Tale of a Vampire (1992)
An atoll of genuine creative spark amongst the largely torpid range of 1990s horror cinema, Tale of a Vampire is one of those movies that doesn’t entirely work, and yet lingers in the memory with rare and mysterious fervour. Originally begun as a short video project but then expanded into a feature, Tale of a Vampire was the feature debut of Japanese screenwriter and director Shimako Sato, a former art and design student who took up filmmaking at the London International Film School. Sato later returned to Japan and found commercial traction with the rather trashier Eko Eko Azarak: Wizard of Darkness (1997) and its sequel, and went on to write the script for the surprisingly enjoyable live-action adaptation of Space Battleship Yamato (2010). Tale of a Vampire represents a truly unique melding of styles and ways of parsing cultural detritus. Sometimes Sato’s visuals seem to have been transcribed exactingly from the panels of some manga artist’s assimilation of gothic tropes, whilst elsewhere it plays like a particularly loopy daydream from the perspective of someone a lot like Sato’s central female character, librarian Anne (Suzanna Hamilton), conjuring a realm of mystery and danger out of the glum climes of Thatcherite London.
Anne turns up at the Foster Library, a musty nook devoted to rare occult literature populated by silent scholars sailing seas of ancient esoterica, having been mailed a letter calling her to an appointment for a job interview, although the head librarian, Denise (Marian Diamond), never sent out any. She hires Anne regardless because she does need help, and introduces her to the odd collective hanging out in the library on any particular day, including a mute, dotty man (Michael Kenton), who loves reading old magazines and keeps a pet mouse, and the studious Alex (Julian Sands), who looks like a neurasthenic Etonian. Anne takes a shine to Alex and he seems to be taken with her, but he keeps fending her off. His secret is not your everyday problem: he’s an ageless vampire currently subsisting in the meaner precincts of the city, preying on the homeless and street toughs, perpetually haunted by his long-lost love.
Meanwhile a man dressed in a black fedora and overcoat keeps appearing, calling himself Edgar (Kenneth Cranham), and suggesting to Anne he knew Alex way back when. Alex is hardly circumspect about servicing his blood thirst, but someone is else is responsible for exsanguinating small girls and dumping on the street for Alex to find, wrapped in red ribbons like tokens of esteem. Fresh off playing the titular evil in Warlock (1988), Sands had cornered the market on playing horror film characters with the looks of Anglican archangels and the souls of lampreys, but Sato gave him a chance to play a rather more complex version of the same figuration as Alex is presented as a classical antihero, unable to destroy himself as he seems to wish and unable to recover any of the things that gave him pleasure, and so existing on and on in the same emotional feedback loop. Not that he’s the only one. Sato makes Denise and Anna near lookalikes, with the same haircut and palette of clothing, as if they’re different stages of the same person. Anna, like Alex, has the memory of a lost lover in her mind, a man glimpsed in her photos who has died.
Anna is fated to stand out because of a startling coincidence. She’s the image of the lady whose memory taunts both Alex and Edgar, the lost Virginia, who Alex first encountered as a starving girl in the woods when he was happily drinking the blood of a luckless maiden: rather than being frightened, Virginia simply appealed to him for aid. Alex guarded over Virginia until she grew up, but despite their personal ardour Virginia resolved to marry Edgar. When she began to die from consumption, Alex saved her from death by vampirising her. But soon after a spate of vampire attacks in their vicinity roused a baying mob who drove them out, and the two were separated. Soon it becomes clear that Virginia accidentally vampirised her husband, and Edgar, in cruel revenge for her betrayal, sealed her in a lead coffin and sank her in the North Sea, and now seeks to conclude his project by tormenting Alex by dangling Anna before him to reawaken the old ardour. Edgar plays the gentleman romancer, taking Anna out for dinner where Alex keeps bewildering her with alternations of intense fascination and spurning, but soon she comprehends Edgar’s malevolent designs.
