Kevin Zegers, Keisha Castle-Hughes
Kevin Zegers, Keisha Castle-Hughes

Canada/U.S.A., 2011; Iwai Shunji
Don't expect vampire gore and supernatural thrills in this long, slow exploration of youthful angst and alienation. In his first English-language movie, writer-director Iwai Shunji clearly didn't have commercial prospects or mainstream audiences in mind. Since he shot, edited, and composed original music for Vampire, it's clear that Shunji knew precisely what kind of world and weather he wanted to create: a whited-out landscape (the Pacific Northwest) in which young people drift aimlessly, drained of any emotion that might propel them toward meaning or intimacy or life itself. These kids are like ghosts in the machine, the machine being the Internet, on which they hook up long-distance.

In Shunji's brilliant All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001), a dreamy pop singer offered a way for high school kids to connect as fans, to escape the isolation of self. In Vampire it's a website called Side by Cide, home page for the suicidal. The young women whom vampire wannabe Simon (Kevin Zegers) meets on line and promises to help die often seem half-dead already: fragile, ethereal, fading from a disease called despair. And despair rarely comes rooted in the specific; the virus seems to be in the very air the likes of Jellyfish, Gallows, Gargoyle, Eclipse, and Ladybird breathe.

Simon's a biology instructor who teaches his blank-faced students that we are all "slaves to millions of cells." Such biological determinism is hardly designed to cheer up this generation of sad sacks—as Mina, an Asian teen Simon rescues from hanging herself, points out. With his pallor, wispy 'stache, and lank hair, Simon looks like the kind of guy who puts in long hours in front of his computer, unlikely to ever be deflowered skin to skin.

Vampire opens with Simon picking up a low-octane girl-child (Keisha Castle-Hughes) in a colorless industrial wasteland. They've made a suicide pact—online—and after Jellyfish has demanded and gotten her last supper, the two head for a dank, abandoned factory, where Simon exsanguinates the exquisitely passive young woman. From a god's-eye view, we look down at the slim Jellyfish splayed on top of a slab, a bottle at each corner filling with her blood, drawn from syringes in each of her limbs. Though the picture's far from Henry Miller's "rosy crucifixion"—neither of these stunted children could manage that—it is some kind of tender communion, with Simon as attendant priest. This is as close as this lost boy and girl can get to sex or faith. But postcoitum triste follows: Simon can't keep Jellyfish's blood down, vomiting up the primal stuff of life.

Shunji puts his Kevorkian in the way of a couple of folks whose appetites for connection are more ferocious, worlds away from his own gentle rites of communion. Though she and Simon have barely met, a friend's sister (Rachael Leigh Cook) becomes instantly obsessed with him, turning stalker and insinuating herself into his home, addressing his mother as "Mommy." Who or what he is is irrelevant to this hungry soul; he's flesh to Laura's leech. (Later, there will be a perversely sweet interlude in a fairy tale forest involving leeches and a Ladybird—Adelaide Clemens—the closest Simon ever comes to getting inside a woman.)

An amorous acquaintance (Trevor Morgan) guesses Simon's game, signing on as an adoring fan. To certify his own vampire credentials, Renfield performs—before Simon's horrified eyes—a savage act of murder and rape, backed by classical piano. (About half the audience at the SIFF screening departed the theater at this juncture.) Like the woman who wants to eat Simon alive, this monster will never achieve satisfying union with someone outside his dehumanizing imagination. 

As usual, Shunji frequently demonstrates a fine eye for visual metaphor. Simon's mom (Amanda Plummer) suffers from Alzheimer's, and to keep this vacant soul from wandering away, her son has wrapped her in a kind of corset to which many white balloons are attached. The old lady's grounded by floaters. That irony is reflected in the windowless basement apartment, papered with pictures of blue sky and clouds, where a delicate-featured blond named Ladybird (Jellyfish's fair sister) shares her awful history with merciful Simon.

Like its characters, Vampire drifts, and probably could do with some judicious cutting and shaping, but the intensity of Shunji's vision and music is such that the film casts an oddly compelling spell, a kind of melancholy languor. This ambitious artist has conceived a movie that sinks its teeth into inconvenient truths about our disengaged times. Arguably Shunji's reach exceeds his grasp, but it was my pleasure to watch a filmmaker reaching!

Wednesday, June 1, 6:30 p.m. at the Egyptian; Thursday, June 2, 4 p.m. at the Egyptian; Sunday, June 5, 8:30 p.m. at the Admiral

Copyright © 2011 by Kathleen Murphy