Guest Blog: Author Kim Newman's Top Five Underrated 21st Century Vampire Movies
Titan Books is releasing Kim Newman's Anno Dracula: Johnny Alucard next week on September 17th, and in honor of the occasion the author has provided us with his list of the Top Five Underrated 21st Century Vampire Movies.
There has been so much vampire activity in the cinema lately that it is inevitable that quite a few interesting films have been generally overlooked in the rush to praise Let the Right One In or sneer at Twilight. Here are five relatively recent pictures you may have missed that are well worth seeking out.
Perfect Creature (2006)
Alternate world vampire stories may be nothing new in literature, but this New Zealand film from writer-director Glenn Standring (The Irrefutable Truth About Demons) stands as a modest first for the movies, even if it owes a little to Brian Stableford’s The Empire of Fear. The premise, set up by a caption, is that vampires were created three hundred years ago by alchemical genetic engineering. In the world of the film, ‘the Brotherhood’ co-exist with regular humanity as a pacifist church (‘the Church of the Holy and Noble Gnostic Brothers’), with human devotees weekly giving blood tributes to sustain the apparently saintly Brothers. Though their fangs are obviously adapted for biting, no Brother has ever killed a human being. How this history diverges from our own is suggested when Augustus (Stuart Wilson), head of the order, muses that ‘in another world’ the Brothers might have become monstrous predators and been hunted to extinction.
Brother scientist Edgar (a buff Leo Gregory) is infected with an uncontrollable bloodlust while conducting experiments the Brotherhood hope will ensure more of their kind are born. In effect, he becomes the first true vampire, a sadistic serial killer who engages his heroic literal brother Silus (Dougray Scott) in a nasty game of one-upmanship and fixates on Lilly (Saffron Burrows), a human police officer assigned to the murder case. As in the Stableford novel, the presence of the powerful Brotherhood has inhibited scientific and social growth in ways no one within the film notices but which are all too apparent to us. Airships, a frequent signifier of alternate worlds (cf: that "Doctor Who" Cybermen two-parter), hover over a smoggy Antipodean city in an alternate present, with street urchins (and a rogue called Sykes) in a Victorian-looking slum area, 1930s-look police cars among pony-and-trap contrivances, traditional British bobby’s helmets, circular television sets, bakelite earphones for walkman devices, WWII-style guns and gas-masks, etc. It’s easy to see why so few films even attempt settings like this: every prop and costume and throwaway line of dialogue has to be crafted to reflect a world that is not our own. The three lead performances are good, but the characters remain a little too enigmatic or archetypal to be fully engaging, and quite a bit of the action or mystery is rote. Edgar has good, creepy moments in his ‘inescapable’ observation cell, preparing for a genocidal escape, but in recent years we’ve seen rather too many super-vampires leaping around, climbing through air vents and doing slo-mo kung fu. The finale feels like a deleted ending you’d find as a DVD extra, replaced by something more spectacular or conclusive: the villain goes down too easily (especially since he’s been tagged as ‘the first Brother who might actually die’) and the sequel-slingshot birth of the first female vampire (rather than the semi-expected transformation of the bitten Lilly) comes from and goes nowhere. Despite this evidence of hesitation or compromise, the world of the film is interesting and it’s a shame that Standring didn’t get to explore it further.
Wir sind die Nacht (We Are the Night) (2010)
A chic German vampire movie which basically pitches a protagonist modelled on Lisbeth Salander – pierced ragamuffin pickpocket Lena Bach (Karoline Herfurth) – into a scenario reminiscent of Daughters of Darkness, The Hunger or Near Dark (it’s one of those never-uses-the-v-word films). It opens on a luxury jet with three vampire women – queenpin Louise (Nina Hoss), silent film era Charlotte (Jennifer Ulrich) and thirty-seven-year-old club kid Nora (Anna Fischer) – having just slaughtered everyone, down to the last stewardess hiding in the toilet, and stepping out in mid-air. Lena, having met cute with decent cop Tom (Max Riemelt), gets bitten by Louise, who has been looking to replace the woman who turned her, and transforms not only into a vampire but a cleaned-up vixen in an evening dress (her tattoos seep off and her piercings heal when she changes, a nice touch).
