Saturday, 23 March 2013

Dance with a Vampire

Director: George Bonilla
Writer: George Bonilla
Producers: Tammy Bonilla, Russel Coy II, Douglas Campbell
Cast: Stacey T Gillespie, Matt Perry, Billy W Blackwell
Country: USA
Year of release: 2006
Reviewed from: screener DVD

I’m going to say two words to you. (Well, okay - I’m going to type them.)

Disco vampires.

Doesn’t that phrase conjure up so many possibilities? Two of the most loathsome and detested things imaginable, combined in one. (Remember how people often comment that Frank Langella, as Dracula in John Badham’s generally terrific 1979 production of the Stoker tale, looks like he had just stepped out of Studio 54?) The concept of ‘disco vampires’ has enormous potential, precisely none of which is explored in this desperately poor and overlong film.

The basic premise is actually quite clever. A gang of vampires was destroyed back in 1974, apart from the centuries-old ‘master’ who recruited a new coterie of acolytes. And because they never grow old, their taste in music and dress sense has been frozen since they were ‘turned’. Hence in the present day, we find them - clad in polyester suits with huge collars - wandering into what was once a disco many years earlier, to find that it is now a biker bar.

The bikers quite understandably think that the white guys dressed like flamboyant 1970s homosexuals (plus a couple of chicks and one token very tall black guy with a huge afro) are hilarious. But they allow them to go upstairs where, despite the disco having closed down nearly 30 years earlier, the lights still work. The disco dudes strut their funky stuff before turning on the confused bikers and ripping their throats out.

Now, I’m watching this and one thing is puzzling me: am I watching a comedy? The premise is silly and yet there are no actual jokes or gags of any sort. For nearly two hours(!), Dance with a Vampire wobbles between serious and comic, never quite deciding which direction it wants to go. This is a sort of quantum movie which never collapses its cinematic waveform.

(The sleeve blurb and website call this a ‘psychological thriller’ which is about as inaccurate a billing as I have ever seen. Whoever wrote that either hasn’t watched the film or doesn’t know what a psychological thriller is. Clue: they don’t usually have vampires in them. Dance with a Vampire is a psychological thriller in the same way that it is a romantic comedy or a western. In fact, given that there are a couple of laughs, two characters fall in love and one of them dresses like a cowboy, it’s actually closer to those two genres.)

Our hero is Redwood Justin (Stacey T Gillespie) who tries unsuccessfully to persuade the local police that a bunch of killer vampires are moving into town. Redwood has been following these vampires, led by ‘vampire master’ Fisk (Frank Farhat) for some time, seeking to rescue one of the female vampires and kill the others. It is only much, much later that we discover that the female vampire is his sister, Barbara (Mari Stamper); there must be quite an age difference because Redwood looks to be in his thirties so he can only have been about nine or ten when his sister became a bloodsucker.

Out on the streets, handing out ‘have you seen this girl?’ fliers, Redwood tries to rescue a priest from a vampire but then in turn has to be rescued himself by a passing bum. This turns out to be Bolt Upright (Matt Perry), a wannabe superhero who has assumed the appearance of a long-haired, long-bearded homeless guy because it makes him less suspicious than hanging around in full costume. Having trimmed his beard and hair, Bolt teaches Redwood a whole bunch of martial arts schtick and then introduces him to a female bum, Glenda (Amy Willis) who scrubs up into a glamorous young lady designed to be ‘bait’. Bolt also brings into the team stoned inventor Doc Q (Bob Singleton) and his assistant Summer (Rebecca Minton); the Doc has invented bullets which contain small glass phials of holy water and, slightly less practically, an enormous gun capable of firing up to 24 wooden stakes.

Meanwhile, the disco vampires encounter a group of neo-Nazis. I don’t know any neo-Nazis personally but I would imagine they wear smart suits or maybe offensive T-shirts. I doubt if they dress up as SS officers, complete with armbands that are supposed to be swastikas but look all wrong because the proportions of the cross arms aren’t right. Frankly, these are the most useless (in every sense) bunch of fascists I’ve ever seen and it’s no surprise when the vampires tear them to pieces. An interesting moral question would be who we should root for (or at least care about) in a confrontation between vampires and Nazis. And this is a moral question which will remain not only unanswered but also, evidently, unasked.

