(c) Universal Studios
I’d practically given up hope of seeing an interesting vampire film again. This was partly due to the malign influence of those Blade and Underworld movies, which were full of cartoon violence and computer-generated imagery and reduced this once-majestic and haunting sub-genre of the horror film to the level of a computer game. And it was partly due to another malign influence, that of the Twilight movies, where vampirism became a bland metaphor for the travails and temptations faced by teenagers as they approach adulthood. From Count Dracula to a bunch of mopey American teenagers. What an ignominious fall from grace.
And yet recently I happened to view three – yes, three – movies on DVD, Neil Jordan’s Byzantium (2013), Jonathon Glazer’s Under the Skin and Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (both 2014), which featured vampires and tried, mostly successfully, to do things with them that were more interesting than having Wesley Snipes or Kate Beckingsdale crack open heads or having Robert Pattinson and Kirsten Stewart simper love-struck at one another.
Am I going to tell you what I thought of them? Of course I am. (Incidentally, for this entry I have to post a warning: PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD!)
(c) Studio Canal
Neil Jordan’s Byzantium stars Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan as mother-and-daughter vampires on the run from other, malevolent vampires, who hide out in a rundown English seaside resort – much of it was filmed in Hastings on the Sussex coast. It got some frosty reviews on its release. Certain snooty mainstream critics who regard all horror films as being ridiculous and / or revolting were disdainful of it. Also, certain online horror-fan critics pooh-poohed it for being a bit uneventful, stuffy and pretentious. Which is a pity because I found it impressive. It’s certainly Jordan’s best movie for a while and is very welcome after The Brave One, the misfire of a vigilante movie that he made with Jodie Foster in 2007 – Neil is obviously a lot better with vampires than he is with vigilantes. He and his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt do great things with the film’s seaside setting and, despite the place’s decrepitude, it looks admirably dream-like and phantasmagorical. And incidentally, Byzantium breaks the first rule of Neil Jordan movies, which is if Stephen Rea isn’t in it, it’s no good. Rea isn’t in this one but it is good.
And Jordan gets good performances from Arterton and Ronan: the former playing the hardboiled mother vampire who behaves as ruthlessly and murderously as she thinks necessary to ensure her and her offspring’s safety; and the latter playing the less jaded and more humane daughter who tries to restrict her blood-drinking to victims who want to die. (At the movie’s start, we see a sick old man learning what she really is and inviting her to finish him off.)
Once upon a time, vampire literature and cinema had reactionary and sexist tendencies. Women would be infected by vampire-bites and become sensual, libidinous creatures freed from the restraints of the staid Christian society around them; but then, inevitably, they’d be punished and neutralised by staid Christian men who’d drive alarmingly phallic-looking stakes into their bodies. (Bram Stoker’s original Dracula novel helped set the template.) Because its main characters are female, Byzantium predictably has a revisionist and feminist take on this. At one point we even see Arterton and Ronan sitting in front of the TV and watching, without much enthusiasm, the famous Spanish-Inquisition-like scene in the 1966 movie Dracula, Prince of Darkness wherein a pointy-toothed Barbara Shelley is held down and staked by a group of monks.
But this is actually a red herring. The male-chauvinistic villains persecuting our two heroines in Byzantium aren’t vampire-hunting mortals but other vampires. We gradually learn that the film’s vampire society is a Freemason-like one where weird initiation rituals take place in a temple on an uncharted island. (For an island that’s so remote and mysterious, I have to say that nobody seems to have any trouble finding it. Throughout the film it receives a stream of visitors, all keen to change into vampires.) This society’s membership is jealously guarded and exclusively male – and, like the Freemasons, they seem to have an unhealthy influence over the police force. So they aren’t best pleased when a pair of upstart females sneak in when nobody’s looking and join their immortal, blood-drinking club.
