Is ‘The Power of the Dog’ a Vampire Movie? Why the Film’s Cinematographer Won’t Rule It Out

·9-min read

(Warning: This article contains spoilers about the plot and ending of “The Power of the Dog“.)

Vampires, as Bram Stoker once explained, can take on many forms. Stoker was referring to his most famous character, Count Dracula, and his ability to shape-shift into a bat or a dog or a wolf. But vampire mythology can seep like mist under the windows of movies you might not expect.

Features of vampire mythology in storytelling include:
1) A cold, dead-inside figure mourning the loss of a lover
2) The power of mind control over others
3) A superior sense of eyesight and vision
4) Sexual seduction as a masquerade for murder
5) The use of blood as the method to kill

All five of those factors are present in Jane Campion’s acclaimed “The Power of the Dog,” set on a cattle ranch in 1920s Montana. It’s the story of the rancher Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), who bullies and antagonizes his new sister-in-law Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and eventually befriends her teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The film, which has found an audience since debuting on Netflix earlier this month, is one of the season’s major award contenders.

Now, you won’t see any fangs or literal stakes through the heart in the film, and I’m not suggesting that Campion was consulting Stoker or Ann Rice (or Stephenie Meyer, even) while writing her screenplay adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel.

But I’m not totally dismissing those possibilities either. Steeped in a deep understanding of literature and mythology, Campion has always been a filmmaker who lays out her narratives in a straightforward, sequential format, while leaving multiple dots unconnected. We in the audience are given clues to piece together a larger and often darker story of how people relate to each other and why do they do the things they do.

Feeling confident enough in my vampire-vibe reaction to “The Power of the Dog,” I brought the subject up with the film’s accomplished cinematographer Ari Wegner. I began the question by asking about the film in the context of genre connections, and then blurted, “Am I way off in reading this as a vampire movie?”

Wegner smiled. “When you said ‘genre,’ I thought you were going to go down the Western path,” she said. “But you’re actually the first person that’s asked me about this other thing. I never thought of this film as a Western. I thought of it as – you can say ‘vampire’ and that’s fine with me – but I always called it a monster film. Something like ‘Alien,’ where you are constantly thinking, ‘Where is the monster? Where is the danger? Where is the alien on the ship?’ And you are very aware of it and you’re terrified that at any corner it might be there. It knows where you are.”

To a large degree, “The Power of the Dog” is such a strange, enigmatic experience thanks to Wegner, the 37-year-old Australian, here in her first collaboration with Campion. Her credits include the fantastically moody “Lady Macbeth” and “In Fabric,” plus Janicza Bravo’s great, neon-tinted “Zola,” which just scored a leading six Film Independent Spirit Award nominations, including a nod for Wegner’s cinematography. For “The Power of the Dog,” she’d tipped to become just the second woman nominated for an Oscar in that category.

With commentary from Wegner on the lighting, framing and underlying intention of the film, let’s go though those five ingredients at play in vampire mythology again.

1) A cold, dead-inside figure mourning the loss of a lover

Phil, the taciturn rancher played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is presented upfront in the film as a calcified bully. Though it’s never stated aloud, we discover that Phil has essentially been soul-dead since the death of his mentor and probable lover, a man named Bronco Henry. And this pain, the depth of which he cannot truthfully express, has turned him into both a shell of a human and, as Wegner said, a monster.

Source: Netflix
Source: Netflix

“There’s are a few silhouettes of Phil in the film that are very telling,” she said. “When he’s wearing the hat and the wooly chaps on his legs, in silhouette he looked like this kind of half-animal, half-man type creature with his fury legs. And he’s in the house, which makes it even creepier.”

Campion, in fact, referred to Phil during these scenes as “The Satyr,” a character from Greek mythology with goat’s legs.

Source: Netflix
Source: Netflix

2) The power of mind control over others

“Phil is a very intelligent monster,” Wegner said. “And he’s able to control someone else with very few words.”

Phil relishes the mental advantage he lords over Rose, which drives her nearly to death. As an aside, the casting of Dunst, who delivers a subtle performance as a broken woman, couldn’t help but remind me of “Interview With the Vampire,” the lush Ann Rice adaptation in which she played the surrogate daughter of two vampire men – and also a gothic depiction of mourning and the male ego.

In “The Power of the Dog,” the threat of mind control was a theme that was preeminent in Wegner and Campion’s minds. “We were thinking about the idea of power,” the cinematographer said. “What separates this film from a Western is its relationship to violence. Classic Westerns often, not always, but often build to a big physical showdown of violence, usually with guns. Whereas in this film, we were a lot more interested in a kind of psychological violence, which is even more controlling because it doesn’t require you to be in the same space as someone in order to hurt them.”

