At a fan convention earlier this month in Los Angeles, newly issued vampire Xavier Samuel got a taste of . . . "Twilight" mania: "I got to hang out with 2,000 people, answer a few questions, mostly about whether I'd have my shirt off in any scenes." Such is the so-called life of the undead, at least in the world of "Twilight," which involves passion, drama and the feverish howling of teenage girls. "I don't know how," Samuel said, "you prepare for something like that."

Prepare he must. With the regularity of a full moon, another "Twilight" movie is upon us - "Twilight: Eclipse," the third in the series inspired by the Stephenie Meyer novels and one that addresses such titanic questions as immortality and high school graduation. While Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner all return, respectively, as Bella Swan, Edward Cullen and Jacob Black, they are being joined by a virtual legion of previously unseen characters. While the second film was titled "New Moon," this one, which opens Wednesday, could be called "New Blood" (all puns intended).

In addition to Bryce Dallas Howard, who replaced Rachelle Lefevre as the vampiress Victoria, there's Jodelle Ferland, a native of Vancouver (where the film was shot), who plays Bree, one of the pawns in Victoria's scheme of revenge. "Everybody made me feel very welcome," Ferland said. Actually, she giggled. "I also had my 15th birthday on set, so that was really awesome."

The un-life of Riley 

And there's Samuel as Riley, a member of Victoria's Newborn Army of bloodsuckers, whose strength is greatest during their early days of un-life. "He's a complex character," said the 26-year-old Australian, "because he's still got human blood pumping through his veins, and because he's had his humanity snatched from him, and that stirs a lot of feelings of jealousy and rage."

Riley is being manipulated by Victoria to seek revenge on Bella and Edward, "so he's essentially kind of a puppet, which makes him a tragic figure. It's kind of a Lady Macbeth relationship with Victoria; he's wrapped around her little finger. But director David Slade and I have really talked about the complexities of the character, and about not delving into any cliches and stereotypes."

There are a lot of complexities to "Twilight," not the least of which is the triangle involving Bella and her admirers, Edward and Jacob, who come from opposing factions (vampires vs. werewolves), but who must unite to protect Bella and her whole Seattle town. How will it conclude? It won't, not until next year's fourth installment, "Breaking Dawn," the screenplay to which is being written by Melissa Rosenberg, who has scripted all four movies.

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"I think we're shooting in October," Rosenberg said, admitting to a certain regret. "Having only done 'Twilight' and 'Dexter' for the last several years, I'm very comfortable in 'Twilight.' I know these characters, I know their voices, I know I can write them. It's a comfortable place to be and I guess I'm a little bit nervous about going off into the big world.

"Twilight," of course, is not something that comes along every day: The last film, which cost approximately $50 million, has so far earned nearly $300 million. "I think it's tapped into something intense," Rosenberg said. "You have a character like Bella who gives us all entry into the world; she's an Everygirl. You're able to get into the vampire world through her very comfortable point of view and then you become the most wanted, desirable person in the world by these two extraordinary guys - it's wish fulfillment, there's familiarity because it's a series and there's a connectedness through Bella. And Stephenie has really created an incredible world and mythology. She's a good storyteller." 

A universal story 

It's a story whose essential elements could be transposed to another world. "Absolutely," Rosenberg said. "Stephenie's compared it at times to 'Wuthering Heights,' or 'Romeo and Juliet.' You could take the straight-ahead drama part off and drop the fantastical element and still have a compelling story. But, of course, I think the fantastical elements take it to another level."

Because the films have been made so quickly, and released accordingly (one about every six months), the same audience has remained engaged, the sense of urgency has been maintained, and the actors haven't markedly aged. It's also been suggested that the transition will be easier for the performers, who won't have been typecast quite as cruelly as they might by a series that went on forever (see "Harry Potter").

Samuel, for instance, has a flourishing career that needs no impediments: He's just finished Roland Emmerich's "Anonymous," a conspiracy thriller that involves the authorship of Shakespeare's plays; and "The Loved Ones," which he called a "teenage extravaganza" in which "I was strapped to a chair and tortured for the majority of the film."

Although the "Twilight" series was "pretty hard to miss," he said, he hadn't been a particularly rabid fan. "I must have been the only one in the world who hadn't seen the last film," he admitted, "but I saw it on the plane to Vancouver." Which is cutting things, one might say, pretty close. Still, Samuel got seduced.

"I can understand how people can become really attached to the story," he said. "There are all these epic themes of eternal love and the idea that love can cure you. It's intoxicating. As soon as I found out about the role, I went to the bookstore and madly started reading." 

Breaking 'Dawn' in two

The phenomenal "Twilight" series will not be ending with a fourth installment, as originally intended. It will be ending with a fourth, and fifth. Although the producing and opening of the films in the series have been quick and clean - each feature has been released while the next was being shot - "Breaking Dawn," the last in the Stephenie Meyer series of novels, will be broken into two parts for the screen. The first half will be released in November 2011. The fifth movie does not yet have a release date, according to distributor Summit Entertainment.

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They will be shot simultaneously, said a Summit spokeswoman, but because of the complexity of the material, will be presented via two separate films - and admissions.

To reveal any major plot points would kind of take the steam out of "Eclipse," the imminent third chapter in the vampire quartet / quintet (at least for those few dozen who aren't clued in). But it's safe to say that Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) and Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) will all be supping at the "Twilight" trough until at least 2012 - when Lautner will have reached the ripe old age of 20.