Let's be honest. At this point, who's not sick of vampires? It's easy to throw the blame on those blasted 'Twilight' movies, but I'm going to take it one step farther and place the blame on everyone who paid to see them. If it hadn't been for those suckers fueling that garbage, it's possible that we wouldn't be on vampire burnout right now. It's possible that 'Twilight' could have been a failure similar to 'The Golden Compass' - a novel-turned-movie that was less than successful and, as a result, the rest of the book series never saw the cinematic light of day. But that's not what happened. Instead, we've been relentlessly hit over the head with bad vampires ever since and it's finally taking its toll. The worthy vamp tales that were released amongst the bad – like 'Let the Right One In' and it's American adaptation 'Let Me In' - were left to their cult audiences despite being much more worthy of that. Luckily, the director (Neil Jordan) who gave us, arguably, the best vampire film of our generation - 'Interview with a Vampire' - has returned to remind us of how the genre should be done, as well as how great he is at bringing the genre to life.
The main gripe that vampire aficionados have had with the genre-bastardizing teen series (beside how bloody awful they are) is how they take so many liberties with the vampyrical rules. Those movies/series don't even come close to resembling the true roots. With 'Byzantium,' it's as if Jordan has pointed his fingers at those hacks and said, "If you're going to tweak the origins, this is how you do it!"
Much like 'Interview with a Vampire,' 'Byzanitum' is a very moody vampire tale. It features two contrasting central characters that portray very different versions of the bloody sucking immortals. First, there's Clara (Gemma Arterton), a sexy female vamp that's more than 200 years old. She understands the power of sensuality and uses it to get what she wants. She drinks life up, constantly partying and never taking anything seriously. On the other side of the coin, there's Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), Clara's melancholy daughter who has been stuck at age 16 for nearly 200 years. Clara enjoys her lifestyle, but Eleanor is damned by it, viewing it as a curse. Because of their contrasting points of view, Eleanor cannot share her depression with her mother. Instead, she bottles it up and pushes everyone away. Clara feels no remorse for her blood-drained victims, but Eleanor indirectly refuses to take lives that don't want to be taken. As we see in the opening scene, Eleanor finds old folks with nothing left to live, geriatrics that are waiting, longing, for death to take them to the other side. With their permission, she grants them their wishes and feeds.
We open with a nice little intro to Eleanor, seeing how she finds her victims and gains their approval. After that, we're shown Clara's way of living. Moments after giving a botched lap dance in a strip club, Clara's co-workers dismiss her warranted violent, but not fatal, reaction – but a man who enters the club with his sights sets on her knows better. The moment that Clara locks eyes with him, she bolts. We don't know who he is, but we know that he's been looking for her for a long time. It's immediately obvious that he's not just a pimp looking for his cash, no, he's also a vampire. Doused in blood spatter, their altercation ends far from where it started, forcing Clara to grab Eleanor and immediate get on the move. It hardly feels like the first time that they've had to go on the run, but they soon settle in a small city on the shore. Clara quickly hops back into her manipulative prostitute role. Eleanor continues to sulk, but something is different. As she has obviously done before, we see her try to push away a fellow teenage boy who tries to get close to her (Caleb Landry Jones), but this time she gives in. While her mother's mindless actions have put them in risk before, Eleanor's actions are about to open a whole new can of worms.
Instead of playing within the boundaries of the well established vampire genre, 'Byzantium' toys with a new breed. Our characters' origins are slowly rolled out as the film progresses, so I'll refrain from spoiling the new way that 'Byzantium''s vampires come to be. I'll say this, there are no fangs. No bites. One vampire cannot turn others into vampires. The daylight doesn't appear to be deadly, but I cannot say for sure because the majority of the film is set in the perpetually cloudy United Kingdom. For certainty, they surely don't glisten, twinkle or sparkle. This new breed is "turned" in a very cool and ancient fashion. Their retractable fangs are replaced with talon-like thumbnails that pop flesh open with the slightest amount of pressure. Yes, Moira Buffini's screenplay takes liberties, but it doesn't change the overall mood and nature of its monster characters.
