DEMON’S BENTO – A Media Review Column by Julian White (#1 – May 05, 2013)
If you’re anything like me, there are times when you’ll want to drive a stake through Eric Northman’s chin or drench Edward Cullen’s barnett in a bucket of holy water. But say what you like about these A-list vampires, at least their very popularity helps to drag some interesting C, D and E-list vampires into the light.
Not that the baddies in Ultraviolet (originally shown on Channel 4 in 1997) remotely warrant such lowly status. Perhaps because it was limited to a run of only six episodes, the show tends to get overlooked, but, watching it again on a new 2-DVD collector’s set, it’s starting to seem more and more like a small screen classic.
The series concerns Michael (Jack Davenport), a no-nonsense London copper who finds himself recruited into a squad of government vampire hunters after his best friend, Jack, sprouts fangs (“Didn’t take you long to sign up,” Jack complains). The team – which includes a doctor, an ex-army hard man and an ex-priest – discuss their task in the cool, clinical terms of a civil service memorandum (“It’s a public health issue… Most people don’t even know they’ve been infected”), but Michael is fearful that what they really are is a “death squad”.
For most of the series, the enemy remains elusive, which only fuels the team’s paranoia and confirms their point of view that the “leeches” are enigmatic puppet masters pulling the strings behind the scenes. For their part, the vampires emphasise their similarity to humans: “If he can’t tell the difference and you can’t tell the difference,” one of them queries, “are we really that different?”
When the squad finally manages to take a vampire alive so that they can interrogate him, there’s a gut-wrenching twist. Dr Paul Hoyle (played brilliantly by the late Corin Redgrave) turns out to have been, in his warm days, an ecologist who contracted thyroid cancer while working on the Chernobyl clear-up. In short, he’s what most people would consider a hero. If a man like that can go over to the other side, maybe there’s more to the other side than at first appears?
With starry performances from Davenport, Idris Elba and Susannah Harker, bleak, steely visuals and incisive work from writer/director Joe Ahearne, Ultraviolet is a compulsive tech thriller which presents the undead as our shadowy doppelgangers.
The real home of the minor league bloodsucker, though, has always not been TV shows but cheapo, direct-to-video-type movies, and you couldn’t get a better example of what I mean than Ted Nicolaou’s Subspecies saga, the first three of which (Subspecies, Bloodstone: Subspecies II and Bloodlust: Subspeces III) are now out on Blu-ray.
Here, once again, vampires are woven tightly into the fabric of human history, but otherwise we’re in a different world. Whereas Ahearne’s read is chilly and modern, Nicolaou’s approach is almost antiquarian, reaching back into the roots of the vampire myth.
The Subspecies films were shot on location in Romania immediately after the fall of the Iron Curtain – a forgotten country of hay carts, Trabants and women bundled up in scarves and shawls like Matrioshka dolls – and they’re steeped in convincing-sounding folklore. The backstory is rather beautiful. Heroes for repelling the invasion of the Turks in 1443, the neighbourhood vampires are presented by the grateful locals with a powerful relic that drips the blood of all the saints: with this in their possession, they need not feed on humans, and peace has reigned for hundreds of years. Eventually, however, the evil Radu slays his father, the King of the Vampires, seizes the relic and sets out on a killing spree. Among his first victims is a trio of female PhD students who have come to study the history of the region.
With his pale face, his spiky ginger hair and his disgust at anything smacking of compromise, Radu at times seems like a Transylvanian Sid Vicious, but his snaggle teeth and chopstick fingers also put you in mind of Max Schreck’s Graf Orlok in the famous silent-era Nosferatu. This clash of old and new reverberates throughout the saga, making the hoariest vampire lore seem fresh and exciting. Having been bitten by Radu and now turning into a vampire herself, the lovely Michelle (Denice Duff) haunts the nightclubs of Budapest eyeing up prey, but does so in various beggar-girl and tavern wench outfits that she’s found in the costume racks of the city opera house. Meanwhile, Radu’s pursuit of her is conveyed through swirling, grasping in-camera shadow FX which go right back to Murnau.
What I especially love about Nicolaou is that he’s so good at the little things that go into being a bloodsucker, in particular the importance of a nice, cosy resting place to blunt the trauma of what he sees as a daily reversion to death (in his follow-up to the Subspecies films, Vampire Journals, the villain, Ash, actually shrinks to a withered cadaver while he sleeps, a real shock for whoever’s sharing a bed with him). In Michelle’s case, the opera house comes up trumps again, supplying her with a crystal coffin that fits her like a glove. As for Radu, when he’s in Budapest he stays with his mum.
These movies were made on the tightest of budgets, so, inevitably, the occasional glaring deficiency shows up on these new HD transfers, but cumulatively they have a grandeur which shines out all the more because of their humble origins. They’re ugly, gory, blackly comedic, but also surprisingly romantic too. As Michelle grows more vampire-like, so she becomes more attractive to the lonely Radu (although he only has himself to blame if he has no one to talk to; he’s murdered almost everyone he knows).
It’s this unexpectedly soft centre which lifts Radu from being no more than an E-list bogeyman to at the very least a B-list player. But if it’s a lonely heart you want, look no further than Karl von Wultendorf, hero of A Taste of Blood Wine, the first of Freda Warrington’s Blood Wine sequence. These books are now being reissued by Titan after a long period out of print, and why they have been languishing in obscurity is anyone’s guess – maybe they’re just too damn good.
Warrington pens a lush, bodice-ripping love story that should work a treat for Stephanie Meyer fans, but at the same time she broadens its appeal for the general reader with sophisticated prose, nuanced characterisation and well-orchestrated action set-pieces. Fleeing the attentions of his maker, the drop-undead gorgeous Karl takes refuge in a Cambridge laboratory where he hopes to learn a thing or two killing vampires. Instead, he embarks upon an ill-starred affair with his fellow lab assistant, the comely but shy Charlotte Neville. Like Karl, Charlotte knows what it’s like to be bled dry; for her, though, it’s at the hands of a father and sisters who exploit her on a daily basis.
The vampires in this novel are lofty figures of German Romanticism, more angels than demons, but the author offsets the airy-fairy stuff with a 1920s milieu stuffed with mouth-watering period detail – classic cars and stately homes, elegant ladies and gents, masked balls and tinkling tea parties. And, although it starts out looking like it’s going be a typical paranormal romance, A Taste of Blood Wine quickly builds into something more akin to a full-blooded Dennis Wheatley occult thriller. It was originally published in 1992, way ahead of the current Twilight craze, so perhaps that’s why it never quite caught on, but surely now it will get the attention it deserves. Who knows, maybe Hollywood will take an interest. And maybe Karl von Wultendorf will finally become the A-list vamp he ought to be. In which case I’ll probably want to drive a wooden stake through his chin too.