It occurred to me recently that "Fight for the Violet Crown" turns 20 this year. It seemed like the right time to take a look back at that movie, which was one of my first exposures to the city of Austin (as seen through the lens of fiction and camp horror).
For those of you who don't know it, "Fight for the Violet Crown" was a movie made in the mid-90's, but set in the mid 80's. It looks at the imagined society of vampires from the inside; there are no mortal characters of any importance here (except for one, a young girl who becomes a vampire during the course of the movie). Instead of looking at a clash between vampires and us, their prey, it instead imagines a clash within the vampire society itself.
Really, it does make some sense that any society of immortals would have a serious class problem. The old dying and passing on their inheritance to the young is one of the main things (barely) holding back an ever-greater accumulation of wealth at the top. What if the old never died? In the movie, it has resulted in an almost absolute class separation between vampires, with the ones who grew their fangs in the 19th and early 20th century holding almost total control of the city, and the mid-to-late 20th century vampires left scrabbling on the margins. In practical terms, given the limited wardrobe budget of the movie, this meant goths (the elders, in lace and velvet) vs. punks (the young, in plaid, leather, and - yes, even then - tattoos).
Let's be honest, "Fight for the Violet Crown" was not a good movie. What it was, though, was a great, bad movie. When the younger vampires cry revolution on Castle Hill, it is hard not to want to shout it with them. The older crowd, governed by an undead William Sydney Porter (better known as the writer O. Henry) who is revealed to have been the original Servant Girl Annihilator, have their reasons for defending the status quo (besides the fact that they sit atop it). Porter's excesses as the Servant Girl Annihilator almost led to the discovery and elimination of his vampiric existence; he had to move to the larger New York City in order to find a large enough supply of anonymous victims to keep him both fed and undiscovered, coming back only after faking his death in 1910. He sees nothing in the younger crowd but his own younger, greedy and reckless self, and when he determines that the younger crowd must be eliminated for the protection of the rest, he seems more sorrowful than tyrannical.
Needless to say, the younger crowd sees it all a bit differently, and who can blame them? They note that the Elders prey almost exclusively on the poor (with the excuse that wealthy victims will generate too much official scrutiny), and it is the core of their rebellion that from now on, they will prey on the white and rich instead of the brown or black, and poor. Seeing the movie again recently, I couldn't help thinking that if we had only had a dozen or so predators thinning the ranks of the would-be gentrifiers of south and east Austin, we might still have a place in Austin where the poor and lower middle class could afford to live today. Like a lot of great, bad movies, "Fight for the Violet Crown" accidentally stumbles onto its most important points, but perhaps for that very reason makes them better than any political documentary or heavy-handed polemic. The wealthy and powerful always have an excuse (perhaps even honestly believed) for why the status quo must be preserved. It doesn't mean the lower ranks should go quietly. "Would you rather die a rebel, or live a slave? I am already dead, I will not bleed for them and call it justice!" Say it loud, Mordecai (leader of the young rebels).
There are a few truly great scenes here. The scene in the Atomic Cafe (now the Elysium) discusses briefly the building's past as a brothel, before taking us into the (legendary, and almost certainly mythical) tunnel between it and the Driskill Hotel. We see Porter reminiscing about legislators using the tunnel during Prohibition to visit the brothel without being observed, which leads us into some scenes set in early 20th century Austin. One wonders how these parts of the movie were made; it is not entirely clear that they had permission from the Driskill to do it, and the hotel's current ownership has no record or memory of the filming.
Once there, we learn another tidbit of Texas vampire history: Porter was the young, rebellious vampire in his day. The "generation" (if that's the proper word for vampires) before him brought the Texas capital to Austin (then called Waterloo) as a way of insuring a steady stream of victims from the rest of the state into Austin. The image of legislative aides as cattle being brought unawares to the slaughter is entertaining enough on its own, but we also get what may be one of the choicest soliloquies in all of 20th century horror films, as Porter decries his own younger self and exposes the very institution of government as a device for bleeding the populace dry in an orderly way. It's a brief interlude, and soon we are back to the vampire combat on the roof of the General Land Office building, but it throws a shadow over what follows.
By the time the young have (spoiler alert) won their revolution, we see it as part of a continual cycle of rebellion and entrenchment, and we can see the beginnings of a new hierarchy among the punk-rock vampires of the new masters and mistresses of the Austin night. Moredecai begins to transform into a new Elder overlord before our eyes. A particularly nice touch is the decision at the end by the new regime to begin a music festival, South By Southwest, as a cover for bringing musicians and music fans into the town as prey. SXSW attendees are usually young, poor, and often without anyone to know where they were or miss them if they were gone; what could be better for a vampire version of Thanksgiving? And that colony of bats under the Congress Avenue bridge? The new vampire order will stop the city from trying to chase the bats away, and turn them instead into a tourist attraction. There's no place better to hide than plain sight, and for vampires with the decidedly old-school ability to shape-shift into bats, it's hard to think of better cover.
Porter, dying broken on the rooftop as the sun rises to turn him to dust, speaks for us now in the 21st century with his last words. "It will never work like they think. Sooner or later, they always take it too far, and bring on their own doom. Fools...I only wish we didn't have to learn it the hard way every time."
Copies of "Fight for the Violet Crown" are hard to find nowadays; I had the good fortune to find an old VHS tape in a garage sale, and watched it nearly to completion before it unfortunately broke. If you should ever happen to find a copy of this nearly-forgotten gem from Austin's cinematic past, take a look.