Along with the zombie, the vampire may well be the most exhausted horror archetype around these days. And if you are like me and prefer vampires who are not hot, hip, fashionable young things more interested in sex and romance than blood, then the last few years of Twilight-Vampire Diaries-True Blood overload has sent you scurrying back to your Bela Lugosi box set and 12th remastered copy of the original Nosferatu.
But even those provide just temporary relief, if only because they’re as familiar as the shape of your teeth as you roll your tongue over them. There has been precious little in the way of a fresh take on vampire mythology for a while now, but two new films that both happen to have arrived today (Feb. 13) at least provide interesting twists on the formula even if they don’t do anything particularly groundbreaking with it.
The films are Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, written and directed by Spike Lee, and What We Do in the Shadows, written and directed by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords). The former is a remake of the cult 1973 film Ganja and Hess, written and directed by playwright Bill Gunn, about an academic who is afflicted through possibly supernatural means with an addiction to blood. The latter is a mockumentary in which a film crew visits with a cabal of vampires living in Wellington, New Zealand and dealing with what could be considered everyday problems, only in the way that you might handle them if you were an undead bloodsucker who was several hundred years old.
Lee’s film is, in a way, an anti-vampire movie: I only heard the word once and don’t remember hearing it at all in the Gunn original, which also goes out of its way to avoid the standard tropes of the genre. Noted anthropologist Hess Green (Stephen Tyrone Williams) is not afflicted with his curse in the usual way, via another creature of the night; instead, he’s stabbed to death with an ancient dagger by a mentally unstable assistant (Elvis Nolasco), only to wake up and start licking the assistant’s blood off the floor after the latter has committed suicide.
Aside from his thirst for blood, Hess shows no other outward signs of vampirism: he does not sleep in a coffin (he doesn’t seem to sleep much, period), he is not averse to the cross and he can move about during the day. He also still has an interest in sex and romance, which is soon fulfilled by Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams), the assistant’s wife who comes to look for her husband and stays for both the romance and her own eventual shot at immortality. In a metaphor that’s as brightly lit as the film’s dazzling Martha’s Vineyard setting, Hess and Ganja enjoy a wealthy lifestyle at his Vineyard property, sipping blood in wine goblets (obtained from medical offices) – but Hess can’t resist heading into the inner city to ravage the occasional poor victim he finds there (including, in one cruel sequence, an unwed mother).
The original Ganja and Hess was a strange, dreamlike, hallucinatory experience, and Lee captures some of that tone in his narratively faithful remake, which was funded through Kickstarter and shot in 16 days. Otherwise he seems to want to have it both ways – no, make that three ways: he wants to make a serious study of addiction and privilege among the upper class, while also satirizing the same and – despite his public stance that this is not a horror film – wallowing in the gore and sex that are the exploitation touchstones of the genre. He also connects the film to his larger body of work with a few not-so-subtle touches, like opening credits that are reminiscent of Do the Right Thing and a stop by the church from Red Hook Summer.
The result is a movie that’s all over the map, slow-moving and not really thematically coherent, but is still fascinating to watch. It is hurt, however, by some very broad and stiff acting from the entire cast. Abrahams has a better grasp of what she’s doing, but Williams doesn’t seem sure of himself. The best of them all (and the film’s secret weapon) is Rami Malek as Williams’ driver and houseman, who addresses the couple with the same ever-faithful yet slightly sardonic veneer of someone who knows he is working for the clueless rich but is glad to be there anyway.
The equally low-budget What We Do in the Shadows doesn’t shy away from the key elements of classic vampire canon at all: in fact, it revels in them and makes them both hilarious and oddly endearing as its four “flatmates” – the fussy Viago (Waititi), the brutish Vladistav (Clement), the lazy Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and the monstrous Petyr (Ben Fransham). All look relatively normal and range in age from 183 to 862, except for Petyr, who is 8,000 years old and looks like Count Orlok from Murnau’s 1923 silent classic. Unlike Lee’s addicts, they are bound by the old rules – no sunlight, no crosses – but also bicker among themselves about who should do the dishes (they’ve been piling up for decades, it seems) and dress up each night to hit the clubs and lure back their victims. They bare their fans and levitate when angered, can hypnotize people and occasionally get into staredowns with the local gang of werewolves.
With the “film crew” apparently under protection from attack, we get an intimate look at the lives of four older, single men who are struggling to live in the modern world. The film is light on its feet and never belabors its points, treating both the friendly spats and the gruesome murders with the same unwavering eye, and the results are unpretentious, unassuming and entertaining from start to finish. Viago worries about getting blood on the carpet from a victim’s punctured artery, while new recruit Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) rather naively brags to people that he has become a vampire – which has some tragic consequences later on. The vampires are clearly monsters, but likable, charming ones who simply want to get along and enjoy their unlives.
The awkwardness of being an Old World vampire in a 21st century nation is what provides most of the laughs in What We Do in the Shadows, while perhaps being its own metaphor for these ancient monsters trying to stay relevant and frightening in the modern world. But the movie never gets that heavy: it’s fast and funny, clocking in at a just-right 85 minutes, and it captures the bloodsuckers’ ramshackle existence perfectly. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus and What We Do in the Shadows are both different spins on well-worn folklore, but while the former tries to pretend it’s above the bloody fray, the latter dives right in – and, if you pardon the pun, has a lot more bite.
The rating below is averaged from 2 stars for Da Sweet Blood of Jesus and 4 stars for What We Do in the Shadows. Both films are out now in theaters and via VOD.