Format: DVD Release date: 3 April 2017 Distributor: Kaleidoscope Entertainment Directors: Dan Berk, Robert Olsen Writer: Nick Damici Cast: Connor Paolo, Nick Damici, Laura Abramsen
The follow-up to Jim Mickle’s apocalyptic vampire tale Stake Land is disappointing but there is life still in this undead saga.
It’s nice to see Glass Eye Pix building up something like a franchise, with star-writer Nick Damici staying on from Jim Mickle’s Stake Land and the Body team of Dan Berk and Robert Olsen stepping in as directors. The first film offered an alternative to the many, many zombie apocalypses by presenting a vampire apocalypse. It also added the I Am Legend fillip of showing the last remnants of North American humanity besieged by zombie-like nocturnal monsters and equally dangerous lunatic religious factions (‘the Brotherhood’), as hints of malign intelligence suggest that there might be more traditional, calculating vampires out there. In this follow-up, the theme is only slightly developed with the addition of a vampire villainess, the Mother (Kristina Hughes) – should she get together with the Father, from Octane? – who has a grudge against Mad Maxy veteran vamp-hunter Mister (Damici) for killing her child (she’s a rare vampire who can give birth) and putting out her eye with an arrow.
Cast: Caroline Munro, Verónica Polo, Marta Flich, Almudena León
Release date: 11 July 2016
Distributor: High Fliers Films
Directors: Mauricio Chernovetzky, Mark Devendorf
Writers: Karl Bardosh, Mauricio Chernovetzky, Mark Devendorf
Based on the novella by: Sheridan Le Fanu
Alternative title:Angel of Darkness
Cast: Stephen Rea, Eleanor Tomlinson, Julia Pietrucha
USA, Hungary 2014
Kim Newman rummages through the straight-to-DVD treasure trunk
This double bill of European vampire movies revisits oft-told stories. Indeed, the ghosts of earlier incarnations hang as heavily over the films as the curses of the past affect their mostly doomed characters.
José Ramón Larraz’s Vampyres (1974) is among the most minimally-plotted horror films – a fusion of the Spanish director’s sensibilities with the last gasps of the British Gothic boom as a pair of lesbian vampires who might have come from a Jesús Franco or Jean Rollin film (or a Halloween layout in Knave magazine) bloodily prey on feeble men in that familiar decaying mansion that turns up in so many UK-shot horror films. Contemporary Spanish director Victor Matellano shares his script credit with Larraz on Vampyres (2015), a close remake – it even restages some gore/sex scenes shot-for-shot as in the Gus Van Sant Psycho, though a few new ones are thrown in (the ever-popular Bathory-inspired human blood shower is featured). 1970s genre fixture Caroline Munro gets a non sequitur role as a hotel owner and seems as out of place in these surroundings as she did in the New York sleaze of Maniac in 1980. Spanish horror star Lone Fleming, heroine of the first Blind Dead films, also pops up. Further evidencing Matellano’s interest in genre history, new passages of the script have the hapless Harriet (Veronica Polo) – reduced to a tent, since this even-scantier production can’t stretch to the camper van of the original – discover a copy of Théophile Gautier’s vampire story ‘La morte amoureuse’ and ponder how it might feed into the current situation. Marta Flich and Almudena León replace Marianne Morris and Anulka as vampire vixens Fran and Miriam – they are pretty, and willing to do nude splatter scenes with abandon, but Matellano doesn’t get out of them what Larraz did of his stars. It’s a case of the direction being at fault rather than any thespic lack: Morris and Anulka were nude models rather than actresses and their performances were entirely shaped by Larraz (and professional dubbing). As properties suitable for remaking go, Vampyres was an odd choice – a film distinguished by approach and ferocity rather than any particular strength of concept or story. Transplanting the whole thing to contemporary, non-specific Spain from the tatty, fraying edges of 1970s Britain cuts away much that makes Vampyres interesting. It’s a remake that feels like a footnote, and – though it’s scarcely an hour and a quarter long – your attention is likely to wander quite a lot while it’s running.
