Written by Jonathan Wojcik
Adventure Time's Excellent Vampires.
It was only weeks ago that I went on perhaps my four hundredth tangent about modern vampires and how little imagination they display in mainstream popular culture. Little did I know it would be Cartoon Network and Adventure Time answering my plea in the desolate midst of November, when the rest of the world is shamefully attempting to move on from Halloween.
That the network chose to air a distinctly Halloweenesque miniseries this far into autumn isn't entirely unlike last year, even if this time it was more of a delay than pre-planned, and while Stakes is nowhere near as fresh and groundbreaking as the insta-classic Over the Garden Wall, it's a solid 80-some minutes of spooky hijinks, great new characters, long-overdue backstory and great comedic timing. Even if you've never been a fan of Finn and Jake's post-apocalyptic tomfoolery - or even watched the series at all - you might still find something to like about this nearly feature-length special, which overall felt quite a bit funnier and more focused than usual for the franchise. The writers pretty much brought their A-game to this one, and almost every character is at their best.
Stakes, of course, focuses on the fan-favorite "vampire queen," Marceline, who's been a part of the series since almost its beginning and slowly fleshed out over the past few years, but while we knew since almost season one that Marceline was half demon, we never really learned anything about her "vampire" aspect until now - which turns out to be almost unrelated to her demon side, sort of.
Things are kicked off when Marceline actually wishes she could stop being one of the undead, and turns to her as canon-as-they-can-get-away-with ex girlfriend, princess Bubblegum, to remove her vampiric essence. The process is successful, but the by-product is a bloodsucking, tar-like monstrosity comrpised of pure, concentrated vampirocity. It's a pretty cool concept, and we get some mighty disturbing shots of half-drained animals. There are attempts to lighten the mood in typical Adventure Time fashion, but an emaciated horse asking "lil' help?" is honestly kind of even creepier than just the emaciated horse.
The creature is also found residing in a cavern of blackish ooze and fang-like thorns, which may or may not be something it generated itself. Later, vampires will in fact make references to once having a "hive" in the old world, and this may just be a glimpse of what that was like.
Soon after drinking its fill, the vampire-sludge digivolves into not one, but five complete vampires whose essences have apparently been trapped within Marceline for the past few centuries. This is where we really get into the big hook of the story, since, you guessed it, Marceline is going to have to re-collect these bozos before they wreak havoc on the world.
Some of the most interesting moments of Stakes are the new glimpses it gives us of the only freshly ruined Earth, something we've seen only a few times before, and we even get to see those wonderful slime mutants again, now officially referred to in-canon as oozers. In the aftermath of relatively recent global cataclysm, the half-demon Marceline apparently took on a monster-slaying role, protecting some of the few remaining humans from the various horrors of the magical, polluted new world...none apparently more threatening than vampires, who believe themselves to be the true inheritors of the world.
Adventure Time's take on even your basic, grunt-level vampires is pretty much exactly the kind I'm always talking about. Savage, ghoulish creatures that go straight for the rat-like Nosferatu aesthetic. The catalyst comet and the mushroom wars killed off most of the human race, but this is apparently what happened to most of the rest...and Marceline personally destroyed every last one of them in an attempt to protect what little remained of humanity.
We don't see much of these no-name Orloks, but it's the boss-tier undead that we're really here for anyway.
The first and weakest member of these is The Fool. He's the vampire we get to know the least, and that's a shame, because I'm sure they could have squeezed at least a little more entertainment value out of a tiny, horrible gnome-like man who takes nothing seriously and also just so happens to crave human blood. Imagining this little creep actually hunting down and preying on humans is fairly unwholesome; it's bad enough something wants to drain your blood, but worse that they just can't even take one minute of it seriously.
In flashback to his original defeat, all the Fool even gets out is a terrible butt joke before Marceline kills him with a stake to the heart, bursting him into a cloud of dust, and this is where we learn that the pre-vampiric Marceline already inherited one supernatural power from her demon father: she can consume souls, and upon absorbing the essence of the Fool, she gains his ability to fly.