It's refreshing to love a new vampire flick. When I reviewed this Blu-ray, I didn't have enough time to watch the whole movie before going to bed (early morning radio gives you have a rigid sleep schedule), but it was so interesting and gripping that I blew off bed time by an hour just so I could finish it. Although extremely tired the next morning, it was totally worth it. Had the finale been a little bit grander, then 'Byzantium' could have been a four-and-a-half or five-star film – but I'll gladly take it as it is. Even with a mild climax, it's world's better than the current genre alternative.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Unfortunately, IFC has only seen fit to put 'Byzantium' on a cheap BD-25 – and the technical qualities suffer because of it. Read below for examples. The Region A disc is housed in a solid blue Elite keepcase. The only unskippable pre-menu video is an FBI warning, but a slew of trailers follow that can be skipped through one-by-one, including 'Maniac,' 'Simon Killer,' 'Breaking the Girls' and 'The Canyons.'
Because I enjoyed 'Byzantium' so much, I couldn't be more upset with IFC for placing it on a tiny BD-25. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encoding is damaged because of this bad decision.
The opening credits feature an intentionally blurred action in extreme close-up. It isn't until later that you'll find out exactly what you're seeing, but you'll immediately notice the massive bands as you see the blurry colorful waves of … something … rise and fall on the screen. With the bands being so prominent in this sequence, I feared that the entire film would be plagued with them – but it isn't. Aside from a few minor bands here and there, they're only wildly noticeable in the opening scene. Not-so-subtle aliasing and a few shots with digital noise are also present.
The color palette consists of a great amount of plain colors so that the occasional wild reds, blues and yellows can explode on screen. Colorization is effectively used to add or drain life from scenes. Some muted locations drag the life out of the characters, while others – especially the strip club and carnival – use the colors to punch life back into it. Certain locations tend to blow out colors with oversaturation. Should-be textures are completely wiped out, turning color-coated objects and people into overly colorful blobs. The same goes for the black levels. All too often, black levels are blasted. Prepare yourself for crushing galore – that is, when the contrast allows blacks to appear black and not gray. With a great amount of the film set in the evening or in dark locations, this problem is almost a constant.
There are many great examples of fine details being visible – facial textures, intensely red blood spurts, clothing textures, the fiber-like blues strands in Saoirse Ronan's vibrant eyes, etc. Close-ups certainly point out the Blu-ray's great potential, but the previously mentioned defects lessen the overall greatness.
I cannot think of another modern film whose Blu-ray contains both a lossless 5.1 mix and a lossless 2.0 mix. For this review, I watched the film with the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track toggled.
The first thing that I noticed about 'Byzantium's great mix is how well balanced it is. The levels are fantastic, working harmoniously to create a very dynamic and effect listening experience. Our contrasting central characters are each given their own scoring style. Being the wild one, Clara's scoring is frantic techno music. It's loud, booming from all around the theater. Amidst her lively action scenes, the effects and dialog are perfectly mixed against it. Eleanor's scoring is soft and gentle. During a few scenes, we see her play the piano. The tunes she plays perfectly match her own themes, which mostly consist of piano and strings.
On-screen actions are brought to life via the track's great effects mix. When one location is set on fire, the flames spread and burst throughout the room. Another setting features hundreds – if not thousands – of birds circling slightly over head. The caws, sounds of flapping wings and rushing wind make you feel as if its your head that's being buzzed. The beach settings bring gentle crashing and splashing little waves, as well as imaging seagulls. Environments come to life through the sound mix.
The vocal track is crisp and clear. Several scenes feature long strings of whispered dialog. Every word rings through with clarity. At the same time, we get to hear the unpredictable sounds of crazed vampires ready to attack. Like the whispers, they sound great – but you'd never want to be the person warranting these sounds.
It's about time we're given another vampire film that's actually worthy of our attention. Unlike the genre's recent rip-offs, 'Byzantium' has a lot more than just sulking teenagers – but I fear that it will go the way of 'Let the Right One In' or 'Let Me In' by passing by mostly unnoticed. If you enjoy the deep and moody vampire classic 'Interview with a Vampire,' then you'll surely find 'Byzantium' worthwhile. Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan are fantastic as the 200-year-old feuding mother/daughter vamps. They create characters worth caring about. The story in which they're set is definitely complex enough to keep you interested, but the film climax is undeniably on the weak side. The recent bloated vampire series overstayed their welcome, but 'Byzantium' leaves me wanting more. The Blu-ray's video quality is flawed due to the disc's small size, but the audio quality is very good. I could have used more special features than just an hour of poorly pieced together cast and crew interviews, but I'm content owning the Blu-ray simply because I love the film. This release is far from great, so I highly recommend checking it out before making a decision to buy. If you enjoy the film as much as I do, then you'll want to own it despite its flaws. After all, it's not like IFC is going to give us a double-dip.