Writer-directors Mauricio Chernovetzky and Mark Devendorf’s Styria (released on UK DVD as Angel of Darkness) tells an even more familiar story. It adapts J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s much-filmed ‘Carmilla’, with moments that explicitly evoke many of the story’s earlier incarnations (Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr, Roger Vadim’s Et Mourir de Plaisir/Blood and Roses, Roy Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers, Vicente Aranda’s La Novia Ensangrientada/The Blood-Spattered Bride) and such Carmilla-by-association efforts as The Moth Diaries and Byzantium. In a more sophisticated manner than the simple Gautier-read-aloud sessions of Vampyres, Styria draws on a wealth of pre-Bram Stoker vampire stories to present a version of the myth that’s unusual and distinctive. Carmilla films often seem odd because the Stoker/Lugosi/Hammer vampire myth is so entrenched in pop culture that Le Fanu’s more nebulous, ambiguous creatures appear somehow ‘wrong’ in interesting ways. Even the very physical Ingrid Pitt in The Vampire Lovers, Hammer’s own take on the story, does some ghostly vanishing that wouldn’t do for Christopher Lee’s Dracula.
Styria sets the story in Hungary in 1989, and pares away much of Le Fanu’s plot and most of the supporting cast. Dr Hill (Stephen Rea) comes to a shuttered castle to examine murals that have been papered over, working under the threat of the collapsing communist regime levelling the building. Lara (Eleanor Tomlinson, who has now taken the Angharad Rees role in the remake of Poldark), his teenage daughter, has just been expelled from school after a violent incident. The sulky girl’s interest is piqued when she learns the castle once belonged to the family of her absent mother, whom Dr Hill doesn’t like to talk about. In the forest, Lara sees Carmilla (Julia Pietrucha) escape from a car driven by a bullying official, General Spiegel (Jacek Lenartowicz), and befriends the blonde, peculiar girl, who becomes a major influence in her life.
Though there’s a kiss that mimics a scene in Blood and Roses, Styria plays down the lesbian eroticism – too often taken to be the only interesting feature in Le Fanu’s extraordinarily complex story – and makes Carmilla possibly the protagonist’s alter ego, imaginary friend, sister, incarnated wild side or reincarnated mother. The film mostly stays in the crumbling castle to concentrate on the two girls … only venturing into the village near the end, to show the gruesome depredations of the vampire (whoever she may be) among the local population. It’s a successful evocation of the approach Euro-horror took in the 1970s rather than simple pastiche, and there are creepy, fresh scenes: a night-long sleepover on a bare mountain, which ends with Lara waking to find a bloody smiley face scrawled on a rock, a midnight swim with cold fingers that might be dumped statues or petrified corpses brushing Lara’s feet. The performances are all pitched slightly high – and Lenartowicz goes over the top as a malign take on the fearless vampire killer – and there’s attention to décor and atmosphere rather than shock, though the last reel (which borrows a lick from Hammer’s Kiss of the Vampire) is eventful and gruesome. Following The Moth Diaries by blurring the roles of vampire and victim, Styria gives Tomlinson (who is excellent) as much to play with as Pietrucha. This gets around the persistent problem that Le Fanu’s heroine, Laura, is a passive doormat who tends to be the dullest part of any film adaptation, even when played by Elsa Martinelli or Madeline Smith. Arty and sometimes too elliptical for its own good – Carmilla draws art film attention as much as commercial horror – Styria is nevertheless an interesting, unusual vampire movie.
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Lindsay Duncan, Jeremy Cooper
UK, Canada 1990
Philip Ridley’s acclaimed tale of childhood, vampires and the prairie is as beautiful and menacing as ever.
Marking its long-overdue return with a handsome 25th anniversary restoration, this oft-overlooked oddity from multimedia artist, playwright and filmmaker Philip Ridley has lost none of its surreal power. Although it disappeared into obscurity after picking up 11 awards during its international film festival run, this welcome re-issue of the cult favourite suggests a healthy revival could be nigh.
