Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

The novelty of combining classic romance fiction with horror elements can only carry the film so far.

A scene from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES.
United States/United Kingdom. Directed by Burr Steers, 2016. Starring Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Douglas Boothe, Matt Smith, Charles Dance, Lena Headey, Suki Waterhouse. 108 minutes. 5/10

The inevitable film version of Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 cult novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies finally sees the light of day at the hands of writer/director Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down). Jane Austen’s seminal tale of marriage and manners plays out against a Victorian Britain plagued by brain-eating undead, with Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James, Downton Abbey) leading a quintet of ninja sisters and Col. Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley, Control) serving the Royal Army “at large” by rooting out zombie infestations before they spread.

Like most notable zombie fiction, PPZ largely uses the undead as an environmental hazard, an important fact of life for the characters but not the source of the main conflict. As in Austen, the major narrative arc follows the headstrong Elizabeth and the aloof Darcy as they gradually fall in love despite making a series of bad impressions on each other. The film reinterprets Austen’s battles of words as literal, impeccably-choreographed battles.

While Steers often develops his themes without subtlety (for example, when Elizabeth’s sister Jane predicts the former would “relinquish her sword for a ring” from “the right man,” she retorts, “The right man wouldn’t ask me to”), the film does contain some measure of wit, particularly in the form of supporting characters such as the vain and obsequious Parson Collins (Matt Smith, the eleventh Doctor Who, in a bravura performance) and the legendary swordswoman Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lena Headey of Game of Thrones, sporting a strangely alluring eyepatch). The historical setting and period dialog brings out the best in the ensemble, which also features Douglas Booth, Bella Heathcote, Jack Huston (Boardwalk Empire), and Charles Dance (GoT again).

Other aspects of the production aren’t as strong. Despite its jump-scares and plentiful gore, the film lacks the conviction necessary to work as a horror story; by pulling a crucial early punch, Steers indicates that he has no intention of killing any of the major characters. When he focuses on invincible protagonists, throngs of nameless cannon-fodder extras, and massive battle sequences, PPZ feels more like a modern superhero movie (complete with mid-credit stinger) than anything else. Unfortunately, the editing and poor digital effects make action scenes look like they belong in a video game.

Similarly, the plot weakens when it emerges from its drawing rooms and cellars. The film fails to clearly convey how zombies and their plague operate in its fictional universe, the script mishandles an important and unusual subplot that develops across the second act, and the audience should figure out the big climactic twist at least half an hour before it shocks Elizabeth.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is great fun when its characters spar with words and weapons, but not so much when it strays from Austen’s original template. The novelty of combining classic romance fiction with horror elements can only carry the film so far, and the other elements can’t make up the rest of the distance.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES poster

Spring

A lo-fi, intimate indie romance about what it means to be human.

United States. Directed by Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead, 2014. Starring Lou Taylor Pucci, Nadia Hilker. 109 minutes.

Spring is in the air and when it comes, romance blooms. Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) finds both in Italy after fleeing the States in the wake of his mother’s death and a streetgang-enraging bar fight. He meets Louise (Nadia Hilker), a pretty young college student who’s pretty insistent about limiting their relationship to a single one-night stand. Undaunted by her protests, Evan ignores her apparent fear of commitment and insists on courting her, until he finds out her terrible secret: she’s not entirely human. That’s the basic premise of Spring, the latest from filmmaking duo Justin Benson (who also wrote the screenplay) and Aaron Moorhead.

Their previous effort, Resolution, was a sort of mumblecore reimagining of The Cabin in the Woods, and the filmmakers have carried over its low-fidelity vibe. This isn’t an epic love story or horror tale, it’s a simple indie romance. Even those elements of the production that you might think would detract from an intimate vibe, such as the exotic locale and frequently flamboyant camera work, contribute to it instead. Comparisons to Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy probably aren’t too far off the mark.

Unfortunately, the story often feels aimless, lacking much in the way of direction. This could be by design–the plot’s loose structure does reflect Evan’s impulsive, spontaneous attitude towards life in Europe–but I rarely felt as if Benson and Moorhead knew where the film was going. The film’s last half hour is particularly problematic, suffering from a lack of compelling material and some weird tonal shifts (one sequence in a church comes off much funnier and more farcical than it should). Other critics have praised the ending, but I personally found it unsatisfying, an example of “ambiguity for its own sake” familiar from the ironically-named Resolution.

