Shunji Iwai seems an odd choice for a Japanese director to make the jump to American filmmaking. While other talents from Asia have made comfortable career moves, those filmmakers usually have a style that is not too far removed from that of the American film genres in which they often end up working. John Woo’s transition into Hollywood action cinema, for example. Iwai is perhaps best known in the States for 2001’s All About Lily Chou-Chou, an epic (and unsettling) examination of teenagers whose interactions are largely mediated through technology, obsessed with a pop singer. That film’s quiet, lyrical tone would hardly seem to lend itself to American cinema of any kind, best known (correctly or not) for its thorough lack of subtlety. However, Vampire, Iwai’s first English-language film, brings his sensibilities almost completely intact to a story very much unlike any he has done before.
Simon (Kevin Zegers) is a serial killer. He finds victims through a web site (“Side by Cide”) dedicated to helping people find partners with whom to kill themselves. Simon is a high school biology teacher by day, and clearly believes his method of murder–finding suicidal women and helping them die by draining their blood–is not morally problematic. When he finds himself confronted with another “vampire” who calls himself Renfield (Trevor Morgan), Simon is repulsed by Renfield’s methods and behavior. Simon is shown to be a good, sympathetic teacher who is genuinely concerned with the well-being of his students, including a seriously depressed Japanese exchange student named Mina (Yû Aoi). Simon also takes care of his mother (Amanda Plummer, almost unrecognizable), who suffers from severe dementia.
A chance encounter with a police officer leads to Simon being uncomfortably set up with the cop’s sister Laura (Rachel Leigh Cook), an oppressively cheery woman studying to be a police detective herself. The sudden appearance of a romantic interest is deeply upsetting to Simon, who relies on his routine and careful maintenance of his and his mother’s isolation to keep himself from being caught. Further complicating matters is a Side by Cide meetup that goes terribly awry, but that may lead Simon to a relationship that he never thought would be possible. As the different threads of his life threaten to overlap, Simon finds himself in a position where his options are running out.
Iwai’s style is branded on every frame of Vampire from its sideways shots of Simon fishing to the surreal helium-balloon contraption Simon has built to keep his mother inside their apartment when he’s away. Kevin Zegers is great in the lead, giving Simon an unexpected humanity and making him a believably kind but unbalanced character. The film’s languid pace and quiet passages stretch out to nearly a full two hours, but there’s hardly a wasted moment throughout. Every character is given a small window to express who they are, and this creates a strong impression that the strange world Iwai has created is full of real people, not just characters fulfilling a purpose (with the possible exception of Laura, although Cook looks like she’s having a good time playing her). It’s not surprising that Lionsgate had no idea what to do with Vampire after picking it up for U.S. distribution: despite its title, this is about as far from recent American vampire films as it’s possible to get and still be recognizably in the same genre. Still, it’s a shame that Vampire never had a chance to grace the big screen here in the States. Don’t let the ridiculous DVD cover art fool you, this is a strange, fascinating take on familiar material from a hugely talented filmmaker that deserves to be seen by serious horror fans and cinephiles in general.
Lionsgate released Vampire on DVD on 20 August 2013.