The second vampire is the Empress, and yeah, they're all named after tarot cards. The Empress might be one of my favorites, her blindfold and single ruby giving her a cyclops-like appearance even referenced at least once in her episode, and coiled around her neck is a seemingly living snake under her control. She's a very gorgon-like being, and her menacing appearance is nicely contrasted by her casual, snarky dialog and sense of humor. She does take being a vampire seriously, but she also has a personality outside of that. These guys are all nasty, predatory villains, but they still aren't completely, totally inhuman.
The Empress's most notable power is her hypnosis. When her little snake friend pulls back her hood, her real eyes can put almost any non-vampire under her spell, although, minor spoiler alert, it can be hard to tell the difference when somebody's actually hypnotized at all or just a very, very lonely, desperate and demented old man. Oddly enough, though, this isn't the power Marceline actually gets from the Empress, but instead gains her ability to turn invisible...or maybe Marceline is just too ethical to hypnotize anyone that we've seen.
Next on the hit list is the Hierophant, and this guy is actually one of the most entertaining of the bunch. He looks like a classical devil, or perhaps even Krampus, with the legs of a goat and a fur coat that seems to be an actual part of his body.
Hierophant is where Marceline got her shape-shifting powers, which I honestly would have expected more from the final villain, since they're the most impressive and versatile trick any of these guys boast. You have to love how utterly terrifying this gaping panther-thing looks, like something straight out of awkward, medieval bestiary art, and that makes sense, because the Hierophant is a real stickler for the classics.
Hierophant is actually such a "traditionalist," he absolutely won't enter a building without being invited, and will die if forced into one otherwise. While not overtly stated, it seems implied that this is purely psychological; that he's not physically bound by these rules, but believes he should be.
We get to see a lot of bizarre and lovely shape-changing in this guy's episode, especially when he gets pissed. The dozens of eyes, scorpion stinger and spidery bat-limbs are all excellent choices if you're going to erupt into anatomical chaos, but I think the pudgy baby arm really takes the cake. It offers no obvious advantage, but if I could turn into a hodgepodge of appendages at will, I'd probably throw in a pudgy baby arm myself. It's all about flair.
We now come to vampire #4, and absolutely the most fascinating of the bunch. Her name is The Moon, and at first, she seems like the most innocuous of the five, so you pretty much already know she's going to be one of the most terrifying. She's a small, round, quiet and serene little thing, her only outwardly monstrous feature being the ear - if that is an ear - growing from the middle of her forehead.
Our first taste of Moon's weirdness are her "pearls." Everywhere she goes, she leaves a trail of luminous, gelatinous orbs. Finn has a grand old time squishing them, playing with them, and even putting them in his mouth, which fortunately doesn't turn out to be hazardous unless he's going to get vampiric cancer a few years down the road.
We never find out what's actually up with these "pearls," except for Jake's suggestion that they might be "boogers" or some other body waste, and this highly distressing shot of them bursting from a shriveled corpse. Whether The Moon killed this guy or the corpse was already there (as implied by the cobwebs), it still raises many unsavory questions that it's positively overflowing with her, uh, "leavings," which seem to come from somewhere under her dress as she walks.
When Finn and Jake find the Moon, she's calmly sleeping in an urn until nightfall. Once the sun goes down, however, she reveals her more monstrous, more surreal nature. Her voice is like a full demonic chorus, she has at least a dozen legs when she wants to, and she has some sort of highly ambiguous relationship to the actual moon, speaking as if she and Earth's satellite are literally one and the same.
"You run in my light" is by far one of the eeriest sentences ever spoken by a dead person pursuing its prey.
Several things happen in the final confrontation with Moon, and they're all equally unsettling. Finn and Jake both seem to lose all muscle control in her presence, collapsing to the floor and expressing how much it feels like "a slow motion terror dream." When she turns her attention on Princess Bubblegum's banana guards, their chocolate helmets sizzle and melt, and when confronted with a padlock...she, uh...shouts the word "pigs" at it. Over and over.
Eventually, this somehow causes it to unlock, much to Bubblegum's irritation.
The Moon is pretty much a grab-bag of non sequitors, as though the writers just kept saying to themselves "what would be disturbing here, and not really mean any obvious sense" This is not a criticism, because it works beautifully, and we can certainly surmise that everything we see of the Moon does have a context and purpose, even if we don't know it. Not all questions exist to be answered, and even in real-world mythology, the characteristics of supernatural beings often seem inexplicable. Who even decided that some vampires can't resist counting things, for instance? Why do kappas love cucumbers to such a fault? Why do we expect witches to ride brooms? There are answers to these questions, sure, but for the most part they're buried in time, and we've come to accept that monsters are just weird.