The plot is familiar, as Lena enjoys but quickly becomes disenchanted with the nightlife and Louise loses all her followers, but it’s well-played, with a lot of nice background detail (Charlotte is edited into Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse) and black humour (when upbraided for smoking in a restaurant, a vampire elegantly stubs her holdered cigarette out on her own eye), and delivers good sexy horror (a flirtation which ends with death as two security guards find the women using a mall pool by night, and blood in the water shows how quickly it’s got out of hand), some emotional content (Charlotte visits her aged, dying daughter in a rest home and sings a lullaby – which makes her melancholy enough to expose herself to the sun) and action (the leads face off in a vertical fight on the side of a building). Here, only female vampires survive, having made arrogant male vampires extinct, but only Louise is strictly a lesbian, which makes her attempts to recreate the relationship she once had difficult. Co-written by Jan Berger (of Die Tur/The Door) and director Dennis Gansel (of Die Welle/The Wave).
An Anglo-Romanian co-production, shot in (accented) English in Romnia with a local cast - written and directed by Faye Jackson. It's a post-Ceausescu vampire movie, with more small-town black comedy than horror, melding seldom-seen lore with the weight of Romania's checkered 20th Century history and a very Eastern European cynicism about petty officials and grasping ordinary folks. It begins with Constantin and Iliana Tirescu (Constantin Barbalescu, Roxana Gutmann), a pair of small-town Ceausescus, set on by a righteous but self-interested mob and summarily executed for a murder they may or may not be guilty of ... and then follows Vlad Cozma (Catalin Paraschiv), a young man who quit his medical studies because of squeamishness, as he shows up unannounced after a spell working in Italy, quitting a chicken fast food job because of another kind of fastidiousness, to find a wake in progress for an obnoxious old peasant with strangulation marks on his neck whose death has been ruled accidental by a death certificate he is supposed to have signed. The murdered Tirescus have returned as flushed-face strigoi, Iliana invading a peasant home and eating everything prepared for the wake, Constantin in his mansion trying to keep hold of what he gained in life. There's chicanery about land deeds, with the chaos of World War II and the communist period still a bother as proud but mendacious old peasants cling to their family turf even if they might have sold it off for a quick profit one or more times. Vlad finds bite-marks, and realises his grandfather (Rudi Rosenfeld) is a living strigoi who has taken to leeching off him ('it's my bood,' he claims, 'I gave it to you').
It's a shaggy dog tale of pervasive corruption, with each of the vampire-killing mob shown up as crooked - the priest (Dan Popa) is the most devious of all, and the mayor (Zane Jarcu) not only wants his predecessor murdered but hopes to steal his flash car. Everyone keeps nagging Vlad to perform extreme vampire-killing, cutting out and burning hearts, but they also try to bury him alive on the offchance that he might be strigoi. 'You were strigoi before you were strigoi,' Vlad tells the obvious villain, but the implication of the film is that everyone is strigoi, and the worst are the ones who blame everyone else - the grandfather has a great speech about his part as a kicked-about victim in Romanian history - and whine when anyone looks at them askance. It has a rough-hewn look, with a few well-realised gore effects, and the performances, down to every bit-part, are full of distinctive, oddly eccentric touches.
Temptation (Black Tower Temptation) (2009)
A London-set vampire movie, along predictable lines but made with some low-budget gloss, nice locations, reasonable performances (mostly by good-looking women in fetish lingerie) and a busy orchestral score (John Koutselinis). Isabel Burrowes (Caroline Haines), a ladette temporarily pissed off with her suit boyfriend Simon (Alexander D’Andrea), gets drunk with her girlfriends from work and is pulled out of the gutter by a minicab-driving rapist (Jim Ford) who is battering her in an alley (‘I love it when they bleed’) when he’s pulled off and killed by a stiletto heel to the throat by Aurelie (Rachel Waters), a statuesque French redhead (aptly pronounced ‘orally’) who answers Isabel’s plea for help by biting her in the neck and dosing her with her own blood. The next day, Isabel dimly remembers the assault but nothing else – and starts suffering mood swings, urges, etc., as she turns. Meanwhile, accented, corseted Aurelie – who has been attracted to Isabel because she looks like Margot, the now-dead vampire who turned her in a cheap historical flashback with pompadour wigs – sits about in a Goth hang-out (‘some old abandoned factory’) bossing about a bunch of leggy, underwear-clad, pouting vixens (Laura Lagercrantz, Reena Lalbihari, Ellie Jeffreys, Alyona Kazarova) who are given to prowling for victims in an underlit strip-club.
