Since the early 2000s, a number of Japanese directors have attempted to make the transition to English-language filmmaking, with Hideo Nakata, Ryuhei Kitamura, Takeshi Kitano and Takashi Shimizu transplanting their specialist genre expertise with varying degrees of success. Although the title suggests a horror film, Vampire does not feature any crucifixes, holy water or stakes to the heart as it finds Shunji Iwai, whose celebrated youth movies range from the dehumanising cynicism of All About Lily Chou Chou (2001) to the heartfelt warmth of Hana and Alice (2004), further exploring his recurrent themes of alienation and isolation against a washed-out Canadian backdrop. The slender narrative focuses on high school biology teacher Simon (Kevin Zegers) who is driven by a compulsion to assist suicidal young women with ending their tormented lives by providing them with sleeping pills and then draining their bodies of blood, often by pretending that he intends to immediately follow them to the ‘other side’. After clinically executing this process, he drinks the blood, although the fact that he occasionally vomits afterwards shows that he is not the supernatural bloodsucker of vampire lore. Iwai is less concerned with his protagonist’s motives than with how he maintains his approachable façade as a diligent teacher and carer to his mother Helga (Amanda Plummer), who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Simon tries to avoid the attentions of a Laura (Rachel Leigh Cook), an eager potential girlfriend, and is slow to notice the suicidal impulses of one of his own students, Mina (Yu Aoi).
The opening twenty minutes provide a beautifully sustained set-up as Simon drives to a deserted wasteland to pick-up a suicidal young woman (Keisha Castle-Hughes) he has connected with through a chat room. She goes by the handle of Jellyfish and their encounter is initially awkward, showing how people can share their deepest thoughts when shrouded by online anonymity yet struggle to strike a rapport when they meet in the real world. Simon’s insistence on not being seen together at a roadside diner implies that he is not be trusted, although Jellyfish is too despondent about her last day not being ‘perfect’ to notice the signs and, after some coercing, he drains her blood in an abandoned warehouse. Later efforts to acquire blood do not go as smoothly: Simon ends up on a late-night joyride with the perverted Renfield (Trevor Morgan), who he meets at a vampire fan club, becoming an unwitting accomplice to rape and murder, while he narrowly escapes death by toxic chemicals when an invitation for double suicide actually turns out to be a group activity. This latter incident does, however, bring him into contact with Ladybird (Adelaide Clemens), whose tragic tale of losing her son to an abusive boyfriend provides Simon with an intervention of sorts. These supporting characters drift in and out, with the persistence – or emotional neediness – of the besotted Laura threatening to expose Simon’s secret life as she tries to get closer to the seemingly mild-mannered teaching by visiting his apartment to prepare dinners.
In terms of Iwai’s previous work, Vampire is closest in tone to All About Lily Chou Chou due to its underlying coldness and emphasis on the cruel lengths that people will go to in order to achieve some degree of human connection. The internet bulletin boards that became a crucial part of the earlier film’s aesthetic and point of entry to the inner world of its lonely characters is here referred to, rather than illustrated. However, the director again positions cyberspace as a refuge for tortured souls, while noting the potentially destructive consequences of building ‘relationships’ with strangers. It’s tastefully scored by Iwai himself and shot on crisp digital video, with this particular modification of vampire myth in Western culture placed in the context of everyday anxiety, although some of the severely tilted camera angles are a little distracting. Shooting in remote spaces, the confines of Simon’s home and the sterile environment of his classroom, Iwai achieves a sense of mood while avoiding genre trappings. The main problem with Vampire is that the behaviour of its title character is never properly explained, while Zegers is a rather stiff lead whose attempts to suggest moral conflict with regards to his manipulative actions are less compelling than the shattered emotional states projected by the more capable actresses with whom he episodically shares the screen. Vampire is often strangely hypnotic in its study of a suicide enabler, but the lack of insight ultimately makes it a hollow experience regardless of Iwai’s skilful compositions.