Cast: Chin Siu-ho, Anthony Chan, Kara Hui, Lo Hoi-pang, Paw Hee-ching
Hong Kong 2013
Juno Mak, who played the lead in, and wrote the story for, tragic thriller Revenge: A Love Story, makes his directorial debut with a superb, sombre homage to 1980s Chinese vampire films, in particular Ricky Lau’s supernatural action comedy Mr. Vampire. Featuring members of Lau’s original cast, Rigor Mortis foregoes the humour of the earlier film for a brooding, melancholy mood and dreamlike atmosphere. Mr. Vampire’s Chin Siu-Ho plays a forlorn former actor who attempts to commit suicide after moving into a bleak, ominous building. His neighbour Yau intervenes and saves him, but Chin and his neighbours will have to face the dark forces at work in his new home.
Rigor Mortis draws on Chinese vampire mythology, which gives the story a fascinating, mysterious (to Western audiences) edge. Taoist vampire hunter Yau and his ally/nemesis, the black magician Gau, use amulets, spells, glutinous rice and red string (creating gorgeous tentacular visuals), and, in Yau’s case, the Taoist wheel and its five elements, to control the supernatural creatures unleashed – including an impressively macabre zombie/vampire. With CGI used to terrific effect, the film features breath-taking fight sequences that alternate flowing balletic grace with sharp bursts of bloody action.
Startling, beautiful and eerie, Rigor Mortis takes place in an otherworldly realm of constantly croaking crows, muted grey colours, strange children and upside down gardens growing on ceilings, all underpinned by a haunting, creepy score. While the elliptical, circular narrative is left open to interpretation, it seems to suggest that what we are watching is the heroic death dreamed by a dying actor, the casting of Chin Siu-Ho giving added poignancy to this idea. A superb, haunting, darkly poetic debut not to be missed.
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, John Hurt, Mia Wasikowska
After Jarmusch’s last film, The Limits of Control, it seemed that another great director was close to losing his genius, but there is a welcome sense of rebirth about Only Lovers Left Alive from the moment it opens. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston make for a brilliant pair of vampire lovers who have been truly, madly, deeply in love for centuries, yet are now living apart. Swinton’s resilient and enigmatic Eve resides in lush Tangiers while Hiddleston’s disheartened underground musician, Adam, is holed up in the outskirts of derelict Detroit. When their longing for each other becomes unbearable, Eve decides to take on the difficult journey (she can only travel at night) to reunite with Adam, but soon after the couple are back together, their gently hedonistic idyll of non-murderous blood and old vinyl is disrupted by the arrival of Eve’s unnerving, uncontrollable younger sister (Mia Wasikowska).
Nothing much happens in Jarmusch’s sensuous fantasy of night and nostalgia, apart from the fact that the pair are running short of the sort of pure, uncontaminated blood that they now need to keep them going. But watching these two archetypal outcasts, still in full possession of their animal instincts, as they roam around trying to blend in with their surroundings, is an undemanding, irresistible pleasure.
This review was first published as part of our Cannes 2013 coverage.
Watch the trailer:
As always with Jim Jarmusch, music is crucial to the film, not just as sonic accompaniment to the images, but also as an integral part of the story, starting with a main character who is a musician and lives in a house full of vinyl and vintage guitars (almost all of the records actually belong to Jarmusch).
The score was written by Jozef Van Wissem, avant-garde composer, lutenist and guitarist, with contributions by SQÜRL, a trio featuring Jarmusch, Carter Logan and Shane Stoneback. Van Wissem’s music is beautifully sparse and evocative, punctuating the story with nonchalant, unhurried, fuzzy guitars that moodily drift in and out, just like the characters.
Only Lovers Left Alives is released in the UK on DVD, Blu-ray and limited edition Steelbok (BR) on 15 September 2014. The Jim Jarmusch Collection with the director’s first six films will also be released by Soda Pictures on 6 October to tie in with the BFI Jim Jarmusch Season, which will include the re-release of Down by Law on 12 September 2014.
In addition to the score, there are a number of original songs that are heard at key moments in the film. The opening track is a woozy, slowed-down, even ghostlier remix of Wanda Jackson’s spine-tingling ‘Funnel of Love’, which flows over a hypnotic pan of the various characters in different locations, all tripping out after drinking blood. Later we’ll also hear the louche guitar riff of Charlie Feathers’s terrific ‘Can’t Hardly Stand It’ and Denise LaSalle’s laidback and soulful ballad ‘Trapped by a Thing Called Love’. But it’s not all classic soul and rock’n’roll, and Jarmusch’s enduring love for the 50s and 60s is complemented by new music from the likes of American psychedelic rock band White Hills, and Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan in an atmospheric, Moroccan-set café scene.
The Only Lovers Left Alive soundtrack is out on ATP Recordings. It is available on double 180 gsm 12” red vinyl (with download code), CD, and digital download. There is also a limited edition of 1000, all-black 180g 12″ vinyl singles featuring ‘The Taste of Blood’ (Jozef Van Wissem and SQÜRL), ‘Funnel of Love’ (SQÜRL and Madeline Follin) and ‘In Templum Dei’ (Jozef Van Wissem and Zola Jesus). To listen now to ‘The Taste of Blood’, please click here.
