Sunday 26 January 2014

The Breed (2001)

Director: Michael Oblowitz
Stars: Adrian Paul, Bokeem Woodbine and Bai Ling
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
I was surprised to find how little I'd seen from Adrian Paul's filmography, outside the Highlander series, at least. I'd seen early films like The Owl and Love Potion No 9, and I'd reviewed Eyeborgs, which I was screening at the DarkCon 2014 film festival. Other than that, the only title I had under my belt was The Breed, which turned out to be one of the pair that Paul selected for me to review. It's easy to see why it came so quickly to mind for him, as it's an unusual picture with a international feel. Directed by a South African, Michael Oblowitz, who had become associated with the No Wave movement in New York, it was shot in Hungary, where it took full advantage of the crumbling Budapest architecture. Paul, a Londoner playing a Polish Jew, starred alongside Harlem born Bokeem Woodbine and Chinese actress Bai Ling, as well as a number of experienced local actors, such as Péter Halász and István Göz, who rarely appear in English language productions. This admirable diversity is surely one reason why it feels unusual.

The most obvious reason is that it's a drama masquerading in genre clothing. Outwardly, it's a vampire movie, one full of recognisable names from vampire mythology, from Graf Orlock to Lucy Westenra via a coroner called Bathory, but it never tries to tell the usual sort of vampire story. The undead we're shown in The Breed are highly reminiscent of what we're used to seeing, with long lifespans, fast regeneration and an immunity to human diseases. Sunlight is a 'minor irritation' so they wear dark glasses. However, they're not depicted in the usual ways. For a start, these vampires have come out, so to speak, to the human race and declared their existence and willingness to just get along. They describe themselves as an 'evolutionary mutation', which means that they're simply different. Sure, they subsist on blood, but they've created a synthetic version that means that they don't have to sink fangs into necks any more. They can even be the good guys, fighting to save humanity rather than to destroy it or feed from it.

The Breed was released in 2001, at which point this sort of concept was rather original, at least in the world of film. The closest comparisons can be found in literature, which had been playing with this idea since at least 1993 with Guilty Pleasures, the first of Laurell K Hamilton's Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter books. By 2001, she was up to book ten and her series had morphed from contemporary urban fantasy into lycanthropic erotica, neither tone remotely like The Breed. There are more obvious connections to the Southern Vampire mysteries of Charlaine Harris, such as the use of a worldwide vampire database, but that series was brand new at this point; Dead After Dark, the first volume, reached shelves a mere two months before this film was released. By 2008, when it was adapted into True Blood, named for the sort of blood substitute that remains nameless here, The Breed had been forgotten to the degree that an entirely unrelated 2005 film of the same name had usurped any attention it might have retained.
And that's sad, because this one had quite a lot to say, echoing but going beyond the sort of story that might have seemed reminiscent to Anita Blake readers and telegraph what would soon come for fans of Sookie Stackhouse. The idea, of course, is that not everyone in the vampire community was for coming out to mankind. Some of them still ache for the old days when the blood was real, and one is apparently making his point bloodily known with a string of corpses. So begins a set of battles, with good guys and bad guys on both the human and vampire sides. On the latter, there's the town of Serenity, founded by Dr Friedrich Wilhelm Cross, a 16th century Lithuanian vampire who became the architect of integration between humans and vampires; his nemesis is Vladimir de Torquemada West, half a century older but looking much younger and more annoyingly hip. On the human side, the NSA (no, not that one) is led by men who fear coexistence, like Arthur Calmet and his deputy, John Seward.

We watch all these characters, forming or fighting their new reality, but we follow a couple of players a little lower down the totem pole: Steve Grant and Aaron Gray, cops who become partners in the search for the rogue vampire killing young ladies as a political statement. Woodbine plays Grant, the far more traditional half of the partnership, phrased as a film noir detective. He wears a raincoat and he's quick with his gun, but he's also black, surely a deliberate choice for a story so integrally tied to race issues, albeit ones that have little to do with skin colour. Paul is far less conventional as Gray, a vampire cop. He's one of Cross's lieutenants, with a pencil moustache, pallid skin tone and eastern European accent, and he understands racism all too well, as a Polish Jew who lost his family to Hitler's persecution. He was turned into a vampire while still clutching their frozen corpses, and the havoc he wreaked against the Nazis was with the yellow star very obvious on his coat throughout.

I should emphasise that while there's forties iconography everywhere, from both film noir investigations and World War II horrors, this isn't a period piece. We're never given a timeframe, just flashbacks to tell us when we're after. We're clearly not in the present, though, unless it's an alternate present with visual influence from Orwellian nightmare, Soviet propaganda and analogue technology. Think Terry Gilliam's Brazil, but with racism replacing bureaucracy and vampires serving as the oppressed minority. Perhaps to give some prominence to a vampire aesthetic beyond Nosferatu chromedomes, Bai Ling is gifted with a host of outrageous outfits, the sort that you wouldn't expect to ever see worn off the catwalk, and she leads the characters into fetish territory at the Pravda club, as modern gothic as her crumbling mansion is old gothic. Clearly there's a deliberate aim towards synergy of very different styles and it's refreshing to see something so ambitious, but sadly it's not entirely successful.
Grant is more grounded than Gray because he's given a more familiar aesthetic to work with; he's just a forties detective pounding the street looking for a killer. The flipside is that Paul has more flexibility than Woodbine in building his character, because it's rooted more in imagination than in a set visual style. He was able to pull from war movies, vampire movies, cop movies and whatever else he could find to build something new. I felt that what he ended up with was a mixed bag, better on the vampire side than the cop side; the moustache also made him too effeminate. Bai Ling proved far more successful at conjuring up something exotic, but then she's never found that much of a problem and this was a full seven years after The Crow. Halász and Göz are solid but stereotypical old school vampires. The annoying characters play support: John Durbin hams it up as a sadomasochistic nightclub owner, Zen Gesner is embarrassing as the flamboyant West and William Hootkins channels Robert Morley as another vampire lieutenant.

In many ways, the actors are unable to assert their dominance over the visuals. Even Bai Ling becomes just another visual delight in her love scene, because she's surrounded by gothic architecture, darkness and rose petals. Some scenes impress for their visual style, even when they're less successful generally; there's a crucial action scene late in the movie where I completely lost track of who was fighting who or who was on whose side, but I enjoyed it anyway because of its emotional grounding and the way it let a few actors run wild with their vampire characters. They get surprisingly little opportunity to do that here as Grant remains the action hero for the most part, even when others ought to have dominated in such scenes. There are scenes here that show off vampire powers in spectacular fashion, but they're early in the film and feature the killer; the heroes are generally kept far more subdued, perhaps in an attempt to humanise them. It's hard to be the oppressed minority when you're kicking ass and taking names.

The script was by Christos N Gage and Ruth C Fletcher, the earliest writing credit for either of them and that's telling. There's a lot of ambition in play here, an eagerness both to create a world that had never been seen on screen before and to endow it with depth and meaning; Gage and Fletcher met all those challenges and provided Oblowitz and his crew with something substantial enough to be adorned with so much visual style. Unfortunately they're more successful with the big picture than with some of the smaller ones, leaving it in the strange situation where its grand themes are discussed often in serious literature about vampire cinema but it can't find a place among the classics. In other words, it's talked about a lot more than it's seen and it sounds a lot better in discussion than it actually plays in viewing. This also means that when people see it, they tend to regard it lower than it fairly deserves. It's better than its IMDb rating suggests, but not so much as it could have been in more experienced hands.

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