'True Blood': Undead On Arrival

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 6, 2008

You need a very good excuse to dig up the subject of vampires yet again, and filmmaker Alan Ball seems to have one. His "True Blood" is an audacious, outrageous, playfully grisly comic drama (or dramatic comedy) in which vampirism is pressed into service in new and relatively novel ways.

The very bloody series, premiering tomorrow night on HBO, will scare some viewers away with its gore, though it's nothing worse than what's been seen in dozens of R-rated gross-out films -- slice-and-dice teen thrillers or the relatively new genre of gratuitous gross-out exercises like the "Saw" series.

What Ball does with vampires in "True Blood" seems clearly to use them as a metaphor. That's been done before, too, of course; in an obscure German film called "Jonathan," vampirism is equated with Nazism, a soul-sapping pestilence. In Ball's view, vampires don't have to be bad or symbolize bad things. His vampires are simply people living an alternate lifestyle, one which alienates some members of the general population and fascinates others.

A piece of anti-vampire graffiti carries a clue: "God Hates Fangs," a variation on an ugly homophobic slur sometimes seen at rallies of the far-righteous. In Ball's film -- based on a collection of novels by Charlaine Harris -- vampires' lives seem strikingly, socially similar to those of many homosexuals.

The vampires of "True Blood" are definitely out of the closet. They've come in from the night. Society recognizes their right to exist, though there are many bigoted and uptight souls who frown on vampirical doings. Your everyday vampire still might feel safe enough from hostile vibrations to stop at the local convenience store and pick up a six-pack of Tru-Blood, a synthetic substitute invented in Japan for nights when raving cravings have to be satisfied.

Vampires are generally viewed as being more highly sexed creatures than non-vampires are; even fanatical detractors are titillated by a perceived aura of exotic sensual extravagance. Average folks are dying to know just what it is that vampires "do" when the shutters are shut.

"Everyone," one character says in the premiere, "should have sex with a vampire at least once before they die."

Bigots on TV talk shows denounce vampires and their lifestyle as being subversive and a threat to decency. Vampires should not be granted "special rights," one of them declares -- "special rights" meaning any of the rights enjoyed by the "normal" people. The American Vampire League defends those rights and tries to protect them.

One needn't be constantly aware of the metaphor, or even buy into it, to become involved in the characters and their situation -- denizens of, and visitors to, Louisiana's isolated Renard Parish, a place with bitter memories of Hurricane Katrina and a fairly high vampire population.

Where you find blood, you find people, and where you find people full of blood, you'll find vampires. It follows as the night the day.

There's obviously something "Twin-Peaksy" about the story and location -- a kook-filled hamlet where people who consider themselves "normal" may well be nutty as a pecan praline. As with David Lynch's New Age soap opera, the central ongoing story involves the murder of a prominent local figure -- in this case Maudette.

The principal character is Sookie Stackhouse (heroine of all the novels), a waitress at Merlotte's Bar & Grill played ultra-enigmatically by Anna Paquin. Sookie is not a vampire herself, but she's vampire-friendly. She's more than tolerant. She's intrigued and tantalized. She also has an unusual psychic gift that often proves a burden: She can "hear" the thoughts of people nearby. When the diner is crowded, she's besieged by an eerie cacophony made up of everybody's thoughts blurred together.

More often, the ability comes in handy, as when she meets a fellow protagonist whose arrival seems inevitable: the Mysterious Drifter, distant relation to the puzzling hunk who turned up in the first season of "Desperate Housewives" (Ball seems to enjoy playing with genre components). The drifter, named just Bill and played by Stephen Moyer, is supposed to be 173 years old but doesn't look a day over 37.

"You're something more than human," he tells Sookie -- it's meant as a compliment -- during a long scene in which they become acquainted. "May I call on you sometime?" She's anything but resistant, an apparent vampirical virgin who is more than mildly curious about the possibilities.

It is unfortunate that the first episode ends with an insanely brutal beating in Merlotte's parking lot. It goes on and on, the victim being kicked repeatedly while lying helplessly on the ground. And it continues into the beginning of Part 2 -- which is just cruelly extreme. On the other hand, the victim gets a vampire-style transfusion, which is almost elegant in its bloody excess.

To become a fan of "True Blood," viewers will have to call upon or develop a considerable case of sang-froid in the most literal sense. I felt my knees weaken a few times -- and heck, I made it through "Hostel" with little trouble. But then "True Blood" is not a horror film and is more likely to be after a knowing laugh than a cheap shudder. Paquin keeps her character teetering on a very provocative edge, so that even a simple line like "I'll get you some ketchup" seems wickedly witty in context.

As Sookie's brother, Jason (Ryan Kwanten), frequently divested of his clothes, is the randiest non-vampire in the area; he lets his jeans do his thinking. And Rutina Wesley, as Sookie's best friend, does a ferocious variation on the perpetually angry, even enraged, character played by Wanda Sykes on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Self-indulgently, the first episode includes references to HBO's "Real Time" (Bill Maher can be seen on a TV screen) and to someone watching "a scary movie on HBO."

That's kind of tacky -- but then "True Blood" isn't meant to be an exercise in good taste. Just a romp and a wallow -- and a bloody good one.

True Blood (one hour) debuts tomorrow night at 9 on HBO.

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