I love vampires. I always have. They have such a rich mythology that exists across various cultures and time. It is no surprise that they have a similar long and fruitful history in the realm of cinema as well. From Nosferatu's mutant menace to the ubiquity of hammer films in the 60s and 70s to Udo Kier invading every vampire film possible in the 90s, vamps are inbedded in our cultural mindset as a timeless creature of interest.
Recently we have seen a strong resurgence of vampire popularity thanks to one particular series that has spawned countless imitators and a lucrative film franchise. This is all well and good except that this modern age is CASTRATING these creatures,(for the focused out there I understand that Eli was ultimately a castrated boy in Let The Right One In, but that's besides the point.) This is a column about films so I will try to keep my points centered on the various films mentioned here rather than any myriad of teenie books currently available.
I have no quarrel with anyone attempting to put their own spin on an established mythology or for anyone wanting to turn the genre on its head completely. In fact I respect those able to do so because often times the results yield classic cinema or at least intriguing and new endeavors. When you begin to strip away the essence of what originally made your subject cool or interesting is what I consider a failure. So vampires in the sun is fine by me....in fact I think it opens up a lot of doors to create more horror out of the daytime, but when your vampires sparkle in the sunlight you've just killed any sense of danger or fear you might have had. Not that vamps need to be "evil" but they should have a sense of mystery and intrigue about them. Sparkling, playing baseball and suffering from teen angst are poor interpretations of such a classic creature. Look at the angst that Kirsten Dunst showed in Interview...much more intriguing and engaging that anything this new batch of vamps are capable of doing. Oh yah and to top it off as FILMS they are horrible riddled with poor acting muted filters and generic scripts.
I'm going to stop there for now. This article is not meant to be a critique of the aforementioned films, rather I mean to offer up some alternatives. Again these are all contemporary choices much like our lovelorn vampire, and each of these films takes a different spin on the vampire mythology in order to create a new history. I'm not going to sit here and argue that these represent the best cinema has to offer, rather I mean to offer up alternatives that are creative and entertaining takes on vampires without having to appeal to the lcd crowd.
The first film I want to look at is Nightwatch from Timur Bekmambetov. I originally bought this as a Russian import DVD while I was in college, one of those films I would show off to my friends who could get past the convoluted plot and subtitles and find something exceedingly cool. I must've watched this half a dozen times at least and always found it a bit confusing but intriguing nonetheless, so when I revisited it for this article I was surprised at how easy it was to follow. I've come to the conclusion that even though I bought my American copy a few years I must've never put that version in the dvd player. So suffice it to say I thoroughly enjoyed it and the story presented itself in such a new way that I was rediscovering how rich the mythology in this world is. Now that's not to say the film doesn't warrant multiple viewings or that this is storytelling at its best. Those of you who have seen Wanted understand that Timur works much better with image and action than story. The movie moves along but still feels clunky at points with some scenes feeling more than a little contrived...pretty much everything with the big bad until the end for instance.
So the movie essentially tells the epic tale of dark and light fighting an eternal battle that is on an extended pause button thanks to a truce between the heads of the two factions. The truce dictates that no member of light or dark may influence "others" directly and that all "others" must choose their side willingly, and each side has their own police force to monitor this the nightwatch and the daywatch. Others are supernatural beings such as vampires, seers, sorcerers, or shapeshifters all living in modern day Russia. Prophecy tells of an other that will start the war again and whichever side they choose will be the victor...this is the story that is told before us.
Like I said convoluted plot and there is a lot going on, but it is the attention to detail that is really amazing here. Like the consant use of light as a weapon by our heroes whether it be a flashlight or a fluorescent tube wielded like a light saber. But I was talking about vampires right?...so vampires in this world are dark others and relatively unimportant. The example we see in the movie have blue collar jobs and are more or less at the mercy of the Nightwatch. For instance if they want to even feed on humans they have to apply for a license and get granted permission before they may feed otherwise they face termination. Anton is a “seer” for the Nightwatch who happens to live next to some vampires who he has a relatively civil relationship with. In fact they even help him procure some blood. For a light other when they devour blood it helps them track vampires at the result of feeling more than a little sick.
Anton is the main character of the film, he is a member of the Nightwatch in charge of keeping an eye on dark others. In the beginning there is a great sequence where we learn that in order to find dark vampires it helps to ingest some blood. Seeing his reactions to it paint a nice dichotomy between the two and this sets up the differences between the two sides well.
I'm not going to go much deeper into film analysis but I will say this. The films is an entertaining epic tale full of supernatural entities that at first glance is just a chance to tell a cool story with some nice set pieces. After a few viewings though, you can begin to see that there is a lot more going on beneath the surface. You can begin to se how manipulative the darkside is as well as how controlling the light side can be. The big bad's speech at the end reveals that the lightside is just as bad as the dark with their lies and oppression. So those of you that enjoy the struggle between different factions of vamps or the fight between the shirts and skins in your favorite young adult series I urge you to check this out. The fight scenes here are much more original and the story backs it up better than any diamond skinned vamp could do.