A quarter century on, the film looks magnificent (Dick Pope’s exterior photography is exquisite), while tonally it feels as deliriously offbeat and unpredictable as ever, fusing together as it does elements of David Lynch, Guy Maddin and Edward Hopper. Its director described it as a ‘mythical’ look at childhood, and the young Jeremy Cooper anchors the neo-Gothic nightmare effectively as the imaginative and increasingly desperate Seth Dove, whose nearest and dearest are floundering around him in ever-more sinister circumstances.
The adults are a mixed bag of damaged souls. Mum is a gibbering wreck, while Dove’s father is a hopeless, blubbering oddball who buries his head in comic books about vampires. Only Dove’s brother (Viggo Mortensen, in an early screen performance), returning from military service in the Pacific, offers any real sense of hope, even when veering wildly between attentive and caustic. A local English widow, Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan) nicely reflects the boy’s lively imagination and inherent fears, while a mysterious gang of local thugs in a black Cadillac add to the unknown menace. There is clearly foul play at work.
The film oscillates almost brashly between the inexplicable and the overt, while leaving much to question. None of the characters are really adequately explored – they appear to be a motley crew of misfits, left fending for themselves in the glistening prairies of 1950s America – yet there is a world of depravity just beneath the surface of this corn-pickin’ facade.
Even with the current crop of offbeat narratives inching towards mainstream cinema, it’s hard to imagine a film like this being green-lit today. At its core lies a sombre, foreboding tale of neglect and retribution, with little sense of hope as our young protagonist inevitably faces the consequences of his actions (and those around him). The Reflecting Skin is both strikingly bleak and beautiful, near-riveting in its relentless pursuit of the dark and horrific, and a rare and unusual work that deserves its place among similar, better-known fare in the genre.
The re-issue features a remastered print, a director’s commentary, two documentaries about the film, plus a collection of Ridley’s shorts.
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: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Rhys Darby, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer
New Zealand 2014
New Zealand directors and comedians Jemaine Clement (best known for Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi’s vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows has wowed festivals and midnight screenings around the world since it premiered at Sundance earlier this year – and rightly so. Among the tide of low-fi productions based around an amusing (or scary) concept and a couple of improvising actors, this smart, canny and often hilarious comedy truly stands out. Expanding on Clement and Waititi’s 2005 short film, their debut feature observes the lives of a bunch of bloodsucking flatmates who are trying to connect and keep up with the modern world with joyful lunacy and great sympathy for both the living and the undead.
Aged between 183 and 8,000 years, über-dapper Viago (Waititi), medieval ladykiller Vladislav (Clement) and Deacon (Jonny Brugh), a rogue rebel and big fan of the Nazis, are forced to face the fact that, despite continuing worries about sunlight, crucifixes and garlic, the actual crux of the vampire matter nowadays lies primarily with the mundane. As they try to deal with paying the rent, going out clubbing and annoying arguments about the bloody dishes or cleaning the carpet after a messy dinner, things become increasingly complicated. For one, recently turned bloodsucker Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) hasn’t got anything better to do than spreading the news about his transformation around downtown Wellington, which draws unnecessary attention to the residence. And then there’s Petyr (Ben Fransham), the eldest of the biting brood and everybody’s darling, who occupies a coffin in the basement and seems to be entirely free from following the rules and rotas of the (relatively) organised household.
Beneath its insanity and immortal issues, the film has an unashamedly soft core that largely revolves around Viago, who is also the narrator of the story. Bravely dedicated to defusing the tensions in the house, he is not only the good soul of the film, but deeply haunted by a love from the past that once brought him from Europe to New Zealand. And Waititi captures his character brilliantly, walking the fine line between human and brutish consciousness and pitching his admission at just the right level to inspire both empathy and horror.
