Tempting though it might be to blame Twilight for America’s enduring fascination with brooding bloodsuckers, the throbbing vein of influence does not end with Stephenie Meyer. The real queen of the damned is Anne Rice, author of numerous fang-and-bodice bestsellers, whose crimson-ink fingerprints are all over the last two decades of vampire fiction. Her stain of tortured Gothic melodrama is splashed prominently across Byzantium, an especially sulky addition to the dead-and-loathing-it canon. Though based on a teleplay by English playwright Moira Buffini, who also penned the script, the film resembles a distaff spinoff of Rice’s quintessential fable, Interview With The Vampire—not in the least because it’s directed by Irish auteur Neil Jordan, whose biggest hit is still the 1994 Interview adaptation. Instead of Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt as an ageless, ambiguously gay duo, audiences get a vagabonding mother-daughter team: Gemma Arterton, proud predator on the prowl, and her more conscientious offspring, Saoirse Ronan, who only dines on the willing. (Like a remorseful angel of death, or Jack Kevorkian’s undead granddaughter, she sees her feasts as a form of mercy killing.) Constantly on the run, out of fear of getting caught in the grisly act or recognized as forever-young beauties, the two women take temporary shelter in a sleepy seaside community, shacking up with a pathetic sad sack whose inherited hotel Arterton converts into a whorehouse.
With her piercing baby blues that never seem to settle on a subject, even when she’s locked in conversation with it, Ronan seems just… off enough to play a vampiric vixen. (She’s even more convincing as a teenage Dracula than she was as a preteen assassin.) Arterton, by contrast, is winningly cast against type; anyone who caught her as a bubbly musical muse in the recent Unfinished Song will be shocked by the malevolence she summons here, especially during a scene where she confronts a teacher who’s gotten too close to her secret. Jordan, a master of mood, creates an unsettling atmosphere of small-town despair, and the film’s sporadic spikes of violence—such as Arterton’s disposal of a pimp—are often inventive.
More brooding than bloody, though there’s plenty of the red stuff, Byzantium is sometimes a bore—a genre movie drained of vitality, like the shriveled, gray corpses the women leave in their wake. The film keeps traipsing into flashbacks, interrupting Ronan’s stilted courtship with a local boy (Caleb Landry Jones) to drown audiences in the backstory of its nomadic leads. Thematically, however, the movie has a little bite: Parallels between vampires and prostitutes—two creatures of the night forced to role-play in order to survive—smartly intersect Ronan’s quest for identity through storytelling. She recognizes her status as a marginalized person, one whose history is destined to evaporate, like dust in the wind. Such slivers of subtext rescue Byzantium from the crypt of gloomy, Rice-indebted schlock. There’s just enough here for discerning vamp buffs to sink their fangs into.