Vampirism is something monstrous, something impossible, but it’s a broad enough kind of monstrosity to mean it can be explored in a number of ways on screen. Unto Death, by director Jamie Hooper, uses the vampirism theme to explore a relationship, and how it is put under extraordinary pressure by the most extraordinary of circumstances. The resulting film is a subtle, but affecting piece of human drama.
Thomas and Luke – although not named during the film, just in the credits – have an idyllic relationship, and are clearly in love. We see enough of them spending time together to understand the closeness of their bond. Thomas is a clergyman, and a sermon which he is giving acts as a voice-over, gradually linking the content of his speech to the events in the film. Religious motifs are, given the day job, therefore to be expected, and religious iconography fills the film; at first, crucifixes are just part of the decor, but they become more ominous as the film progresses. Luke, we are shown, has been attacked by a mysterious assailant. The wound he incurs during this causes him to sicken, and to change.
There are no prizes for guessing, perhaps, the nature of this injury, but the way in which it occurs is interesting. Inverting the expected ‘female victim’ narrative is a bold idea: as long as vampires as associated with sex, then we are always going to be faced with a glut of passive female flesh in horror films of this genre. I could name dozens. Not so with Unto Death, a fact which gives us one of the film’s genuine strengths. It works seamlessly to dispense with the old trope, giving us a predatory female and – something which is still unusual – it’s a gay couple under siege, meaning that the sexuality of the vampire simple doesn’t figure here. The after-effects of this attack are treated modestly by the film, with comparatively little in the way of a study of the symptoms; the point here is to engage with the emotional state of the characters, with Thomas in particular demanding answers of his faith as well as grieving for his partner, who says nothing during the film – he can only be seen in the act of moving away, losing his humanity, and edging towards becoming a monster himself.
Accomplishing some interesting things and flexing its imagination along the way, Unto Death is an engaging short film which shows that there’s mileage in the vampirism motif yet, and that it can – with careful handling – still surprise. The story told here isn’t necessarily complex, but it paints a plausible picture of a love story being torn apart by a sensitively-handled horror element.