Masters of Undeadpan: The Cool Vampire Comedy of Only Lovers Left Alive and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

“Shouldn’t she be sleeping in a fucking coffin somewhere? Preferably with a wooden stake shoved in it?”

In one scene of Jim Jarmusch’s 2013 vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), both beautiful, both undead, discuss the potential arrival of Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska). Irritated at the prospect of the wild vampire’s intrusion, Adam asks that very question, dripping with dry sarcasm.

The jab at Ava—and at Dracula-type vampires— is for the most part perfectly understandable. Adam and Eve have been married for centuries but only recently reunited, so the last thing they want is Eve’s annoying younger sister to show up. But his question also seems to anticipate the viewer’s impulse to question what kind of “vampires” these are (though the actual v-word is never uttered by anyone onscreen). The stylish musician Adam, composing sonic masterpieces, and literary aesthete Eve, with the unfathomable wisdom of thousands of years, have few of the trappings of Dracula-style vampires. They look more like fashionable celebrities, wearing low-cut shirts, preferring dark sunglasses to capes, and sleeping all day so that they can go out all night to party or create. Even sucking blood straight from a neck is too pedestrian for them: they covertly go to hospitals to get the “good stuff.”

Released less than a year later in 2014, Ana Lily Amirpour’s Persian-language vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night exudes a similar coolness from each stark black-and-white frame. The film is a self-described “Iranian vampire spaghetti western,” set in the ghost town of Bad City, which has an atemporal quality in its mix of modern oil rig machinery, vintage cars, and synth music. The chador-wearing “Girl” (Sheila Vand), the sole vampire, puts on dark eyeliner and red lipstick, and glides down the street on a skateboard. Though these two films are seemingly set worlds apart, one can imagine that the different vampires, even if they don’t get along, might respect one another. Not only are these vampires cold, they’re insanely cool—aloof, mysterious, artsy, impossibly alluring. The two films are shadowy and brooding, and feature soundtracks so painstakingly curated (largely avant-garde rock for Only Lovers and Iranian pop for Girl Walks Home) one can almost taste the blood poured in.

Eve, Ava, and The Girl give further nuance to the imagine of a vampire, offering different interpretations of the female vampire and the sexual connotations of drinking blood from a victim. The Girl particularly goes after men who mistreat women, and scares a young child by telling him to be a “good boy.” In this way, she feels like a new incarnation of a masked vigilante, someone setting out to right wrongs against her. But even if there is a bleak outlaw quality to both films—the vampiric protagonists up against the world—there is also a dark, dry humor coursing throughout. The wasteland of oil rigs of Bad City or cluttered Victorian homes of Detroit are not lacking in humor, or romance for that matter, poking fun at everything we thought about vampires. Adam and Eve, bohemian soulmates, eat blood popsicles, and Ava carries around a flask of blood at a nightclub. After Ava impulsively drinks the blood of Ian (Anton Yelchin), a fan and assistant of Adam, Adam simply looks at the corpse and states: “You drank Ian,” his voice not revealing the full humor of his words. The Girl eventually crosses paths a young man named Arash (Arash Marandi), and when she encounters him after a costume party, he, dressed like Dracula, tells her: “I’m Dracula. Don’t worry. I won’t hurt you.” Never is the contrast between the “real” vampires and the vampires of the imagination more apparent, and the costumed Draculas seem silly, naive, laughable in comparison. But The Girl’s expression never gives any of that away.

The laconic bluntness and detachment of these characters, even as they bite off fingers or devour humans, can make Party City-costume vampires or even the vampires of classic cinema seem lame or overdone in comparison. Yet it’s not just the silliness of vampire tropes that Amirpour and Jarmusch are deconstructing here in their films, If one were to identity the main source of humor, one butt of the jokes, perhaps it would be the stupidity of humans. While we never hear the word “vampire” in either film, we do here another sometimes-taboo word in horror: “zombies,” which Adam and Eve use to refer to humans, who are causing society to crumble to their ignorance. It is almost as if the films ask: Did you really think you would recognize a vampire? Did you really think that some of history’s artistic greats, like Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) weren’t vampires?  Did you really think that a woman couldn’t possibly be a threat? Or perhaps the humor comes from the cruel cosmic joke that is existence. These vampires are doomed to wander in the shadows, watch people drift in and out and civilizations rise and fall over and over and over, reflected in the recurring images of cogs in oil machinery or records on a table spinning ad infinitum.

Yet despite the crushing weight of existence, there is always an ability to find humor in the ridiculous, creating perverse romantic comedies. As in any good film involving hidden identities (whether they involve immortality or not), irony is infused in every scene, but so is a sense of genuine connection underneath the masks. Sometimes one can never tell how much of this is affectation, versus sincerity, and what is a perfectly timed deadpan joke versus what is truly meant to be taken seriously. As The Girl takes the costumed Arash back to her apartment, she sheds her chador and stands in a striped shirt, while he remains in his cape-and-fangs getup.  She puts on a record and stands in profile at the edge of the frame, while he creeps up behind her and presses his face into her neck, a clever inversion of the classic vampire/victim pose. The song that blasts over the speakers is a catchy indie rock song, aptly titled “Death,” and the funny thing is that a kiss and an attack seem equally plausible—the expressions remain enigmatic, and romance and killing sure look a lot alike.

This constant push-and-pull between potential romantic connections, and between horror and humor, are a kind of “spooky action at a distance”—which, to those not as familiar with language of Einstein’s theories of quantum entanglement as Jarmusch, might sound like an apt descriptor for these aloof atmospheric films. As Adam describes the theory, it’s the idea that even if you separate entwined particles, affecting one will affect the other. Even if the similarities between the films are entirely unintentional, perhaps Amirpour and Jarmusch’s films, and the vampire tropes they invoke and redefine, are entangled as well, and the humor in each depends heavily on reference and contrast. When The Girl and Arash get in a car together at the end of the film, determined to not be alone, the absurdity of this pair driving off into the metaphorical sunset together is not lost on the viewer. Yet the stony façades of disinterest have started to crack as real vulnerability peaks through. The most ironic thing of all is that, despite what these vampires might think about themselves, they are somehow still deeply human. It’s absurd that centuries- or millennia-old creatures still deal with the same emotional and existential crises that we lowly humans do, so we can’t help but find the humor in it all, and laugh at them. As Adam and Eve say, just as they are about to feast on a young couple, “What choice do we have?”

 

by Katie Duggan

Katie Duggan is studying English at Princeton University. She has lived in New Jersey her whole life so far, and has a love-hate relationship with both the Garden State and the film Garden State. She loves musicals and coming-of-age stories, and her favorite movies include Rushmore, Harold and Maude, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. You can follow her on Instagram @katdug_ or on Twitter @realkatieduggan.

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