Source: Netflix
Source: Netflix

Wegner also elaborated on the sense of surveillance that ripples throughout the whole film: “We designed the house with [production designer] Grant Major so it would have some very specific angles. To be able to see Rose at the piano from Phil’s bedroom, for example, and from Phil’s bedroom to see down into the alley where Rose is hiding bottles and drinking. There’s no way to feel fully safe in the house. There are dark spaces where someone or something could be hiding in and watching.”

“The Power of the Dog” is a film with many echoes. Later, in a secret place in the woods, it is Phil who is spied upon by Rose’s son Peter – a scene that foretells Phil’s ultimate fate.

3) A superior sense of eyesight and vision

What we do in the shadows, indeed. Twice we are shown an example of pareidolia, which is defined as “seeing faces in random objects or patterns of light and shadow.” And it is of great significance that only three characters – the late Bronco Henry, Phil and Peter – possess the ability to look at this mountain range and see the profile of a howling dog.

Source: Netflix
Source: Netflix

“The Power of the Dog” takes its title from a Biblical verse in the book of Psalms, which is read by Peter at the end of the film. But this use of pareidolia, literally the power to see the dog, gives the title a deeper meaning, skirting on the edge of the supernatural. Phil is astonished when he realizes that Peter can see the dog shadow in the mountain. It’s as if an animal kinship has been formed between them, as he recognizes that Peter is also gifted with his own innate power of vision.

“I was always very nervous about making the shadow feel plausible and beautiful, fleeting enough but clear enough,” Wegner said. “t’s quite a delicate balance. And actually talking to audiences after film, I’d say maybe about 30 percent of people don’t see the dog. We were OK if some percentage of the audience missed it.”

There is also a reading of this shadow recognition as a trait of certain characters’ homosexuality. Incidentally, homoeroticism has been a tenet of vampire stories since at least the Victorian era, though it’s important to point out that while the characters of Bronco Henry and Phil are closeted gay men (as was Savage, the novel’s author), the character of Peter is trickier to label. He’s deliberately presented so that other characters and the audience stereotype him as gay, however….

4) Sexual seduction as a masquerade for murder

…it is possible that Peter’s motive, like a vampire’s, is not actually sexual but lethal. His intention is not to romance Phil. His intention is to kill him. (It’s also implied, more so in the novel, that Peter also had a hand in his own father’s death.)

“In the barn, where Phil and Peter are sharing a cigarette, we always called that a love scene,” Wegner said. “But it’s also a murder scene. Those two things can exist at the same time in a movie like this. It’s a climax and an anticlimax all in the same moment. And I love it for that.”

She continued: “The film is set in a time and place where you can’t talk about a lot of things. So the scene between Phil and Peter in the barn was really just about the nuance of energy and the power dynamic relationship between two people. And I love tense scenes. It’s one of the pleasures of cinema that while most of us generally would avoid getting into a tense situation in our lives, but watching it on screen, it’s just like you can’t look away. It’s a really specific feeling of, ‘I don’t enjoy, but I enjoy it. I want it to end, but I want it to keep going.'”

5) The use of blood as the method to kill

In that scene in the barn, we are also treated to another visual echo. Early in the movie, it was Phil who was standing on a staircase, imposing his dread downward with his face lit like Bela Lugosi’s in 1931’s “Dracula”.

Source: Netflix
Source: Netflix

And now, later in the film, Wegner’s camera shoots Peter from that most dramatic of movie angles, slightly below his eyeline, peering spellbindingly at Phil.

Source: Netflix
Source: Netflix

Peter has used his knowledge of medical science to strip rawhide from a cattle that died of anthrax, and includes the rawhide in a bath to soak for rope making. When Phil puts his wounded, bloody hand in the bath, Peter simply looks on. The poison has slipped into Phil’s bloodstream. The vampire’s apprentice has slain the vampire.

“What’s so fascinating about the Peter character is that our perception of him changes a lot more than he changes,” Wegner said. “The ending, I think, is a lot more satisfying than if we told you to feel a certain way. I guess there’s kind of a twist in the plot, but this isn’t a film where where the audience should feel tricked or feel like they got it wrong. It’s open to a lot of interpretations and a lot of perceptions. And that’s what makes a great conversation.”

“The Power of the Dog” is streaming now on Netflix.

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