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Academia n’ Shit: Sirkústjaldið: Movie Reviews: Stockfish Film Festival

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

As you may or may not know, one of the reasons I’m not blogging as much or in such depth is that I’m back in Higher Education as a mature student doing Film Studies at the University of Iceland. Apart from the language barrier, such as the fact that I have almost no god damn idea what many of the lectures and discussions are about, I’m actually having a whale of a time (all the reading material is in English. fuk yeah!). Pretty much every moment is of the sensation of being a big, lumbering, bearded sponge trying to soak up as much theory and practice on culture as I can get my hands on, while also haranguing my teachers with numerous off-topic statements and sending in laborious epics for my final essays. I’m sure they love me really!

I’ve also been asked to contribute where I can towards Sirkustjaldið, the website and journal portal to the university’s Arts and Humanities dept. Of course there are some major teething issues, such as the aforementioned language problem (everything is in Icelandic, which raises the evil specter of translation, and comments such as “what the hell is a Cyclogammatron???”), as well as numerous cultural miscommunication barriers.

But my first piece (of my take on some films from the Stockfish Film Festival that happened in Reykjavik several weeks ago) is now about to be uploaded on site, so to reciprocate, I’m uploading the English version here. Enjoy….

Reality Bites: The Vampire film in an age of Transnational Postmodernism

The recent Stockfish Film Festival in Reykjavik provided two interesting additions to the moribund canon of the Vampire Film

By Bob Cluness

In her book on the cultural history of the Vampire, Our Vampires, Ourselves, Nina Auerbach claims that “Every age embraces the vampire it needs, and gets the vampire it deserves.” Since it was introduced as a folkloric abstract of pure evil in the high-Gothic drama of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the vampire myth, thanks to the mass culture of Literature, Film and TV, has become fully integrated and propagated throughout the public consciousness.

The last few decades however has seen the Vampire become the victim of postmodernism and the capitalist culture of consumption, hollowed out and diluted by a series of dreary, bloated Hollywood and TV adaptations. Today, the vampire is no longer seen as an abject figure of transgression, but as a symbol of capitalist ideology, displaying the models of normative whiteness – young, cool, sexy semi-sociopathic characters with buff bodies and great hair.

As a form of riposte, Jim Jarmusch’s excellent 2013 film, The Only Lovers Left Alive, sought a different avenue to the vampire myth. An exquisitely shot and crafted movie, it starred Tom Hiddlestone and Tilda Swinton as two centuries-old vampires who drift through time like ghosts in their own world. Jarmusch shies away from violence and transgression, instead making his vampires ageless hipster aesthetes whose boredom of been-there-done-that has led to a high amount of self-reflectiveness. Civilised and refined figures who love the fine things in life, they valorise “good” forms of anglicised culture, such as vintage guitars and vinyl records, while sneering and turning their back on the ugly culture of the modern world (It’s worth noting that the only modern cultural figure they respect in the film is Jack White of all people). It’s an old school sensibility that while graceful and poised, occasionally slips into condescending snobbery.

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Transnational Bloodsuckers

It was The Only Lovers Left Alive that came immediately to mind as I watched two films about vampires at the inaugural Stockfish Film Festival that took two different views of the state of the Vampire in modern culture. The first film, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, is a US/Iranian film directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, her feature-length debut. Billed as an “Iranian Vampire Western,” the film is ostensibly set in an Iranian ghost town called “Bad City,” where even though the nodding-dog oil pumps work away day and night, it’s a place of unemployment, inequality and desperation. We see various characters try to do whatever they can to survive: The opening scene show a young man, Arash, lose his classic ’57 Thunderbird car to Sayeed, a drug dealer, due to the debts of his addict father. Meanwhile, we see a woman prostituting herself to make ends meet (with Sayeed as her pimp). But one night Sayeed picks up a mysterious young woman wearing a Chador, and takes her back to his apartment. This young woman however turns out to be a vampire, who immediately kills Sayeed before stalking the streets of Bad City at night, with many of the film’s characters coming under her ghostly spell.

The first thing you immediately notice about the look and “feel” of A Girl Walks Home… is the way it pins its numerous cinematic influences on it sleeve. While being a vampire film, it adds elements of the coming-of-age, neo-noir and western genres. With its lengthy shots, meandering narrative, gritty low life characters and settings, and expressive mise en scene (Alluringly shot in black and white by Lyle Vincent), it also owes a huge debt stylistically to directors such as the aforementioned Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch, as well as numerous European new wave cinema movements.