While the Moon is the strangest and most interesting of the five vampires, you don't usually want the "big boss" to be the weird one. The leader of a given band of villains is typically a more mundane, down-to-earth bad guy, more menace than anything else, and while that's kind of true here, Adventure Time's Vampire King is still a relatively original idea.
The King is basically a chimera, with a lion-like head, reptilian scales and bird-like taloned feet. It's not my usual kind of monster, but a handsome beast-man is still a refreshing change from the top-ranking undead of most other narratives, so many of them just another Count Dracula expy or sexy goth queen. His behavior is pretty bizarre, too; one of the first things we ever see this guy do is dance with a cow, and he never seems like he's really all that villainous. More than anything else, he's kind of sick of being a vampire, even though he also cares about the continued existence of his "people."
Early in the miniseries, we even learn it was the king who made Marceline into a vampire at all. After she successfully exterminated the rest of his kind, the King allowed her to stake him as he bit her neck, ensuring that at least one vampire would continue on.
All, this has been the reason Marceline refuses to feed on blood. The first time we ever met her, we learned that vampires only need to eat the color red, a weird twist which, at the time, may have just been to tone down Marceline's horror factor. Now, we know that while all vampires can subsist on red, they crave blood because biting and draining a living being is how they perpetuate more of their kind. Blood-draining is vampire reproduction, distinct from their dietary needs, and Marceline has resisted the drive to perpetuate these parasitic beings for almost a thousand years now. She's a human containment unit, a prison keeping the plague of vampirism all in one place through force of will.
The king, though, really is tired of being what he is, and after Marceline re-stakes and re-absorbs his underlings, he willingly submits to the same curative process that freed them, revealing that he was originally nothing but an ordinary lion.
Unfortunately, his vampiric essence still needs to be disposed of, and just like Marceline's, it ends up getting loose.
The final episode and final confrontation of Stakes gives us one last imaginative spin on vampirism, as the black sludge removed from the vampire king explodes into a vast cloud which inhales living beings and converts them into vampires en masse. A concentrated vampire storm, with Daliesque legs and a pair of snake-like heads. It really seems like this "effluvium" is the real, true form of the vampire "species;" a supernatural disease that occupies bodies in place of normal blood.
Marceline has no choice but to re-absorb this being like the others, and undergoes a wonderful shonen-style transformation into a brilliantly sparkling, angelic figure with a tooth-lined sucker for a heart. This still seems to be a part of her "demon" aspect, or perhaps a combination of her soul-sucking and the shape-shifting she picked up from Hierophant, as she still doesn't return to vampirism until, with its last ounce of strength, the remains of the dark cloud bite her on the neck, and she's restored to the same vampire queen we always knew her as.
Usually, a multi-episode arc that only restores the status quo would feel like a cop-out, but Adventure Time has completely changed so many character dynamics over its run, it actually feels kind of nice for something to go back to normal this time...and it's not the only series plot line Stakes resets, either.
Though I've given away most of the central plot from start to finish, Stakes is still very much worth watching, even for non-fans of the series. It's a cool Halloween special and even pulls off some effective cartoon horror, yet it also manages to be hilarious throughout - maybe even the funniest and wittiest this series has ever been, especially for the goofy dialog of otherwise extremely menacing villains and the vampirophobic Jake's increasingly terrified reactions to it all.
If nothing else, however, any fan of vampire-related entertainment should appreciate the style and imagination that went into these particular neckbiters. Adventure Time has long established itself as the definitive cartoon show of the 2010's generation, and I've got a good feeling about future vampire media if today's kids are going to grow up remembering these weirdos.
It's pretty much exactly what I asked for as a monster nerd...if only they had also thrown in one of those flying-guts style undead.
On another note, it's now almost officially December. I've taken a bit of a "break" this month and put up only a handful of new Halloween articles, but you'll be getting a much bigger new chunk of spooky content these next four weeks, including the Nightmare Creature series, the rest of the Silent Hill, reviews, a continuation or two of some recent article series, a Homunculus Nightmare finale, and of course the build up to this year's wave of original, community-submitted horror fiction! Are you writing yet?!
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