Written and Directed by: Amy Heckerling
Starring: Alicia Silverstone, Krysten Ritter and Dan Stevens
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
At this point, you’re probably sick of hearing me say that I’m kind of sick of vampires. They’ve been done to death (as has that play on words), having been resurrected and trotted out even though the genre might as well have a stake halfway lodged into its chest. But if anyone could properly revive vampires even a little bit, it’d be Amy Heckerling; perhaps a long shot to helm a vampire movie, her résumé nonetheless inspires that sort of confidence, even if her most accomplished works (Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Clueless) were in the teen comedy arena. Vamps would technically be her first horror offering--if it were a horror film. Instead, it’s really just another poppy, fast-talking comedy; unfortunately, it’s a little slow on wit and dulled at the fangs, which also just makes it another disappointing attempt to make vampires seem fresh again.
Vamps reunites Heckerling with star Alicia Silverstone, who plays Goody, a 180 year old vampire struggling to keep up with the times. At some point during the early 90s, she turns Stacy (Krysten Ritter) and adopts her as a gal-pal that accompanies her as a New York City socialite for the next two decades. Together, the two navigate through the modern world (namely, the technology and the dating) while also coping with a vampiric existence that forces them to mostly insulate themselves in a relatively small circle of fellow bloodsuckers.
Vamps wisely flips the tortured vampire motif on its head and tickles it a bit. The idea is cute--instead of holing up in decrepit castles, these vampires have support group meetings, particularly those who have sworn off human bloodlust--but it’s treated with all the wit and obviousness of a flavorless sitcom. Unfolding with a half-season’s worth of subplots wedged into a 90 minute runtime, it sprawls episodically, almost to the point where you could label chunks of the plot like episodes of Friends. One chunk might be “the one where Stacy and Goody are summoned for jury duty,” while another is “the one where Stacy runs into an old lover from the 60s (Richard Lewis, in the film’s most warm-hearted and affecting role),” and so on. Goody’s struggle especially underlies and unifies it all as the film’s overarching idea, but the plot aimlessly wanders before settling into a true, final conflict that’s presented by Stacy’s hooking up with a guy whose father happens to be a government agent obsessed with tracking down the vampire menace (he’s a Van Helsing, naturally).
None of this ever edges past being a slightly clever concept, though; worse yet, the film carries on as if it’s more clever than it actually is, so many of its broad performances grate to the point of irritation, particularly Silverstone’s mugging, wide-eyed turn. Many of these performances make sense (even Silverstone when you consider she’s still a prim 19th century housewife at heart) since Vamps is rooted in the earnest screwball comedies of the past, but many of them amp the volume up too high and drown out the forced emotional resonance. Between Malcolm McDowall’s silly turn as Vlad the Impaler and Sigourney Weaver’s unhinged, vamped (and camped) out performance as the brood’s queen, the flippancy often charts the course into sheer irreverence. I’m not sure I’d call Vamps tone deaf because it’s nothing if not honest about its glibness--it just doesn’t carry along many good laughs along with it. A few chuckles result from a handful of sight gags and entendres, but it's largely a witless chore.
Heckerling certainly has a lot of her mind, and it’s dispersed in a scatterbrained approach that dilutes their impact. The vapidity of the tech-obsessed modern world is once again in the director’s crosshairs, and she pulls a neat trick by making Silverstone truly clueless this time out. Gone is materialistic Valley Girl Cher, here replaced by an old woman trapped in a socialite’s body; even worse, she’s grown weary of a world dominated by iPads and email. One might say that the contemporary world eventually exhausts vampirism here, as it even shows up in commoditized, familiar form: there are callbacks to both Nosferatu and the Universal Dracula that recall a more romantic age that’s been lost along the complications of the modern milieu. For all its silliness, Vamps takes the notion that it sucks to be a vampire and commits to it without growing overly ponderous; after all, its climax features a CGI-laden screwball rumble featuring headless bodies and reanimated skeletons.
Even though Heckerling has never quite regained her status post-Clueless, it’s still fair to say that Vamps is a bit of a disappointment. Armed with a cast and a wealth of ideas that are sucked dry by sitcom sappiness, the film’s emotional undercurrent bred by women caught out of time and history doesn’t earn an effective climactic montage that finds Goody reflecting upon her many years. After a short and limited theatrical run, Vamps is coming to home video courtesy of Anchor Bay films, which has delivered an adequate DVD. The anamorphic transfer sufficiently reflects the film’s colorful photography, while the 5.1 Dolby Digital track presents an often lively and engaged soundstage. No special features are included, unless you still consider scene selections to be a bonus (speaking of being stuck in the 90s). Cute and conceptually clever, Vamps lacks in execution; it’s not a completely clueless vampire movie, but it’s pretty darn close at times. Rent it!
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