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Monster in the mirror: modern twists on classic horror stories might not be the right tales for our times.

THE CLASSICS ARE BACK ON TELEVISION, AND NOT ON Masterpiece Theatre. At least the classic monster stories are back, though in mutant modern forms. This fall, cable and network television have resurrected flesh versions of three 19th-century gothic tales of ghouls and gore.

NBC is serving up My Own Worst Enemy, a retelling of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. HBO has replanted Brain Stoker's Dracula in a backwater Louisiana bayou in Alan Bali's dark comedy, True Blood. And Showtime is bringing back Dexter, its sly and sundrenched version of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, for a third season of blood and butchery.

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That Jekyll & Hyde, Dracula, and Frankenstein are back is no big shocker. These classic tales have never been out of print and have been retold in hundreds of plays, films, and TV shows. The real question is what the current mutations say about us.

Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde is a tragic tale in which the hypocritical "gentleman" Henry Jekyll is ultimately destroyed by the ghoulish inner beast he has unleashed on the streets of London. Edward Hyde is a monster, but a monster created by Jekyll's sanctimonious duplicity, and this beast comes home to roost on his master's corpse.

My Own Worst Enemy, however, is not a morality play and has no tragic sensibility or sobering lesson. Christian Slater does play two polar opposites named Henry and Edward who occupy the same body, the first a model of middle-class morality and the second a ruthless killer. But instead of a monster story, this is a thriller about the "double" life of secret agents and the split between their alter egos, more like The Bourne Identity and The Long Kiss Goodnight than Jekyll & Hyde.

How tragic. Stevenson's gothic tale took on the monstrous hypocrisy of Victorian society, and American hypocrisy seems equally ripe for attack. The United States presents itself as freedom's defenders, but launches unjust and unnecessary wars, violates international laws, and sanctions torture and abuse. A morality play holding up a mirror to America's national duplicity might be more useful than yet another mindless thriller.

WHEN CRIME SHOWS LIKE CSI AND TEEN slashers like Saw bathe us in blood and gore, one might be surprised that many viewers find an HBO series on vampires is too grisly. Still, True Blood has tamed Brain Stoker's Dracula more than a bit. In the series, based on the novels of Charlaine Harris, vampires are a largely misunderstood minority who drink six packs of synthetic blood available at your local convenience store and are envied for their supposedly more adventurous sexual lives.

And so Dracula has morphed into a tale about tolerance. Vampires, it seems, are simply practicing an alternative lifestyle. The undead are human, too, and we need to practice tolerance and compassion for folks who like their protein red and wet.

I like tolerance, and rewriting vampire tales to teach us not to demonize strangers seems useful. But Stoker's Dracula can also be read as a critique of British colonialism, which was sucking the lifeblood out of one fourth of the human race. And today, when our own consumption of global resources and energy threatens the supply of food and fuel to billions around the planet, a tale about vampires in America might suggest that they are not so nice or safe. We have seen their fangs, and they are ours.

LIKE FRANKENSTEIN'S CREATURE, THE MONSTER in Showtime's Dexter was transformed into a sociopathic murderer by childhood trauma. Mary Shelley's beast becomes a homicidal villain after being abandoned by his creator and rejected by humanity. Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) grows up to be a serial killer after witnessing the brutal slaughter of his mother while he was just an infant. But unlike Frankenstein's monster, Dexter has been trained by his foster father to kill only bad people, never attacking children or innocent bystanders--a killer with a code.

By day the emotionally stunted, meticulously neat, and amusingly droll Dexter analyzes crime scene blood splatter for the Miami police department. By night the equally tidy Dexter splatters gallons of fresh blood butchering murderers his colleagues have failed to catch or convict, and then dumping their dismembered and bagged bodies into a local bay. Who needs a criminal justice system with such a happy avenger at work?

The appeal of Dexter as a character and a show comes from the fact that Morgan is so likeable. He brings donuts to work, babysits his girlfriend's two lovely munchkins, provides a shoulder for his neurotic half-sister to cry on, and gets his paperwork done early. And he does all this while trying to imitate the human beings around him--strange and puzzling creatures who would put him down like a mad dog if they knew the truth. This is clearly the most sympathetic portrayal of a violent criminal ever seen on television, suggesting that everyone has both good and evil in them.

Unfortunately, neither Dexter nor its protagonist extends the same compassion to any other villain. Morgan may be a complex and damaged human being who turns to violence in response to post-traumatic stress, but every other criminal on this show is a mad dog to be put down for his crimes. Because Morgan is killing only bad people (while he is clearly and mysteriously not one), there is no reason to feel compassion for them or sorrow at their slaughter.

For all its sympathy for Morgan, Dexter ultimately succumbs to the mob mentality, urging us on to vigilante justice, begging us to cast stones at those we and our antihero have condemned for their sins. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein extended compassion to a murderous creature who had slaughtered women and children, recognizing even in this poor tortured beast "the bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh." Like the ungrateful servant, Dexter wants that compassion to be extended to him, but not to anyone else. That is monstrous.

McCormicks's quick takes ADMIT ONE

These films deliver different takes on monsters:

Frankenstein (Universal, 1931)

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Alien (20th Century Fox, 1979)

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Monsters, Inc. (Pixar, 2001)

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Title Annotation:culture in context
Author:McCormick, Patrick
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Television program review
Date:Dec 1, 2008
Words:1022
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