Boasting believable performances throughout, which ensure that no one is cast as either purely evil or innocent, What We Do in the Shadows manages to make the oldest genre clichés and stalest jokes funny again. At the same time, it is original and inventive enough to generate an irresistibly entertaining vampire romp of sorts, even if things get occasionally monotonous in the mid-section. Nonetheless, poignant comic timing, themes of skewed tolerance and commitment, and the smart blend of farce and sympathy lift this alleged doc-comedy way above the mockumentary pack.
Based on the short story ‘Carmilla’ by: Sheridan Le Fanu
Cast: Tina Romero, Claudio Brook, Susana Kamini, David Silva, Tina French
Electric Sheep is proud to present a rare screening of Alucarda at the amazing Masonic Temple, Andaz Hotel Liverpool Street, London, on Saturday 14 June, as part of the Magic and the Macabre weekend at the East End Film Festival. Acclaimed festival programmer and writer Kier-La Janisse, author of House of Psychotic Women (FAB Press), will introduce the screening.
Having produced Alejandro Jodorowsky’s incendiary first feature Fando y Lis (1968) as well as El topo (1970), Juan López Moctezuma went behind the camera in 1971 to make The Mansion of Madness (released in 1973), which was loosely based on an Edgar Allan Poe story. He followed it up with two vampire stories, Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary, shot in the USA with John Carradine in 1975, and Alucarda in 1978. Like Fernando Méndez and Carlos Enrique Taboada, Moctezuma was one of a handful of well-read Mexican directors who were interested in making horror films infused with cultural references and artistic ambitions. In Mexico, the genre was dominated at the time by populist lucha libre movies such as the Santo series, which pitched heroic costumed wrestlers against monsters, vampires and mummies. However, Chano Urueta’s take on Frankenstein, El monstruo resucitado (1953), and Méndez’s influential El vampiro (1957) had opened the way for a richer vein of horror, and the 50s and 60s were marked by a wave of delirious visions of terror that are still lauded for their visual beauty and atmospheric qualities.
Moctezuma was part of the Panique Theatre, which Jodorowsky had founded in Paris in 1962 with the Spanish playwright Fernando Arrabal (on whose play Fando y Lis was based) and the French artist Roland Topor. The name was a reference to the god Pan, and the movement (or anti-movement, as Arrabal would have it) was defined by a combination of terror and humour. Influenced by Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, Panique embraced disorder, madness and excess, the grotesque and the irrational, to create an anarchic celebration of life. From Artaud they also inherited the interest in a magical and ritualistic kind of theatrical spectacle, which used violent sensory assault to open up new perspectives in the audience.
Moctezuma implemented these ideas in The Mansion of Madness, in which the patients of an insane asylum are allowed to run free as their doctor adopts an Aleister Crowley-influenced approach to their treatment. Set in the similarly confined environment of a convent, Alucarda took the director’s interest in strange cults and rituals further. Alucarda’s birth opens the film, her wretched mother, having been impregnated by the devil, delivering the baby in a crypt surrounded by diabolical, horned, half-goat statues. To protect the newborn from her terrible father, she asks a bizarre-looking gypsy to take her daughter to the convent. Fifteen years later, Justine, a young, orphaned ingénue, arrives at the convent to find herself sharing a room with the raven-haired, black-clad, wild-eyed Alucarda.
Alucarda is clearly out of place in the convent and her holy abode has not been able to suppress the devil in her blood. She draws Justine into her world, taking her to the derelict crypt of her birth where she proposes they take a blood oath, so they can be friends forever, ‘even after death’. The ritual is performed in their room at night, which, this being the 70s, involves both of them being naked as the gargoyle-like gypsy from the opening scene magically appears to make cuts on their breasts from which they drink each other’s blood. They find themselves in the forest, where a ritual performed by witches ends in an orgy. Intercut with this are images of Sister Angélica, who welcomed Justine into the convent, praying intensely until her face becomes bloodied and she levitates, apparently able to conjure up some sort of power that strikes down the gypsy witch leading the ceremony.
