31 Days of Halloween: Day 23 – Byzantium

A movie review article by: Paul Brian McCoy

This Schlocktober, Comics Bulletin will be exploring the world of horror cinema, featuring thirty one notable films released between Halloween 2012 and Halloween 2013. Next up is director Neil Jordan's Byzantium.

I have a soft spot for Neil Jordan films. Maybe because we share a birthday, I don't know. But I'm always interested when I hear that he's got a new piece ready to share, despite only truly enjoying his second film, The Company of Wolves. I know, I know - what about The Crying Game or Interview with the Vampire? The Crying Game is good, of course, though I've never really gotten past the hype and "mystery" of its release. And I'd rather not discuss my feelings for Interview beyond saying, yuck. He's not a consistent director, but with the right material he can be a very impressive one.

And with a script by English dramatist, director, and actor, Moira Buffini, based on her teleplay, Jordan has struck gold with Byzantium, a tale of two vampires -- a mother and daughter -- on the run from a stodgy Brotherhood of vampires who have deemed them blasphemies.

Mother Clara is played with aggressive sexiness by Gemma Arterton and is simply amazing. Forced into a life of prostitution during the Napoleonic Wars by TV's Sherlock (but he'll always be Sick Boy to me), Jonny Lee Miller, she was victimized most of her short life. In secret, she gave up her daughter to an orphanage and then, nearly died of some terrible venereal disease, or consumption, or something. But when the opportunity to live forever arose, she took it.

Literally. By stealing the secret from Miller's character, Ruthven and choosing to spare his life almost as an afterthought. And then, when Clara's daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) had reached sixteen years of age -- and had been raped and infected with whatever diseases Ruthven (should have killed him) was carrying (probably all of them) -- she passed on the secret of immortality to her. And yes, it involves lots of blood. Waterfalls of blood, even, in a beautiful moment that recurs throughout the film.

There's a lot of good stuff in this film, from the opening moments right down to the roll of the credits. Artherton is a force of nature and Ronan plays Eleanor with a quiet desperation that is a wonderful contrast. Where Clara feeds on those she deems worthy of killing, usually men who prey on the weak, Eleanor chooses her victims compassionately, only feeding on those who are elderly, sick, and/or ready to die.

But what helps to make this film a little more than a simple vampire tale, is the subtext. There's something tragic about Clara's belief that even though she's immortal, she still isn't more than a whore trying to provide for her daughter. She's trapped in that mindset and chooses to make money and find shelter in the easiest way possible -- doling out blowjobs and handys under a boardwalk. The parallels between sexuality and vampirism in this are interesting and very different from what we saw earlier in the year with Kiss of the Damned and all of its exploitation eroticism and cold elitism.

The Brotherhood hunting Clara and Eleanor has existed for centuries and somehow decided that women were icky and gross; totally undeserving of vampirism. In a vampire culture where women are not worthy of the right to reproduce, turning Eleanor was the ultimate sin. So the question at the end of the film becomes one of whether or not Clara kept to the life of prostitution because it was easy or if it was all she was allowed to do and still stay off their radar and survive.

I have to say, I found this film much better stylistically and intellectually than Kiss of the Damned, although some viewers might find it a bit slow as it jumps back and forth through the centuries and in the modern day, focuses on Eleanor's romance of a local boy named Frank (played by Antibodies' Caleb Landry Jones) who just happens to be fighting leukemia.

I tell you, if Jones ever puts on weight and gets a tan, he's gonna lose a lot of acting gigs.

The cinematography is beautiful, the violence is bloody, the sex is raunchy, and the emotional core of the film is solid. There's not a lot here that doesn't stick the landing. If you like vampire films and want something a little more mature without slipping over into irony, satire, or nostalgia, this might be the vampire film for you.

And it should also hold you over until Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive finally arrives.


Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor/editor for Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is available at Amazon US & UK, along with his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation (US & UK). He recently contributed the 1989 chapter to The American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1980s (US & UK) and has kicked off Comics Bulletin Books with Mondo Marvel Volumes One (US & UK) and Two (US & UK). Paul is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy.

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