Title: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Director: Fran Rubel Kuzui
Vampire hunting meets high school teen melodrama in this kitschy satire of 1980’s popular culture. Buffy Summers (Kristy Swanson) is a ditzy cheerleader who awakens to her destiny as a vampires slayer under the tutelage of Mr. Merrick (Donald Sutherland). After a rocky start she adjusts to her new lifestyle, juggling shopping, spirit rallies and combating the undead. Her opponents include Paul Reubens and her nemesis, Lothos (Rutger Hauer), while her fellow-student allies include rising stars David Arquette, Hilary Swank and Luke Perry.
Somewhat of an uneven comedy, “Buffy” does get laughs for the diehard commitment to the era when gauche fashion ruled and being shallow was totally rad. There is a generous dose of parody aimed at teen and horror movies, too, though the film often adopt the clichés it hopes tries to poke fun at. The writing – an early flexing exercise for Joss Whedon, whose fame would far eclipse the hack director – sometimes holds back from introspection and development to make room for memorable quips and quotes.
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is fated to lurk in the shadow of its TV-based off-spring, a series that trumps the movie in almost every regard. Nevertheless, it’s a bit of a shame that fans of the franchise turn their backs on the first attempt since it has a shameless trashy charm of its own. Most of the faults lie with the movie’s glib tone, which failed to recognize the value of giving characters just enough depth to be relatable to its target demographic. Most Buffy acolytes agree that the less funny show is actually more fun, but you’ll still have a good time with the movie.
Age warning: not for viewers over 35.
Title: 30 Days of Night
Director: David Slade
Slade’s follow-up to “Hard Candy” (2005) is a similarly cynical, amoral horror film intent on manipulating audiences through any tactic available. However, the director does a better job balancing his desires to punish and intrigue the audience. He manages to draw us into the brutality and desperation in his film though he botches many scenes that could have been so much more.
Barrow, Alaska is plunged into darkness for 30 consecutive days during the heart of winter. A team of vampires trick a drifter into cutting the power and sealing all exits leaving the town ripe for the sucking. As soon as the sun goes down, the vampires launch a wrathful blitzkrieg, a lopsided battle that wallows in wanton slaughter. The bloodbath is outrageously wasteful since within days the vampires must wander the street trying to expose the few quivering survivors. Slade gives mixed messages about how much we are supposed to actually care about these humans and ultimately we don’t, but their deaths are visceral enough to make viewers flinch anyway. The vampires (led ably by Danny Huston), however, are brilliantly chilling and shockingly diabolic. They speak their own language, hunt with lethal voracity and emit a vibe of undiluted evil.
The dialogue, internal logic and editing are poorly handled, but the intensity, action and cinematography propel the movie over its pitfalls. The manic frenzy of the initial attack establishes the vampires as overwhelmingly powerful necessitating that the action shift from opposition to survival. Blood-drenched slush colors the desolate streets between the lightless abandoned houses while dismal snow reminds us of the deathly cold. Slade never manages to harvest the potential atmosphere, but he does make the setting a bleak backdrop for a dire game of cat and mouse.
“30 Days of Night” is at its most powerful during its scenes of gruesome violence, panicked flight and utter hopelessness. Unfortunately, the audience has to suffer through a great deal of insulting insincerity, especially a misguided attempt at a “family comes first” theme. The hardcore horror fans who complain that vampire flicks can no longer deliver real scares, now have something to indulge in.
Title: Pitch Black
Director: David Twohy
I’m well aware that “Pitch Black” (2000) is not technically a vampire movie, but it has enough similarities that I count it. Beside, “Pitch Black” accomplishes many of the goals of vampire films far better than many overt depictions, especially when it comes to preying on nyctophobia – the fear of darkness. In my opinion, this picture is one of the best sci-fi vampire films to come along (though I have yet to see “Lifeforce”) and its willingness to up the stakes on both genres helps black out its admitted flaws.
I suspect the greenlighting of “Pitch Black” went something like this:
Screenwriter: “Lets remake last year’s “Bats” but with Vin Diesel!”
Producer: “Um… no. “Bats” was an artistic and financial disaster.”
Screenwriter: “But what if we set it IN SPACE!!!”
Producer: “I like the way you think.”
Richard Riddick (Vin Diesel) is a hardened criminal sadist being transported to a new prison aboard the spaceship Hunter Gratzner. A meteor shower forces a premature landing (of the crash variety) on an sweltering desert moon lit by three suns. The survivors, including the volatile Riddick, find two unpleasant omens on the barren chunk of rock: a mining ghost town where not even bodies remain and a race of cave-dwelling, carnivorous “bioraptors” (which implicitly suggests that roboraptors exist, though sadly none appear). The good news is that the bioraptors are deathly allergic to the ever-glaring sunlight. The bad news is that every 22 years there is a three-way solar eclipse and the last one was about 21.999 years ago.
