Byzantium (2012): Practically Perfect Irish Horror

Gemma Arterton in Byzantium
Were it not for the fact that this film was titled Byzantium, this 2012 movie could have been titled Perfection as this Irish horror tale is a dark “Mary Poppins,” in other words “practically perfect in every way.” This melancholic vampire story leaves the fangs and the long cloaks behind as it follows Eleanor Webb and her mother Clara through a journey of discovery for both the eternally young Ellie and her mother.

Directed by Neil Jordan (Breakfast on Pluto, End of the Affair) and starring Gemma Arterton (Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time), Saoirse Ronan (Hanna, Atonement), Sam Riley (Maleficent, The Dark Valley) and Johnny Lee Miller (Dark Shadows, Elementary) and Caleb Landry Jones (Antiviral, Contraband) Byzantium is a dark, slow, melodic tale that moves through time and distance to mesmerize the viewer.

The film starts with Eleanor (Ronan) writing her life story page by page and then crumpling the pages into a ball and throwing them into the wind. An old man has been collecting the pages and he calls to her. Later, she kills him by drinking his blood. At roughly the same time, her mother Clara (Arterton), aka Claire is working as a lap dancer in a seedy club downtown.

After being fired for stealing a customer’s wallet and then assaulting him, she is followed by a man who says he has been looking for her for a long time. She kills him and later comes back with Eleanor to burn the place and his corpse. The two move to another town, a seaside town, where Eleanor says they have been before.

The film moves backward and forward as Eleanor recounts her life, she compulsively writes and rewrites her story throwing the tale away until she gives it to a new friend, Frank (Jones) who is dying of Leukemia. The 200 year-old teenager meets Frank at a hotel dining room where she plays the piano, he “passes the hat” for her “are you busking?” he asks her before she leaves. He later gives her the collected cash and she runs off.

Clara meets a lonely man down by the seaside arcade (she charges him £50 for a “blowy”) and invites herself and Eleanor back to his place, a sort of bed and breakfast that his mother owned before she died. Clara sets the place up as a bordello to help Noel get out of debt. Eleanor’s story about becoming a vampire relates that her mother started out as a whore, set off in that life by Capt. Ruthven (Miller).

As Eleanor and Clara settle in the seaside town, two men are searching for them, Darvell (Riley) and Savella, played by Uri Gavriel (The Kingdom, The Dark Knight Rises) who look like police but are from Clara’s past. These two have searching for the two female vampire for centuries.

The tale of how Eleanor’s mother is created, first as a whore then a vampire, is spellbinding and feels like a twisted Dickensian tale. A chance meeting while gathering cockles turns the young Clara’s life upside down and begins her dark journey after one military officer gives her a pearl and the other takes her virginity.

Byzantium has very nontraditional vampires. Not created by the classic exchange of blood, in this world a demon is searched out on a bleak island, and there are no fangs, instead a long almost tear shaped thumbnail makes the necessary incisions. The vampires can walk in the daylight and are not cold to the touch. Both Eleanor and Clara are the only female vampires in the world and they are hunted not by a version of Van Helsing but by male vampires.

At just over two hours this film should drag but it does not. It is a delight to watch and the cinematography is addictive. Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave, The Place Beyond the Pines) gives the viewer exquisitely framed shots and uses lighting to accentuate every scene beautifully. Arterton holds her own against Ronan, who narrates the film, and if ever there was any doubt that this “Bond girl” could act, this film proves it.

Byzantium is a 5 star beguiling feature that lures the viewer in and seduces them completely. A new favorite and worth all 128 minutes spent watching it, the film is available on Hulu.

Watch this film and prepare to become addicted.

The Dark Valley (2014): Cinematic Platinum from Germany

Still from The Dark Valley with Sam Riley
One of the wonders of Netflix is their inclusion of foreign films or World Cinema. The Dark Valley is a great example of the high quality films that are produced across the “pond.” This 2014 German film is pure cinematic Platinum and serves up an European western that delivers so perfectly that it is just a matter of time before Hollywood decides to remake the thing and mess it up.

Directed and co-written by Andreas Prochaska (Dead in 3 Days, A Day for a Miracle) and starring Brit actor Sam Riley (Brighton Rock, Maleficent) The Dark Valley is a brooding, moody German western. A secluded and tiny community in the mountains is ruled by the powerful Brenner family. One day a stranger arrives and things start to happen.

Riley plays Greider; a photographer from America, who comes to the small village to take pictures of the people and the surrounding area. He asks permission to stay and after being insulted, and over charged, he is allowed to stay. Greider is not just there for photography, however, he has an ulterior motive and nothing is going to stop him from accomplishing it.

This film brilliantly takes the western mythos and transplants it to Europe. A tale of patient revenge (Is that the reason that the photographer listens to the metronome at night to lull him to sleep?) set against a beautiful and barbaric backdrop of Austria. In the village, new brides do not spend the wedding night with their new husbands, instead the patriarchal head of the Brenner clan reserves the right to have sex with the virgin bride until she falls pregnant.

This “right” has peopled the village with Brenner’s sons and daughters. This is the barbaric side of the tale. The beauty is in the mountains, the silence of the snow clogged passes and the ominous woods around the area. After the photographer arrives, he keeps a low profile allowing himself to be bullied by the Brenner sons, six of them in total.

The first Brenner son dies in a logging accident and then another is killed by a trap. Things heat up when the girl Luzi (Paula Beer) that Greider lodges with, and who narrates the story, gets married. Riley, as the photographer bent on revenge, is superb. No one can project menace and deep rage like this actor – just watch his Pinkie in Brighton Rock – and his quiet but savage projection is brilliant to see.

This film should be watched in the original German with subtitles. The English dubbing not only loses much in the translation of the actor’s real intent and performances but also sounds abysmal. The only odd thing is that Riley has a rather high-pitched voice and his character in German, or Austrian, sounds quite a bit deeper.

The plot and the events of the film are slow, concise and full of suspense. The action takes a long time to get started and then does not really “take off.” The viewer will not care that the film takes its sweet time in getting around to the climax. Even the gorgeous scenery in the area does not detract from the mounting curiosity of why Riley’s character is there and what he wants.

An absolutely brilliant film that can be viewed in either English or German with subtitles, The Dark Valley is a 5 star western set in the Austrian mountains. “Are there really Indians?” Luzi asks. “Yes,” says Greider. There are no indians in this western but villains aplenty and it is entertaining enough that the running time of just under two hours is not too long at all.

Do not miss this one.