by Rich Moreland, May 2016
This is my first attempt to deconstruct a film outside the adult genre. I happened across producer/director/actress Amy Hesketh’s work and decided to give one of her recent films, Dead But Dreaming, a go.
Amy is a ground breaker, portraying the archetypal innocent victim with an honest, understated talent for eroticizing her peril.
I don’t use a rating system for the films I review, but if I did this movie would be a five-star winner. It’s that good.
SPOILER ALERT: If you’d rather not know what happens in this film, stop now and go play on twitter!
Dead But Dreaming is a vampire tale. It has a feminist underpinning that slashes religious and political conservatism while skewering the belief that a woman’s place is under the male thumb.
The back story begins with Lilith, Adam’s first wife. A priest named Ferenc explains to his niece, convent novice Varna, that Lilith refused to submit to Adam and was replaced by the more docile Eve.
Actually, the Lilith myth originated in pre-Christian Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) and entered Hebrew text in the sixth century BCE.
In Greek mythology, Lilith becomes the Lamia, eater of children and concubine of Zeus. Later she appears in European folklore as the succubi, the seducer of men. Thus we see female vampires in nineteenth century La Paz feasting on the city’s young lads which is Ferenc’s explanation for the mysterious murders that have come to town.
Incidentally, Bram Stoker’s 1898 novel Dracula weaves into vampire lore the blood, sex, and death theme we see in Dead. The Irish author’s Victorian rendition establishes the vampire tropes we’ve grown accustomed to, such as recoiling from daylight and crucifixes. For its part, Dead gives a subtle nod to Stoker Moire, who is also Irish.
Considering that the Lamia pre-date Christianity, director Jac Avila scraps some of the typical expectations. For example, Nahara can flit around in sunlight and travel as she pleases. What’s more, the vampires of Dead skirt any retribution from Christianity, though Ferenc does manage to impale Nahara with a crucifix to slow her down.
By the way, producer Amy Hesketh pays tribute to Stoker with “blood is about life force and desire.” Her words underscore the erotic theme of Dead played out magnificently with nudity and sadism. Best of all, the film is a collective love affair for the viewer. Actresses Veronica Paintoux, Mila Joya, and especially Amy Hesketh, are irresistible. As simultaneous victims and empowered women, they exude a delicious sexuality that becomes the narrative.
Writer/director Jac Avila wraps Dead around the mystical archetype of three. There are a trio of female vampires: Nahara (Paintoux), Aphrodisia (Joya), and Moire (Hesketh) and three historical settings to weave the story.
Each time period is a part of the puzzle the viewer assembles along the way.
The first deals with the tribal “birth” of Nahara, a visitor from a “faraway land” who finds passage through a time portal. Moire will metaphorically do the same in 1805, the far off land being Catholic Ireland.
The second is Antioch in 57 BCE. The characters in this setting are Greek, though the power of the coming Roman Empire is on their doorstep. The second vampire, Aphrodisia, is born out of the Roman tradition of slave crucifixion.
When we arrive at the film’s present time, La Paz is a part of Upper Peru. The Bolivian War of Independence is a few years away but the rebels are organizing. The Irish traveler, Moire O’Higgins, who plans to help the freedom fighters build their arsenal, will suffer a scourging and death that links her to Aphrodisia’s Roman punishment.
Speaking of crucifixion, there are three, one for each female vampire.
Finally, the central male vampire, Asa (played by Avila) encompasses three distinct roles. He is the tribal leader in prehistoric times and the visitor who will suck the blood of the slave Aphrodisia while she is on the cross.
Most important, however, is 1805 La Paz where Asa is a vampire lord in pursuit of, and being pursued by, Nahara in what looks like a family feud. Their maneuverings become the central theme of the story.
Finally, as referenced above, the past and present in Dead are interspersed with scenes from the various time periods. As the film moves forward, the intercutting can appear befuddling, but with close attention the sub-narratives skillfully come together.
The next post explores the film’s feminism theme.
* * *
Dead But Dreaming is an indie production from Pachamama Films and distributed through Vermeerworks. It is available for online streaming or DVD purchase.