The clear lesbian undertones of the film come from Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’, on which Alucarda is very loosely based (the other literary reference is obviously Bram Stoker’s Dracula), but Moctezuma and his team of writers have made the story their own. The friendship between Alucarda and Justine has the devouring intensity of first love, but in the enclosed, all-female convent/hothouse, the girls’ repressed desires translate into demonic possession. The figure of Sister Angélica adds an interesting twist, turning the story into a spiritual lesbian love triangle. Her attachment to Justine is as dubiously excessive as Alucarda’s and is sublimated into a frighteningly exalted religious practice. The love triangle is complicated by Alucarda’s satanic nature and Sister Angélica’s self-sacrificial (‘angelic’) Christian figure, meaning that there is a lot more at stake than Justine’s affection: demonic Alucarda and holy Sister Angélica are battling over nothing less than Justine’s soul (the character is named after Sade’s unfortunate heroine, whose virtue is repeatedly assaulted by one group of perverted tormentors after another).
Alucarda has been seen as anticlerical, yet the depiction of religion comes across as very ambivalent, confused even. For a start, the convent is a very unusual religious edifice, a womb-like cave carved inside the rock. The nuns are dressed in off-white, red-stained robes and tight-fitting bonnets that make them look like mummies. Initially, there are intimations that Alucarda may be an adept of a natural religion, a religion of life opposed to the Catholic worship of death. The witches’ orgy contrasts with a later display of self-flagellation among the half-naked nuns and priests. An early, sumptuously sinister, almost painterly sermon takes place against the backdrop of a multitude of crucified Christs, creating an oppressive, macabre atmosphere. This is echoed in a later scene where Alucarda and Justine, naked, are tied to crosses for an exorcism ceremony. The dark, rich colours, the high camera angle and the cruelty of the ritual again conjure a memorable vision of religious maleficence.
And yet, Dr Oszek, who interrupts the exorcism and calls the officiating priest barbaric, is soon confronted with a gruesome supernatural phenomenon that destroys his scientific certainties and validates the priest’s beliefs. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, an undead (and again naked) Justine comes out of a blood-filled coffin to attack the devoted Sister Angélica. Alucarda proves a worthy daughter to her father when she unleashes hell upon the convent, stopped only by the body of the Christic Sister Angélica carried cross-like by the other nuns. All in all, you could say the Christian characters come out of this looking fairly reasonable in the circumstances.
The truth is that Moctezuma seems much more interested in extreme rituals of all kinds than in putting across an anticlerical message. The devil here appears in the form of Pan, as seen in the statues in the crypt and later in the goat’s head that presides over the orgiastic celebration in the forest, which clearly ties in with the ideas underlying Panique Theatre. The same actor, Claudio Brook (a Buñuel regular), plays both Dr Oszek and the gypsy, so that reason’s representative is also our mischievous guide into the occult and spiritual world, further undermining the rational standpoint. The many rituals, whether Christian or satanic, the orgy and the flagellation, the blood oath and the exorcism, are all marked by excess and strangeness, violence and beauty. The contrast between the beliefs that inform them is not what matters here; rather, the overall effect of their juxtaposition as grotesque and startling spectacles may well be designed to shock the audience into a new mode of perception.
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.
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Caleb Landry Jones, Sam Riley
UK, USA, Ireland 2012
Eighteen years after filming Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, Neil Jordan has returned to undead mythology with another adaptation, this time of a play by Moira Buffini. Eschewing the usual clichés, Byzantium, set in a rundown seaside town, is a moody, melancholy film that focuses on the complex relationship between a mother and a daughter who became vampires two centuries earlier.
Saoirse Ronan is spellbinding as eternal teenager Eleanor, who seems condemned to be a sad, isolated outsider forever, while Gemma Arterton plays her more earthly, busty, gutsy mother Clara, with much vim and vigour (sometimes a tad too much). After a violent incident, Clara and Eleanor are forced to leave their tower-block apartment and move to an unnamed coastal town. Posing as sisters, they meet the meek and lonely Noel, who invites them to move into the dilapidated guesthouse he owns, the ironically named Byzantium. But tensions develop between Clara, who sets up to provide for her daughter and herself as only she knows how, and Eleanor, who is tired of hiding and yearns to share her secret, even more so after befriending sick teenager Frank (Caleb Landry Jones). As mysterious black-clad men try to track mother and daughter down, the conflict between them only increases the danger of their situation.
