Apparently notions of vampires have been around since prehistoric times in some sense or another. Stories of humanlike creatures that feed off the life force of others have been found in many cultures, with most of the myths coming from Europe. Greek folklore told of Vrykolakas, transformed from the bodies of people whose sacrilegious ways drove them to an early grave and in Romania there were Strigoi who could transform into animals, turn invisible and would drink the blood of the living.
It wasn’t until the 19th century though, with the publication of John Polidori’s book The Vampyre that the idea of a sophisticated and charming figure, luring people to their deaths, became commonly accepted. Then some guy called Bram Stoker put pen to paper and our ideas of what a vampire does and looks like were properly cemented in the public consciousness.
In the ensuing 200 years there have clearly been a fair few other interpretations of these legends and it is impossible to even guess how many of these have been told on film. There are over 170 movies just about Dracula and he might be the poster boy but there are plenty of other blood suckers out there.
Occasionally the press will decry the release of yet another vampire pic but what they are actually moaning about is the stuff that is derivative and unoriginal. (I did watch the first Twilight film and was surprised to find that I quite enjoyed it but mid-way through the second one when the heroine spends a year moping around in an arm chair I decided it was time for Bella, Edward and myself to permanently part company.)
There have, of course, been some superb vampire flicks, even with 200 years of cliche to deal with. Notably we have Near Dark, Interview with a Vampire and the sublime Let the Right One In and I also have to confess to a soft spot for From Dusk ‘Til Dawn and The Lost Boys (of course). Clearly Byzantium director Neil Jordan has a film in that list so that raises expectations a little for this one.
Fortunately those expectations are met.
Byzantium is not a perfect film. The end is a little predictable and there is at least one ‘don’t go out there’ moment- like when the girl in the seventies slasher movie runs upstairs to escape the killer rather than out of the house or gets out of the car rather than locking the doors when they can’t see where their attacker went – but despite these small niggles I enjoyed it immensely.
The writer, Moira Buffini, has made some obvious decisions to change what is commonly known in vampire lore and she only really takes from legend that which suits her story. These vampires do have to be invited in before they can enter a house for example but sunlight and garlic do not present them with any problems. There are also no fangs and the way these immortals are created is also properly mystical with no convenient ‘I’ll drink your blood, you drink mine, bingo you’re a vamp’ transformations. Also these ‘monsters’ are not rabidly driven by a hunger for blood. Instead they are people who have chosen immortality and are trying to live quietly with the consequences of that decision. In that sense this reflects TV’s Being Human more than any other vampire story and one of the main duo’s modus operandi for killing is actually right out of that show.
Byzantium had been described as a feminist vampire film and certainly this is a story of empowered women living in defiance of the men who have wronged them but there is also rather more of Gemma Arterton’s bum and cleavage on display than I suspect Germaine Greer would be comfortable with. Having said that this is all in keeping with the idea of a woman who has been forced into prostitution by a cruel patriarchy and uses her femininity to survive in any way she can so I think that is okay (says the man).
Gemma Arterton may have started out in pretty girl roles such as Bond girl and St. Trinian but she is really good here, adding to the excellent work she did in The Disappearance of Alice Creed. If she continues to make choices like this rather than doing films like Clash of the Titans and The Prince of Persia then she is going to have a strong career ahead of her. Unsurprisingly though, the standout performance comes from Saoirse Ronan just as it does in every single film she appears in.
The little girl from Atonement is still only 19 but is one of those young performers who is mesmerising in everything that she does while also coming across as intelligent and grounded in interviews. (Other successful teenagers take note, fame and accomplishment at a young age does not need to turn you into an idiot.) Saoirse Ronan has a face that can convey great emotion and pathos with the tiniest movement and Byzantium fully capitalises on this. There are lots of beautifully composed and lit close ups of her that elevate otherwise ordinary backgrounds, bus stops and bedroom walls, to high art.
In fact, more than any other vampire flick, Byzantium most easily compares to Ronan’s Hanna. Both films centre on a young killer and are well paced and atmospheric, occasionally punctuating the mood with brief but staggering flashes of action and violence. Oh, and both films also have Tom Hollander.
Byzantium is violent and there are waterfalls of blood so clearly this is not one for the kids but it all serves a story about people who kill to live so it shows what it needs to. There is a quite brutal murder early on and while this is initially a little surprising it does set the tone for the rest of the film. The movie isn’t really scary but it is often tense and the story has a nice degree of mystery that slowly unfolds across its two hour running time. It doesn’t really give us anything totally new but it is sufficiently different, and like Stoker earlier this year it has a director who can lift the material to something arty rather than letting it be the schlock horror it could have been in someone else’s hands.
Byzantium is brooding and gothic in all of they ways you want it to be while showing how vampires might work in a modern setting. It isn’t as epic as Neil Jordan’s Interview with a Vampire and may not end up holding the same position in lists of the best ever vampire films but it is beautiful and compelling and I am sure it will end up as one of my films of the year.