While Arterton and Ronan potter around modern-day Hastings – Arterton taking over a disused hotel, the Byzantium of the title, and Ronan getting involved with a sickly youth played by Caled Landry Jones (Banshee in the first X-Men prequel) – there are multiple flashbacks to the time of the Napoleonic Wars showing how they became vampires and earned the other vampires’ wrath. Arterton was originally a young innocent who ended up as a prostitute after being used and abused by a nasty naval officer, played by Johnny Lee Miller, who essays the same sort of arrogant prick he essayed in Trainspotting. Later, one of Miller’s friends and comrades who was supposed to have died in battle, a kinder character played by Sam Riley, reappeared and offered Miller the secret of eternal life and youth, i.e. vampirism. But Arterton overheard them, and not only did she steal the vampires’ secret but she later shared it with her born-out-of-wedlock daughter.
And if the film has a problem, it’s the amount of backstory involved. There’s a lot of it and sometimes it makes the narrative a little tangled and cumbersome.
(c) Film 4 / BFI
Backstory is not a problem with Under the Skin, in which scriptwriters Walter Campbell and Jonathon Glazer (also the director) are impressively determined not to tell, only to show. It features an unnamed and, it becomes clear, artificial woman played by Scarlett Johansson who drives a big white van around Glasgow, picking up men with the promise of sex back at her place. But when they get back to her place… Well, things don’t end well for those lustful blokes. Johannsson functions as bait, luring them there so that a mysterious alien force can use them for protein.
Also in the frame are some leather-clad, motorbike-riding alien minders. At first, we think there’s just one of them, but later it becomes apparent there are several. They clean away traces of Johannsson’s victims, tidy up loose ends and generally display Terminator-type levels of ruthless efficiency.
And that’s all the information we get. It’s enough to get the plot moving, which picks up momentum when the blank, machine-like Johannsson nets a victim who’s disfigured by neurofibromatosis. His sad plight causes something unexpected – a stirring of conscience inside her. Thereafter, she rebels against her programming, abandons her mission and flees into the Scottish Highlands with those alien-motorbike-terminators in pursuit. But it transpires that the biggest threat to her isn’t her former alien colleagues but the human males who’d previously been her prey. Now that she’s no longer doing what she was programmed to do, she’s become confused and defenceless; and those men have suddenly become predators.
Once Johannsson goes on the run, she encounters things that seemingly encourage her to become less alien and more human: a slice of Black Forest gateau in a café (which she immediately spews up, not being designed to eat food); a TV clip of Tommy Cooper failing to do a magic trick with a spoon and a jar (“Spoon… jar! Jar… spoon!”); and exposure to Real Gone Kid by Deacon Blue on the radio, which prompts her to tap her fingertips in a human, non-alien way. In fact, if I’d been her, hearing Real Gone Kid by Deacon Blue would’ve persuaded me to give up on becoming human and return to being an alien killing machine – but maybe she hadn’t watched TV during the past year and hadn’t been driven mad by those Boots-the-chemist adverts that use the song as a jingle.
Obviously, Under the Skin isn’t a traditional vampire movie. But it has similar themes, of sexual attraction and seduction, and of something superhuman sustaining itself by feeding on the merely human, so I’ll classify it as one.
The British film industry has previous form with sci-fi / horror alien vampires, most notably in Tobe Hooper’s barmy 1983 movie Lifeforce, wherein Mathilda May played an extra-terrestrial humanoid parasite who’s brought to earth and spends much of the movie strutting around in a state of nakedness whilst draining the energy out of hapless earthlings. In Under the Skin, Scarlett Johannsson similarly spends a lot of time being nude in the name of art – though I have to say there’s rather more art in Under the Skin than there was in Lifeforce.
