Remember the MPAA’s much ballyhooed new rating for adult themed/non-porn films back in 1990? NC-17 stood for ‘No children under 17" and was meant for films too aggressively naughty or thematically mature for kids and teens to even glimpse. One of the earliest films to receive the rating was Belgium’s caustic and satiric faux-documentary, Man Bites Dog (1992). It features a camera crew following a serial killer day to day as he does what he does best… kill, rape, and disembowel innocent people. It’s a brilliant film that manages to subvert both documentaries and serial killer films in one bloody swathe.
Vampires is not rated NC-17, but then again pretty much nothing is these days. (A Serbian Film most likely won’t play in a theater with that rating, and Blue Valentine successfully appealed down to an R.) But it bears a few other similarities with with the film starting with its country of origin, Belgium. It’s also done in the style of a documentary, but the serial killer is traded in for a family of vampires who introduce the filmmakers to their modern-day bloodsucking ways.
It doesn’t have the same bite as that earlier film, but it’s violent, darkly comic, and damn good.
“The truth is Elizabeth can’t stop herself from eating children. As for me, when they’re older, I can’t stop myself from making love to them. But they never want to stay.”
The film opens with the statement that three years ago the filmmakers were invited to film an insider’s view of Belgium’s vampire community. That initial footage survived, but the cameraman didn’t. A second attempt comes to the same bloody conclusion, but the third time’s the charm when a family invites the filmmakers into their home and lives. And promises not to eat them. Georges Saint-Germain (Carlo Ferrante) is the head of the household along with his wife Bertha (Vera Van Dooren), and together they have two children including a son named Samson (Pierre Lognay) and a daughter named Grace (Fleur Lise Heuet).
George is a professional about it all, Bertha is giddy and easily excitable, and Samson loves everything that comes with his vampiric state, but the eternally teenage Grace is a very unhappy indeed. She files her teeth but they keep growing back, she applies fake tans, she thinks her mom hates her, and she’s constantly trying to kill herself. The task should be easy enough, but Grace is determined to die like a human so she tries hanging, drowning, self-immolation and more without success. The family also have a pair of vampires named Elizabeth (Selma Alaoui) and Bienvenu (Batiste Sornin) living in the cramped basement where they’re forced to sleep in stand-up coffins.
The couple in the basement are forced to live there because childless vampires aren’t allowed to own property. What, you’ve never heard that part of the vampire code before? It’s details like that help make Vampires a constantly interesting film. You’ll also learn about special vampire night schools where they go to learn to laugh by watching horror films, the rules forbidding humans at the dinner table unless of course they’re what’s for dinner, and the free-spirited attitude towards sex they share with no risk of pregnancy or disease.
Co-writer/director Vincent Lannoo fills his film with a mix of vampire “facts” both traditional and new, but they’re not the only things to hold the viewer’s interest. The script (co-written by Frédérique Broos) also keeps things moving with a strong sense of dark humor throughout including references to The Meat, a live ex-prostitute they keep in the solarium (and occasionally the freezer) who feeds them each night. Grace’s teenage melodrama is met by a mother who constantly refers to her as ugly, and while incredibly charming, Samson resembles nothing more than Diedrich Bader’s Jethro from The Beverly Hillbillies as he stumbles goofily through life (or death).
Like the previously mentioned Man Bites Dog however this is not a film with a fair amount of violence and terror. It’s far from gory, but there are bites and attacks that often come without warning and serve as a reminder that a dinner invite from a vampire should be given a serious second thought. Lannoo also shoots a nighttime assault on a home that manages to exhilarate and terrify through it’s green night vision tint, and it’s a scene that would fit in well in an actual balls out horror film.
Vampires is slightly uneven though as the humor seems far more prevalent in the opening half than in the final forty-five minutes. It’s still engaging past that point but it does so less with laughs and more with plot. But is that’s hardly a criticism. The movie is funny, dark, and constantly engaging… and when’s the last time any two of those things could be said about a vampire movie?
The Upside: Blackly comic; bloody at times; effective and refreshing take on the bland subject of vampires; night-vision assault is frighteningly well done
The Downside: Edits betray single camera documentary premise; much of the humor is front-loaded to first half
Vampires is currently available on VOD from IFC.
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