From there on out the movie is concerned with the interlocking stories of the mysterious man enslaved by his vampyre mistresses and kept alive as a sex- and blood-slave, while the camping couple begins to think that maybe something strange IS going on over in that house. There are a few more unfortunate hitchhikers, a strange confrontation between the painter and the vampyres, and a climax that left me feeling satisfied but more than a little unsettled.
In recent years--decades even, starting perhaps in the mid 80s--the vampire movie has fallen upon hard times. We've been deluged with so many pale, emaciated, Cure/Bauhaus-inspired effeminite depression clinic-reject club-hopping vampires in frilly costumes, or else with so many Blade-wannabe leather-clad gangstas-cum-fangstas in flicks that were less about vampires than about car chases, 'splosions, and kung-fu-fighting, it's been hard to maintain one's faith in the ability of the vampire to inspire anything more than antipathy, mild amusement, or outright boredom. Certainly it's been a while since I've seen a vampire flick that I thought was artfully made and engaging, and longer still since I can actually say I found one frightening.
However, I needed only stretch my purview back a little farther, to the early-to-mid 70s, to find what I'd been missing for so long--artfully made cinema, with an engaging plot and vampires who are intriguing, alluring, exciting, and dare I say it, even frightening.
The film: José Ramón Larraz's 1974 masterpiece--yes, I said MASTERPIECE--Vampyres.
Here's a flick that does just about everything right. The cinematography? Lush and exquisite. The settings? Evocative and beautiful. The story? A fantastic modernization without losing the gothic roots and mysterious underpinnings of the myth. The mortal cast? Believeable and engaging. The vampyres themselves? Oh, my.
Here's a movie that starts off with a bang, both figuratively and literally. Figuratively, as we find ourselves in an ornate, gothic bedroom, standing over a dark wood four-poster draped with velvety fabrics, upon which lie two of the more gorgeous euro-babes you could hope to see, the voluptuous Marianne Morris and the alabaster beauty Anulka, nekkid as the day they was birthed and all over one another. It's a sumptuous scene in every respect, and immediately makes you want to stake somebody, if you know what I mean, as within seconds we have our first lesbonic nip-lick. Then just as you've settled into the gorgeousity of this dream-come-true, you get the literal bang--a mysterious, shadowy figure in what looks to be a puritan cap (Symbolism!) creeps in and shoots the poor lovers dead. A cloud of bats obfuscates the screen and continue to flutter back and forth in darkness as the credits roll.
Señor Larraz, YOU HAVE MY ATTENTION.
In short order after this we are taken from the strangely timeless bedroom scene to a definitively modern-day Europe (well, modern-day in 1974) where we meet a mysterious man checking into a local hotel. Not long after this we meet a young couple traveling in their caravan, looking for a remote spot to camp so she can paint and he can sit around looking attractively androgynous and perhaps doing a little fishing. They are a winning and engaging couple, and as they drive down country roads they pass a couple of strange women hitchhiking in flowing gothic dress--or rather one, a brunette, hitchhiking, while another, a blonde, hides a little way off the road in the forest. The sight is strange and dreamlike, and although they don't stop, the girl of the couple can't help thinking about these ladies as they continue down the road. Soon we see a man stop to pick up the hitchhiking woman, a woman who looks suspiciously like one of the murdered lovers from the first scene. But then it's back to the camping couple, who find a spot in a forested area near an "abandoned" gothic manor and set up camp for a few days of fun and frolic.
That night though, haunted by dreams of the strange women, the girl wakes up to the sound of a scream coming from the abandoned manor and sees a hand on her window. Though androgynous hearthrob investigates, he finds nothing.
The next day the hitchhiking ladies are at it again, and this time the brunette is picked up by our mysterious stranger from the inn. We get to follow him as he follows her into the abandoned manor, through decrepit hallways and finally to a modernly furnished love nest in the middle of the house. After a few bottles of wine and some energetic sex our hero wakes up to find himself groggy, anemic, and bleeding from a deep cut in the crook of his elbow. Blood is on the sheets, but his partner is nowhere to be found in the bright light of day. He finds the campers nearby, gets some bandages from them, but as if under a spell returns to the house to wait for his mistress to return.