I wasn’t entirely impressed by Under the Skin. Although I like how Glazer and Campbell leave it to the audience to work things out, there are times when the storyline’s vagueness seems a convenient way to sidestep problems with logic. The biggest logical failing is a common one in films where aliens arrive on earth and behave in a secretive, low-key (and invariably low-budget) way. The universe is unimaginably vast and so are the distances between solar systems with habitable planets, but despite all the time, energy, technology and effort these aliens must’ve expended in travelling to our planet, they decide to be as furtive as possible when they finally arrive here. And if an alien civilisation went to such lengths to get to earth because they wanted a food source, I very much doubt if they’d be content to send Scarlett Johannsson prowling the streets of Glasgow in a white van, picking up the occasional Ned for them to snack on. Surely they’d be consuming humanity on an industrial scale.
(The premise was treated more believably back in 1980 in the fourth and last of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass TV serials. This had the world’s youth gripped by a mass psychosis, which made them congregate in certain locations, where they were then harvested by deadly energy beams sent from above by unseen aliens.)
Another inconsistency involves the capabilities of Johannsson’s alien-motorbike-minders. Early on, they seem omniscient. They immediately turn up to destroy any last traces of those men whom Johannsson has lured to their doom. But when Johannsson goes AWOL, they seem clueless about where she’s got to and have to organise a search for her. Maybe their alien-hive-mind link with her is sundered the moment that she develops a human conscience. However, the motorbike-aliens still know what’s going on for a good five minutes after she does her first human good deed – for one of them appears dismayingly quickly to sort out the mess created by that. Glazer and Campbell, we suspect, are happy to sacrifice logic whenever it suits their plot.
That said, though, I found much to admire in Under the Skin. Despite the way-out-ness of its subject matter, it has a raw, uncomfortably-realistic feel to it that’s different from most other sci-fi or horror films I’ve seen. This is largely due to Glazer’s unconventional filming methods. The initial scenes where Johannsson encounters her victims often consist of footage, shot with hidden cameras, of her talking to non-thespians, i.e. real, ordinary blokes, while she trundled around Glasgow in her van. Once Glazer and his crew had revealed themselves and explained to these men that no, a miracle hadn’t occurred and someone who looked like Scarlett Johannsson wasn’t really trying to chat them up, but their reactions had been secretly filmed for a movie, they were invited to participate further and do the scenes back at Johannsson’s lair. Meanwhile, for the sequence where Johannsson discovers her human side, Glazer eschewed using an actor wearing prosthetics and employed a genuine neurofibromatosis-sufferer, a non-actor called Adam Pearson.
Incidentally, the film’s atmosphere is complemented by Mica Levi’s excellent music. There are troubling periods where strings seethe like a pit of angry snakes. At other times, during the seduction scenes, a slow, languid but suitably-ominous refrain kicks in. It’s the best musical soundtrack I’ve heard since Clint Mansell’s work on Duncan Jones’s Moon (2009).
And praise is due for Scarlett Johannsson – though I suspect she wondered what she’d got herself into after she’d signed the contract and found herself in Glasgow for the first day of shooting. She’s believable as the gorgeous but doll-like, affable but not-quite-all-there man-bait roaming the city in the film’s first half. She’s talkative in a flat, oddly-direct way, her conversation consisting mostly of questions about her passenger’s personal circumstances (to determine if they’ll be missed once they’re eaten) and of startlingly-open invitations back to her place. She’s equally believable as the confused fugitive later on. The moment she abandons her function and stops man-hunting, her conversational powers seem to desert her and she becomes mute.
(c) Recorded Picture Company / Pandora Film
The vampires in Byzantium kill with a retractable, talon-like, jugular-slashing fingernail, while Johannsson’s killing method in Under the Skin is appropriately weird and alien; so it’s nice in Only Lovers Left Alive, directed by American indie-cinema legend Jim Jarmusch, to see vampires with properly pointy canines lurking at the corners of their mouths. Mind you, we only see these pointy teeth when the vampires are luxuriating, and grinning mindlessly, after they’ve had a heroin-like fix of blood. But they don’t normally use the teeth to procure the blood, by biting people. No, they try to procure it in a more mundane but civilised fashion, which involves slipping bundles of money to a crooked doctor (played by Jeffrey Wright) at the local blood-bank in return for packages of delicious O negative.
