This week on The Spectator Film Podcast…
Underworld (2003) 3.27.20
Featuring: Austin, Maxx
Commentary Track begins at 17:58
— Notes —
- “Sullied Blood, Semen and Skin: Vampires and the Spectre of Miscegenation” by Kimberly A. Frohreich from Gothic Studies — Here’s a neat essay delving into the cycle of 90’s/00’s vampire media in which Underworld participates. Frohreich reviews the racial subtext these texts share and points to additional resources for understanding this cycle. A free PDF version of this file can be found by searching Google Scholar. We’ll include relevant passages below:
“Like Blade, Underworld’s plot also centres on racial purity versus racial mixing, with the Lycans positioned as ‘vectors of category transformation’, as Haraway would suggest. Indeed, the Lycans’ main strategy in the racial war against the vampires is to prove that the two races can be mixed or combined. In other words, they fight to miscegenate, to create a half-vampire, half-Lycan, or mixed-race being. The vampires, on the other band, maintain a belief system in which this mixing would not only be an ‘abomination’, it would also be impossible. Indeed, for Viktor, one of the vampire eiders, vampires and Lycans are not separate races, but are separate species…As a previous slave-owner, and the image of a Southern plantation patriarch, Viktor believes in the polygenetic origin of the two ‘species’ and rejects the belief in the ‘sons of the Corvinus clan, one bitten by bat, one by wolf, claiming it is merely ‘a ridiculous legend’. In contrast, the Lycans depend on this monogenetic origin, or this ‘legend’, in their attempt to create a mixed-race subject” (37-38).
“In other words, the film suggests that being part of a race involves sharing a common history, one that in turn defines the racial group. Where the Lycans are able to recruit humans to their cause, the vampires’ genocide of the Lycans appears as a strategy to maintain their own version of history. Indeed, the vampire rulers limit the sharing of blood, and thus of history, to themselves. As the spectator discovers with the vampire Selene, the character through which the narrative is focalised, the history recorded in writing is false, while other past events were never recorded. Because Selene does not initially know that the Lycans were once the slaves of the vampires, and because she (wrongly) believes the former to be responsible for the murder of her human family, Selene (along with the spectator) originally sees the vampires as the victims of the violent, animalistic, and bloodthirsty Lycans rather than the reverse. The film, therefore, highlights how historical discourse is used to define the racial Other through the falsification and erasure of past events and memories, or the prevalence of white male history over the voices of the other” (38).
As in traditional vampire narratives, the female body in Underworld is also fought over and depicted as in need of protection. However, the film also rewrites the (white) female body as vampire and as post-feminist ‘girl power’ model. Almost a daughter to Viktor, Selene is one of the elite female vampires who need to be protected from being ‘tainted’ by Lycans. Yet, Selene will not let anyone do battle for her or over her. Clothed from head to toe in black leather, she is immediately set apart from other female vampires who remain at the castle in extravagant dresses while she joins male vampires as a ‘death dealer’ in their hunt for Lycans. Just as Selene refuses to play the role of the stereotypical elite female, she also eventually refuses to assist other vampires in their fight for racial purity” (39)
- Celluloid Vampires: Life After Death in the Modern World by Stacey Abbott — This book serves as an admirable introduction to vampire cinema, even though a few of its assertions appear strenuous. It even features a chapter discussing Underworld alongside the other films from the 90’s/00’s “cyborg vampire” cycle, like Blade (1997).
- “Underoworld” by Roger Ebert from Rogerebert.com — Here’s the link to the Ebert review Maxx referenced.
- ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, And Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’ by Donna J. Haraway — Here’s a link to Donna J. Haraway’s groundbreaking essay.
- Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium. FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™: Feminism and Technoscience by Donna J. Haraway — This is a fascinating book by Donna Haraway, and I’m including it here because it discusses the figure of the vampire throughout. Anyone interested in learning more about vampires should dedicate time to exploring Haraway’s work and concepts of post-humanism. Check out some of the interesting passages below:
“Lurching beyond the symptom in the first paragraphs, however, I acknowledge that a specific figure animates this essay. The figure is the vampire: the one who pollutes lineages on the wedding night; the one who effects category transformations by illegitimate passages of substance; the one who drinks and infuses blood in a paradigmatic act of infecting whatever poses as pure; the one who eschews sun worship and does its work at night; the one who is undead, unnatural, and perversely incorruptible. In this essay, I am instructed by the vampire, and my questions are about the vectors of infection that trouble racial categories in twentieth-century bioscientific constructions of universal humanity. For better and for worse, vampires are vectors of category transformation in a racialized, historical, national unconscious. A figure that both promises and threatens racial and sexual mixing, the vampire feeds off the normalized human, and the monster finds such contaminated food to be nutritious. The vampire also insists on the nightmare of racial violence behind the fantasy of purity in the rituals of kinship. It is impossible to have a settled judgment about vampires. Defined by their categorical ambiguity and troubling mobility, vampires do not rest easy (or easily) in the boxes labeled good and bad. Always transported and shifting, the vampire’s native soil is more nutritious, and more unheimlich, than that. Deeply shaped by murderous ideologies since their modern popularization in European accounts in the late eighteenth century—especially racism, sexism, and homophobia— stories of the undead also exceed and invert each of those systems of discrimination to show the violence infesting supposedly wholesome life and nature and the revivifying promise of what is supposed to be decadent and against nature” (214-215)
“Just when one feels secure in condemning the toothy monster’s violations of the integrity of the body and the community, history forces one to remember that the vampire is the figure of the Jew accused of the blood crime of polluting the wellsprings of European germ plasm and bringing both bodily plague and national decay, or that it is the figure of the diseased prostitute, or the gender pervert, or the aliens and the travelers of all sorts who cast doubt on the certainties of the self-identical and well-rooted ones who have natural rights and stable homes. The vampires are the immigrants, the dislocated ones, accused of suckingthe blood of the rightful possessors of the land and of raping the virgin who must embody the purity of race and culture. So, in an orgy of solidarity with all the oppressed, one identifies firmly with the outlaws who have been the vampires in the perfervid imaginations of the upstanding members of the whole, natural, truly human, organic communities. But then one is forced to remember that the vampire is also the marauding figure of unnaturally breeding capital, which penetrates every whole being and sucks it dry in the lusty production and vastly unequal accumulation of wealth. Yet the conjunction of Jew, capitalist, queer, andalien is freighted with too much literal genocide to allow even the jeremiad against transnational capital to carry the old-time conviction of moral certainty and historical truth. The vampire is the cosmopolitan, the one who speaks too many languages and cannot remember the native tongue, and the scientist who forces open the parochial dogmas of those who are sure they know what nature is. In short, once touched by the figure of this monster, one is forced to inhabit the swirling semantic field of vampire stories. In those zones, uninvited associations and dissociations are sure to undo one’s sense of the self same, which is always neatly prelabeled to forestall moral, epistemological, and political scrutiny” (215)
“Biology’s epistemological and technical task has been to produce a historically specific kind of human unity; namely, membership in a single species, the human race, Homo sapiens. Biology discursively establishes and performs what willcount as human in powerful domains of knowledge and technique. A striking product of early biological discourse, race, like sex and nature, is about the apparatuses for fabricating and distributing life and death in the modern regimes ofbiopower. Like nature and sex, at least from the nineteenth century race was constituted as an object of knowledge by the life sciences, especially biology, physical anthropology, and medicine. The institutions, research projects, measuring instruments,publication practices, and circuits of money and people that made up the life sciences were the machine tools that crafted “race” as an object of scientific knowledge over the past 200 years. Then, in the middle of the twentieth century, the biological and medical sciences began to disown their deadly achievement and worked like Sisyphus to roll the rock of race out of the upscale hillside neighborhoods being built in post-World War II prosperous times to house the new categories of good natural science. All too predictably, the new universal, like the suburbs and the laboratories, were all too white” (217)