Much to the chagrin of people who actually like vampires, the last decade has essentially been dedicated to seeing the most romantic of all monsters transformed in grating supernatural soap opera fodder (both of the tween friendly Twilight variety and the only slightly more palatable oversexed playground of True Blood). Thankfully those willing to slip past the mainstream have been rewarded by a couple of genuine vampire stories over the past decade in Chan-Wook Park’s wonderful Thirst, and now Neil Jordan’s unsettling Byzantium. Neither movie is nearly enough to take back vampires from their long standing slump, but thankfully those who care have two strong post-millennial tragic vampire romances to help ease their mainstream pains. Hopefully once the sexy vampire trend finally subsides we can expect more of these psychologically chilling beauties, because they make the populist fluff look like the shirtless silliness they truly are. It might not be perfect, but this lyrical lonely tale works well enough to make you wish that director Neil Jordan hadn’t taken so much time off from bloodsucking after Interview with the Vampire.
Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan play a mother/daughter vamp pair who has been going from town-to-town feasting on blood for the past couple of hundred years. Arterton is a perpetual sex worker who opens brothels for cash and seduces men for flesh. Ronan on the other hand is more of a sad and tortured soul. She feasts only on those ready to die and constantly writes and rewrites her life story as a form of homespun therapy. The duo’s mortal days were scarred by a particularly pervy Jonny Lee Miller while their supernatural afterlife has been spent running from an all-male vampire society who don’t want women spoiling their immortal party. Cracks in the women’s 200-year bond appear when Ronan falls in love with a nice boy in her new town (Caleb Landry Jones) and thinks it’s time to set out on her own moral vampire quest.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of Byzantium is the way that Jordan and screenwriter Moira Buffini (adapting her own play) are willing to toy with the vampire rulebook to suite their own purposes. There are no fangs in sight, but retracting, phallic, skin-piercing fingernails used to pierce blood and a mysterious ancient crypt where vampires choose to be born rather than inheriting the curse like an STD. So, vampirism returns to its natural state of being: an immortal curse. The film revels in the eternal boredom and tragedy of blood-suckery and while the sexual angle that makes those creatures so damn appealing isn’t ignored, it at least isn’t the be all end all for Jordan and Buffini.
They also find an intriguing feminist spark to their tale by using female protagonists destroyed by men and presenting vampirism as a horrific old boys club as a nice spin on the traditionally rapey vampire mythos. Jordan carefully weaves those themes into a tale that’s deliciously pulpy, yet elegantly crafted in gorgeous long shots through evocative locations. It’s a horror yarn trapped in an art film and thankfully nowhere near as schizophrenic as it sounds. Sure, there will be some splits in the audience with art house hounds put off by all the filthy sensationalism and gorehounds frustrated by the pretentious existentialism, but that’s the same fate that most of the great vampire cinematic classics have faced since the genre first slithered out of the shadows in the silent film era.
Amidst the inevitable Byzantium debates, at least no one should be able to deny the incredible central performances. The underrated Arterton relishes her viciously manipulative creature without ever slipping into theatrics while the ever-impressive Ronan delivers a more internalized, philosophical spin on the Let the Right One In model of a vampire trapped in eternal childhood. Their deeply pained characters are lady vampires every bit as fascinating as the penis-packing Draculas of the world, while Jordan’s contemporary-gothic sensibilities create a gorgeously dark world for the audience to be swallowed up in (his vision of personal vampire sacrifice is one of the most strikingly beautiful images to grace the genre the quite some time).
The bar might not be set particularly very high, but Byzantium is easily one of the high points of the recent vampire pop culture onslaught. It might be a little too stately, dreary, and thoughtful to become a new genre classic, but at least the film proves there’s still room for invention in one of the oldest monster myths. If tweens valued angst and existentialism as much as sweaty pectorals, Byzantium might even stand a chance at being a sleeper hit. That won’t happen though, so cult appreciation by a select few it shall be. With any luck, that cult will grow enough over time for revaluation in 5-10 years time when all those squealing Twi-hards have matured enough to realize what they were missing.