I am writing this week’s column, as it happens, from Cluj in Romania, on a visit to the Transylvania film festival, where the sunny days are long, spirits are high, and the undead threats you might usually look out for on a trip to Transylvania seem very far at bay. We don’t much consider vampires in mid-summer, but then, with Stranger Things fever in the air, perhaps spooky season has come early: Sony has taken it as an opportunity to release Morbius on VOD, a darker-leaning Marvel comic adaptation that hits offguard viewers with the dual terrors of modern vampires and Jared Leto at his most mannered.
But it’s actually reasonably good fun, balancing light goth-horror stylings with a suitably self-aware silliness – all a million miles from Bram Stoker. Leto plays a gifted biochemist, Dr Michael Morbius, who hits on a novel cure for his rare blood disease that entails blending his DNA with that of a vampire bat. Somehow, the brilliant scientist can’t see coming what anyone passingly familiar with his franchise stable-mate Spider-Man could, and vampiric mayhem ensues. Swedish director Daniel Espinosa guides it all with spooky flash, and Leto, a performer who comes with a trusty never-knowingly-underacted guarantee, is in his menacing element.
It’s merely the most recent entry in an ever-expanding neo-vampire film canon, dedicated to pushing the idea that, just as not all heroes wear capes, not all vampires do either: rather than mouldering away in central European castles, they live and walk among us today. It’s not even the first time Marvel has had success with the idea: Wesley Snipes’s leather-clad badass in Blade (NowTV) set the template for Morbius, albeit with slightly more gung-ho action and strobe-lit rave scenes. It’s at once aggressively “modern” and a quintessential 90s period piece.
Blade was a more violent evolution of the 80s era that reinvented the creatures of the night into sleek, new-wave creatures of the nightclub. Tony Scott’s sharply dressed, atmospheric and queerly eroticised The Hunger (Google Play) – with David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve entirely too cool to be warm-blooded – christened the phase, before Joel Schumacher’s hopped-up, hormonal The Lost Boys (Amazon) took it to a brattier teenage place. The Lost Boys won a major following at the time, but released that same year, 1987, Kathryn Bigelow’s western-infused sleeper Near Dark (Apple TV) was always the hipper, cultier boy-vampire tale.
By the 21st century, the age of the emo vampire was upon us. The culture-forming Twilight films were less interested in its adolescent characters’ fangs than their feelings: they’re all on Netflix, and for all the eye-rolling they prompt today, they get better (and loopier) as they go along. Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clements’s scruffy, hilarious What We Do in the Shadows (Netflix), along with its spinoff sitcom (BBC iPlayer), went a step further in softening the modern vampire’s image: its bloodsuckers are a gaggle of blokey, shambling housemates.
It’s in world cinema, however, that you tend to encounter the most interesting, unlikely new vampires, beginning with Tomas Alfredson’s tender, shivery childhood romance Let the Right One In (iPlayer), the youthful frailty of which acted as a corrective to the more soap-operatic stakes of Twilight. Claire Denis’s brutal, nihilistic Trouble Every Day (Shudder), on the other hand, takes advantage of arthouse liberties to ramp up the profligate sexualised blood-letting. It makes even Park Chan-wook’s kinky, slinky Thirst (Shudder) – loosely based on Zola’s Thérèse Raquin and bringing a fresh take on Catholic guilt into proceedings — look restrained by comparison. Iranian-American director Ana Lily Amirpour’s chilly-cool A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Apple TV), meanwhile, mixes the genre’s standard blood with some steely feminist sangfroid: if Jared Leto’s Morbius went up against Sheila Vand’s nameless, Madonna-worshipping avenging vamp here, you wouldn’t fancy his chances.
Also new to streaming
Ambulance (Universal) Once lambasted by critics, Michael Bay’s brash, brawny brand of action filmmaking now feels like enough of a throwback to have earned him respect from the Marvel-fatigued. Crammed with blaring car chases and cranked-up criminal melodrama, this LA heist thriller isn’t exactly stylish, but it has a style – in this age of identikit franchises, that stands out.
Petrov’s Flu (Sovereign) Not all superhero films have to feel corporate, as this exuberantly peculiar, Gogol-influenced Russian spin on the genre (and others besides) proves. The first film made by embattled avant-garde director Kirill Serebrennikov after a period of house arrest, this delirious vision of a comic book artist and his superpowered wife battling a pandemic-struck dystopia, pops with restless energy and rage against the system.
Language Lessons (Amazon/Apple TV) “Screenlife” cinema – that genre of films locating all the action within computer or phone screens – had a Covid-lockdown golden age that already feels bound to a certain time and place. But Natalie Morales’s gentle relationship drama was one of its sweeter products, tracing an odd, unexpected Zoom friendship between a gay widower and his Spanish instructor – played with warm, good humour by Morales herself.
Belle (Anime Ltd) Respected anime auteur Mamoru Hosoda riffs on Beauty and the Beast for this tale of a shy high-schooler with a glamorous parallel life as a pop star in a virtual realm, fixated on finding the identity of the alluring monster disrupting her digital exploits. Narratively busy and visually hyper-designed, it offers a game-like sugar rush, but it’s all a bit lacking in heart.