The appeal of vampires seems to be a vein that never runs dry. After a couple of decades of Anne Rice books, the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel" TV series, and even the Blade movies, you'd think the audience's appetite for undead bloodsuckers would have been slaked.
Instead, the insatiable craving has spread to a new generation thanks to the popularity of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series of young adult novels – its eagerly anticipated film adaptation comes out in November. Riding the vampire wave is "True Blood," a new HBO series from Atlanta native Alan Ball. "True Blood" embraces its lurid tone, even though the vampiric plot points seldom raise your pulse.
Ball's best work – including "Six Feet Under," his Oscar-winning screenplay for American Beauty, and his upcoming film Towelhead – all take place either in bland suburbs or sterile locales that suppress people's most primal urges. Ball clearly relishes "True Blood's" backwoods Louisiana setting and paints it with as much dirt, sweat and shadows as he can. The credits evoke guilty, grindhouse entertainment, with raunchy rock 'n' roll and quick cuts of images evoking lust, violence and old-time religion in the Deep South.
Much of "True Blood" takes place at Merlotte's, a roadhouse bar, grill and workplace for waitress Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), whose name must've come from a Southern Gothic baby book. One evening, Sookie makes eyes at a tall, dark and pale customer, Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), who turns out to be a 137-year-old vampire, "turned" circa the Civil War. Sookie and Bill gradually hit it off, but don't exactly develop a conventional relationship. At one point, Bill licks bloodstains from Sookie's injured face in a display that's at once revolting and strangely tender.
"True Blood" adapts Charlaine Harris' series of novels and finds an unusual spin for the social implications of the famous monsters. Apparently, vampires have existed for centuries à la Dracula, but thanks to the invention of synthetic blood that meets their nutritional needs, fanged Americans have "come out of the coffin" to join humanity without preying on it. With unsubtle echoes of the gay rights movement, "True Blood" airs arguments over "special rights" and shows churches with "GOD HATES FANGS" signs out front.
The fresh notions fit uneasily with old-school details of vampire lore, such as the rule that vampires can't enter a house without being invited by a human. When bloodsucking bad guys sprout pointy incisors and hiss like cats, you just feel embarrassed for the actors.
"True Blood's" most intriguing detail involves Sookie's telepathic talents, since she's inexplicably capable of reading the thoughts of others. Not unlike Paquin's X-Men films, the show features flashbacks with young Sookie facing increasingly distrustful parents, as well as a montage of failed first dates who can't help but reveal their bad intentions. Part of Sookie's attraction to Bill stems from her inability to read his mind, which offers intriguing implications about the importance of mystery in intimate relationships. Paquin gives a vivid, sensual performance, carefully playing Sookie's good-girl aspiration against her dawning desires.
Based on the first two installments, the show's 12-episode initial season will hinge on a murder mystery that casts suspicion on both Bill and Sookie's horny lunkhead brother (Ryan Kwanten). With quirky humor and impulsive behavior in a small-town hothouse environment, "True Blood" evokes "Twin Peaks," only with considerable nudity and athletic sex scenes.
Occasionally, "True Blood" will present an image out of classic monster iconography, such as Bill carrying Sookie in his arms in the bayou in a pose reminiscent of Frankenstein or even Swamp Thing. Overall, though, Ball seems less interested in the horror genre than the kind of class, race and gender issues he explored with such insight on "Six Feet Under." "True Blood" almost leaves you hoping that the vampires will return to their coffins.
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