Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Vampyres

Thoughts on the film by José Ramón Larraz

Putting together a short comment for MUBI, I wrote the following: "With its atmospheric locations, painterly shot compositions and use of natural lighting, Vampyres is a grindhouse film that succeeds in dipping a toe or two into the esoteric world of the arthouse movie. Despite its minimal plotting, the story sustains interest and has a few surprising developments, but it can't compete with certain similar films by the great Jean Rollin, who could have injected this particular brand of exploitation with something more dreamlike, hypnotic and surreal."

I drafted the above almost automatically. At the time it seemed a good enough means of expressing (within the minimum character limit available) the film's strengths and weaknesses. I was content to leave it there and move on to something else when I started to question the film's deeper merits. I was thinking about how, from a surface perspective, the "vampiric" characters of Vampyres (1974) seemed to lack a political or sociological component. What was the subtext? Was the film simply a work of empty exploitation designed to shock and titillate the undiscerning viewer, or was it an opportunity - like with many other horror films before and since - to explore more interesting themes?

In many gothic horror films, the presentation of the "monster" - be it werewolf, vampire or something else - is often a figurative stand-in for something more theoretical, or subtextual. For instance, in Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922) by F. W. Murnau, the vampire sweeps across the landscape like a literal plague. It becomes in the process a kind of harbinger of sickness; a physical black death. In the later remake by Werner Hezog, Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), this "plague" becomes a possible invocation of the encroaching darkness that would infect the German psyche in the early to middle parts of the Twentieth Century. For Herzog, the vampire is almost a portent of the Weimar Republic; that period of decadence and ruin that led directly (or indirectly) to the rise of National Socialism, and later fascism and war.


Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror [F. W. Murnau, 1922]:


Nosferatu the Vampyre [Werner Herzog, 1979]:

In these films the vampire is symbolic; a personification of something greater than its single form. Later vampire films, such as The Hunger (1983), Interview With the Vampire (1994) and The Addiction (1995), would use vampirism as a metaphor for AIDS, homosexuality and drug addiction respectively, while a more recent vampire film, Byzantium (2012), found parallels between its vampiric protagonists and the experience of asylum seekers forced to flee their native homes and live nomadically in foreign countries.

Thinking more about this particular film by José Ramón Larraz, I started to wonder if I'd sold the movie short. While I think it's easy to be blindsided by the sleazier aspects of the film - its low-budget nature, wooden performances, perfunctory dialogue, etc - there is something about Vampyres that seems to connect, albeit in retrospect, to a more interesting interpretation. It's a reading of the film that seems analogous to that of the aforementioned Interview With the Vampire (both the film version by Neil Jordan and the original 1976 novel by Anne Rice) in which the relationship between the two vampire characters could be seen as a metaphor for a homosexual relationship in the times before same-sex partnerships were more widely accepted.


Interview with the Vampire [Neil Jordan, 1994]:

In Vampyres, the lesbian lovers at the centre of the film are forced to remain hidden; living a nocturnal existence away from the conventional society. In the opening scene of the film, the couple, during an act of love, are punished and destroyed for their natural, consensual desires, by the literal shadow of puritanical virtue. In the decades, if not centuries that follow, they are forced to feed off various men in a mockery of heterosexual sex.


Vampyres [José Ramón Larraz, 1974]:

Like Interview with the Vampire, the subtext of the conventional vampiric existence is as such one of longing and repression; about two characters bound-together in partnership, sharing time and space, but not legally recognised as part of a "Holy" union. Further to this, the subplot involving the young couple who arrive at the film's manor house location with their caravan in tow (and with it an image of conventional domesticity in miniature) becomes endemic of the threat of the "straight", the conservative conformity of the "normal", or the everyday. In this context, it adds an element of colour to the interpretation, exaggerating the tedium of the heterosexual couple with the transgressions of the central characters. As does the ending, and the necessity of the two supernatural figures to once more take flight into the uncaring wilderness, lost within the margins of society.

In Vampyres, the scenes of heterosexual sex are fittingly grotesque. This grotesquery may have been coincidental - a result of having bad actors floundering into awkward love scenes without the guidance of an intimacy coordinator and literally fumbling their way through - but I think it's intentional. The wild pawing of flesh, the slobbering lips and tongues penetrating open-mouthed encounters, are the antitheses of eroticism. It fits in with the idea of characters forced to engage with a kind of sexuality that isn't felt, but instead becomes a cruel necessity for survival.

Vampyres is the first of two films I've seen by Larraz. While it's interesting enough to spend some time with, I found his subsequent work, The Coming of Sin (1978), to be on the whole a lot more interesting and much more successful in its combination of exploitation elements and art-house mind-games. Nonetheless, Vampyres makes an interesting companion-piece to that later film, with another story about female courtship and female desire under threat from the almost supernatural harbingers of conservative masculinity, guilt and emotional repression.