Other than the photography–it really is a gorgeous picture–the real reasons to watch Spring are the characters and performances. Benson’s script draws Evan and Louise simply, providing the actors with a sketch (Evan’s family issues, Louise’s devotion to the rational and scientific) and give Pucci and Hilker enough room to inhabit the characters. The two leads have an easy chemistry with each other and many scenes, even those with heavy foreshadowing, seem improvised. The leads’ credbility is crucial to the film’s success, particularly in the case of Pucci, who needs to convince the audience he’s in love with this woman he’s only known for days…and preserve that feeling after he finds out she kills people in fits of madness and probably has an ink sac. For all the other nits I pick with the story, the basic theme–that despite the horrific aspects of Louise’s existence, she’s human, not some sort of Lovecraftian monster, comes through–and the leads are a large part of that.

The supporting performances are also excellent, with the highlights being Jeremy Gardner (writer/director/star of The Battery) as Evan’s drunken, doped-up best friend and Francesco Carnelutti as an Italian farmer who takes Evan on as a farmhand.

While its success isn’t as decisive as one might hope, Spring is nevertheless an interesting take on the concept of the supernatural romance, and is especially recommended for audiences who like their horror intimate and subdued.

Spring poster

Only Lovers Left Alive

Gothic vampire romance doesn’t have to be the exclusive domain of the YA set

United Kingdom/Germany. Directed by Jim Jarmusch, 2013. Starring Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska. 123 minutes. 8/10

Gothic vampire romance doesn’t have to be the exclusive domain of the Young Adult set, and Jim Jarmusch proves it with his latest effort, Only Lovers Left Alive.

Eve (Tilda Swinton) is a pale, willowy woman who haunts Tangier. Reserved and aloof, she observes her neighbors from a distance, her only real friend an elderly gentleman (John Hurt) who claims he’s Christopher Marlowe.

Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a moody musician living in self-imposed exile in one of Detroit’s less savory neighborhoods. He’s not impressed with the accomplishments of humanity, and lives a reclusive life, preferring his music to the companionship of others. His only regular visitor is Ian (Anton Yelchin), a local youth who procures rare instruments–and other strange objects, such as a bullet with a wooden slug–for him.

Eve and Adam are vampires; they are also longtime lovers, although they have not shared each other’s company in nearly a century. Worried about Adam’s metal state, she travels to Detroit to try to snap him out of his depression.

That’s the basic gist of Only Lovers Left Alive; it’s not a story with much of a plot. Eve and Adam are ordinary people, as ordinary as vampires can get, and they live ordinary unlives. There might have been a time when they influenced, and drew inspiration from, the likes of Poe, or Tesla, or Joe Strummer, but that was long ago. Now they’re content to just spend time together.

And Jarmusch is more than happy to sit back and let them do their thing, throwing the occasional obstacle in their way to see what they’ll do, and what repercussions arise. It’s more like watching real life than a three-act story. The pace is languid, but the film never drags.

The overriding mood is one of dark romance, not of terror. This is not a conventional horror film or vampire story. Jarmusch certainly seems to have little time for the standard fittings of such things. Vampires tend not to drink directly from the source, preferring to work through dealers such as Kit Marlowe or a sardonic blood bank employee played by Jeffrey Wright. They do so not out of compassion for humans, but because they’re concerned about their supply’s purity. Bad blood is bad news for the drinker. When they feed, it’s from brandy snifters and hip flasks instead of the exposed throats of willing (or unwilling) victims. (Everybody knows that vampirism is a symbol for oral sex, but it’s also often an allegory for drug addiction, and Jarmusch visually portrays the effects of blood-drinking in terms of a drug high.)

Jarmusch twists other tropes ever so slightly. In his hands, the idea of immortality being a curse becomes an existential malaise, genuine angst instead of emo whining. The conflict between cautious, restrained vampires versus a more hedonistic breed (represented by Eve’s “sister” Ava, portrayed by Mia Wasikowska) is pragmatic, not moralistic. Ava feels no sense of superiority from being a vampire; rather, she’s a bratty child.

Jarmusch writes the characters well, and the actors all put in outstanding performances. The film belongs to Swinton, radiant and alluring, and Hiddleston, justifying his current status as the thinking woman’s heartthrob. The chemistry between the two is phenomenal. Wasikowska is adorably dangerous, Yelchin eagerly sycophantic and simultaneously likeable, and Hurt…well, John Hurt’s always great, isn’t he?

With his location and camera work, Jarmusch creates indelible environments. Detroit, decaying and tragic, is as romantic in its way as exotic Tangier. Adding to the mood is a dense psychedelic score provided by Dutch composer Josef van Wissem in collaboration with Jarmusch’s rock band SQÜRL. Between the visuals and the music, this is a film to lose oneself in.

Working masterfully with all these elements, Jim Jarmusch gets to the heart of the vampire’s appeal: the demon lovers whose pull we are unable to resist. Cast aside the likes of Kiss of the DamnedOnly Lovers Left Alive is vampire romance done right.

Only Lovers Left Alive poster

Thanks to Victoria.