Screening as part of the BFI’s ‘Gothic’ season. For more information visit the BFI website
Date: 16 + 19 November 2013
Director: Harry Kümel
Writers: Pierre Drouot, Harry Kümel, Jean Ferry
Cast: Delphine Seyrig, John Karlen, Danielle Ouimet, Andrea Rau
Original Title:Les lèvres rouges
Belgium/France/West Germany 1971
Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet), a good-looking young couple who have eloped, stay in an out-of-season hotel in rain-swept, depopulated Ostend. They are not exactly on honeymoon, just pausing in this luxurious yet faded interzone before the supposedly British Stefan, who has neither an English name or an English accent, takes his new bride home to his aristocratic mother – who, as we see in a cutaway shot, is a man in a dress (Fons Rademakers). Stefan also takes his belt to his wife during lovemaking, and shows signs of other kinks unusual in the clean-cut leading man of a horror movie – compare young bridegrooms in everything from The Black Cat (1934) to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) for exemplars of straight values. The only other guests in the hotel are the Countess Elisabeth Bathory (Delphine Seyrig) and her pouting, tempting secretary Ilona (Andrea Rau). The aged clerk (Paul Esser) and a retired policeman (Georges Jamin) are certain that the Countess was here before, too many years ago for her apparent age, and is mixed up with unsolved murders that have left blood-drained corpses behind…
Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness is an unusual horror film, depicting vampirism (and lesbianism) as a reasonable alternative to stifling or perverse male desires. It’s cine-literate, casting Seyrig for her association with art cinema from Last Year at Marienbad (L’année dernière à Marienbad, set in another hotel in limbo) and dressing and coiffing her like 1930s Marlene Dietrich. But it’s also creepily, delicately sophisticated, with a witty, evocative score by Francois de Roubaix and an interesting, unusual set of monstrous mannerisms. The Countess shimmers in a silver sheath dress and shows white, white teeth in her red, red mouth and waves a feather boa like the fronds of a poison anemone to attract the young couple into her coils in a distant echo of Dracula’s victim-enveloping cloak. Bathory is named for the Hungarian mass murderess (who may have been framed) and recurrent film character, and Seyrig seethes sexually as she recounts the atrocities committed by her supposed ancestress, which excites the sneakily sadistic Stefan.
There are moments of unsettling physical horror – Ilona’s death, bleeding out in a shower after a blunder with a straight razor, foreshadows the death by running water of Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame) in Hammer’s Dracula AD 1972 (1972) – but also of black farce and high-end erotica. For some unknown reason, a clutch of seemingly unrelated films told very similar stories in the early 1970s: Stephanie Rothman’s The Velvet Vampire (1971), Vicente Aranda’s The Blood-Spattered Bride (La novia ensangrentada, 1972), Richard Blackburn’s Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1973) and José Larraz’s Vampyres (1974) all likewise revolve around vampire matriarchs seducing innocent girls away from lumpen men. These are films which exercise a vampire-like power of fascination. Far more steadily paced than the vigorous Hammer Gothics, likely to get distracted by some apparently minor element of art direction or costuming, and alert to the erotic potential of teeth against skin in a self-aware manner, they show the vampire genre had evolved to the point when films were being made by artists who knew what they were doing rather than directors perhaps unconsciously channelling the dreams and desires of their audiences.
Jim Mickle’s Stake Land (2011) is a pretty good watch, with rousing action scenes where locals turned vampires tear up rural America, although this is hindered by some unneeded frills. The film is set in apocalyptic America (what has caused this is unexplained). Towns and cities are dysfunctional and many are deserted. Various groups jostle for position: an extremist Christian cult, disenfranchised ‘simple folk’ searching for a new frontier and a pack of blood-guzzling vampires, each aiming for supremacy.
The story follows the travels of vampire stalker Mister (Nick Damici, Mulberry Street, World Trade Center) and orphaned Martin (Connor Paolo, Gossip Girl), picked up by Mister as an apprentice/vampire killer pal (I hope named after George Romero’s awkward be-fanged teenager). They are trying to find the promised land, a mysterious place called New Eden.
Stake Land is part buddy movie, part road movie, part sci-fi, part social commentary, part Western. Watching the film is like flicking through cable channels: Mad Max follows Karate Kid follows The Champ, all with teeth. There is a lot going on and it’s impressive that the filmmakers manage to cover so much film territory. But it feels a bit like an attempt to cover their bases and have something for everyone: slowed-down glamorous sections where the leading actors look cool, set to a melancholic soundtrack, are next to gripping and noisy action scenes of blood lust and staking (the best part of the film for me), and sensitive bonding scenes between the characters as they travel through a stunning landscape. All this set to music that is so unnecessary it feels like being smothered with a pillow of emotional impact.
The subtext of the film seems to suggest that in a new era of sluggish economies and ecological disaster only the fittest will survive, and those commonly portrayed as a drain on resources and not ‘pulling their weight’ are cast out. Indeed, many sequences are reminiscent of media-fetishised disasters. Vampire-struck towns with deserted houses, shops and people scavenging for food reminded me of images of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or images of terrorist attacks. The vampire format has been used before to flesh out a particular time’s anxieties (disease, addiction, etc), and here it’s a fear of terrorism. With Stake Land, we’re made more aware than ever of a ‘watch your back’ generation of Americans desperately in need of a bit of meditation and some Ritalin.
Some of these references to contemporary society work well. One of the film’s strengths is the way familiar American suburban tropes are adjusted to fit this apocalyptic vamp landscape. The scenes where these mythical beings are seen as roadkill for ‘Nam-styled Mister, or where an infected Santa Claus awaits his impending doom in a cul-de-sac, dripping with tar-like blood, are high points. On the other hand, the relationships between the characters are not allowed to fully develop, so that the audience can neither genuinely root for them, nor really despise them. Damici’s character has some great moments and his cool lines give the film some laughs, but part of the narrative draw is dropped too early. Four of the people that Mister and Martin befriend are promptly killed off, notably an old woman and a black man, and rather predictably, it’s the young white couple who survive long enough to try and reach the promised land in the end.
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