When do we begin to stop believing in the things that go bump in the night? I imagine it’s around the same time that our parents put away the night light for good. It’s only natural: along the path from adolescence to adulthood, enough personal experience is accumulated to force the development of a bullshit detector that disavows the possibility of the supernatural being more than a mixture of superstition and coincidence. (The exception is anyone involved with the making and watching of Ghost Hunter.) Pretty quickly, it seems kind of hilarious that something as harmless as a dark closet could’ve ever frightened our child brains.
But that’s why the best monster movies are so compelling—the idea that there’s actually something ominous and unexplainable lurking in the margins, waiting to upend our previous assumptions about the way the world works. Along those lines, Thirst has a knockout premise: It’s about a priest who becomes infected with a blood virus that appears to turn him into a vampire, and how he grapples with his faith while struggling to control his newfound urges. The concept of a nice vampire who feels conflicted about killing people is well worn and sometimes corny, but applying the trope to a man of the cloth gives director Chan-wook Park (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) a way to naturally slip into the ethical meditation of being an alpha predator without becoming pedantic. What’s more, it gives the fastidiously knowledgeable priest a Biblical frame of reference to communicate just how genuinely unsettling and unromantic his demonic condition is. As he tells an abused housewife whom he becomes increasingly attracted, “A bloodthirsty beast is growling inside of me.”
My viewing companion related an anecdote about reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula for a class, and how she was the only woman to find Dracula sort of attractive in an elegant way. (A year later, Twilight came out and changed all of their opinions.) Almost every vampire story I can think of, from Buffy to Nosferatu, has something to say about the knee-knocking sexual tension between the living and the undead, and Thirst heads in that direction as soon as the priest realizes he craves more than just blood. In an early scene, we see him remembering a smoldering encounter with the housewife before beating his thighs with a metal ruler, as though that could calm his powerful bout of vampire-driven priapism.
Those mental walls begin to erode, and watching the priest rewrite his worldview is what gives Thirst its thrust. When he first acts on his attraction, there’s a moment in their sexual fumbling when he loses his nerve and attempts to push her off, but even though he’s vampire-strong, she’s still able to overpower him and maneuver their awkward intercourse. Later, they meet in an isolated hospital room where they have enough space and time to go to town in an incredibly erotic scene that should absolutely not be watched with a parent. (In a manner of speaking, it’s interesting to note how intuitively and vigorously the priest loses his virginity despite not having any romantic experience; it’s always assumed that vampires make awesome lovers, but Park really shows how handy the increased endurance, strength, and sensuality turn out to be.)
There are plenty of other intriguing moral dilemmas, but I won’t describe too much. Something is always happening, and something must always be dealt with. It’s an energetic film, though Park sometimes undermines the grimness of his existential ruminations by deciding to allow a carnal campiness to filter into some of the scenes. He’s eager to soak the screen with blood, the vampires (whoops, spoilers?) float from rooftop to rooftop like characters in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and there’s a silly hallucinatory diversion in the middle that’s just a bit too literal in its symbolism. The line between comically elevated hysteria and outright goofiness gets a little blurry and, in my opinion, keeps Thirst from executing its full potential. But that’s a personal preference, and depending on whether or not you know what Fangoria is, it might even be a plus.
On the other hand, Ingmar Bergman never met a joke he didn’t tell. Hour of the Wolf, the Swede’s first post-Persona film, takes a winding approach to what could be a conventional horror plot: A painter named Johan (Max von Sydow) descends into insanity as he begins to suspect a castle on the remote island he’s moved to with his wife is inhabited by a variety of monsters posing as aristocrats. Things open on a down note, as title cards inform us at the beginning that Johan has disappeared. From there, his wife Alma (Liv Ullmann) provides a partially complete reconstruction of what through his diary and her own knowledge. (Eventually we see things that she would have no way of knowing, but the deviation from internal logic isn’t too big a deal.)
Hour of the Wolf is what you’d imagine: Ingmar Bergman’s version of a genre flick, and strictly calling it a movie about monsters is a little like calling “Like a Rolling Stone” a song about geology. As mentioned, Bergman is pretty inexorably devoted to his method, and the movie quickly announces itself as the type that’s easily lampooned for being unapologetically pretentious. His characters are prone to extended monologues that trail off with no identifiable conclusion, in which statements like “Everything I do is unreal and meaningless” are delivered with deadly serious self-importance. He makes use of stark, shadow-filled photography and facial close-ups to elicit an ineffable emotive vividness, the kind that’s readily screenshotted and posted to Tumblr by humorless art school students.
The extremity of this tonal adherence means that it begins to feel at some point that the movie is subsequently screening in the background of a College Depressives Anonymous meeting. But as it turns out, the bone-dry pace at which things proceed is perfect, as it allows the horror of Johan’s situation to carefully escalate in increasingly surreal amounts—a mysterious woman who says she’s 216 years old before correcting herself; an ex-lover who may or may not be real—before an explicitly unnerving conclusion that runs through a gamut of creepy, erotic, and confusing emotions without clarifying very much. That’s the point, of course: that maybe the most believable reaction to the unknown is to stare back, helpless, unable to say a word, and maybe even a little turned on by what we’re incapable of understanding.