Year Of The Vampire: Forgetting Sarah Marshall Sinks Its Teeth Into A Sucky Relationship

(Welcome to Year of the Vampire, a series examining the greatest, strangest, and sometimes overlooked vampire movies of all time in honor of "Nosferatu," which turns 100 this year.)

Lust and desire are themes that are often associated with vampire movies. When we covered them in one of my film studies classes, I remember my professor talking about the French phrase "la petite mort." Literally translated to "the little death," the idea has a double meaning in this context. Typically, it's a metaphor for an orgasm, but it can also refer to something that makes a person feel like a little part of them died inside, for better (such as when you're experiencing great sex) or for worse (like when you're transformed into an undead bloodsucker).

Somewhere in there is a whole academic discussion to be had by people that are far more intelligent than I am, but this idea of "la petite mort" came back to me during the Year of the Vampire because lust and desire can often be confused with love and romance. Victims of a vampire can certainly attest to that, but so can the leads of a romantic comedy. Many films can be found at the cinematic intersection of these related yet different matters of the heart, but one in particular stood out as an interesting example worth exploring in this column. And no, it's not just because of the Dracula musical with puppets.

That's right, creatures of the night. We're talking about "Forgetting Sarah Marshall."

'Dracula's Lament'

Directed by Nicholas Stoller and written by "How I Met Your Mother" star Jason Segel, "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" follows television music composer Peter Bretter as he tries to pick up the pieces of his life after his five-year relationship with his TV star girlfriend abruptly ends. Peter, who is also played by Segel, decides to go on vacation to Hawaii to try to move on with his life, but as soon as he checks into his hotel, he finds his ex already there with her new boyfriend.

Over the course of the movie, we learn that Peter has been working on a musical about Dracula featuring puppets. When he shares one of the songs with his ex, the titular Sarah Marshall (played by "Frozen" star Kristen Bell), she's not totally unsupportive, but she simply doesn't understand his work. In contrast, when he asks hotel concierge Rachel Jansen (played by Mila Kunis of "That 70s Show" fame) on a date and tells her about it, she embraces his passion and pushes Peter out of his comfort zone to perform a song from the musical in public. The result is a hilarious musical number that gets an epic callback in the finale of the movie. When Peter returns to the mainland after messing things up with Rachel, he ends up finishing and ultimately performing the musical with amazing results.

For me, "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" ranks among the best romantic comedies of the 2000s. It might even be an all-time favorite. Putting a cherry on top of the film is the fact that Segel, a life-long Muppets fan that got to work with Jim Henson's Creature Shop to bring the puppets to life in the "Les Miserables"-esque finale of this movie, was actually working on a Dracula puppet musical in real life for nearly a decade before incorporating it into this script.

A taste of love

As entertaining as the Dracula musical is, there's a deeper connection between "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and our Year of the Vampire column: The musical is somewhat of a metaphor for Peter and Sarah's relationship. Vampire stories tend to be about control. Rather than the desire to love and care for a partner that's presented in romantic comedies, the genre is typically about possession of another person and control over them. To a much less extreme degree, that somewhat applies to Peter and Sarah's relationship as well.

The audience feels for Peter and what he's going through, but as we learn during the scene where he confronts Sarah about dating him and Aldous Snow at the same time, it wasn't exactly a picnic for her either. In the film, she says to Peter:

"It's not anything you did. You didn't do anything. You were great... [but] it got really hard to keep taking care of you when you stopped taking care of yourself. I tried to get you out of the house. I tried to get you off of your little island you love so much: the couch. You didn't want to see the light of day. There was one week where you wore sweatpants every day."

When Peter says that she didn't try to save their relationship and his wardrobe choice wouldn't have mattered if he wore Sean John sweatpants, she cites all the classes, books, and specialists that she consulted to reignite the spark for their them. Finally, Sarah says, "I couldn't drown with you anymore." 

In a way, Peter and Sarah saw the relationship and each other as something to be had and kept, no matter how broken the relationship was. In the midst of the break-up, Peter and Sarah perceived the other person as a possession or a fantasy. Like "la petite mort" and vampirism, this relationship was sucking the life force out of them. And in their own ways, one of which is decidedly more of a dickish way to go about it, they managed to escape.

Now, if you're looking for some more hardcore vampire lore, you're not going to find it in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." Movies like "Nosferatu," "Blade," or "Only Lovers Left Alive" might be more up your alley. Sure, this installment of Year of the Vampire was presented with tongue firmly placed in cheek because it's April Fool's Day. But at the end of the day, the point still stands that this is a great movie with fun musical numbers that I often revisit when I need a pick me up. And since there are "vampires" in it, this totally counts. As Peter's Dracula would say after proclaiming to the lord that he'll slay Van Helsing, "A-ha-ha-haa!"