New British horror makes vampirism the new domesticity

Anyone old enough to remember Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight, True Blood or The Vampire Diaries (to name but a few) would know that it’s been a while since vampires graced our screens. With so much canon under the sun (pun intended), it’s difficult to imagine how filmmakers could approach the subject with a fresh eye. Maybe that’s why we haven’t seen quite as many fangs in the past decade or so. But early 2020 welcomed a resurfacing of the genre, with What We Do in The Shadows and Vampires.

Rose: A Love Story, which premiered at BFI London Film Festival on 13 October, takes on the challenge as well.

Directed by Jennifer Sheridan, written by Matt Stokoe and produced by women-run Mini Productions, Rose investigates what happens when the curse of vampirism befalls a very emotionally co-dependent couple. What the film analyses above all is the concept of “monster”. When is a monster not a monster? Can we love a monster? And who is, really, the monster? Throughout the film, Sam (Matt Stokoe) goes to great lengths to protect his wife Rose’s (Sophie Rundle) secret and their secluded life in the woods. There are points when his anger becomes a bigger threat to their safety than Rose’s uncontrollable bloodthirst.

The film breathes fresh air into the symbolism of vampire stories. Sam grows garlic in the garden. Rose uses a face mask (yes, like the Covid-19 ones) to make herself immune to triggering smells. Amber (Olive Gray), a stranger who accidentally comes across the couple, brings a millennial, grounded perspective to the surreal atmosphere.

I sat down with director Jennifer Sheridan and producers April Kelley and Sara Huxley to talk about their inspiration in making the film and their hopes for the future.

The vampire genre had a significant renaissance ten years or so ago, but films on the same theme have been rarer and rarer. What triggered the need for a new addition to the genre?

April: I grew up watching (obsessing over) Buffy The Vampire Slayer and I think after a phenomenon like that, it’s pretty hard to follow up with something new and original – so a ten-year break seems fair. I think now, the landscape of film and TV requires you to very much think outside of the box, to create stories that subtly bridge the gap between multiple genres and keeps audiences on their toes.

Sara: And that was one of the main reasons why we were drawn to this project. When reading the script, you’re pulled back and forth between the fantastical underlining horror of the piece while rooting for a couple you genuinely care about. As a company, we’re always drawn to films that don’t sit comfortably within one genre, because life doesn’t sit within one genre and that’s why Rose: A Love Story inspired us.

Jennifer: I feel like Rose skirts this genre and does something quite unique with it. There’s a lot of romanticism involved in vampirism. The idea of being consumed by someone like a vampire is a bit sexy and edgy. Rose goes against the grain because it explores the practicalities in a more realistic, human way. If your life partner was afflicted with a disease that gave them vampiristic tendencies, how would you manage mealtimes, for example? [How would you] carve out any sense of a normal marriage or sex life? It’s more akin to being a type of carer for someone with a dangerous terminal illness and that’s what Sam is in the film for Rose. They definitely love each other, but their love is constantly under duress and being challenged. I took inspiration from films like It Comes at Night, The Hallow and Beast. These are all brilliantly intense films that deal with human relationships, and in a way that [makes] you really care about the characters who are in peril.

The British film market can be overwhelmingly focused on big-budget dramas. Was it hard to get funding for a genre film? What was your experience as women filmmakers breaking into the industry?
Jennifer: For a long time, I was figuring out what my directorial voice was. I covered as many genre bases as I could in the shorts that I made. I was really figuring out where to place myself and found that I always leaned towards high concept ideas. Genres like fantasy, sci-fi and horror were where I felt I began to really grow as a filmmaker. It feels like what initially seemed a scatter gun approach might finally be paying off because the industry seems more open to mixing genres right now. My hope is that this creates the opportunity to tell stories with heart and depth, but that don’t have to be restricted to just the drama genre anymore.

Sara: Getting a film funded of any genre is tricky and yet we still do it! It’s no secret that there’s very little money in independent filmmaking, so we were very fortunate to have Great Point Media take us under their wing. They believed in the project and the team and have championed many indies over the years. We also have to do a big shout out and thank you to Fields Park Pictures for their investment, and the awesome Rob Taylor at The Development Partnership for bringing the funds together.

April: As women, we broke into the industry via a long-winded obstacle course where we couldn’t see the finish line, but had faith that a BFI London Film Festival premiere was just over the next hurdle.

Sara: We still have a long way to go when it comes to female voices (both in front and behind the camera). They’re loud but the volume is certainly getting louder and rightfully so. We’ve never let it stop us. Has it made our journey more difficult? Of course. But we refuse to let it belittle our ambitions.

April: We pride ourselves on actively making sure that our projects and our sets are diverse and not just when it comes to gender. As producers, it begins with us choosing a story that helps amplify underrepresented voices and then we have to lead by example thereon in all the way through to post-production.

The dynamic between Rose and Sam taps into discussions of gender dynamics. Sam’s self-assigned role as Rose’s protector and provider is ultimately their doom. What was your reasoning in creating this dangerously obsessive but also intimate relationship?
Sara: Writer Matt Stokoe did a fantastic job developing these incredibly complex, flawed characters, so we can’t take any credit for that – but this dynamic certainly interested us. It’s a tightrope but it all comes from a loving place. Never at any point do I think Sam would become violent towards Rose because, ultimately, she is the dangerous one in the relationship.

Jennifer: Matt, Sophie [the lead actress] and I discussed gender dynamics at length during the script development stage and throughout filming. We’re exploring some tricky themes with Rose, like co-dependance, for example. Sam is trying to manage their situation and has created rules to navigate Rose’s condition. To a romantic, this can appear caring and loving, but it is ultimately infantilising and quite controlling. Rose is much stronger mentally than Sam and is more realistic about their situation, but she also heavily relies on him for their survival. Ultimately, they are both trying to protect each other in different ways, but events unfold that continuously challenge the world that they have constructed for themselves. I think a lot of people will be able to relate to [this] kind of dynamic within a relationship. Love can cause people to construct narratives around themselves that can keep them in a situation that’s not always the healthiest.

April: Although it may be a relationship dynamic we’ve seen in other films, we don’t think it’s been seen within this sort of world and that is interesting in itself. It was a challenge for the director and actors to stay on that tightrope and we think they smashed it.

What would you like audiences to walk away from the film with?
April: I think audiences are too familiar with the traditional genre structure. We’re now seeing more and more films with a lot of heart such as A Quiet Place and Birdbox, which are helped by household names in the main roles. Personally, I’d like audiences to come away with wide eyes and a strong exhale. What I mean by that is for them to feel all the tension and fear that horror provides but leaving their hearts aching for Sam and Rose.

Sara: April nailed her answer there! I’d only add that I think audiences should walk away with a curiosity to know what happens next; it ends on a suspense note, that’s for sure. Perhaps there’ll be a Rose: A Love Story Part 2!

Jennifer: I want them to feel like they have really been on a journey with these characters. I hope they can relate to them (not too much of course) and that it just stays with them and makes them think about life and love.

Cover image used with permission courtesy of Strike Media.
Image description:
1. Titular characters Rose and Sam lie in bed. Their expressions appear sombre and intimate. The scene is coated in red light.