There has been a lot of conversation surrounding THE NEON DEMON, the latest (and characteristically polarizing) movie from director Nicolas Winding Refn. It’s gorgeous. It’s shallow. It’s haunting. It’s empty. Neither side is “right” – subjectivity is what makes movies work – but despite the frequent reading of THE NEON DEMON as arthouse horror, I’ve rarely heard it talked about as part of horror’s oldest and most popular subgenres: the vampire film.
While I don’t believe Refn set out to literally make a vampire movie, I do think he is consciously using the tropes and iconography of vampires to tell a story about a group of people and an industry that drains the life of innocents and values perpetual youth. The parallels are not subtle, but then very little about THE NEON DEMON can be accused of subtlety.
Caution: this article contains spoilers for THE NEON DEMON.
The very first shot of the movie sees our protagonist, the gorgeously blank Jessie (Elle Fanning), draped lifelessly over a sofa, deep red blood streaming from her neck. It’s a setup for a photo shoot, sure, but also obvious and unmistakable vampire imagery. Because it’s her neck that’s covered and not her mouth, we immediately understand that Jessie is to be the prey and not the predator. Her youth, beauty and vitality draw essentially everyone in the film to her, from casting agents to hair and makeup artists to the sleazy apartment manager played by Keanu Reeves. Everyone she encounters wants to possess her, to consume her both figuratively and, as it turns out, literally. When Jessie cuts her hand on some glass in a restroom, a fellow model (Abbey Lee) immediately grabs the wound and tries to suck the blood. In this instance, Refn is hardly being obtuse.
A bit later in the film, Ruby – a hair and makeup artist played by Jena Malone who becomes key to reading it as a vampire story – says to Jessie “Are you food or are you sex?” What is, on the surface, a casual ladies’ room conversation about lipstick colors brings the subtext to the surface, as the marriage between sex and death (by oral consumption of blood, or “food”) is at the center of every vampire tale. The question Ruby poses to Jessie is a trick one, as Jessie is both food and sex.
One of the movie’s strangest and most abstract scenes finds Jessie returning to her apartment late one night and hearing someone or something inside. She goes and tells the building manager (Keanu Reeves), who opens up the front door and discovers a mountain lion has broken in and perched atop her bed. Once again, this could just be a scene about how predators are drawn to Jessie and the power of her animal magnetism…literally. But if we’re examining THE NEON DEMON through our vampire prism, the scene could be read as a visit from a shape shifter – a specific vampire who takes on another form and pays Jessie a visit just as Dracula became a wolf or a bat or Gary Oldman when he dropped in on Lucy Westenra or Mina Harker. Here, that vampire is Ruby.
Yes, it’s Ruby who gradually surfaces as the film’s greatest monster – the one who sets her sights on Jessie, who falls in love with her, and, when her feelings are not reciprocated decides to kill Jessie and possess both her body and her spirit. The wildest and most controversial moment in THE NEON DEMON – the scene people will still be talking about years from now – finds Jena Malone having intercourse with a woman’s corpse while fantasizing about Jessie. Once again, sex and death are juxtaposed in the most literal way. Every vampire movie that depicts a “feeding” scene is a kind of seduction – an erotic encounter between the living and the dead. Refn switches the roles in THE NEON DEMON but still takes the dynamic to its logical conclusion.
For the real vampire nerds, the most significant clue in the film comes in the form of Jena Malone basking in a bathtub literally covered head to toe in the blood of the murdered Jessie. If it recalls the image of the Countess Elizabeth Báthory, the 16th century Hungarian noblewoman who allegedly bathed in the blood of virgins to retain her youth (and who has inspired no shortage of horror films herself, from the 1970 Hammer movie COUNTESS DRACULA to the most memorable moment in Eli Roth’s HOSTEL PART II), I don’t think that’s an accident. It is established earlier in the movie that Jessie is, in fact, a virgin, making the sight of Ruby slathered in her blood the key to unpacking all of the vampire iconography in the film. It is Ruby who has been calling the shots all along. We see her as subserviant early on because she’s behind the scenes – it’s the glamorous models who we assume are in charge – but it is ultimately Ruby who controls how they look just as she controls who they feed upon. THE NEON DEMON reveals itself to be Ruby’s story, actually. Jessie is gone by the end, nothing more than forgotten food. Ruby lives on to find the next victim…perhaps forever.
Of course the problem with trying to read THE NEON DEMON as a vampire film is that all of its horror elements can easily be explained away as a story about the cutthroat world of high fashion. The repetitive visual motif of mirrors, for example, is likely borne more out commentary on the shallowness and self-absorption of the modeling industry than it is an acknowledgement of their importance in the vampire mythos. But there are too many bloodsucking signifiers in the movie to totally ignore, and part of the pleasure of a movie like THE NEON DEMON is in trying to uncover the secrets of its gorgeously twisted images. As a critique of the fashion industry, the film is pretty on the nose. But as a secret vampire movie, it doesn’t suck.