Thursday, January 16, 2014

Culture Shock 01.16.14: 'Byzantium' gives vampires back their blood

In the 20 years since director Neil Jordan brought Anne Rice's "Interview with the Vampire" to the screen, the vampire genre has become — forgive the pun — almost bloodless.

HBO's "True Blood" bathes in blood and sex like a Countess Bathory of self parody, but it is, nonetheless, parody. Otherwise we have endured a long "Twilight" struggle. Mopy vampires who sparkle in the sunlight? It's downright embarrassing. Nosferatu hides his rat-toothed face in shame.

And Jordan is indirectly to blame, contributing as he did to Rice's fortunes.

The Lestat of "Interview" may have been a monster, but with each subsequent installment of her Vampire Chronicles, Rice arced in an ever more emo direction, eventually leading to Stephenie Meyer and her creepy, obsessive, teen-stalking Edward Cullen — the man-child of Meyer's dreams.

So it's appropriate penance that Jordan's return to vampires is the anti-"Twilight." Gone is the overcast blah of Forks, Wash. Say hello to the full-blooded spectacle of "Byzantium" (Blu-ray, DVD).

"Byzantium" gives this undead genre more life than it has had in years.

When we meet vampire mother Clara (Gemma Arterton, "Quantum of Solace") and daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan, "Hanna"), they've been on the run for two centuries, moving quietly from town to town and home to home.

Forced into prostitution while a young girl during the Napoleonic Wars, Clara long ago embraced the lifestyle. She tells a disapproving Eleanor more than once that someone has to put food on the table.

But for Clara sex work is as much about empowerment as economic necessity. She uses it to lure her victims, abusive men whose deaths make the world a more beautiful place, or so she says. And she uses it to empower other women, too, giving drug-addicted streetwalkers a safe and profitable place to ply their trade away from pimps and police.

That safe place is Byzantium, a former hotel and, more recently, boarding house with rooms to spare and windows illuminated by the warm neon glow of its eponymous signage.

Byzantium is a matriarchal refuge. Although a man holds the lease — inherited from his mother — he isn't in charge. Clara is. Byzantium is her headquarters for the final campaign in her centuries-old battle of the sexes. It's also the battlefield for her more personal war with Eleanor.

Most children are ready to leave home by their teens. Imagine if you were stuck living with your mom for 200 years. So, the other half of the story is Eleanor's long-overdue coming of age.

Raised in an orphanage until Clara liberates her, Eleanor is reserved and isolated. She feeds only on the old and sick — people who are ready to pass on, anyway. She has no common ground with her worldly mom and no one in whom she can confide. That is, until she meets a kindred spirit in Frank (Caleb Landry Jones, "X-Men: First Class"), a young man who has had his own brush with death.

Jordan and screenwriter Moira Buffini, adapting her own stage production, create a vampire mythology with some new twists. Clara becomes a vampire, or "sucreant," as they're called here, by stealing a map intended for the man who forced her into prostitution. The map leads to a cave on a barren island, a cave where one can die and be reborn as an immortal.

Until Clara discovers it, the island is reserved for an all-male Brotherhood, which is none too happy when Clara forces her way into their ranks. And when Clara makes Eleanor a sucreant, too, the Brotherhood marks both for death. Creation, the Brotherhood says, is reserved for men.

In "Byzantium," sex is the ultimate weapon. Both Clara and Eleanor are rape survivors. Clara uses her sexuality to take control of her life. Male vampires jealously guard their own form of procreation, and the island and its cave birth eternal life in gushing fountains of blood.

It's as far removed from Bella Swan's passive, suicidal lovesickness as you can get. Clara and Eleanor certainly aren't waiting on any knights in sparkly armor to come along.

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