Byzantium

Gemma Arterton in Byzantium

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

26 November

 

 

Vlad the Impaler becomes ruler of Wallachia for third time, 1476

On this day in 1476, Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia became ruler of Wallachia for the third time.

His father, Vlad II, had become a member of the chivalric Order of the Dragon (Drache in German, Dracul in Romanian) in 1431. As the son, Vlad III carried the patronymic Dracula, son of Dracul (he signed himself Wladislaus Dragwlya).

Vlad III spent a good deal of his life asserting his claim on Wallachia. He was first installed as a ruler by the Ottomans – Vlad III had been brought up in the Sultan’s court as a hostage, to ensure his father’s loyalty to the Ottoman empire – and they put him on the throne to prevent encroachment by the Hungarians.

This failed. Vlad III secured his second reign by allying himself with the Hungarians against the Ottomans. He established strict rule over his new country, impaled any who stood in his way and built up a fiercely loyal special guard to protect him against assassination. This second period of rule was marked out by relentless conflict with the Ottomans who maintained that Wallachia was part of their Empire. To which Vlad responded by impaling any Ottoman soldier he found on his territory – the higher the rank, the longer the stake.

This made Vlad III a popular figure in Western Europe, where there were always worries about Ottoman plans for aggrandisement. However, Vlad III was finally routed by his own brother, Radu the Handsome, on behalf of the Ottomans, in alliance with Vlad’s own nobility.

Vlad III seems to have spent the years following his defeat as a prisoner in Hungary. In 1475 Radu died and Vlad immediately declared himself voivode (military ruler) of Wallachia. After only two months of uneasy rule Vlad III was assassinated. No one is sure exactly when, or where, or by whom.

Exactly how cruel Vlad III was, and how many of the tales of his evil deeds were political spin put about by enemies (and he had plenty) is hard to tell, though there are stories of babies being roasted and fed to their own mothers, and of 20,000 corpses impaled on the outskirts of Targoviste, Vlad’s capital, a sight which is said to have sickened the Sultan, himself a notable impaler.

 

 

 

Byzantium (2013, dir: Neil Jordan)

Since Bram Stoker borrowed the Dracula name for his 1897 novel, the character of the vampire has almost inevitably been gothic in character – favouring the night, pale, sickly of aspect, dressed in sombre colours, sexy, voracious.

Bucking that trend was the very modern, urban IKEA version found in Let the Right One In, the most influential vampire film of recent years/decades. Neil Jordan’s film is a beautiful collision of the two – on the one hand we have buxom gothic vamp Clara, played by Gemma Arterton. On the other there’s wispy Eleanor, played by Saoirse Ronan, who only drinks blood when she absolutely has to.

Are they sisters? Mother and daughter? Or eternal friends? The answer to that question is more or less the plot of the film. And while we’re following it we’re being given an object lesson in atmospherics by Neil Jordan, whose last dabble in this area was 1994’s Interview with the Vampire, starring Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise.

This is the better film, more sure of itself, less caught up in the machinations of stars and their agents. Thematically, though it’s closer to Jordan’s 1984 fairytale excursion The Company of Wolves – with the exploitation of women and class as a factor in daily (and eternal) life both ringing bells. As you might expect with a screenplay for The Company of Wolves by Angela Carter and for Byzantium by Moira Buffini, both feminists (though Buffini’s feminism is more oblique than Carter’s).

Taking notes from reactions to The Company of Wolves, perhaps, Jordan keeps his themes in the background, leaving front of curtain to the actors and production designers. And he is rewarded royally – it’s difficult to imagine better casting than Arterton and Ronan. Then there’s Caleb Landry Jones as a young man with haemophilia, Jonny Lee Miller as an utter bounder, Tom Hollander as a dithery teacher who believes Arterton might be interested in him (she is, Tom, just not in the way that you think).

As for Byzantium itself, a rundown seaside hotel somewhere on the South Coast of England, it’s a glorious rotten bundle of a place complete with an old cathode ray TV on which the girls watch old films – a Hammer horror vampire flick at one point. Very homely.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Fabulous production design by Simon Elliott
  • Really top class casting
  • Shame and Place Beyond the Pines cinematographer Sean Bobbit
  • Women as the vampires, not the victims

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Byzantium – watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

 

 

 

 

Nosferatu

Max Schreck as Nosferatu

Murnau’s 1922 silent expressionist classic is one of defining moments in movie-making. It borrowed its story wholesale from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, gave it the lightest of resprays and hoped no one would notice the theft. Bram Stoker’s widow noticed and sued for breach of copyright, won the case and had all the prints of Nosferatu destroyed. But the film refused to die, and rose from the undead.

Its star, who plays Count Orlok (aka Nosferatu), is one Max Schreck, “Schreck” being the German word for terror. Maximum Terror – and you thought modern Hollywood had a lock on this sort of thing. Adding to that in terms of myth-making, it was always rumoured that Schreck was in real-life a vampire too (something Willem Dafoe had a bit of fun with when he played Orlok in 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire). Whether Schreck sucked blood for fun or not in reality, his Orlok is a very unsavoury piece of work. A long way from the urbane Dracula, habitué of velvet-draped boudoirs, Orlok is bat-eared, bald and has two ratty fangs in the middle of his maw. And as he seeks a place to rest his head in Bremen, spreading plague as he goes, we’re given the distinct impression that this is one deeply troubled soul (if a vampire can be said to have a soul) for whom existence is a curse.

Director FW Murnau’s techniques in the film are noteworthy. Notice how as the action switches between desolate Carpathia and urban Bremen, Murnau on a couple of occasions intercutting the action in the two locations in montage sequence. This is routine today, but back in 1922 Murnau was one of the first to do it. What we’re watching is the book on film language as we understand today being written on the hoof.

Adding to Murnau’s technical mastery is his flair for the theatrical. Considering how quickly horror films go off the boil in terms of shock effect, the sequence where Orlok rises from his coffin while being shipped to Europe – pivoting from the feet like a man attached to a plank (surely that’s how it was done) – is remarkable for its ability, even now, to generate a “wow” if not a shudder. Back in 1922 it scared the shit out of people. Though Nosferatu can’t lay claim to being the first vampire film ever made – the Hungarian Drakula Halála beat it to the post one year before – in terms of sheer atmosphere it’s still one of the best. Maximum Terror indeed.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Nosferatu – at Amazon