The Tell-Tale Hearts

Today, Shimako Sato is probably best known as the writer-director behind several entries in the Unfair series, a Japanese action franchise in the mold of Die Hard, but in 1992, she was a new filmmaker, recently graduated from London Film School, and, like any true artist, inspired by something terrible. That terrible thing: she was mugged in Tokyo, and during the mugging, her assailant stabbed her in the ear, splattering the cover of Sato’s copy of Interview with the Vampire with her own blood. The story Sato would come up with was, unsurprisingly, a vampire story, and while Anne Rice’s shadow dapples the whole thing with mood mood MOOD, it’s Sato’s deliberate juxtaposition of the melancholic hero with the mad, cold-hearted intellectual, so much more reminiscent of 19th century American Romantics like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, that sustains this tragedy of obsession and grief, of revenge served cold and toxic masculinity served two ways.

Sato’s A Tale of a Vampire stars Julian Sands as Alex, a vampire who spends most of his immortality quietly reading rare books in the library, #goals for many in this film’s natural audience. Here Julian is at the crossroads in his career between major parts in art house pictures and small parts in major features, and by his own telling, after being offered a glut of uninspiring vampire roles, he took this film against the advice of his agent, paid nothing upfront because this one was actually interesting. I’m not sure Julian ever did see a dime from this; he definitely didn’t get enough attention.

It’s clear he gave it all of his attention though, transcending “understanding the assignment” all the way to “embodying the text.” Julian’s performance as Alex recalls much of his big breakthrough as the laconic love interest in A Room with a View, all lingering looks and haunted silences and sudden bold overtures, albeit less poppy fields and more blood spray. Alex is not a neat eater. But then, that’s another of my favorite things about him–the contrast between Alex as instinctive predator, where he is fully an animal, confident, unhesitating, and very, very messy, and Alex’s bereaved scholar mode, where he is the absolute Romantic ideal of perfect suffering and you cannot blame this hesitant sweetie for smashing a guy’s head against the wall two scenes back, not this poor, lonesome creature. It is his nature. You can’t blame him anymore than you would blame a kitten for torturing the insect under its paw. 

Still, kind of creepy the way he watches kids playing though.

A classic vampire then, Alex’s problems are classic vampire problems, too. Namely, girl problems. He fell in love once, it ended at the tomb, and not being able to die himself, he’s having trouble moving on. Fairly soon, it becomes apparent that his studies of rare manuscripts are pretty much tantamount to scrolling his ex’s Instagram. Add to that, he is being stalked, not just by his own grief, but someone who seems to know about his bereavement and wants to savor that wound as much as Alex does. If anything begs credulity in this story, it may be Alex’s passivity in the face of his pursuer’s mysterious missives in the form of dead children and bits of his beloved, but again, that is something explored credibly with quiet, consistent character work. A Tale of a Vampire isn’t Blade or Blood: The Last Vampire or Vampire Hunter D or anything resembling an actiony idealization of the undead, and Alex’s reaction to these barbs is in some ways the most human thing about him. He just goes on, not wanting to go on.

Another classic vampire problem comes to Alex in the form of his dead lover’s face on a brand-new living person. The reincarnation of the dead beloved is, I will freely admit, one of my most hated tropes in the world. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it, but I like it here. I like it because the way Sato uses it doesn’t simply handwave its insertion as some kind of cruel fate, but instead bringing Alex together with Anne (Suzanna Hamilton), the living image of his much-mourned Virginia, is the result of painstaking work by Alex’s mysterious stalker. We won’t know much about the man hunting Alex (Kenneth Cranham), as Sato keeps him oblique and unnamed until his plans are nearly unfurled, but we can see at every pivot of the plot, Anne and Alex are his chess pieces, do they but know it. I can easily imagine him gently curating Anne’s life from afar for years simply to get her in position to torment Alex. Given his impressive cruelty, I could even imagine him introducing her parents. 

