Graham Reid | | 4 min read
The appeal of vampire movies is well established.
It's about sex . . . and if you doubt that you haven't seen enough of the breast-heaving Hammer horror films of the Sixties.
Oh, and of course they are about death. Or eternal life, if you will.
And every generation of teenagers gets its own hip style of vampire movie.
The appeal for teens is enhanced if you are an unfeasibly handsome or drop-dead gorgeous vampire, which explains the following for True Blood.
That television programme – at least in the first series which was full of potential and subtexts – also factored in another theme which was played predominantly: The vampire as The Outsider and what is known in academic circles as "The Other".
In its first series True Blood seemed to be as much about race and marginalisation of minority groups as it was about blood sucking. That it played out in the South made that subtext even more overt.
The appeal of vampire flicks to otherwise intelligent adults is slightly harder to discern, but in his recent film Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch – who wrote and directed – has made a vampire movie for adults where the fangs are only rarely revealed and necks go – with a couple of notable exceptions – unscarred.
Only Lovers Left Alive – nothing to do with the 1964 novel of the same name or the proposed film based on ii which the Rolling Stones were going to have as a film vehicle in '66 – is a vampire movie for and about adults.
Out now on DVD (through Madman on DVD and Blu-ray, see here *), previously nominated for the Palme D'Or in Cannes last year (winning a soundtrack award), Only Lovers Left Alive plays an adult love story quite straight and that is when it is at its best.
But Jarmusch can't resist dropping very heavy-handed references to make his audience smile with recognition.
Or laugh aloud at the director's gall.
Famous people in photos are on walls (Oh look, it's Bill Burroughs and a young Iggy Pop), there are the spine-titles of books on shelves, and record covers scattered around (Wow, he's into the Dirtbombs too, and on vinyl!) . . . they litter many scene like Hansel's breadcrumbs.
These are all whisper trails and often dead-ends (can't believe I just wrote that) to follow into characters, some of them deiberately underdeveloped.
And that is the film-mnakers art too.
The protagonists are vampire lovers Adam and Eve (yes, Jarmusch makes it that obvious) and as the film opens she (Tilda Swinton) is living in Tangiers and he (Tom Hiddleston) is in blighted Detroit, a city abandoned and crumbling.
It is a city of the dead and of ghosts of the past, the city that gave the world Motown, Bob Seger, Iggy and the Stooges, and more recently the White Stripes.
Here Adam lives in a crumbling mansion as a musician recluse, surrounded by old recording technology (tape decks, turntables) and classic guitars which he collects.
He is a Kurt Cobain who despises fame and his audience, and living like Mick Jagger in Performance. It is timeless and dark in this Gothic abode where the heavy curtains are permanently drawn. His home seems modeled on a Sixties decadence and taste for North African exotic. It could be Keith Richards' Redlands in '69.
But of course Adam is also an ancient, a man who gave music to Schubert (Just the adagio") and who saw Eddie Cochran play a particular kind of guitar (“On You Tube,” he quickly corrects himself when his visitor expresses surprise).
But at core this is a love story, and a story of dependency: he on her, both on the blood they purchase and which gives them a heroin-like euphoria.
In truth, not a lot happens in this world. They are actually emotionally fragile creatures although their love gives them strength, but time has allowed them to see the decay, debauchery and damage of the 21st century through wise eyes.
He is desperately lonely and depressed, she comes over from Tangiers, they consummate the love that has fed them for centuries, her wild-child younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) visits and – typical teenager – she misbehaves (if draining the blood from a visitor is mischievous) and they kick her out. Then they have to leave and go back – flying by night all the way – to Tangiers and the company of an old friend Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt, above) who gets to make bad jokes about writing Shakespeare's plays and so on.)
But if that storyline seems thin the strength of the film lies in the characters and the context Jarmusch gives them. The relationship of co-dependents is deftly underplayed and becomes more apparent as the story plays out, damaged Detroit – an emblem of global decay – is a character in itself when they drive around the empty streets at night (past Jack White's old house, “He was his mother's seventh son”) and the beautiful old Michigan Theatre now a tragic ruin.
But global warming will take care of all this: “When the cities in the South have burned, this city will bloom”.
Punctuated by great old Fifties music, Adam's own dark soundtrack (by Jozef van Wissem) and with a guest appearance by the wonderful Yasmine Hamdan in Tangiers (which serves no dramatic purpose but she is exceptional), Only Lovers Left Alive might just be the slowest, least blood-letting vampire film ever.
Teenagers probably won't get it because there are no breasts heaving and, despite Adam's moody rock-god looks, these people are just, like, old.
But for a mature audience it really is a slowly unfolding delight.
Dark of course, but that comes with the territory of the undead.
Who here sometimes wish they weren't.
* Extras on the DVD are a behind the scenes documentary Travelling at Night with Jim Jarmusch, and interviews with Swinton, Hiddleston and Wasikowska