Terror Cult: Sympathetic Vampires

Screw Twilight. Devon Ashby gives you the very best films that made vampires into tragic antiheroes.

Devon Ashbyby Devon Ashby


Each week, Terror Cult zeroes in on an obscure subcategory of the horror genre and picks it apart even more minutely, outlining they key examples and unifying characteristics that make it so unique. This week, in honor of the blessed end of the Twilight saga, we bring you ruminations on the phenomena of the sympathetic vampire – a relatively recent popular interpretation of a classic horror archetype, emphasizing the monster’s capacity to experience love, guilt, and redemption, rather than just mindless animal bloodlust.

The second half of Twilight: Breaking Dawn descends on humanity this coming weekend, and the time is therefore ripe for reconsideration of the western tradition of the romantic vampire. Vampires were not always personable, well dressed, dripping viscously with sexuality, and/or sparkly. Prior to the rise of the Gothic horror tradition in Europe, vampires in mythology and folklore – particularly in Asia and Eastern Europe – were a lot more like zombies. They were restless souls who rose from the dead as punishment for living selfish and Godless lives, shambling blindly through villages late at night and wreaking indiscriminate havoc until local religious leaders got wise and ritually butchered them.

In the 1800s, however, Gothic horror stories like Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, Lord Byron’s The Vampyre, and eventually Bram Stoker’s Dracula, gradually revised and codified the vampire archetype as it’s known in its present form. Vampires became aloof and solitary figures, usually aristocratic, often strikingly beautiful, and imbued with irresistible sexual hypnotism (as well as, implicitly, perverse and insatiable sexual desires). As the mythology expanded, many interpretations began to allude to vampires as tragic and lonely figures, forced to reconcile flimsy human imperfection and vulnerability with the curse of immortality, the isolation of agelessness, and the need to constantly kill in order to stay alive.

Sympathetic vampires have emerged as one of the strongest and most complex facets of the subgenre. They’re monsters in the traditional sense, but their stories are also about the fear of becoming a monster yourself – or worse, the fear of discovering that someone you love has been a monster secretly all along.

We Are the Night (2010)

We Are the Night is a lesbian vampire film from Germany, heavy on action sequences with a few psychotic mind games and coy sexuality to add flavor. A petty thief named Lena falls accidentally into the clutches of a sophisticated pack of bloodsucking hipsters after she tries to fleece one of them for some petty cash at a Berlin rave. The leader of the vampires, Louise, sexually fixates on Lena and becomes obsessed with securing her undying love and devotion with an endless supply of drugs, sex, gourmet food, and high-priced accessories. We Are the Night emphasizes the glamour and affluence that has become an earmark of the vampire mythos, forcing its protagonist to choose between an endless life of epicurean superficiality and the power to control her own identity.

Let the Right One In (2008)

Based on a popular novel by Norwegian author John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let the Right One In is the story of Oskar, a scrawny runt preoccupied with crime and violence. Abused constantly by his classmates and neglected by his feuding parents, Oskar’s depression and loneliness are finally assuaged by the arrival of Eli, a weird little neighbor girl whom Oskar soon realizes is not actually human. Let the Right One In is a bizarrely sweet and heart-wrenching love story, as loaded with unexpected emotional ambiguities as with jarringly brutal instances of violence.

The Addiction (1995)

Lili Taylor stars as Kathleen Conklin, a timid college student majoring in philosophy whose sequestered life of detached theorizing is permanently destroyed when she becomes the victim of a violent attack. The resulting infection causes her to crave blood and nihilistic desecration in equal amounts, actualizing the ethical struggles at the core of her academic curriculum with a clarity too intense for Kathleen initially to understand or process. The Addiction is a brooding, occasionally paranoid film about compulsive self-destruction, casting about broad and convoluted references to AIDS, sexual abuse, drug dependency, and the politically downplayed and faceless inhumanities of genocide. It often overshoots, but the genuine rawness of its outrage makes it charming regardless.

The Hunger (1983)

Famous for its iconic status in the ‘80s Goth community (and for introducing much of the world to the lipsticked glory of Bauhaus), The Hunger stars pop icon David Bowie and French actress Catherine Deneuve as John and Miriam Blaylock, a pair of centuries-old vampires struggling to find a cure for John’s sudden and mysterious attack of rapid aging. Unable to die even in the face of extreme physical decrepitude, John’s suffering is compounded by the realization that he’s merely the latest in a procession of temporary lovers for Miriam. Her previous cache of companions are hidden in makeshift caskets in the attic of their palatial mansion, decayed beyond recognition, but still horrifically alive. At first hoping to cure John’s affliction, Miriam becomes obsessed with a young and beautiful doctor at an aging clinic, eventually resolving to seduce her as John’s replacement. The Hunger has a bad reputation for being silly and pretentious, but taken at face value, it’s at very least a gratifying guilty pleasure, full of time-lapse footage of decaying monkeys and similar weird-ass hallucinogenic visuals.

Near Dark (1987)

After an illicit encounter with a mysterious and alluring young girl named Mae outside a gas station, Caleb finds himself thrown in with a band of nomadic blood-drinkers marauding through the rural countryside in a windowless black van. Torn between his infatuation with Mae and his moral obligation to his family and previous life, Caleb’s ethical conflict is compounded when his father and sister catch an inkling of his whereabouts, and local police begin to develop accurate suspicions about the spate of recent deaths that have been occurring in the area. Near Dark was an early film by Katherine Bigelow, who recently won an Academy Award for her movie The Hurt Locker, and is mostly a gory and intense melodrama. Its thematic threads regarding obsessive infatuation and the malleability of personal identity still resonate, however.

Thirst (2009)

From Korean director Chan-wook Park, best known for gory and twisted action odysseys like Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Thirst is the story of Sang-hyeon, a Catholic priest who is accidentally infected with vampirism during the course of a failed medical experiment. Finding himself suddenly unable to resist the urge to sin, Sang-hyeon forsakes his religious vows and begins a sexual relationship with the emotionally erratic wife of a recovered cancer victim. Supposedly inspired by the Emile Zola novel Therese Raquin, Thirst is a particularly dark and biting absurdist comedy about the fine line between self-sacrifice and self-indulgence.

Check in next week for a fresh installment of Terror Cult!

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