These It Came from the DVR articles are going to be a little bit different. As an early Christmas present to myself, I picked up a festival pass to the Toronto After Dark film festival. So the first difference is that these are new movies, on the big screen, instead of old ones and niche programming on the small screen. The second difference is that these are going to be short. I’ve got eighteen films to see in seven days (as well as dressing up for the annual zombie walk), so I’m not going to have a whole lot of time to write, and I want post these while the blood is still fresh.
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration, but most of the films it showcases won’t see wide release – so in addition to extracting some rpg goodness from each movie, I’ll also give them a bit of a critique, so fellow gamers can know what they need to track down and what to avoid. I’ll try and keep spoilers to an absolute minimum.
In this urban vampire tale, Jacob is a security guard stuck working the long, lonely hours of the nightshift, thanks to a rare skin condition that has left him dangerously sensitive to the sunlight. After a chance meeting with a troubled and beautiful woman named Mary, it looks as though Jacob has finally made the human connection he longs for. Unfortunately, Jacob’s disease hasn’t finished with him yet, and avoiding the sun is only the first stage of the illness’ metamorphosis. As Jacob’s condition and his relationship with Mary evolve, things quickly begin to spiral out of control.
Engaging, Low-Fi, Addiction Drama
Whenever I think that vampire stories have been played out and are as bled dry as a buxom blonde in a Hammer film, a movie like Midnight Son (or a few years ago, Let the Right One In), comes along and reminds me why these monsters stay relevant and will continue to be in the years to come. Vampires, even with their generally accepted genre conventions (rules if you will), represent a whole grab bag of subconscious fears and, with a little tweaking and liberal recombining, there is no limit to the stories they can be featured in. I blame slumps in vampire culture not in the limitations of the potential of the vampire story but in the limitations of the vampire stories that are made.
With all that out of the way, I found Scott Leberecht’s Midnight Son refreshing. The film doesn’t totally reimagine the vampire (although there are aspects to Midnight Son’s nosferatu that are unique), but it does reject the storytelling of at least a decade of Hollywood vampire movies. Midnight Son is low-fi in the very best sense of the term. There are no flying vampires, super speed, animal metamorphosis or over the top effects. Instead, my interest was held by the characters – not beautiful and brooding dark princes, or fake angsty teenage heartthrobs – believable, lonely people trying to cope with their problems. The plot is simple and straightforward and, although some characters may make bad decisions (it wouldn’t be much of a story if they didn’t), they are understandable decisions that still make sense (refreshing in a horror film).
You really feel as though you could run into the characters of the film on the street, which speaks both to the actors’ performances (again, it’s refreshing to see good acting in a vampire film), as well as the look of the film (no impossibly leather clad models posing and pouting in a club filled with choreographed dancers). In the same vein, I have to comment on Leberecht’s ability to capture the atmosphere of a city at night. Sure you’ve got plenty of darkness, but there is just as much light; just not the kind of light that leaves you comforted and safe – washed out fluorescents, and yellow tinted sodium streetlights that give even the healthiest specimen an unearthly, undead pallor. It isn’t a look that many films get right (the lighting reminded me of Collateral – love or hate that film, the look of the nighttime lighting is spot on).
Midnight Son has plenty of horror, but isn’t what I’d call a scary movie. Jacob’s vampirism works as an exploration of addiction and the sometimes crippling baggage we bring to relationships, with a little bit of body horror thrown in there as well. There’s blood, but gore hounds will be disappointed by the low body count and unspectacular kills (which, as much as I love a splattery neck bite, would feel out of place in Midnight Son). The second half of the film is quite tense and builds up to a nice climax, but some viewers might get bored by the slower pace at the beginning. It didn’t bother me, but if you’re expecting a certain kind of vampire film, you’ll be disappointed.
If I had to compare Midnight Son to other movies, it would be to the addiction dramas of the nineties like Rush and the Basketball Diaries… only with vampires (if that makes sense).
Midnight Son is recommended, especially for those fleeing certain overwrought, sparkly undead and are looking for something a little more grown up and gritty.
Note: I have to mention this, because I collected the comics in the nineties, that the film Midnight Son has nothing to do with Marvel’s team of supernatural heroes, the Midnight Sons. When I saw the title I was excited to see an indie version of Ghost Rider, but about two seconds of reading the description set me straight (although Jacob and Morbius do share some similarities). Fans of the comics have to hope that Nicolas Cage’s next kick at the can is better than the first.
Midnight Son is a great example of a protagonist transforming into a monster and trying to cope. It’s an excellent resource for anyone running a World of Darkness game that is looking for pointers on role playing a newly transformed kindred trying to understand their powers and place in the world. I talked about players’ desire to ‘be the monster’ in rpg games as part of my review of Dead Heads, so I won’t retread that territory here. Where Midnight Son takes the discussion a step further is its use of transformation through contagion – specifically the spread of vampirism through lapses in judgement in the pursuit of addiction (HIV spread through shared needles perhaps?). Not only is the protagonist transformed into a monster, but he risks transforming others into monsters as well.
This seems like an excellent plot device to incorporate into a campaign using the vampire class from last year’s Heroes of Shadow. While the method for spreading vampirism is pretty cut and dried in other games that feature vampires as PCs (I’m thinking about World of Darkness and Rifts in particular since I’ve played them), Heroes of Shadow leaves it intentionally vague. This can work to the DM’s advantage.
Instead of telling the player how vampirism works, have them be unsure exactly how they became what they are (and how it is spread). Maybe the PC has had the memory of the bite that infected them psychically wiped from their brain, or perhaps they were simply born a vampire and now act as a Typhoid Mary, spreading the disease to others they come in contact with. Whatever the case, start having major villains who die after being targeted by the blood drain power return to the campaign as vampires, out for revenge against the party who slew them. The players might not immediately clue in to the cause (they might suspect a rival vampire or necromancer is rejuvenating the undead villains), but once they do, will likely begin to take precautions against further vampiric resurrection (which is fine – it rewards problem solving and prevents the plot twist from becoming stale and overused).
Vampirism as an infectious disease can be just as useful in the reverse direction as well, to introduce material from Heroes of Shadow into an established campaign. Instead of breaking immersion and introducing a new PC into the storyline, have a character who wants to try out the vampire class become infected with the ‘haemophage disease’.
There are many myths and superstitions regarding the spread of vampirism. Most hold it to be a supernatural curse of some kind. Few realize it is a terrible disease, spread like rabies or filth fever, through the bite of the infected.
This is a difficult and deadly disease by design – after all, if the PC wants to try out the vampire class, they want the disease to progress. I considered having vampire characters spread the disease to fellow party members through the blood is the life class feature (emulating the film), but it takes away one of the vampire’s few avenues for healing (and before long would result in a party filled with vampires).