And the vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive are an oh-so-civilised bunch. We first see the protagonists, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), in a series of revolving, overhead shots showing them lying languidly on their respective living-room and bedroom floors, one surrounded by vinyl and pieces of musical equipment and the other surrounded by piles of books. Actually, as I seem to spend a lot of my life lying on floors surrounded by music and books, I think I’d make a good Jim-Jarmusch vampire too – unfortunately, I’m not immortal and I sometimes have to work for a living. Apart from making music and reading, these vampires don’t do much else, except for getting off with one another – for Adam and Eve are lovers – and hanging out with similarly-arty fellow-vampires like John Hurt’s Christopher Marlowe, who (surprise!) didn’t really die in 1593 but became a blood-drinking immortal instead.
Needless to say, these vampires take a low view of humanity, regarding them as grubby and stupid creatures and doing their best to avoid them. Apart from Jeffrey Wight, Hiddleston’s only contact with the human masses seems to be a wheeler-dealer (Anton Yelchin, who plays Chekov in the new Star Trek movies), who keeps him supplied with antique guitars. Mind you, this disdain for humanity doesn’t stop the vampires from idolising certain individual members of the species. At one point, Hiddleston, who’s based in Detroit, takes Swinton on a nocturnal drive to show her the house where Jack White used to live; and Hiddleston has stuck to his wall a gallery of pictures showing various humans whom he admires, including Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, Franz Kafka, Buster Keaton, Harpo Marx, William Burroughs, Patti Smith and Keith Richards. (I suppose it’s possible that Jarmusch is implying that these counter-cultural heroes and heroines have become vampires too. Which is quite believable in Keith Richards’ case.)
Their idyllic, secluded existence comes to an end halfway through the movie when Swinton’s vampire kid sister, an immature, irresponsible brat played by Mia Wasikowska, turns up on their doorstep for a visit. In David Cronenberg’s 2014 movie Maps to the Stars, Wasikowska plays someone whose arrival on the scene makes everything go pear-shaped, in a few cases fatally, for the other main characters; and she has a similar effect here.
I certainly wouldn’t say Only Lovers Left Alive is among the best of Jarmusch’s films. It’s a little vexing that a director who’s been famous throughout his career for making unconsciously cool movies should now make a self-consciously cool movie about vampires. In Jarmusch’s earlier films, the characters were losers and / or misfits (often because they belonged to minority cultures in America’s diverse but Anglo-Saxon-controlled melting pot) who remained themselves, stuck to their guns, got on with things and achieved a certain coolness. I’m thinking of, say, Eszter Balint’s Hungarian girl in Stranger than Paradise (1984), Roberto Benigni’s manic Italian in Down by Law (1986), the Elvis-worshipping Japanese kids in Mystery Train (1989), Forest Whitaker’s samurai-obsessed hitman in Ghost Dog (1999) and the Ethiopian neighbour played by Jeffrey Wright (again) in Broken Flowers (2006) who loves detective novels and sends Bill Murray on a quest to find his long-lost son. It now seems a cop-out for Jarmusch to make a movie about vampires, who by their very nature – being immortal, superhuman, elegant, nocturnal and all that – are cool anyway.
That said, the movie has good features. I enjoyed the performances, even the one by Tilda Swinton, who’s normally an actress I respect rather than actually like. There are some sly jokes and I love the idea of Detroit – after all its well-publicised economic and social problems – becoming an ideal spot for vampires to hang out. And as you’d expect from Jarmusch, the music is good. The soundtrack features artists ranging from established American ones (Zola Jesus, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club) to less well-known ones from elsewhere in the world such as Lebanese singer Yasmin Hamdan and Dutch minimalist composer and lute player Josef van Wissem.
There’s nothing by Tom Waits, though, which is odd considering the association he’s had with Jarmusch in the past, in movies like Down by Law, Night on Earth (1991) and Coffee and Cigarettes (2003). But perhaps old Tom is more of a zombie man.