The next film I want to offer up is Daybreakers from The Spierig Brothers. This Australian team of siblings tackled zombies with their first feature Undead and with their second film they take on zombies much more intelligent cousin the vampire. Here the brothers start with such an awesome hook and really come through with a great story. It is sometime in the future and vampires have taken over the world. The human race is scarce to say the least and there is an epidemic of hunger facing this new society of vamps
Ethan Hawke is a scientist dedicated to finding an alternate source of blood not only to save his race of vampires, but also because he refuses to drink human blood. The story follows him as he discovers a cure for vampirism one that not all members of the society are happy about. Along his travels he runs into a corrupt CEO, his nationalist brother, and willem dafoe as an ex vamp who holds the secret to the cure.
Again it’s the details that elevate this movie above your standard vampire fare. The premise is cool but could have easily fallen short if not for the fully realized world in which the story takes place. They have completely changed society to cater to vampires, from specially designed cars that allow day travel, to tunnel systems that allow them to walk the "streets" during the day. I personally love the repetition of shots around a coffee shop that shows the ever dwindling supply of blood and the effect it has on the vamps. At the beginning of thr film it still had around 25% blood the levels are down to 5% and we see the effect this has on the population as they become increasingly frustrated and dangerous. In this world a lack of blood causes vampires to become batlike and feral. Like any other society facing a lack of necessity it is the rich that continues to survive while the lower class is forced to struggle and starve. By the end we see that even in the world of vampires class struggles still exist and no matter what people/vampires are willing to do anything to protect themselves in days of desperation.
The last film I want to mention is Thirst from Chan-wook Park. This is by far the best film here and earned a place in my top ten for 2009. A priest decides to take part in medical experiments in order to find a cure for a disease that resembles leprosy. While at the medical center he receives blood transfusions and one day he awakes to find himself completely cured of the disease and is heralded as a miracle worker upon his return. He soon finds out that something has changed inside him as he has an ever growing hunger for blood, invulnerability and increasing feelings of lust. The film really only takes place in a handful of settings, the medical center in the beginning, the church with his mentor, a hospital, and his apartment, and it is amazing all the he accomplishes with such a confined space.
Lets start with the films treatment of vampires. This film sticks closest to the standard vampire attributes, he is super strong, vulnerable to sunlight, blood heals him and is actually the only thing that keeps the disease at bay, and he is constantly conflicted his humanity constantly fighting against the imposing power and evils of vampirism. Having a priest as a vampire is a bit on the nose for a commentary on faith but it works and he never tries to oversell it. Rather giving us a study of humanity as sin tries to tempt it. We see the effects it has on the priest as he gives in to temptation throughout the film, while he struggles to maintain some semblance of humanity and we also see what happens when one gives themselves completely over to sin as his girlfriend embraces her new life as a vampire.
Anytime clergy is corrupted on film there us sure to be complaints, but again I feel Park has such a confident hand that he pulls it off without directly damning themThe film never comes off as a commentary against religion, in fact it would seem that faith is the only thing that saves our "hero." He is the only character that seems to have a moral center even as he commits adultery, murder and countless acts of fornication. We see guilt grow inside him eating away at him while the vampire inside yearns for more destruction and sex.
Towards the end of the movie the two vampires create a white space in their home. Space in relation to characters is always an interesting tool and we see here how quickly the white space becomes destroyed by putting people in it. Within minutes the space is splattered with blood and forever stained until they decide to paint over it once again. This simple scene has so many layers to it but the clearest explanation is of course the journey that the soul of our priest goes through, beginning as pure and ultimately becoming corrupted by the temptations of life. On another level it represents the power, or naivete if that's more your style, that faith can have in absolving you of all your past indiscretions. One can simply give themselves over and begin anew with a clean soul....but as seen here if one's repentance is false the soul will sure enough be corrupted once more without fail.
Lastly this film's treatment of the forbidden love is handled so much better than in a certain tween series. Their love is dangerous and demented and the girl realizes this. She even asks herself if she has mental problems because she thinks vamp sex is hot, much more of a realistic response than teen angst and crying into pillows.I could keep going on, but I'll stop there so you all can go experience these films for yourself. I hope you enjoy them as a nice alternative to some of the mainstream fodder hollywood is making. I think these three offer some very interesting takes on vampires and provide some great stories. From the epic nightwatch filled with supernatural beings, to Daybreakers in which vampires are the heir to our society and we live as food for them, to Thirst which shows the struggles of a normal man coping with his newfound desires and powers. I did not mention Let The Right One In or Let Me In, but both of those offer great vampire stories with the former being on my top 10 for 2009 as well...beating Thirst. Let Me In is an interesting remake, while it seems like he has copied a lot of the shots which he has Reeves has imbued the movie with more o a horror sensibility. To my surprise he pulls it off masterfully, still nowhere near as good as the swedish film, it is a film worth checking out and chloe grace moretz cements herself as an amazing child actress.
One last thought: If Zack Snyder can actually pull off Sucker Punch it could be the best geek porn in awhile, but he seems inconsistent as a filmmaker.