Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Purple State of John
Thoughts of a wordslinger…
When Sam Peckinpah died in 1984, it seemed too much to hope that we’d ever see his take on the vampire genre. Yet a mere three years later, Kathryn Bigelow gave us the next best thing in Near Dark, one of the greatest of the latter-day revisonist westerns and easily one of the two or three greatest American bloodsuckers.
Similarly, though we’ve recently lost Ingmar Bergman, we now have some idea what he’d have done with the basic materials in the rapturously fiendish Let The Right One In, or as its known in Swedish Lat Den Ratta In.
The director Tomas Alfredson doesn’t merely window-dress the conventions of the vampire genre. He gives us the basics in a new vernacular. One scene, involving the effects of sunlight on one of the undead, is so primally and classically beautiful that it will forever define that bit of lore for me, and yet it made me feel at the same time as if I’d never quite understood the awfulness of the solar threat before.
Still, while the movie doesn’t smack of aesthetic slumming, it’s far more complex than most of what passes for vampirology in the movies these days. Anyone familiar with the outlines of Twilight, the teenage girl phenomenon, knows that it also has something to do with vampires, but they hardly seem to be the same species as the ones in Alfredson’s universe.
If the lovestruck American fang-boy in the Catherine Hardwicke movie had to choose between spending six months as an undead exchange student in the Scandinavia of Let The Right One In or getting staked by Buffy, he would high five death and never look back.
So dreary is life in Brezhnev era Sweden that we’re downright relieved when a monster shows up. The snow falls. The silence weighs. The night comes early. No one talks much, and the adults drink a lot. A scrawny blonde kid who seems to spend most of his time alone plays with a knife and dreams of cutting the bullies who torment him.It’s a tomb-like existence that wouldn’t be out of place in a Raymond Carver short story. If you’ve spent any time in Buffalo in January, however, which I have, you’ll feel right at home.
The vampire does. She moves into the neighborhood with a keen instinct for her chances. She knows that everyone there is too miserable to pay any attention to the fact that her windows are covered in cardboard. The director knows it, too, and it’s one reason why we accept the movie’s dirty realist living dead. It’s a place where the fantastic immediately becomes mundane, or better yet, becomes so completely subsumed by mundanity that the category of the fantastic itself is debased.
Before we ever lay eyes on the nosferatu, we meet her helper, and he looks like one more barfly in the cold until we see him hoist an unsuspecting Swede by his feet, preparing the blood sacrifice as he would a hog about to be slaughtered. It’s a startling scene, and indicative of the movie’s brilliance. This is violence as ugly and exhausted and ancient as a domestic brawl in a slum. Did you think vampires were all buff?
If the movie were just grown-ups, it might become tedious, like an episode of Dark Shadows set in Scranton, but it cleverly dodges and goes to the one place where hope manages to survive, the imaginative inner life of a 12-year-old boy who seems more aware than anyone else of the failure of potential in his world. He needs a shot at escape, and the movie, or fate, gives him a 12-year-old creature of the night named Eli.
When we first meet Eli, it’s hard to believe she’s the main event. She has the big, wide, shy eyes of the new foreign student at school, and yet Oskar the human kid sees his chance. Here’s someone who might be lower on the pecking order than himself and therefore might possibly agree to be his friend.
That friendship would be the heart of a more sentimental movie, but this flick doesn’t want us to get comfortable with a murderer, even if she is a child. Alfredson plays with our kneejerk sympathies, and you can be fooled into thinking Let The Right One In is a coming of age story. I was. The movie pays particular attention to what might be called the Renfield paradigm. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the count of the title psychically enlists the help of a fragile solicitor by the name of Renfield, a man who worships the monster and does his bidding by daylight. There have been countless Renfields in the years since, but nothing I’ve ever seen approaches the depth of insight in this movie into the power relationship that must exist between immortals and mortals, especially when the former are literally out for blood.
Elsewhere, the night is teeming. It’s truly the vampire’s ball in pop culture. Between Alan Ball delivering Southern Gothic on HBO, Stephenie Meyer ripping Mormon-style bodices in bookstores and this dark gem, I’m feeling the need for garlic at the windowpane. The fact that Dick Cheney will be released from his bunker on January 20, only stokes my anxiety. Has anyone seen him by daylight lately?
