Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Blood Rites of the Vampyr – review

Director: Sébastien Godin

Release date: 2020

Contains spoilers

I was contacted by director Sébastien Godin, who’s premier for this film had been thwarted by the Covid-19 pandemic and was subsequently looking for reviews – I’m never one to turn down a view of a vampire film. Full disclosure, he also told me that he was a long-time reader of this blog - it’s always a thrill to find people who get something out of TMtV, however I have not let this influence the score.

The film was described to me as an attempt “to marry the styles of classic horror from the 20's and 30's with a 70's Euro-horror sensibility. Influences on the film include Jean Rollin, Jess Franco and F.W. Murnau”. This is quite an ambition for, what is admittedly, a micro-budget film. Certainly, as we’ll see, the black and white shot film styled itself as an art-house mood piece – though it sometimes strayed into a too narrative place for the mood piece.

Vicki Bitis as the Vampyr
It starts with a man, restless in bed. A woman (Vicki Bitis) is in the room, her face gaunt, her movements jerky. She moves her arms over him (a lot of her movement, through the film, might be described as being in the style of interpretive dance). He bolts awake. Later he tells a monk (Anthony D.P. Mann, Terror of Dracula) about the dreams that are filled with spiritual disturbance. He describes floating, no more than a point of view, in the forest, there is a grave and a sickly-looking woman who dances.

Anthony D.P. Mann as the monk
This disturbs the monk, though he denies knowing anything that might shed light upon the dream. Even so, he warns the man not to attempt to find the grave in the woods, to stay far away from it. This, of course, confirms to the man that the grave exists. After he leaves the flat, the monk offers a prayer, begging that it not be so.

spontaneously bleeding
We see the man stumbling through the woods, as though in a nonsensical daze. He reaches the grave marker and his throat opens spontaneously, spilling blood onto the earth. We see a hand emerging from the detritus and then the woman appears, led on the grave. Her eyes open and then she bites the man. She then goes to the town, where she appears as an anachronism as she walks the streets and, when in the man’s apartment, seems mystified by modernity. To note we get moments of a vampire silent movie on the TV at this point.

Steve Kasan as Blackburn
Detective Rollin (John Keech) is speaking to his counterpoint Detective Blackburn (Steve Kasan). A body has been found, drained of blood with no apparent trauma barring two small wounds to the neck (this is not the man in the woods, his body is found later). The Detective relays a story his grandma told him. When settlers first arrived at the area the land was barren but a special woman appeared at night, disappearing by day, who bled into the earth causing it to bloom – making an interesting connection between the vampyr and earth fertility.

dribbling blood
There was a price for her help, however. She demanded a monthly virgin sacrifice and when the townsfolk refused a savage beast appeared killing livestock and some children. The townsfolk captured the woman and buried her in the earth, sealing her in with a cross. Rollin is incredulous but Blackburn is happy to use the V word, insisting that time will tell if he’s correct. Meanwhile the Monk has contacted a vampire hunter (Luc Bernier, A Blood Story & Blood Reunion 3: Hunters).

a moment in red
So, I listed the inspirations outlined by the director and certainly I got the feel from this of the works of Chris Alexander, who cites Franco and Rollin as inspirations for his vampire films also. As with Alexander’s work, I see the Rollin influence in this much more than the Franco. I also was reminded, as I watched, of Lilith’s Awakening, though that was possibly within the black and white (which goes into red lighting and then colour for one scene). Where this became a tad conflicted, as a film, I think was in it grasping for the narrative when it felt like it wanted to remain a mood piece and the narrative threatened to be a hindrance to that.

I liked some of the narrative ideas, don’t get me wrong, the idea that the vampyr was intimately tied to the health of the land was great, a voice-over tells us that vampires are fine in daylight, they just lose their supernatural powers, and it further relays that they hunger for (and can subsist on) knowledge as much as blood, which was really interesting. But little was done with the ideas, especially the latter, once presented and that was the conflict I perceived between storytelling and communicating a mood. Acting wise I felt Mann as the monk was a tad too over the top, but that may have been because Kasan was marvellously nuanced and understated as the Detective.

blood from mouth
Further, I liked the look they gave Vicki Bitis as the vampyr and her expressive dance movements fed into the film as a mood piece. Perhaps the pushing of ingested blood out of mouth was a tad wasteful but, again, was part of expressing a mood. I need to mention that she wore black shorts/leggings beneath her period styled dress, visible in a couple of scenes. Undoubtedly these spared her blushes in a dance moment and probably helped with warmth during night shooting at a cenotaph – however they were very noticeable and an idiosyncrasy – perhaps flesh tone might have served to not pull the viewer out of the mood wondering at the anachronism. Her meeting another night creature cemented the Rollin-esque aspect.

the beast
When it comes to effects there is little to go over. There’s lots of fake blood – with much expelled by the vampyr (and vomited at one point having eaten a morsel of cake). The black and white helped here, and the effects looked good as one or two hearts were held aloft (the removal from the chest more implied than shown). We did get a couple of flashes of what might be described as the beast mentioned in the back story. On pausing the beast looked false, but in quick cut it worked well enough and fed into the animalistic aspect described in the Detective’s story. Note that I am deliberately not listing the lore around what could destroy a vampire.

shadow of the vampire
The photography was crisp, and the Black and White worked well in enhancing the mood. Finally, I need to mention soundtrack – which worked with the more industrial pieces used during vampiric moments, but the very 80s synth styled phrases didn’t do it for me and were a tad jarring. That’s not to say that I disliked the film, in fact quite the opposite, I enjoyed my time within the film. For me it’s one that if you like the movies of Chris Alexander, then you should enjoy. So that’s the viewer who enjoys an art-house sensibility and limited narrative (notwithstanding my perception of the film’s conflicted approach to narrative). 6.5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

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