The other thing you notice about A Girl Walks Home… is how initially un-Iranian it looks as a film. Apart from a few posters and shots of Persian TV, Euro-US cultural signs and symbols pervade nearly every scene, from the character’s clothing (James Dean Americana, French synth-wave fashion), the music (Euro tech-house, post-punk and synth revivals), to the town’s architecture and landscape (anonymous suburban streets, rich mansions, rural-poor trailer parks). If it weren’t for the fact that everyone speaks Persian, you would think that they’ve simply made an American film with Iranian dialogue added for extra coolness.

But if you look past this, then you see that there is more going on in the film than just a mere transplantation/appropriation of Persian exotica onto Americana. The director Amirpour and the actors are all either Iranian born or 2nd generation Iranian-Americans, and like many émigré and diasporaic groups feel the pull between the culture they live in with the historical cultures of their parents, often falling in-between the gaps and becoming something else altogether.

As a result A Girl Walks Home… is like an Iranian translation of Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, as Amirpour and the film’s actors take this clash of east and west and project a double consciousness onto their characters. They may look, dress and act western, but they still retain a sense Persian identity, a cultural bilingualism that offers up something new and interesting. These clashes of cultures are perfectly highlighted in scenes such as when The Vampire Girl and Arash (leaving a party in Vampire fancy dress) first meet, the French-Persian-synthpop vampire coming face-to-face with the Iranian-Rock-and-roll-rebel-Hollywood version, or the lovely shots of The Vampire Girl as she races down the street on a skateboard, her chandor flapping behind her like the wings of a bat.

A Girl Walks Home… is a wonderfully realised piece of intercultural cinema which turns away from the prevailing sense of whiteness and cultural homogeneity in Jarmusch’s The Only Lovers…, instead infusing the vampire genre with a transnational sensuality.

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Revenge of the Undead Nerds

If A Girl Walks Home… Is all about drawing in and seducing the spectator, then What We Do In The Shadows does the exact opposite, as it makes its vampires horribly human with all our attending failings. Directed, written, and starring Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement (better known as one half of NZ comedy duo Flight Of The Conchords), the film is a comedy “mockumentary” that follows four vampires who share a flat in Wellington, New Zealand. The film crew observes their daily lives as they show what it’s really like living as a vampire in modern times, whether it be the endless bickering about house rules and the washing up, the difficulty vampires have in getting into nightclubs (the bouncers have to formally invite you in), to the pain of getting your bloodied clothes dry cleaned properly (decent slaves are hard to find these days). We also see how they deal with a local guy whom they have accidentally turned into vampire and wants to be mates with them.

The humour of WWDITS derives from the personalities of the vampires themselves. Like the stars of Jarmusch’s The Only Lovers…, the vampires here are centuries old (Petyr, the Nosferatu lookalike clocking in at 8000 years), but instead of being effortlessly cool and sexy, as if they were members of Singapore Sling, the vampires in WWDITS are total dorks, complete with gut fat, bad breath and flop sweat. Their attempts to pass off as cultured and cultivated dandies consistently falls flat as their lack of integration with modern NZ culture is painfully exposed at every turn. Scenes such as one of the vampires giving an “erotic” dance will make you chew your fist off, while the sight of them “performing” the music of the old country neatly skewers the scenes of tasteful music-making performed in Jarmusch’s movie.

While A Girl Walks Home… contains poised, textured cinematography, the camera work in WWDITS perfectly mimics the modern documentary style with wobbly, jerky movements, along with the classic technique of just holding onto the nervous subject for that moment too long. Meanwhile the night-time camera lights provide the harsh glare that allows you the filth and grime of their house. They may have been aiming for faded grandeur, but these guys are a complete bunch of filthbags.

From start to end, WWDITS is bloody (lol) funny with a constant stream of gags as the writing of Clement and Waititi taps a similar vein of eccentric comedy that you see in Flight Of The Conchords. The clash of the bloody and gruesome world of the vampires with the deadpan humdrum of their human friends/slaves provide the best moments, such as slave Jackie moaning “I’m stuck here ironing their fucking frills,” or when their mate Stu is asked “Are you a demon?” with  his deadpan reply, “No I’m a software analyst.” There is also some great moments when the vampires run into a gang of werewolves, hilariously led by fellow Conchords alumni Rhys Derby, who are trying to come to terms with their inner anger (“We are werewolves, NOT swearwolves!”).

Even though A Girl Walks Home At Night and What We Do In The Shadows don’t truly revolutionise the canon of the Vampire film, but they both offer ideas that allow us new ways to views vampires as something other than pretty western boys who sparkle in the sunlight.

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2015 in Film

 

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The Sunday Cult Film Corner: “Martin (1977)”

 

WhoooOOOooo….