Literary-minded viewers will quickly grasp the fact that Edgar is supposed to be Edgar Allan Poe himself, and Virginia was his lost child bride: Sato has Cranham recite lines from Poe’s tragic poetic missive Annabel Lee on the soundtrack at the start and end, and the film tries to transcribe the impulse of cosmic grief and romantic longing Poe was so expert at generation into a succession of striking images. Sato’s film was released in the same year as Francis Coppola’s inflated Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and it shares much in common with it – it’s visually opulent and stylised, shot through with intense romanticism and a dreamy sense of the genre – whilst easily outclassing it despite its far more modest resources and ambitions. Sato has a far firmer grip on the mood she wants to weave, and how to meld the referential elements she’s harvested from the horror movies and stories haunting her dreams into a cohesive vision.
Tale of the Vampire also feels anticipatory of the Twilight franchise in certain aspects, with its feminine perspective on the concept of the Byronic vampire seducer as a figure of both lust and fear, and a heroine who reflexively demands the pleasures of being made immortal even in awareness of the brutal price tag. In other ways, however, it couldn’t be more different, with Sato’s rich and evocative sense of the morbid literary tradition she invokes, her densely textured, overtly dreamlike filmmaking, and her lack of qualms about going for the throat, so to speak, with gore and spurts of savagery. Sato weaves a genuinely off-kilter, cordoned reality in her depictions of inner London streets riddled with mist and drizzle, warm coffee shops and musty libraries, dank and shattered industrial structures, and cosy bachelorette apartments. Her visuals drink in sights like Alex’s white bed, the unfinished sculptural folly that sits nearby, little constellations of candles, the red ribbons Edgar trusses up his sacrificial offerings in, the crimson spattering upon Alex’s face as he lifts one of his victims overhead and lets their lifeblood rain.
Flashbacks to Alex’s meetings with Virginia take place in spooky woods as stylised as anything in an old Universal horror film. Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984) was probably a strong reference point for Sato in reinventing gothic horror as a kind of art installation, whilst elsewhere Sato seems to be transcribing pages of some manga artist with painstaking skill. Amidst the style, baubles of authenticity in characterisation glitter, as when Anne tries a few tentative flirtatious lines on Alex with as much skill as you’d expect from a lovelorn librarian, only to provoke his guilelessly snooty comment, “How many men have you seduced in this way?” The film’s pivotal moment comes when Anna, alerted by Edgar to the fact of Alex’s vampirism, tracks him to his hiding place and considers ramming a pipe through his chest as he sleeps, only to be scared witless when Alex suddenly encourages her. Fear quickly gives way to Anna’s desperate appeals to Alex to save her from the ravages of mortality: Alex demurs because “I’ve been through this before.”
Tale of a Vampire is such a curious and nagging film in its look and feel that it’s damn frustrating the story never gains true thrust and purpose, ambling along through repetitious scenes. After sufficient time has been spent with Cranham purring silken-menacing threats at Hamilton and Sands lurking mournfully, the moment comes for games to end. But the film essentially stops rather than ends, as if Sato had to call time on account of rain. On one level it’s admirable that Sato is unconcerned with playing out mundane story beats, like what happens after a pair of hoodlums spy Alex standing over a corpse and blast him with a shotgun, and that she's only suggestive about what transpired in the past between Alex, Virginia, and Edgar. But fleshing out such material might have given then film more backbone. The narrative’s uncertain course betrays the ad hoc nature of the project’s development, although surely it succeeds in the spirit it was created, as a texture-obsessed mood piece. Sato still manages to offer some marvellous images in the concluding moments that suggest how the film could have been developed a little more and found greatness. Edgar skewers his fellow in immortality and obsession with a sabre, holding him close as a lover in intimate agony, whilst Anna is laid upon Alex’s bed as a ceremonial corpse bride, resting upon white lace and wrapped in those signature red ribbons.