Blood From Stone

Blood From Stone (2020)

In the foreground, a large, bearded Balkan man dressed like a cowboy (Vanja Kapetanovic) sits at a table, tapping his glass impatiently, until four casually dressed men enter the bar and order whiskies. Once the cowboy has heard them say that they are out-of-towners in Las Vegas for a convention, he buys them all several rounds, introduces himself as ‘local barfly’ Joe, and offers them some coke to snort out back with him. This opening sequence in writer/director Geoff Ryan’s Blood From Stone is all about imposture and predation. ‘Joe’ is in fact called Jure, he has never been to this bar before (despite repeatedly and ostentatiously addressing the bartender by her forename as though he were some regular), and he has just lured this hot-blooded quartet into a death trap. For Jure is in fact a vampire on the hunt, and these tourists are to be his prey. Later Jure will insist that his costume is inspired more by Rob Zombie than by the wild west, yet in a way he really is a cowboy – an outmoded, outdated figure of swagger and violence in a world whose values have long since changed, and a man who’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, even if that leaves him room for little but one final blaze of glory.

Centuries old, Jure has become jaded with the endless repetitions and routines of immortality, and has given himself over to excess. Mere human blood no longer does it for him –  he needs there be to high-proof alcohol and drugs in the bloodstream for it to hit the spot, and like a junkie, he is getting ever messier and clumsier in his pursuit of empty thrills, leaving a trail of corpses that are attracting police attention. It is a kind of death wish – and if nothing is ever quite enough for him, he also cannot satisfy his craving for Darya (Gabriella Toth), the young woman whom he turned centuries ago but who no longer requites his love. Darya is the reason that Jure is in Las Vegas at all. Damaged and determined to escape Jure, she had come to America “to get away and leave some old baggage behind” – only for Jure to come after her again, as he always does, and to upend her attempts to build herself a new stability.

Though Darya too uses a false name (Nico), she is otherwise very different from Jure. Clean and well-groomed, she holds down a job as a waitress, drinks blood obtained illicitly from a hospital rather than from victims, and where Jure is endlessly looking for prey, she is seeking love, respect and a normal life – even if both Jure and Darya’s quests seem impossible to fulfil for long, leading to unnaturally protracted lives of endless frustration and dissatisfaction. So while Blood From Stone presents itself formally as a vampire film, and even features vampires that conform to classic undead conventions (they use their fangs to drain necks, have great physical strength, are allergic to sunlight and can be killed with a stake to the heart), it is also a complex character study set in a new world of possibilities.

Times change. Where Jure, on a previous, pre-colonial visit to America, Jure could – and would – out entire Native American villages, now killing just a few people by night draws forensic investigations and police manhunts. Where once Jure’s older sister Viktoria (Nika Khitrova) had to conceal her lesbian orientation as much as her vampirism, now she can live openly with her girlfriend Claudia. The vampires’ need for blood stays essentially the same, but nonetheless they are, to differing degrees, adaptable. Viktoria and Claudia have moved to Greece, where they find rich pickings in the refugees constantly washing up on the shores from the Middle East and Africa. While we hear that Jure’s mother, from the previous generation, still maintains the generic tradition of vampires by remaining sole occupant of an ancient castle in the old country (“she won’t let me update it for her”, comments Viktoria), Darya has been drawn to the bright, glitzy lights of Vegas in a direct deviation from the usual trappings of gothic, and lives in a neat, modest apartment. Darya more than anyone longs to fit in and find a way of living amongst humans without having regularly to kill them – and her attraction to the earnest surgeon Raymond (Eric Cotti) marks her concern with the welfare of others and the need to heal.

“Good to know that some things never change,” observes Jure, who holds on to the old ways and his old hungers, and regards humans as nothing more than cattle. Where Darya seeks new hope in Vegas, the only opportunity that Jure sees there is the herds of businessmen and tourists passing through, ripe for the culling. Missing his old freedom to hunt at will, Jure falls hard off the wagon and throws all caution to the wind. Refusing to accept the new dispensation in which he finds himself and incapable of self-restraint, he is, like any addict, caught in a downward spiral, as destructive as he is self-destructive, and his careless denial of current realities is driving him towards a long-delayed end to which – like a moth to a flame – he is strangely drawn. These are no longer this midnight cowboy’s times, and Jure is on a last bloody hurrah, even as Darya holds out the promise of reform and renewal.

Although Darya and Jure share few scenes together, they are family. Both the interconnectedness – and divergence – of their histories chart a dynamic where a dysfunctional, damaging past is something either to which to cling or from which to emerge. These characters may be hundreds, even thousands, of years old, and potentially immortal, but their individual conflicts reflect what happens within any family, as different generations embrace, or try to escape, the cycles of historic abuse. As such, Blood From A Stone is all at once a US-set neo-western vampire chronicle (think Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, 1987), a saga of domestic trauma, an addiction narrative, and a vision of a divided, indeed ‘Balkanised’ America where the discrete desires to conserve and to progress, to kill and to cure, represent an eternal, bloody struggle.

Like Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) or a less comedic counterpart to Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s What We Do In The Shadows (2014), Ryan’s film is a tale of assimilation (and its opposite), as long-in-the-tooth migrants look for their place in a new world (in fact the New World), and in a new feeding chain. Which is to say that Blood From Stone drains deep of its chosen genre, finding fresh sources of life in an old but ever continuing story.

© Anton Bitel