By Scott Dorward
Only Lovers Left Alive (USA, 2013)
Once again, I’m using the October Horror Movie Challenge as an excuse to catch up with a film I’ve been wanting to watch for a while. When I first heard that Jim Jarmusch was making a horror film, I was intrigued. Dead Man had touched upon horror but was something altogether weirder. Only Lovers Left Alive sounded like it was more rooted in the genre. Well, having seen it now, I’m not convinced I’d call it a horror film after all. While it is unashamedly about vampires, it’s sad, funny and moving but never actually frightening. It is absolutely wonderful, however.
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) are vampires and lovers, centuries of years in age, adapting as times change. As the film opens, Adam is a recluse, living in a largely abandoned suburb of Detroit. He is a musician, now officially retired, but still with a cult following. A human contact in the music industry, Ian (Anton Yelchin) acts as his liaison with the world. For all his love of music, Adam is gripped by a deep ennui. He has decided he has lived long enough and has started planning his suicide.
Meanwhile, Eve lives in Tangiers, along with the frail Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who she made a vampire in the 16th century, faking his death. As Adam’s existence revolves around music so does Eve’s around literature. After a phone call with Adam in which she intuits how depressed he has become, she travels to Detroit to breathe new life into him.
Of course, nothing is ever that simple. When Eve’s younger sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), comes back into their lives, she brings chaos and danger, risking everything about the fragile lives our lovers have constructed for themselves.
Only Lovers Left Alive presents a reversal of common vampire tropes. Adam is a vampire living in seclusion, isolated by fear and loathing for the mortals he sees as zombies. We are presented with all the vulnerabilities of vampirism, with only rare glimpses of the power it offers. Sure, Adam and Eve are immortal, with inhumanly fast reflexes and a wealth of experience and knowledge humans can only dream of. At the same time, they are forced into the metaphorical and literal shadows to survive, seeking sources of healthy blood in a world where drinking from the wrong person means painful death. While these are monsters of legend, they are more sad than terrifying.
This is a film defined by a classic rock and roll aesthetic. The vampires are almost carelessly cool, emotionally disconnected from humanity but passionate about art and the world of the mind. Their bohemian fashion sense is camouflage, the sunglasses they wear at night hiding the catlike reflection of their eyes. When they do venture outside, it is to small night clubs and cafés, where their appearance blends in with the kinds of humans who live by night. And blood is not just food to them — it is heroin. Drinking it brings bliss and an immediate release from worldly cares. Their lives are shaped by the difficulties of securing a safe, pure supply. These are the rock stars of the seventies, only with fangs.
Damn, is Only Lovers Left Alive a good film. While it’s slow, talky and almost completely devoid of action, I was gripped by every second of it. The gentle weirdness of Adam and Eve’s existence is utterly fascinating. The film doesn’t really present any new takes on vampire mythology, but the more mundane aspects of how they survive in the modern world make them unique. These are predators who have adapted to survive, learning to live without the hunt. It is only when they encounter a more traditional vampire that their existence becomes imperilled.
Jarmusch presents one of the best depictions of ennui I can remember seeing. You can feel the weight of centuries pressing down on every scene. But for all Adam’s initial self-pity, both he and Eve are still fired by their passion for art, music and each other. Their lives are both rich and empty, alienated from the world around them. I could spend an eternity in their company.
With only a week of the challenge to go, Only Lovers Left Alive is now the film to beat. Simply amazing.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Possessor (2020)
- The Boogey Man (1980)
- Jakob’s Wife (2021)
- The Queen of Black Magic (2019)
- Cold Hell (2017)
- Seance (2021)
- The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)
- Dachra (2018)
- Isle of the Dead (1945)
- After Midnight (2019)
- The Baby (1973)
- Hagazussa (2017)
- Frightmare (1974)
- The Eyes of My Mother (2016)
- Dave Made a Maze (2017)
- Raw (2016)
- The Old Ways (2020)
- Terror Train (1980)
- mon mon mon MONSTERS (2017)
- Sator (2019)
- Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
- The Lighthouse (2019)
- Anything For Jackson (2020)
- Warning: Do Not Play (Amjeon) (2019)
- Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
- The Field Guide to Evil (2019)
- A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
- The Wizard of Gore (1970)
- Fingers (2019)
- Lake Bodom (2016)
- Island of Lost Souls (1932)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!