OK, things have been thrown a lot out of kilter on this blog for a while now. Things that were nice little regular pieces have been laid by the wayside while the amount of subjects/features/reviews that have been residing in my mental “in-box” have grown exponentially for a while now. 

This has left the SCFC post little more than a this dark, wet, fetid part of this blog. the place is now metaphorically overrun with rats and weeds. And possibly the odd dead homeless person.

But now the time of fallow has come to an end, as I clean up the place with some weedkiller, lime and a big bunch of fire. And for the resumption of the SUNDAY CULT FILM CORNER, we have a classic low-budget contemporary horror thriller that looks to blow open the myth and presumptions about that classic monster, the vampire. Ladies & Gentlemen, I give you MARTIN.

Directed in 1997 by master horror director George A. Romero, the film stars John Amplas as a young man with the name of the film. Martin is a disturbed man who has an insatiable thirst for blood and seeks to drug and kill people to feed his thirst, while also creating an illusory black and white world that runs parallel to the real world around him. After the death of his immediate family he goes to live with his ultra religious great-uncle, who believes him to be an old world vampire, calling him “Nosferatu.” He warns him not to speak to his cousin Christine, and arms himself with the old tools to ward off vampires (Garlic, Crosses).

While he works at his Great-uncle’s butcher shop, he strikes up a friend ship with a bored housewife, Mrs. Santini, who takes an interest in the man. But can he keep control of his murderious urges, or will his life end in turmoil?

Despite the obvious low-end effects and feel of the film, Romero has made a very different and unique take on the vampire flick. Unlike most vampire movies, For a start, it is never explained outright whether or not Martin is actually a vampire. It´s left to the viewer to decide. On top of this, Martin doesn’t fit into any of the perceived tropes of what a vampire should be. Martin is awkward, has no friends, and socially stunted. He exudes very little in terms of sexual or animal magnetism. Let’s just say he most certainly doesn’t sparkle. Also none of the old rules of vampirism exist here.

Romero also looks to take on the myths of vampirism, which is especially laid out bare in the opening scene of the movie, where Martin rinks the blood of a woman on the train It´s the absolute antithesis of the sexy, arrogant vamp seducing a woman with their eyes and compelling her to willingly give up her blood to him. Instead, Romero instead forces us to see the reality Martin taking someone’s blood by force. it is not sexy or dramatic, as in effect, Martin is no more than a serial killer and rapist, whose actions still leave him frustrated and ultimately unfulfilled with death in his wake.

And yet Martin is still a sympathetic character when in comparison to his brutal religious intolerance of his Great-uncle, who treats Martin no better than an animal. you feel that Martin can be redeemed fi he was able to find a way to cure himself of his blood lust.

Despite the low-budget, Martin is a film that overcomes these restraints with some decent acting from Amplas especially as Martin. there is also some wonderfully deft editing from Romero himself, splicing the colour scenes of the modern-day with the black & White “flashbacks” from the beginning of the last century that informs Martin’s daydream world effortlessly. The film also makes good use of  the town  where the film is based. It gives the atmosphere a gritty, yet a faded, nondescript feel. there is a distinct lack of Gothic grandeur with “Martin” and this gives it a sense of contemporary realness.

“Martin” is an intriguing addition to the horror canon that transplants the idea of the mythical horror character of the vampire and transposing him into the real life world of ’70s working class America. It´s definitely a far better story that and of the Twilight films, that’s for sure.!

 
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Posted by on July 21, 2013 in Film

 

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The Sunday Cult Film Corner: “Vampire’s Kiss (1988)”

 

Awww man, sometimes on a Sunday you just feel absolutely drained after a long weekend of party and swapping spit with the lower rungs of society. Sometimes all you want to do is shield yourself from direct sunlight, as you hiss at the sight of fresh fruit. Essentially you have become a weekend hungover vampire, although in this case you can only subsist on diet coke instead of blood.

So with that in mind, for this week’s edition of The Sunday Cult Film Corner we have a psychological black comedy that contains one of the most bizarre scene chewing acting displays ever put to celluloid.as a quintessential ’80s yuppie spectacularly falls apart. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you VAMPIRE’S KISS.

The film stars Nicolas Cage as Peter Loew, an aggressive New York literary agent and total sleazeball. Despite a seemingly good life on the surface his life is an empty procession of barhopping and one night stands, which cause him to start fraying at the edges. He is abusive to his secretary Alva, tormenting her to find a lost contract that allows him to browbeat and treat her like dirt. He starts seeing a therapist to deal with his issues.

