Language and Cultural note: While we have striven to use the most precise, respectful terms in discussing the Indigenous Australian identity and culture central to this series, we recognize that, as part of a foreign audience who is naturally less familiar with both the history and inherent nuances of all of these terms, we may still get it wrong. When possible, we have reflected the exact terminology provided by AMC+ in its Firebite press releases. When not, we have done our best to research the correct terminology, leaning especially on both this SAFC production announcement, and this recent Sydney Morning Herald terminology breakdown.
So many cultures around the world have been riffing on vampire mythology for so very long, it’s hard to believe anyone could come up with a take that might feel genuinely new. And yet, with his sun-bleached, South Australia-set Firebite on AMC+, Indigenous Australian director Warwick Thornton (Samson and Delilah, Sweet Country) has done just that.
Starring Rob Collins (Cleverman) and Shantae Barnes-Cowan (Total Control) as a pair of Indigenous vampire hunters who’ve taken it upon themselves to patrol the dusty white opal mine fields of an isolated, chalk-choked desert outpost known as Opal City, Firebite reimagines the vampire as just one more weapon in the British Empire’s colonial war chest.
“They came with their weapons—and not just guns and vials of smallpox,” Shanika (Barnes-Cowan) tells her high school history class as preamble to her presentation on the real meaning of Australia Invasion Day, early in the series’ first episode. “They had secret creatures on the bottom of that ship that would rip and kill and tear our mob apart.” The 11 vampires let loose from that British ship, Shanika explains, quickly grew addicted to “Blackfella blood,” a development which kicked off centuries of literal shadow warfare between Britain’s weapons of undead mass destruction and the indigenous (male) Bloodhunters specially trained to protect their communities from vampire incursion.
Needless to say, no matter how compelling Shanika’s presentation is—and I mean, her narration is so vibrant, the digital illustrations she painted to accompany it literally animate themselves to do it justice—she doesn’t get an A. Worse, the bloody nose she gives a smug white classmate who suggests she’s drunk “just like the rest of them” leads her straight into a suspension.
Of course, any pop culture vampirologist worth her demon-repelling salt could have told Shanika that trying to clue civilians in on the secrets of the bloodsucking underworld is only ever going to backfire. In fact, that’s exactly what her legal(ish) guardian (and fellow vampire hunter), Collins’ hard-partying, wise-cracking Tyson, has been telling her her whole life. But as far as Shanika is concerned, this isn’t a matter of pop culture. “This is true history!” she shouts at him in frustration. Hunting genocidal settler vampires, insofar as she is concerned, is as much a part of her identity and cultural heritage as any of the rest of her Country’s lore.
On its own, this twist on the cultural role of the vampire would be plenty compelling. I mean, if you’re looking to symbolically represent the darkest parts of humanity, you could hardly get darker than genocidal settler colonialism. Add to all that symbolism the very real historical calamity the (white-run) opal mining industry has brought down on First Nations land, plus the fact that the resulting mine-pocked landscape offers both a wealth of cinematically arresting images as well as a legit underground hive Firebite’s vampires can safely build an empire in, and you’ve got the formula for a truly unique TV take on the undead. That Thornton has bolstered his novel vampiric vision by bringing on a raft of strong, lived-in performances—not just from Collins and Barnes-Cowan as our prickly found-family heroes, but also from co-stars Ngaire Pigram (Mystery Road), Tessa Rose (Glitch), Kelton Pell (Pine Gap) and Yael Stone (Orange Is the New Black)—only adds to Firebite’s potential.
Frustratingly, though, even after watching the four (of eight total) Season 1 episodes provided for review, potential is still Firebite’s watch word. After the pilot’s expositorily heady opening act, the amount of information shared with the audience—about Tyson’s past as a true Bloodhunter; about Tyson and Shanika’s not-family familial relationship; about how hunting these Australian vampires differs, if at all, from the Transylvanian/American basics we know and love; about the state of vampiredom beyond Opal City; about literally anything Callan Mulvey’s newly arrived (and almost completely silent) Vampire King wants—chokes down to barely a trickle. For his part, Tyson is too much of a goof, with too much repressed anger and fear about what lurks in the tunnels, to be able to communicate with anyone without making the conversation a complete joke. For hers, Shanika is too much of a disaffected teen, with too much repressed grief and frustration at being kept in the dark, to be able to do much but stalk off into the night when Tyson refuses to see what she needs from him. And the Vampire King? He’s just… too… I don’t even know. Of the four episodes I’ve seen, I’m not sure the number of lines he’s yet been given would fill even one of the Salvatore brothers’ whiskey tumblers.
On the one hand, if all the Vampire King is meant to be in the world of Firebite is an unliving, unbreathing avatar of the devastation wrought by the British Empire, I suppose he doesn’t really need anything as prosaic as lines or an agenda to have a meaningful place in the story. Guns don’t want anything, after all, and yet they still mean plenty in the horror story that is 21st century America. But the way Firebite is presenting Mulvey as the Vampire King—whenever he deigns to grace the screen, that is—suggests that it thinks he has enough of an agenda, at least, that Tyson will eventually have to stop refusing the hero’s call and just become a damn Bloodhunter already. Which obviously makes getting halfway through the season knowing next to nothing about either the Vampire King’s agenda or the specific reasons Tyson left Bloodhunting behind, well, frustrating!
That said, I’m absolutely going to see where things go from here. Barnes-Cowan and Collins are just so arrestingly good, both together and apart, that they’re a treat to watch even when the story is dragging. Similarly arresting are the shots that Thornton—the series’ creator, writer, primary director, and who serves as the lead DP—sets up, both above and below ground, all of which convey (with a kind of rock-and-roll efficiency) just how suffocating the vast emptiness of an isolated desert mining town can be. Dan Luscombe and Gareth Liddiard’s soundtrack, too, is just terrific—a moody, percussion- and electric guitar-forward thing that operates more like a soundscape, only ever fading away when the action demands that some kind of pulsing punk track punch its way in.
All of which is to say: The vibes, they are good.
I just have my fingers crossed that the back half of the season roars in with a meaty enough story to match.
Firebite premieres Thursday, December 16th on AMC+
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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