But the plot is less the point here than the atmosphere and the suspense, which are both ratcheted up to eleven by the director and the actors. Morris as the imperious brunette (obviously the leader) is haughty, cold, and enticing with her distant iciness. Even the way she carries herself as she leads the mysterious stranger into her house tells you a great deal about her character, as she's rigid and no-nonsense, very imperious. Anulka is more withdrawn and submissive, but impossibly beautiful and alluring, with a younger girlish quality to counterpoint Marianne Morris's older-woman-of-experience vibe. She also seems more animalistic and out of control, as when in a shocking scene she comes to Marianne for help and pulls her into the bedroom where they find Anulka's victim (another kindly driver) naked, covered in blood (really a shocking amount of gore) and convulsing on the bed. When the vampyres fall upon him and tear at his bloody flesh like animals, it's disturbing, really frightening, and strangely arousing all at once.
The human characters are great too--the mystery man is not attractive at all, but believably pudgy and ordinary-looking, helplessly enslaved by the powerful vampyres who lust for both his body and his blood. The couple in the camper are great counterpoints of innocence to the vamps' and mystery man's experience. And when the girl discovers the vamps leaving their tomb in the dusk, there is a strange suggestion that she was fated to come here, as Marianne Morris tells her, "I always knew you'd come." Like many mysteries in this movie, however, that one also doesn't play out quite the way you'd expect, and the result is a real shock to even the jaded viewer.
In case you can't tell, I love this movie. It avoids so many pitfalls that later vamp movies leap into willingly. There is never any long exposition of the vampyres' origin and what their FEEEEEEEEEEEELINGS are about being so immortal and beautiful; mostly, it's just the day-to-day trials and tribulations, complications, desires and frustrations of living as a creature who must hunt human blood to survive. Their routine of hitchhiking, seduction, feeding is rather mundane but also unsettling in ways that flicks like Bloodrayne or Underworld never even hint at--they don't even have the intellect necessary to envision it. So no over-explanation. Also, no silly Van-Helsing character pops up to explain it all and rally the troops for a fight to the finish with the undead. No, we have thoroughly modern characters dealing with ageless supernatural forces, and as such the mortals are at a terrible and ultimately tragic disadvantage.
There are some great touches here that just had me in love with this flick all the way through, little things that together make the whole movie. Such as the trance-state the vamps go into after feeding, during which time they are vulnerable and must count on each other to protect themselves. Or the use of blades and glass rather than fangs; or a scene where the mystery man finds a covered mirror--a throwaway scene, but so full of portent. And the ending, which as I say I was surprised by.
But the thing this movie does best--better perhaps than any other vamp movie I've seen--is the eroticism. These vamps are SMOKIN HAWT, and their scenes with one another, either on their own or when they're feeding--oh, man. You get a real sense of their hunger not only for blood, but for flesh, for contact, for life--and not altogether in an exploitative way. I mean, it IS that, but it is also important to the overall vibe of the movie, the themes of loneliness and dependence and even love in impossible situations, filtered through vampirism and bloodlust.
There were a couple of things I could criticize--the post-script ending was a little quick and pat for my taste (how'd the realtor get word so quick? was it a dream?), and many times the vamps seem to be out in broad daylight, although I figured out from inference later that they were only supposed to be in the twilight and dusk (Marianne saying "I saw it was getting late," or Anulka admonishing, "It's nearly dawn! We must go!"), so that's a little confusing. But overall those minor nitpicks do nothing to lessen the impact of this, now one of the Vicar's favorite vampire films.
I went and grabbed the Duke so I could give this movie a full 6 thumbs, double-plus-plus good. Highly, highly, HIGHLY recommended.