In Shunji Iwai’s low-key thriller, Vampire, Kevin Zegers (Dawn of the Dead, Gossip Girl) plays Simon, a high school biology teacher and eponymous vampire who stalks suicidal women online and arranges to meet them so they can “die together”—by which, of course, he means “ladies first.”
As the film opens, Simon meets a young woman (Keisha Castle-Hughes) who goes by the handle “Jellyfish” at a roadside rendezvous and the two take an extended road trip, discussing the mutual acquaintances they’ve made online, the least painful forms of death, and the best place to get Thai food on the road. You know, the usual “getting to know you” chit-chat.
As the scene progresses, Simon slowly works Jellyfish around to the idea that medical desanguination would be the easiest, least painful way to die. Granted, Simon has something of a biased perspective, but really he makes a very good case.
It’s the kind of opening sequence that, on paper, seems par for the course for a stylish vampire thriller: the young woman being driven to her doom by the insatiable predator. But Vampire, by design, inverts all our expectations of the standard horror film conventions.
Rather than a highly suspenseful interplay between predator and prey, this sequence is rendered as a slice-of-life independent road film. The filming is realistic, the camera angles intimate, the dialogue leisurely and genuine, the pacing slow and deliberate. I kept expecting Chloe Sevigny to appear at any moment.
Simon is not a typical smooth, seductive vampire, but an awkward and shy introvert. If vampire stories are typically analogies to sexual predation, this one seems to be more about online dating. Awkward pauses in conversation, the strangeness of meeting someone in the flesh that you’ve gotten to know online, the isolation of people who live their lives through computer screens have all replaced the sublimated lust, repressed sexual identity, and erotic curiosity of Bram Stoker’s groovy blood sucking swingers.
At home, Simon lives with his mother (Amanda Plummer) whom he keeps in a harness suspended by helium balloons. You know, like you do.
When a police officer arrives to investigate, Simon explains that his mother is suffering from dementia and that the balloon harness helps keep her in the apartment while preserving her mobility. The officer is impressed with Simon’s ingenuity and Simon strikes up an awkward friendship with the cop and his sister, who begins pushing her way into Simon and his mother's life.
Simon is also a member of a gothic vampire-themed cosplay group. At a meeting of the group, Simon learns that a serial killer known as “The Vampire” has been stalking suicidal women and draining them of their blood.
As his notoriety increases, it becomes difficult for the privacy-obsessed Simon to hide his identity. Fearful of exposure, his actions become increasingly erratic until…
...well, wouldn’t want to spoil it.
Vampire is Iwai’s first English language film. The quirky characters, oddball plotting, deliberate pacing, and surreal imagery make Vampire one of the most unique bloodsucker films since Robert Bierman’s Vampire’s Kiss, another film that analogized vampirism not just to sex but to dating.
Fans of more traditional vampire fare may not find what they’re looking for in this piece, but anyone who has seen Iwai’s other work, especially his masterpiece of oddball suspense Pikunikku (Picnic), will be right at home with his American debut.
Whether it’s the sexual rage of Bram Stoker, the medical monstrosity of Mary Shelley, the evolutionary existential horror of HP Lovecraft, or the inevitable biological determinism of David Cronenberg, the best horror reflects monsters from our collective id through a distorted funhouse mirror.
For Iwai, it seems, true horror lies at the intersection of social expectation and biological need. Simon’s essential decency compels him to fulfill his urges in the least unethical manner possible. Yet doing so exposes him to the horror of other people’s projections about vampires.
Like the self-styled “nice guys” and wallflowers who can never seem to understand why they can’t find love, Simon portrays himself as a victim of other people’s stereotypes and preconceptions about him. But like other nice guys, Simon ultimately finds his own withdrawal and lack of candor prevents him from connecting with the very people he wants most to understand him.
No one ever said dating was easy.
Vampire is available on DVD and Amazon Instant.