That premise alone should be enough to gauge whether you are going to like this movie or not. If no movie about an army of flying space raptors exploiting an eclipse to ravage Vin Diesel could ever please you, then don’t bother. For the rest of us, this is a movie that makes a promise and keeps it. That promise would read something like this: we are going to plunge a bunch of forgettable characters (and Riddick) into pitch blackness and kill them, one-by-one, swiftly and gorily. In truth, the film has a fair bit of style and tension considering the mini-blockbuster budget. There is a palpable anticipation as the darkness falls partly for fear that everyone will die and partly in excitement for how awesome that is going to be. Vin Diesel clearly has a good time in his role. Personally, I think they could have skimmed the obnoxiousness off the top of his personality and still had enough prison-toned savagery left to seem cool.
Title: Near Dark
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
“Near Dark” (1987) was the first, and arguably the best, of several questionable attempts to combine the vampire film and western (“From Dusk till Dawn,” “John Carpenter’s Vampires”). Much like the handful of vampire/sci-fi hybrids, I end up with admiration for the potential in the idea, yet disappointment in the execution.
Adrian Pasdar plays Caleb, an average angsty country lad in Oklahoma. He falls in love with a girl named Mae, which turns out to be a bad, since she’s a vampire. After Mae chomps on his neck during a make-out session, the two are forever bound to each other, and less romantically, to her “family” of psychopathic vampire friends. The central crisis facing Caleb for most of the movie is his adjustment to their lifestyle, a hedonistic amoral eternity of nightly bleed-and-burn campaigns. His pacifism doesn’t mesh well with his vampirism (he would starve if not for Mae’s pampering) or with his ruthless friends who would really prefer to kill him off and be done with it. Parallel to these developments is Caleb’s father’s desperate search for his son, which ends in an awkward confrontation and a kidnapping plot that runs through the last act.
Kathryn Bigelow has a fairly decent eye for action (her resume includes hits like “Point Break” and “Strange Days”), but her insistence on doling it out sporadically makes for inconsistent pacing. Two scenes stand out as exhilarating peaks: a bar fight that is stirred into vampire feeding frenzy and daylight holdout where every bullet hole creates a deadly lance of light. There is more action in the final third of the film, but it also becomes more generic. The kidnapping plot is weak, and almost every aspect of the climactic battle is overdone and nonsensical, capped by a concluding cop-out.
The characters are a mixed bag. Bill Paxton is fine as the head of the vampire family, and the romantic leads are passable, though they lack range. The rest of the pack fares less well, and I found myself particularly annoyed by Homer, an obnoxious sadist trapped in the body of a punkish boy.
“Isle of the Dead” (1945) may be the only vampire film to take its source inspiration from a painting, rather than a novel or short story. The picture in question is the titular 1880 landscape by Arnold Bocklin, depicting Charon and an unknown passenger rowing towards a rocky atoll. The painting was a favorite of Hitler, Lenin, Freud, Strindberg, Rachmaninoff, Lovecraft, Giger and Zelazny, among others, and was also adapted – with impressive accuracy – into another movie, “The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes.”
“Isle of the Dead” is the product of RKO’s classic horror line, produced by Val Lewton (“The Seventh Victim,” “I Walked with a Zombie,” “Cat People”) and directed by Mark Robson. Boris Karloff plays Pherides, one of Greece’s most unsympathetic generals from the first Balkan war. Oliver Davis, an American war correspondent doesn’t agree with the general’s vicious tactics (killing civilians and subordinates alike), but inexplicably agrees to join him on a voyage to his wife’s island grave. They are quarantined on the island with some natives, a sick woman and her vivacious nurse, who the superstitious locals believe is a varvoloka (basically a vampire). As the diverse internees die off one by one, everyone airs their own opinion of the cause, ranging from medical logic to irrational fears to spiritual legends. By the end, the islanders have inflicted more pain and suffering on each other than any plague or vampire.
I often feel rather alone in liking this movie, which gets trashed for its low-budget, average sets and verbose, unpolished screenplay. I think to some extent I am drawn to the contrived premise, which crams an impossibly disparate band of potential victims into a tiny pot (the island), and then slowly turns up the heat. The wordiness may let some of the steam out, but there is still plenty of tension and mystery. One could argue that the dialogue is too explicit in its thematic concerns, but it also forces audiences to engage with the psychological situation of the characters. This helps, since the bulk of the film taps its horror from sources like sickness, paranoia, witch-hunting, claustrophobia and uncertainty, rather than monsters, violence or gore (though there are some sudden trident kills). Meanwhile, the use of shadow and darkness – especially the heavy sweltering nightfall, where fears materialize and death comes calling – gives the bare tropical sets a grateful rest and lets the cinematography take over.