Berlin 2011: VAMPIRE Review
[With Shunji Iwai's Vampire now screening in Berlin it seems time to revisit Ryland Aldrish's earlier review.]
Fans of Shunji Iwai's unique storytelling style have been buzzing for months about his first English Language feature. His Japanese films such as Swallowtail Butterfly and All About Lily Chou-Chou succeeded in marrying music video aesthetics with darkly whimsical narratives that won him plaudits from art house and genre fans alike. Vampire continues Iwai's tradition of eschewing typical filmmaking restraints and telling his story, his way. While some will find the film too dark, too graphic, too weird - fans will surely find much to love in the artistry, the intricacy, the magic.
The film's long opening sequence introduces us to shy high school teacher Simon (Kevin Zegers) as he picks up his latest victim - in this case a girl who goes by Jellyfish (Keisha Castle-Hughes). Simon, it turns out, met Jellyfish on an online suicide message board and convinced her that they should die together. Finally ready to do the deed, Simon is impatient with Jellyfish's desire for the perfect end to her life, but eventually he persuades her to let him drain her blood before he does the same to himself. Of course, taking his own life is never part of the plan and Simon hungrily gulps Jellyfish's blood down before vomiting from overindulgence.
As the story progresses, Simon approaches more victims - each someone looking to end their life and all with different stories and circumstances. As Simon's infamy as the serial killer known as The Vampire grows, so does his stature amongst the crazies that worship those sort of killers. But Simon rejects his villainous prestige and is horrified when one psychopath tries to impress him by brutally raping and murdering an innocent victim in front of him. This sequence is about as heinous as anything recently seen and is sure to stir up controversy.
At the heart of Vampire are the relationships that Simon develops with the women in his life. From his love for his senile mother (Amanda Plummer) to his begrudging acceptance of the strange woman (Rachael Leigh Cook) who has imposed herself on his life as a quasi-caretaker of his mother and wannabe girlfriend, Simon displays a depth of humanity unexpected from such an accomplished killer. This is particularly evident in his attempt to help a troubled young student (Iwai alum Yu Aoi) cope with her crushing depression.
While the plot is fleeting at times, Iwai succeeds at infusing his distinctive dark whimsy throughout the film. Some of his choices miss the mark. The decision to turn the camera on its side about fifteen minutes in gave an unfortunately large number of press and industry in the Park City screening the excuse they had been looking for to leave. However touches like the balloon harness Simon's mother wears and the brilliant slow motion sequence at the film's climax are simply beautiful.
Vampire is certainly not for everyone and theatrical success is bound to be a struggle. But for those not turned off by some graphic violence and a whole lot of artistic license, there is a lot to like about this portrait of a killer more empathetic than psychopathic. True Shunji Iwai fans will be very happy to know that he has sacrificed none of his unique style in an attempt to crack the English speaking market.
[ Ryland Aldrich is a freelance writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. He blogs at enderzero.net ]