The focus on the mother/daughter dynamic provides an original, inventive angle on the vampire myth. There is great love between the two, but they have come to the heartbreaking moment when the daughter has grown up and is pulling away from her mother. Eleanor has become critical of her mother’s choices, but Clara will still ruthlessly do anything it takes to protect her daughter, as she’s always done. Their eternally youthful appearances add a strange twist that heightens the poignancy of a familiar situation. And although Gemma Arterton is not capable of the same emotional weight and expressiveness as Saoirse Ronan, her shortcomings may actually work well to convey the clumsy love of a woman forced into motherhood at too young an age.
Byzantium was the opening night film at this year’s Sci-Fi-London (30 April – 6 May 2013). Check out the full programme here.
There is also a little feminist touch to this vampire story: Carla is up against a male-dominated society (doubly so, both the society of her time, as well as a secret brotherhood), where her class and gender put her at a disadvantage. But with tremendous energy and spirited cheekiness, she fights and claws things back from the men who have maltreated her, raising herself and her daughter to a unique – and forbidden – position.
The film alternates between modern times and flashbacks to their past, contrasting today’s burnt-out pier, seedy guest house and grey skies with lush, candle-lit interiors, stunning coastlines and dark crypts. The vampiric transformation takes place on a sinister rocky island where a waterfall turns blood red once the change has been effected. It is a stylish, atmospheric film, with gorgeous cinematography and true visual flair, although it’s not without flaws. Gemma Arterton’s performance is patchy, while Caleb Landry Jones is totally overplayed. There are some jarring tone shifts and the pace does not always feel fully controlled, with the final showdown, most notably, ending too quickly. Despite these gripes, however, Byzantium is a thoroughly enjoyable, beautifully shot vampire film with a beating heart.
Cast: Constantin Barbulescu, Camelia Maxim, Catalin Paraschiv
Dark business is afoot in an isolated Romanian village. There are inept executions in the dead of night, and the whole town seems to be in on something. All in all it’s a bad time for faint-hearted local boy Vlad (Catalin Paraschiv) to return from Italy and start poking his nose into a local drunkard’s death. The local priest (Vlad’s father) is involved somehow. The local cop seems more concerned with his marijuana supply. His grandfather is clearly barking. Vlad appears to be on his own, but any conspiracy is going to be impossible to maintain if the bodies refuse to stay buried….
Faye Jackson’s winningly offbeat vampire/zombie picture is a welcome addition to the genre, functioning more as a dry-witted magic realist mystery than a conventional horror film. The strigoi are quite chatty for the undead and seem to have a hard time grasping the ramifications of their state. They are florid of face and incessantly hungry, and the cause of some consternation among the villagers, who quibble about folklore and seem more concerned that the inconvenient buggers are upsetting the boat than anything else. Jackson foregrounds the small-town politics and the inability of anybody to get to grips with the problems that rise out of the communist past, inherited through land and blood.
Anybody demanding the kick-ass kung fu or CGI splatter scenes that have dominated the vampire flick over the last decade or so will be disappointed. But Strigoi is more interesting than all that guff, with a tone closer to Whisky Galore! than The Wicker Man. It keeps you on the back foot with eccentric characters and cat-and-mouse dialogue, odd visual flourishes and strange situations. As when a terrified woman spends the whole night feeding a ravenous strigoi all the food in the house to stop the creature from supping on her, a scene that’s weird and funny and domestic at the same time, and typical of a film that’s playing a different game to the one you might expect. It’s a UK/Romanian co-production in English, and the DVD comes with a Faye Jackson short, Lump, a queasy little medical tale. Well worth a look.
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