Anne’s character and her relationship with Alex, pleasingly difficult and true down to the bones, is another of my favorite things about this film. Anne is not simply here to wear gauze and be seduced. She, too, is recently bereaved–and there’s a tell-tale shadow near the scene of her lover’s accident–but her attitude to living with grief is the opposite of Alex’s life as elegy. As she identifies the charred body of her lover, you can see Suzanne Hamilton pulling herself taut, donning her grief as a uniform rather than a veil. We never see her cry or so much as chin wobble, though she walks with her loss as clearly as Alex does, surrounded by pictures of the dead, reading his favorite poems while dining alone, laying flowers at his grave. While Alex pursues her almost automatically, he shrinks away at crucial moments, leashed by grief, even shamed by it. Anne, however, doesn’t flinch from Alex, even when his signals are decidedly mixed. Repeatedly she counsels him, “Here is what matters. Now.” I can feel my own internalized sexism prudishly eyebrow-raising at her, but dammit, she’s not wrong. It makes for a more interesting vampiric pursuit, too, when the quarry is more prepared for first base than the hunter.

Stalwart Anne has the classic problem of a vampire’s beloved herself, in that she seems to draw the notice of all sorts of weird guys. Not just Alex stares longingly her way across the library; she’s also pursued by that older man in a hat. He’s oddly familiar, in both senses of the word, aspects Sato and Kenneth Cranham have a lot of fun with. Though he’s really interested in Alex, we get to know Cranham’s vampire hunter mostly through alternately creepy and charming dialogues with Anne. He knows a lot about Anne–too much–but she can’t quite dismiss him, as he knows even more about Alex. What is his interest in all this? It’s a mystery that can’t be too mysterious with such an intimate atmosphere and small cast, but I appreciate that Sato would rather lay the clues out like a place setting rather than spoon feed us the plot. Indeed, most of the plot is seeded between long romantic moments in overheard radio updates and loaded references the characters quickly shuttle past. Cranham is a delight in the part, genuinely disarming when he wants to be and intimidating when that’s his preference, too. I also love that, excellent American accent notwithstanding, in his final confrontation with Alex, he lets it relax into a distinctly Southern drawl. It’s a nice touch on top of many such nice touches, beginning with Cranham reading the first lines of Poe’s “Annabel Lee” at the top of the film.

Speaking of Poe: it’s the grief-stricken lover, the Romantic ideal probably best associated with Edgar Allan Poe, that Alex embodies, but Cranham’s character exemplifies a different archetype beloved of all the American High Romantics: the cold intellectual. There’s a touch of Ahab’s obsessiveness in his pursuit of Alex, but there’s even more of The Scarlet Letter’s Roger Chillingsworth, dedicated to obliterating the sanity of his wife’s secret lover, and Poe’s vengeful Montresor, walling up a man alive because he ventured on insult. He may be somewhat in line with the sadistic version of Poe spread about by his biographer, Rufus Griswold, after his death, except that this character could never be so careless as to be dissolute. Cranham’s man in the hat is consummate, and he has pride to match. It’s that pride, matched with a sociopath’s sangfroid, that moves him, not love, not sorrow. Long before we get into villain speech territory, it’s all too easy to see his love for Virginia reduces down to a measure of his own power, to say nothing of how he swaps seamlessly from honey to vinegar because he holds Anne and the whole rest of the world in such contempt. The revenge he purposes for Alex and Virginia is deliberate and vicious–in that the story does pay an overt tribute to Poe–but it is not like the passion or instinct that drives Alex to kill. Cranham’s character torments simply because he believes it is his right.

None of the American Romantics ever wrote a vampire story or indeed anything as overtly supernatural as A Tale of a Vampire, but Sato pulls from their work to craft her own perfect meditation on grief–a little bit Anne Rice, a lot Edgar Allan Poe, but more subtle than either. This is a visual medium, and Sato hews to the Japanese horror tradition of letting actions speak for themselves, packing its silences with unspeakable dread, unspeakable beauty. The only near comparison to it in that capacity I can think of, funnily enough, is another vampire movie, Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014). Like that film, A Tale of a Vampire is a languid, sensual piece, rife with the sexless sexiness and fatal romance that is the vampire fiction promise, and Sato makes the most of an evidently tiny budget with as strong a sense of style and intimacy. It’s the hearts that are tell-tale here, burning on one side and frozen on the other, and in the middle, a woman buried alive beneath such high ideals.

A Tale of a Vampire is currently VOD on Prime and sometimes pops up on TCM late nights or YouTube.


Angela dedicates this to Julian Sands, immortal in the hearts of so many.

1 reply »

  1. Really interesting article! I can so relate to your feeling of “I hate it, I hate it, I hate it, but I like it here” with tropes that I dislike categorically but then someone, somewhere surprisingly manages to do it well…


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