Vampires are hot right now, at least that’s what everyone keeps telling me. The truth is that everyone is absolutely wrong. Vampires are not hot right now. They’ve always been hot. Since at least since 1897 when Bram Stoker took the world by storm in one of the earliest examples of a horror novel. Of course, I’m talking about Dracula. Dracula, as a character, might have been based on the historical figure of Vlad the Impaler, but the vampire legend that Stoker perfected in Dracula is pure fiction. Still, it wasn’t quite Stoker’s novel that created the vampire craze, it merely lit the fuse. The explosion came just a couple of decades later with the Broadway production and Universal film based on the story. It was first on stage and then in the very first talkie horror film where Bela Lugosi would change Bram Stoker’s rules and become the iconic symbol for vampires for nearly a century and beyond. Stoker’s Dracula was a hideous, wretched creature who was not going to be seducing any ladies without his supernatural powers. It was Lugosi who delivered the vampire in the evening coat and cape. Here we see the cultured, handsome man who doesn’t even need all of that vampire mojo to get the ladies. Of course, it doesn’t hurt, and between the novel, play, and film vampires got hot, and they still are.
We’ve all seen the young girls out there swooning over the Twilight films and books as if the whole vampire idea had just been invented. It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that the television networks and cable channels would be taking notice. No, it’s not the swooning teenagers, it’s the green being transferred from their pockets to their coffers. But vampires on television are not new either. Dracula itself was a series. In the 1960’s and 70’s there was Dark Shadows and the vampire Barnabas Collins. I rushed home from school every day to watch that show. Maybe that’s why I missed so many homework assignments. I should have tried the “under a vampire’s spell” excuse. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are about to bring that franchise back to life. I can’t wait. In the 1970’s Kolchak began his monster chasing career going after a vampire or two. Then there was Buffy, and the craze reached another crescendo. The spin-off Angel only made the genre even hotter. Before that there was Forever Knight and The Hunger. I could go on for pages talking about vampires in television and movies. The Underworld franchise gave us Selene, and the sexy female vampire was reborn. Yeah, there were scary ones as well, but I was a bit distracted. HBO is mining vampire gold with yet another series of vampire books in True Blood. If you think this is going to end any time soon, you just haven’t lived long enough … yet.
Now Warner Brothers has entered the scene with yet another vampire series taken from yet another powerful franchise of popular books. Enter The Vampire Diaries. While I’ve avoided the Twilight series so far (I’ve had my full of teenage angst as a high school teacher), I was looking forward to catching this promising show when it aired for the first time last season. Alas, I was so busy watching stuff for you guys that I never got around to it. Once or twice I tried to catch an episode, but after finally seeing the entire season I’m glad that I never did. That may sound like I was disappointed in the show. Just the opposite. I ended up watching all 22 episodes in about 4 days. If I had tried to catch it from somewhere in the middle, I would have been pretty lost. That would have led to frustration. Finally, I would have given up and missed the best new show on television last season.
The series follows loosely the series of novels written by L.J. Smith. If you’re a fan of the books, you have to take a few things into consideration. Characters work differently on screen than in a book, so many of them have been changed. Perhaps the biggest change is that Elena’s four-year-old sister is now a teenage younger brother. You may not like the change, but it does make for better prime time drama, doesn’t it? The crew attempted to keep as close to the source material as possible, while attempting to create their own special television universe. I’m not sure about the books. I’ve never read them. I do know that this show works.
The series takes place in the mythical Mystic Falls, Virginia. The town is celebrating its 150th anniversary. It’s one of those towns that never strayed far from its roots. The predominant founding families still live there. They still control the positions of power in the town. While they celebrate their heritage, the founders are still hiding a 150-year-old secret. The town was once full of vampires, and the founders rose up and attempted to kill off the creatures. Since that time they have kept some vigilance, passing down the secret only to those on the council. As our series begins, it just might be time to dust off those stakes, because the boys are back in town.
The “boys” are the Salvatore Brothers. We first meet Stefan (Wesley). He has returned to Mystic Falls because of an 18-year-old girl who lives there. She is Elena Gilbert (Dobrev). She has recently lost her parents in a car accident, and she and her brother Jeremy (McQueen) are trying to get by living with their young Aunt Jenna (Canning). But Stefan’s interest goes back quite a few decades. Elena is the splitting image of Catherine, the vampire who turned him, and with whom he was deeply in love. But Stefan wasn’t the only man in love with Catherine. Enter Brother Damon (Somerhalder). The two brothers have been enemies from the time Catherine left their lives. Stefan drinks only animal blood. It sustains him, but makes him weaker than the average vamp. Damon feeds on humans, killing without remorse or hesitation. He’s here to make Stefan’s life miserable … and, of course there’s Elena/Catherine.