One night at a club, he meets Rachel (Jennifer Beals). Taking her back to his flat, she reveals herself to be a vampire who bites him and draws blood from his neck. As she bites him again and again, he comes under the impression that he too is turning into a vampire. His mind and life begin to spiral out of control as he starts wearing sunglasses, hides from sunlight and crosses, and believes his reflection is disappearing. Even when his “fangs” don’t appear, he buys a fake pair to complete his transformation. As he and the film approach breaking point, he embarks on a murderous spree, as he find himself unable to tell reality from fantasy.

OK, let’s get the negatives out of the way, Vampire’s Kiss suffers from a painfully slow beginning, and some lacklustre cinematography. It feels and looks more like an elongated episode of ‘The Outer Limits.’ Which is a shame as VAMPIRE’S KISS, is not about vampires, but instead is an interesting takedown of the male ego. The character of Loew swings from strutting overconfidence, to pathetic bitterness as he is unable to connect with the women in his empty life, which are a vampire, his therapist and his put upon secretary.

But to be honest, the poor pacing of VAMPIRE’S KISS is more than made up for the true grand guignol style excess contained in the acting of Nicolas Cage. Oh maaaaaan. With some films you have good acting. Then there’s bad acting. Then there’s NICOLAS CAGE ACTING!! He just goes into supersonic lunacy on this one. Any kind of subtlety is thrown out of the window as nothing is off-limits. His character is a thoroughly unpleasant misogynist, yet he is completely mesmerizing as he screams, moans, and eyeballs his own shadow. In fact, if you look at YouTube and type in the phrase “Nicolas Cage Losing His Shit,” a lot of the material comes from VAMPIRE’S KISS.

Some people have criticised the film and the acting as confusing, especially the end section were the film splits into imagined reality and grotty reality. But if you actually watch it closely, then there are moments when it’s actually very satirical in the style of other big city films such as ‘American Psycho,’ the way it shows that city and the people within as sucked out, shallow husks.

So get your shades on and watch a films that is completely over the top in the best possible way…

 
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Posted by on May 12, 2013 in Film

 

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Sunday Cult film Corner: “Lifeforce (1985)”

Damn it’s still really difficult to type, but a decent mix of beer and painkillers took care of that. Iceland today has been basking i a warm summers glare with people starting to wilt under the heady temperatures of 12 Celsius!! Phew what a scorcher!

And today yours truly was witness to a well know icelandic custom at this time of year where the locals indoctrinate its youth into the loving arms of the national church, otherwise known as the confirmation. At least there was a beer and some food at the end of it all.

And while i was sitting there wondering what the hell was going on, my wandered as i thought to myself “you know what i really want to watch right now? No brain, not the handball. What i want to watch is a crazy Sci Fi space vampire zombie apocalypse movie that’s based in the UK”. “Don’t be silly” said my brain. “there’s no film like that in the world!” Oh yeah? Well ladies and gentlemen (and my brain), for tonight’s Sunday Cult film, i give you the completely outlandish classic LIFEFORCE.

The plot is rather simple. A spaceship, the Churchill, is in deep space investigating Haleys Comet, when they find a spaceship hidden by said comet. They find the spaceship deserted except for three humanoid aliens (1 female, 2 male) in suspended animation. On their way back, they lose contact with earth. A subsequent rescue mission finds only one survivor as well as the 3 aliens. The aliens and the survivor are taken back to earth for closer examination. A big mistake, as it appears that they seem to be space vampires who feed not on your blood, but your lifeforce. Oh and once drained, the victim turns into a zombie that also craves human lifeforce! Can a mix of scientists, a kick ass SAS guy and the shuttle survivor stop the aliens in time, before the earth is destroyed?

Lifeforce was directed by Tobe Hopper, 3 years after he directed Poltergeist. This was a film with a very big budget for its time (approx $25 million) with the idea of creating a major sci-fi blockbuster. alas it performed really badly at the box-office and Hooper never really recovered his career after wards. As a film, Lifeforce is certainly sleek with decent special effect. But it still clings to a B-movie/exploitation ethos, especially as the female lead vampire alien is almost completely naked the whole time in the film. Casting wise it has the usual Brit acting talent on display (Patrick Stewart, Frank Findlay) as well as my favourite, Peter Firth, as the dashing but equally direct and brutal SAS officer Colin Caine (Peter Firth would go on to be better known to UK  fans as the imperious Harry Pearce from BBC spy drama “Spooks”).  Plus it was aliens, vampires AND zombies! I mean, who can really go wrong with that??

So while i go off to an illegal party (apparently it is illegal to have an official party during a christian holiday), you sit back and watch the OTT sci-fi madness…

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2011 in Film

 

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