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Monday, March 27, 2023

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Analysis: Vampires

Vampire’s Kiss and Martin; The Vampire As A Metaphor For Sex…

Welcome to a brand new series for MultiMediaMouth. Every Friday in Analysis, Michael Ewins will be looking at a linked pair of films but rather than reviewing them, he’ll be looking at their themes, metaphors and their place in cinema history, and to begin with he’s dug up a couple of horror gems for you to take a more thoughtful look at.

Friday nights are a time for terror. Back in the good old days (that is, before I was born) underground grindhouse cinemas in England and America used to play late night double bills of sleazy exploitation features like Trip With The Teacher, Ilsa: She Wolf Of The SS , and Strip Nude For Your Killer – so it seems rather apt that I get to start this feature on a blood stained note, with the subject of vampirism. Although we’re not quite in the territory occupied by those intentionally lowbrow movies – joyously excessive in their presentation of sex and murder – we are dealing with the subjects of sex and death, and their intrinsic link. On an academic note I would point you all the way back to The Blue Angel and the seduction of Prof. Rath (Emil Jannings) by the sexy Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich) as the cinematic introduction to female sexuality acting as a catalyst for male downfall. But in the tradition of Roger Corman horror, I’m going to cut straight to the point…

There’s a classic genre trope, developed by John Carpenter in Halloween and parodied by Wes Craven in Scream that goes a little something like this… “if you have sex, you die”. Given that this trope evolved in 70s cinema there is probably a deeper political intent (à la: safe sex – remember kids, AIDS is the real killer). But such heavy handed symbolism only detracts from the blood ‘n’ boobs exploitation of these films. This edition of Analysis is about the vampire as a metaphor for sexuality, so I actually want to begin with a brief discussion of a forgotten gem named Vampyres: Daughters Of Darkness (José Ramón Larraz, 1974), which supposes a literal relationship between sex and death, portraying the unexplainable thrill that lies in the climax of both acts. The film follows sexy lesbian vampires Fran (Marianne Morris) and Miriam (Anulka Dziubinska) who seduce men by the roadside, take them back to their mansion, make love to and then devour them. A willing victim by the name of Ted (Murray Brown) spies on the lesbians showering together, sexually embracing. Shot from his P.O.V. we, the audience, are the voyeur. We enjoy and are stimulated by watching them, and this will lead to our (well, Ted’s) demise. The key element linking Vampyres to Vampire’s Kiss (Robert Bierman, 1989) and Martin (George A. Romero, 1977) is romance on a one-way street – lust and desire through a singular lens of loneliness. The literal rather than metaphorical separation comes from the fact that Ted is able to perform sexually and it’s his embrace of the debauched fantasy that kills him. For the characters in our double bill though, vampirism acts as a metaphor for their stunted sexuality. Firstly a brief synopsis for each…

Vampire’s Kiss tells the story of publishing executive Peter Loew (Nicolas Cage), who is in the habit of picking up girls for one-night stands. One of the girls he brings home bites him – and he slowly begins to turn into a vampire himself. His blood lust becomes destructive when it begins to play a part in his abusive relationship with shy secretary Alva (Maria Conchita Alonso).

Martin is the story of a troubled young man named Martin (John Amplas) who sedates, rapes, kills and drinks the blood of a young woman on a train to New York. He departs and meets an old man named Tata Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), who claims to be his cousin from the ‘Old World’. Accusing Martin of being an 84-year-old vampire with a lust for blood, Martin struggles with his inner demons while continuing to kill women. We never know if he really is a vampire – if he is, his methods are not traditional.

Vampire’s Kiss is a savagely dark comedy of male dominance and self-oppression; romance on a one-way street as guided by gradual insanity. Nicolas Cage, who was born to play a vampire, is on barnstorming form. His slinky figure, piercing eyes and general all-round oddness gives him a somewhat otherworldly presence, also explored in David Lynch’s manic psychosexual odyssey Wild At Heart. Channelling Ted Logan and Truman Capote in his vocal delivery, he spends most of the film hysterically overacting, delivering perhaps his most deranged, twitchy performance – arm flinging and animal devouring (a pigeon was faked, but he ate several cockroaches) for all he’s worth. But there is, of course, a more serious side. Peter is something of a lothario, but he is never able to make love to a woman – a bat (literal or subconscious; it’s more fun if you choose) keeps interrupting him. There are lots of overhead shots of the city in Vampire’s Kiss to give the impression that Peter’s work (the tall business buildings are pointedly phallic) dominate his life. But when he is bitten by a dark woman of the night he becomes his self-perceived, or dream, self. He then begins a disturbingly amusing abusive relationship with his secretary Alva. A key scene sees him chasing Alva into a dead end – this scene is both depressingly funny and shockingly brave. Peter bites Alva in his fantasy, but in reality rapes her. In this one moment of devastatingly harsh comedy (and it is comedy) Peter unleashes his repressed urges. Later the wannabe yuppie murders a slutty girl in a nightclub and wanders back to his apartment, silly prop fangs intact. One of the last shots in the film sees him holding a wooden stake up to his crotch, leaning back and shouting “leave me the f**k alone”, perhaps drilling that phallic theme in a little too hard. Think of him as the love-child of Gordon Gecko and Patrick Bateman – a psychotically warped corporate slug, professional narcissist and casual killer. Of course the vampire angle introduces something new; one could almost read it as a comedy-of-errors. The film is at it’s most enjoyable when watched as a straight up comedy, and the scenes between Peter and his therapist are the jewel in the crown; “I’m fighting this bat off all alone, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t get a little turned on”… and don’t tell him anything’s been misfiled…

Martin makes for a fascinating comparison piece because of its sexually inadequate character; a killer who not only finds pleasure in the act of violence, but needs violence in order to get close to women. His is clearly a romantic lust – the same sort that can be traced back to Murnau’s Nosferatu and is also seen in Werner Herzog’s more sexually charged remake, which sees the gorgeous Isabelle Adjani abandoning acting for posing in a satin nightgown. In the same way that Nosferatu dies because of his lust for a beautiful woman (dissolving in the sunlight) lust is, in a more visceral and more literal way, also the downfall of both Peter and Martin, as both die staked through the heart. . Women, and more accurately a desire for women, acted as the catalyst for their deaths. Martin is much more focused on the psychological implications of vampirism – the idea of living for eternity, stalking by night and never being able to get close to somebody without killing them (also seen in Tomas Alfredson’s delicate Let The Right One In). Drained of colour, gritty in appearance and featuring a delicate score, it’s a more solemn film than Vampire’s Kiss but they both recognise the act of vampirism as being penetrative, and an act born out of desire for a woman’s flesh. Therefore it’s the perfect metaphor for sex, or more specifically, sexual inadequacy. Because the vampire is also doomed to die if he gives into his urges. The films I’m discussing here are genuinely romantic because they are about the implications of love and its frequent confusion with lust. Vampire’s Kiss is a film about wanting to be happy, but only plummeting further into loneliness. And Martin is a film about wanting to have a girlfriend, but being too shy to talk to girls – a feeling many men can relate to. For in their darkness lies truth. The truth we all know but can’t admit – that lust, passion desire… they can overwhelm us, and become dangerous. Vampire’s Kiss finds comedy in that danger, and Martin finds an almost ethereal sadness. But they are both about men who cannot find it in themselves to be men. So they find in themselves… a vampire.

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