Stefan and Elena become romantically involved, bringing Elena into his secret world. She has a morbid fascination with their world and a belief that both Stefan and Damon can be redeemed. Her best friend Bonnie (Graham) has just discovered she’s a witch. Her powers will definitely come in handy from time to time here. The rest of the cast is made up of humans and vampires who play a complicated role in the show’s mythology.
In many ways there are as many echoes of Smallville here as there are of Twilight. There’s less angst, but just as much mellow-drama as the vampire films. Like Smallville’s early seasons, the show attempts to provide a high school daily life for these characters, who are actually in anything but normal circumstances. There are the same “almost caught” examples of vampires using their powers. The big difference is that there’s a lot of blood and death in this series. It is not for the squeamish. The character interactions do remind me a ton of the early Smallville seasons. Think that show with a much darker edge, and you’d have a pretty good idea what The Vampire Diaries is all about.
Every vampire film owes quite a bit of its mythology to the Dracula novel and films. Most of the common ones developed there have been the basis for the creatures ever since. Here are the rules for The Vampire Diaries:
Things that don’t work: Vamps do reflect in mirrors here. They can eat garlic. Crucifixes and holy water have no ill effects. They do not turn into bats or anything else for that matter.
Things that do work: Vamps must be invited to enter a home where a human lives. Wooden stakes, and bullets, can very well end a vampire. Burning and decapitation also do rather nicely to end your vampire problems. These vampires can do the Jedi Mind Trick, but Stefan really can’t do it well because he only drinks animal blood. The show calls it compelling. Sunlight will kill a vampire, but some, including the brothers, have bewitched rings that allow them to tolerate sunlight.
The show’s kryptonite is a plant called vervain. Vervain will make vampires weak in its presence. It’s a great protection from the Jedi Mind Trick. It can be incorporated in jewelry or even consumed to have the benefit of its protection.
The cast here is exceptional from top to bottom, but I really have to talk about Ian Somerhalder. We last saw him as Boone on Lost, and he was pretty good on that show. He wasn’t near the best, however. Here he absolutely is. One of the skills that Somerhalder has learned well is his ability to act with his eyes. There are very few actors who ever master that to this level. Carroll O’Connor was one of the best in that regard. He’s the bad guy at times, the good guy at others, and it’s a very complicated role. So, why does it look so easy? There’s not a weak link in the lot, but he shines far and above the already excellent work on display by this cast. There is great chemistry here. This looks like the kind of cast that are into their third or fourth season. They click on all cylinders. It’s amazing how quickly they became this well-oiled machine.
The show’s Atlanta locations work well with the old southern charm the town is intended to possess. There’s skill in all of the crucial crew positions as well. I’m just impressed as hell at how well this team functions for a first season show. It truly is remarkable.
The Vampire Diaries is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The 1080p image is brought to you from a VC-1 codec. Colors are brilliant, particularly the primary tones. Of course, that means wonderful blues, reds, and yellows. Contrast is better than average, and black levels are good. What you come to high definition for is the detail, and you get it here. But, it’s those black levels that shine here. This show does shoot a lot at night, although not as much as you might think. There is plenty of shadow definition here to go around.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track isn’t near as impressive as the video presentation, but it works. There is some effective use of creepy ambient sounds. The presentation isn’t always as immersive as I might like but it’s more than effective enough. Dialog is always clear.
There are a few Audio Commentaries on selected episodes. There are spoiler warnings, so do not listen to them until you’ve seen the season through at least once.
All features are in HD
Deleted Scenes: Many of the episodes have deleted scenes available on the same disc as the episode.
Into Mystic Falls: (25:03) Cast and crew offer the lowdown on the new series. There’s plenty of talk about the books and what was changed for the series.
When Vampires Don’t Suck: (18:49) An amusing look at the whole vampire craze. Film critics and even a fan or two join in the discussion. The focus here begins on the books and the series, of course. There’s also a segment on the history of screen vampires.
Webisodes: (7:44) There are four shorts based on a guy looking for the vampire who killed his sister.
A Second Bite: (3:57) Gag Reel.
Vampires 101: (6:44) A quiz that goes over the rules of the show’s vampires.
The Vampire Diaries opened with one of the largest premier ratings in television. It was the largest for the CW. But the truth is that vampire shows seem to be a dime a dozen these days. So, it’s important to look behind the genre elements and find out if the show holds up on the really important elements of character and story. I’d say this one does a better-than-most job of entertaining. The mythology isn’t all that hard to keep track of. There are some rather nice period-piece flashbacks that keep the show from getting bogged down into that high-school-standard drama. If you haven’t already, give this one a chance. These high definition Blu-rays are the perfect way to take the season in. “Maybe we can have a fright night and rent a whole bunch of vampire movies.”