Friday, 10 September 2010

Review: The Girl with the Hungry Eyes

Vampires have never been more popular–a statement that is pretty frightening when you think about it. They seem to be everywhere. Go to any book stall and your bound to find a shelf groaning under the weight of vampire novels. Vampire films infest the marquees of cinemas around the world. Teenage girls moon after sparkly vampires. Older girls watch cable programmes about soft-core pornographic vampires. Graphic novels (comic books to anyone over forty) have more than their share. There are even would-be vampires who discover that imitating the fictional variety is a good way to end up in prison or the asylum.

Vampire detectives, vampire spies, vampire armies, vampire clans, vampire waitresses, vampire this that and the other; the only thing we don't see nowadays is the vampire vampire. It's a paradox. Modern society seems dead set on ringing every change out of the vampires. They've been portrayed as suave sophisticates, mindless zombies, exotic lovers, remorseless psychopaths, calculating gangsters, disaffected flatmates, stand-ins for"alternative lifestyles", and as safe, sparkly teenage love interests that make one suspect that vampire is a euphemism for gay boyfriend. Yet in all of this, what is lost is the essence of what the vampire is; what makes him terrifying and uncanny.

Most vampire fiction of the past few years has focused on the more materialistic aspects of the creature. A vampire drinks blood, which is portrayed as an unpleasant, but necessary diet. A vampire is vulnerable to certain things like stakes and sunlight, but it's on the same level as Superman and kryptonite. A vampire is immensely strong, can climb walls, and, last but most emphatically not least, the vampire is so sexually attractive that he makes Rudolph Valentino look like a dead pope. All well and good, but what is often ignored is that the vampire is a supernatural being; an animated corpse with a trapped, tormented soul that is possessed by a demon that feeds on the living. It is a creature that lives, for want of a better word, for the sole purpose of corrupting and destroying mortals. Modern writers often forget that Bram Stoker's Dracula was a stand-in for Satan himself and played a similar role in the story. Put it simply, vampires are monsters.

Blood is a perfect illustration of this. For the classic vampire, feeding off of blood isn't like a human being sitting down to a plate of chops. A vampire would never be satisfied with a blood substitute as in the Sookie Stackhouse novels, nor would it get any nourishment from hunting deer as in the Twilight series. Blood for the classic vampire is the conveyor of something much more fundamental and essential to the vampire. Blood is life itself. That is what the vampire feeds on and that is what makes it so frightening. It doesn't want a very runny black pudding. It wants to eat your soul.

This literal soul-sucking is best described in Fritz Leiber's sideways vampire short story "The Girl with the Hungry Eyes" (1949). The vampire here is a mysterious, nameless woman known as "The Girl". She's a professional model who has become a wild sensation across the country. Never smiling and with a strange hunger in her eyes, she stares out of billboards, magazines, and advertisements by the thousands, yet no one has ever seen her in person except for the photographer who snaps her picture and he wishes that he'd never met her. She shows up one evening at his studio and despite having zero experience as a model and impossible demands for anonymity, the cameraman's clients are soon falling over themselves to hire her.

The Girl is an unnerving character. She is utterly aloof, reveals nothing about her past, and when she talks to the photographer it's in a condescending tone that one would expect of a diner who granted an audience to the lobster he'd chosen from the restaurant tank. Our hero can't make up his mind whether he's attracted or frightened by her. And then the murders start as seemingly healthy men with no connection to one another are found dead around the city. He eventually comes to realise that she isn't exactly human. Indeed, she may not exist in any sense that he could understand; that she is nothing more or less than the personification of all the pent up lusts, desires, ambitions and frustrations in every man's heart focused in one place. When he finally confronts her, she describes her needs in a manner worthy of a Bride of Dracula:
I want you. I want your high spots and your low spots. I want everything that's made you happy and everything that's hurt you bad. I want your first girl. I want that shiny bicycle. I want that licking. I want that pinhole camera. I want Betty's legs. I want the blue sky filled with stars. I want your mother's death. I want your blood on the cobblestones. I want Mildred's mouth. I want the first picture you sold. I want the lights of Chicago. I want gin. I want Gwen's hands. I want your wanting me. I want your life. Feed me, baby, feed me.
Not a very sparkly moment nor a simple case in need of an attitude adjustment. A blood substitute would be wasted on such a succubus that Leiber has redrawn in a modern, urban setting.

In 1972, Rod Serling's Night Gallery aired their adaption of "The Girl with the Hungry Eyes". With script by Robert M Young and directed by John Badham, the teleplay was arguably superior to the short story, though it may be more of a matter of comparing a story in two different media. Besides, Leiber deserves to be offered a move and a pawn for not having Joanna Pettet around as his inspiration.

Aside from Miss Pettet, a woman who causes grown men to bite their fists and emit small animal noises, the television version fleshes out the story with some very strong dialogue, such as this speech by the beer baron Mr Munsch (John Astin) as he pleads with the photographer David Faulkner (James Farentino) to help him find the Girl so he can meet her:
There's something different about her, isn't there? It isn't sex or life or death or anything in between. Who is she? Find out. For all of our sakes, find out!
The Girl is what a vampire should be; seductive, unsettling, dangerous, hungry, and unearthly in a way that suggests more than immortality on a liquid diet. She promises everything, but only delivers a glimpse into the Pit.

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