the other of the “Good/Evil” scale. Leaving aside the role the Announcer may or may not play in the conflict, the motivations of the teams pretty much boil down to healthy competition. With live ammunition and sharp objects. Not to mention explosives.

Anyway, the point is that it’s up to individual players to fill in the blanks. It’s a straightforward, simple system that works well in on-line shooters. It could almost be considered the polar opposite of the strict pigeonholing of the old World of Darkness. When you get into on-line games involving more than a few dozen players, though, things get a bit more complex.

3. The Enemy of My Enemy Is My Enemy, Too

Courtesy WoWWiki & Blizzard

World of Warcraft and Aion have something in common. The players in these games select one of two factions, which are essentially flip sides of the same coin. They do fight each other, but larger external threats demand the attention of both sides and can sometimes lead to alliances of convenience (the Wrathgate in WoW for example). This allows players access to both PvP and PvE play styles, and interested parties can either strike a balance of time between both, or eschew one entirely in pursuit of excellence in the other. Or people can do what I used to do, which is fart around on dailies trying to earn enough money for a flying mount that’s only slightly faster than one I could build with my bare hands as an Engineer.

More on this when I discuss World of Warcraft more in-depth on Saturday. There’s change coming, and it might be good. Good enough to return to Azeroth? The jury’s still out.

Basically, when you want to engender player-versus-player conflict in your games, be it on the table or through the Intertubes, it’s best to let it grow on its own. Give players fields in which to compete and let them go at it. There’s really no need to give them motivations other than “they’re not on our side.” However, if you want to give the other side a nudge, just hit ’em with incriminating photos of a family member. Their mom, for instance.

Courtesy Valve

*No, not really.

Movie Review: Daybreakers

Courtesy Lionsgate

Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a current movie. I blame my job schedule and related finances. Anyway, when I got a couple of movie passes for Christmas, my wife and I debated what we’d go see. We settled on Daybreakers and, well, anything I say here is going to sound a lot like MovieBob’s review. But you know something? It’s so good it’s worth giving the “Go See This” treatment at least twice. The movie stars Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Claudia Karvan, Michael Dorman, Isabel Lucas and Sam Neill.

Stuff I Didn’t Like

Courtesy Lionsgate
“Hmm, apparently if we extract sparkles and Dawson’s Creek romantic crap from the movie, it’ll be completely awesome!”

  • To be honest, Ethan Hawke’s character reminded me of Brad Pitt’s from Interview with a Vampire. Now, I know vampires are nothing new, and a reluctant vampire can easily shuffle the character into the ‘protagonist’ category, but I think he protested a bit too much. It didn’t really get to the point of annoyance, but it came close. Not necessarily a bad thing, per se, this is just my personal opinion.
  • I’m not sure why vampires explode when staked. My wife gives me crap for getting hung up on the fine details on vampirism when I should be more concerned about how blood-sucking fiends from beyond the grave even exist in the first place. I guess this is another personal fault, since I’ve worked with vampires quite a bit in a writing and gaming sense for many years. I mean when I’ve participated in vampire LARPs, nobody explodes when staked so I guess I’m sort of used to that. (Yes, I’ve LARPed in the past, shut up.)

Stuff I Liked

Courtesy Lionsgate
“Awesome, you say. Will it still appeal to the powerful and lucrative tween demographic? No? Then keep the sparkles in. This I command.”

  • There are so many little touches that remind you that these vampires are from the old school. They don’t cast reflections, they don’t have pulses and they have to inhale right before speaking since they don’t have to breathe. Their fangs are always out and their eyes are disconcerting unnatural colors. It’s a refreshing change from what we’ve had to deal with recently.
  • The metaphors on fuel shortage and the examples of corporate greed overwhelming the long-term benefits to humanity don’t overshadow the characterization or storytelling. They exist, they state their points and move on. Sort of like the Ethan Hawke/Brad Pitt parallel brushing the annoyance factor (again, in my opinion), the metaphors nudge but never quite mount the soapbox. They are good lessons that are well-presented, and like District 9, it’s nice to see an action genre flick that has something to say other than “HERE ARE SOME EFFECTS.”
  • I liked the degeneration of vampires into chiropteran monsters, and the varying reactions of the ‘refined’ vampires to the animalistic cannibals that were once friends or even family. As much as the vampires are themselves fiends, the different ways in which they deal with these unfortunates actually gives them a layer of humanity.

Stuff I Loved

Courtesy Lionsgate
“Look, friend, you better keep the sparkles outta my vampire flick, or so help me I will go completely Green Goblin on your ass.”

  • Sam Neill. I love the way he projects cold, objective creepiness in all of his scenes. He’s very much an old-school vampire, Dracula in a suit, uncompromising in the realization of his desires and ruthless in the execution of his will. He’s manipulative, he’s diabolic, and I adored every scene he was in.
  • Willem Dafoe. I don’t know if I need to say much more about the man, as he’s one of the most versatile and memorable character actors I’ve ever seen, and this performance is no exception. It’s almost like he and Sam are vying for the position of ‘most awesome character’ in this movie, and I think it’s just about a tie. I love his cars, too – I think my father owned a Firebird Trans Am at one point.
  • In spite of his reluctant vampire role in the first act, Ethan Hawke does a great job of giving us a main character with an arc we can follow and growth we can support. Again, my initial near-annoyance with his constant protestation wore off very quickly, and he’s one of the characters that show real humanity and depth. I have to admit I’m not terribly familiar with a lot of his work, and after seeing Daybreakers, I know I need to change that.
  • The pace of this film, and the tightness of its storytelling, are just about perfect. It doesn’t throw too many things at us at once so we lose track of what’s going on or what’s at stake, it takes the time to develop its characters just enough for us to care about them, it doesn’t skimp on the action or the gore, and it does all of this with the sparing use of special effects and a brevity that’s refreshing and compelling.
  • The scene in the shade of the tree where Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe meet for the first time was done so well I about giggled with glee. From the car’s automated warning about the UV level to Hawke all but dancing from one pool of shadow to the next, the scene was downright exceptional. I got the feeling he was in real danger, putting himself at extreme risk for the sake of something he believed in. This scene caused most of my initial annoyance at his character to evaporate, and from then on I was definitely rooting for him.

Bottom Line: I’m going to reiterate MovieBob’s sentiment: You should go see this. I know some people out there aren’t big fans of gore, which means they’re missing out on a great example of screenwriting, acting and direction. It’s paced perfectly, the story is packed expertly, every character has nuances and depth and the action ramps up towards the end to just the right pitch. If you can handle a good amount of on-screen blood, especially in the film’s third act, Daybreakers is a satisfying and rousing revival of the old-school vampire movie. It does everything right, doesn’t sell you short and will leave you wanting more. Go sink your metaphorical fangs into it. This is a badass movie, and it is definitely, definitely worth your time.

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