In a spin on the lesbian vampire schtick, these female vampires predate on obnoxious men – mostly drunken pick-ups, complaining strip-club patrons or rapists – but have relationships only among themselves (hence, the old-fashioned Imhotep/Blacula/She attempt-to-seduce-the-reincarnation-of-a-lost-love plot). It’s overheated, though it would be hard to think of any other way of doing this story – with rumbling thunder and snarling on the soundtrack, night-time views of the Pickle and Tower Bridge, intercuttings of vampirism with dour striptease, flash-montage horrible-bits-so-far recaps every few scenes and little humour. These vampires move very swiftly in a distinctive effect, but have 1970s style big teeth. Written by Julianne White; directed by Catherine Taylor; photographed by Carolina Costa – the female creatives still put in plenty of Goth burlesque stuff, though there is an interesting emphasis on making men the victims of violent, sexualised assault.
Swiss photographer Alex (Yannick Rosset) and his Romanian-born girlfriend Livia (Jasna Kohoutova) are on a trip to Sighisoara when Alex is knocked down by a car while crossing the street - as it turns out, in guilt-making fashion late in the day, thanks to a minor prank Livia was playing. In hospital, he receives a blood transfusion... and is worried by a news story about contaminated blood in the Romanian health service illustrated by a cartoon Dracula (though this only subliminally evokes the Ceausescu regime, when AIDS was spread throughout the country this way). Back home, Alex works on an exhibition - which his mother (Catriona MacColl) notes is being held in the bad part of town. Mostly shot in Neuchatel, Switzerland, the bad part of town has to be represented by Belgian locations and the thugs who gather there seem to represent an imaginary Swiss criminal element.
Alex has symptoms which suggest he thinks he is turning into a vampire - he sees himself in the mirror with white-irised eyes and fangs and he becomes sensitive to daylight, taping up bin-liners over the windows (he’s able to tell his mother it’s for a photo-shoot), and sick after eating food with garlic. Livia calls him on his fantasies by slashing her arm and giving him a beaker of blood, which does revitalise him... they experiment with animal blood and raw meat, that does little for him, and further donations, but this palls. At the opening of his exhibition, Alex has a minor meltdown - in a striking moment, all his pictures seem to show him as a vampire - and is attacked by thugs in the street, taking a beating which brings out his savagery. After that, he takes to walking into dangerous situations and killing anyone who attacks him.
As Alex becomes more and more a vampire, the film switches its attention to Livia, who - when Alex is killed by a thug who simply shoots him in the head - injects herself with Alex’s blood and herself transforms, going after the undercharacterised gang in a well-staged martial arts fight (it’s been established that she’s into kickboxing, which gives her skills in addition to vampire attributes that Alex lacks), before remembering her tiny guilt - which is nicely complex, and due to Alex being mildly patronising about her homeland and jealous when she talks about him in Romanian with a waiter - and committing the usual vampire suicide, exposing herself to the sun. Writer-director Olivier Beguin, who made the Western horror short Dead Bones, does well with limited resources, backed by two strong lead performances, and gives the film a distinctive look.
Newman's novel depicts an alternate fictional history where the heroes of Bram Stoker’s classic novel failed to defeat Dracula. Beginning in the 1970s on the set of Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula and concluding in the 1990s, Johnny Alucard explores a vampire overrun Hollywood, filled with a mix of real life personalities and iconic characters from film and literature.
Anno Dracula: Johnny Alucard Synopsis:
Kim Newman returns to one of the great bestselling vampire tales of the modern era. Considered alongside I Am Legend and Interview with the Vampire as one of the stand-out vampire stories of the last century - this brand-new novel is the first in over a decade from the remarkable and influential Anno Dracula series.
Newman’s dark and impish tale begins with a single question: What if Dracula had survived his encounters with Bram Stoker’s Dr. John Seward and enslaved Victorian England?
Fallen from grace and driven from the British Empire in previous installments, Dracula seems long gone. A relic of the past. Yet, when vampire boy Johnny Alucard descends upon America, stalking the streets of New York and Hollywood, haunting the lives of the rich and famous, from Sid and Nancy to Andy Warhol, Orson Welles, and Francis Ford Coppola, sinking his fangs ever deeper into the zeitgeist of 1980s America, it seems the past might not be dead after all.
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