Over at Slate, a political correspondent has taken a break from his usual beat to write about our national vampires. If that doesn’t testify to the new trendiness of the undead, I don’t know what does. The piece is an informed bit of bloodsuckerology, but it doesn’t really address a question that people who don’t care much about vampires have begun to ask.
Why a resurgence of fangs just now? Change is one answer. Vampires hit the air as soon as they feel the outriders of the hurricane. They’re always there, of course, but they flock like crows to moments of stormy transition, which brings us back to the Slate piece.
In our fiction, literary, cinematic and premium cable, writes Christopher Beam, vamps do love to chat, and they always seem to crow about how wrong we are about their weaknesses and habits. Crosses never work, sunlight barely does, etc., ad nauseum. Beam lays out most of the reasons why, but he omits the most obvious one. Readers of this fiction accept it and even expect it. For whatever reason, vampire fans don’t tend to be purists. As long as the spirit of the enterprise works, they will embrace any and all variations on the original mythology, which, as Beam points out, was never really fixed in the first place.
Is there another genre that gets recast so easily, so often, and yet continues to command the devotion of its fans?
On that note, I would very much like to see the movie depicted in the poster above, which purports to be somehow based on Carmila–it doesn’t seem a very literary conceit, does it? Vampires against zombies with a soupcon of Victorian lesbianism, anyone?—but I’m afraid that it would only disappoint.
Beat cops in movies should know a few things by instinct. If and when a small child growls, salivates and bites her mother in the neck, no matter how cute she is, she no longer needs to be coddled. if she runs away, that’s a positive. If she comes back, the cop’s character arc is probably done.
In Quarantine, the impeccable and horrific new remake of the Spanish film Rec, I almost never wanted to shout at the screen. The movie, directed by John Erick Dowdle, established a few characters, gave them brains, and put them through hell. It’s easily the scariest film of the year.
Here’s the premise. A TV crew follows firefighters into an apartment building. We see everything through the single camera lens; the technology is Cloverfield, but the conceit is closer to Cronenberg and Romero.
Once inside the building, the firefighters encounter a woman who savagely attacks with nothing but teeth. Normally, it would be time to pull out and wait for reinforcements, but that’s not an option. Law enforcement has surrounded the building and won’t let the firefighters or the camera crew leave. It’s a bitch and a half for civil servants and muckrakers, and it only gets worse.
Mostly, we’ve been here before, but in horror, the little things matter. That’s part of the key to Quarantine. It sweats the small stuff, so that our intelligence isn’t insulted (except when a cop doesn’t know the one thing that everyone in the theater guessed at the start of the movie). We meet a dozen generic characters, who aren’t quite as generic as they could be: African immigrants who barely speak a word of English, an elderly Slavic gentleman, a pill-peddling South Asian. Everything is slightly skewed, so that the familiar doesn’t feel quite so safe.
By the time a pissed-off five foot Marmaduke appears, snarling through slobber, we’re on the hook, and the movie gallops right off into the darkness. It’s the best use yet in the popular cinema of hand-held digital technology, a tour de force of limited perspective and minimal light. I loved Cloverfield, but its monster movie as home movie conceit had to work extra hard to keep us convinced of the camera’s logic. Why didn’t t the guy shooting the footage just run? I would have.
The characters in Quarantine can’t. They are trapped in the building by their own government, and the camera becomes their one line of defense. They are documenting their own incarceration, reporting the unbelievable truth and defending their lives with the same lensed weapon. It’s a fantastic metaphor for the way that journalists see the tools of their trade as invisibility cloaks. The camera is a shield. It’s also made of glass.
Last spring, I watched George Romero immolate himself and his zombie franchise in Diary of the Dead, an attempt to do the hand-held digital commentary on his own mythology. It’s a deeply flawed movie, preachy and mostly a bore. Without ever once pointing a finger and declaiming at the audience, Quarantine does everything Romero wanted to do and terrifies at the same time. It is an ambitious, harrowing, blood-drenched Halloween treat that is being ignored, dismissed or damned with faint praise by critics.
If you care at all about the art of fear in the cinema, do not miss it.
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