Meanwhile, the cops - led by overweight, bald, goateed Detective Mike Stone (Billy W Blackwell) - are investigating a series of murders while laughing about the loony who visited them recently warning about vampires. At one point, three vampires are cornered by about twenty cops who blast away at them and, while we can accept that the cops’ bullets don’t harm the haemovores, one has to wonder why the the vampires, armed with four automatic pistols and two Uzis, can’t seem to hit a solid wall of cops (many of them without body armour) at a range of about ten yards.

One of the vampires (the tall brother with the ‘fro) is killed by holy water bullets, another is apparently shot and placed in an ambulance, the third somehow escapes with Redwood, while Bolt is taken into police custody. The ‘dead’ vampire cuts his way out of his body bag, kills the two paramedics and nearly kills Stone, who is hitching a ride. The ambulance then crashes and the car behind careers into a house causing crappy CGI explosions to burst from every window in the building, for some reason.

Glenda rescues Bolt from police custody, with the complicitous help of Stone who has now seen a vampire at first hand and knows what they’re dealing with. The final act sees the three of them plus another couple of cops (one of whom is called Simpson!) entering the vampires’ lair to rescue Redwood, although there is absolutely no indication of where this place is or how they find it. Redwood himself is so loosely bound to a chair that he could obviously free himself just by shrugging his shoulders.

The only two decent parts of the film occur during this protracted finale. One is just a brief shot of Stone, who has a torch strapped to his rifle. As he looks behind him, he fails to notice a vampire move briefly into the beam of light, then fade back into the darkness. It’s a terrific shot which stands out among what is otherwise rather relentlessly utilitarian direction. Meanwhile Glenda finds herself in a sort of white nothingness with a bald, English-accented vampire and a dead cop. This sort of effect is usually achieved by draping white sheets so that there are no corners, but here it appears to actually be a room draped with white sheets. It’s a nice effect but I can’t see the point and I'm not convinced there is one.

The vampire tells Glenda that she is dreaming, and when she closes her eyes she opens them to find the two of them in a grassy meadow. The vampire is now human (though still bald and English) and the two of them are dressed in Edwardian clothes, sipping tea at a small table. The cop is a butler, serving the tea. Glenda almost accepts this until she see blood dribbling, then pouring down the butler. This is an extraordinary sequence, almost Bunuel-ian in its surrealism, which demonstrates a creativity and imagination otherwise largely lacking from the film. If all of Dance with a Vampire was this good, it would be a belter.

The climax sees Doc Q arriving with his stake gun and Bolt togged up in superhero costume, including a sort of fetish mask to disguise the fact that it’s a different actor.

I always wonder, when I watch a vampire film, why does the world need another one? With its ‘disco vampire’ premise, Dance with a Vampire had the potential to be something different but this is completely ignored after the opening biker bar scene, resurfacing only in a couple of conversations with a waitress in a diner who recalls seeing people in funny-looking clothes. Right at the end there is a disco light-ball in the background as if the director suddenly remembered: “Oh yes, there was supposed to be disco stuff.”

According to a note on the Inaccurate Movie Database (which may or may not be true, as I can’t find mention off it elsewhere), director George Bonilla shot this as Disco Vampires but changed the name because he didn’t want people to think it was a comedy (he subsequently retitled it Redwood Justin: Vampire Hunter, as if that would make any difference). The curious thing there is that, as noted, for some of the time this is a comedy, mainly in scenes with Bolt who is played as quite a nice comic turn while Redwood becomes more exasperated, up to the awaited line of, “You have got to be kidding.” This is on top of the ridiculousness of the premise. Whatever title you give this film, it’s a lot more of a comedy than a psychological thriller.

The vampires themselves pass for normal until they decided to feed at which point they not only grow fangs but develop a ridged, sub-Klingon forehead, which makes the movie look like a cheap Buffy rip-off. The make-up - credited to Linda Goforth, Sven Granlund and Xyliena Praetor - is okay; there is plenty of blood but little in the way of gore apart from the eviscerated policeman who becomes a butler.

Dance with a Vampire was written and directed by George Bonilla, a Kentucky-based film-maker who is described on the sleeve as “the creative genius that brought you Zombie Planet”. Leaving aside the grammar (“who brought you”), I think it’s fair to say that this is one of the most audacious uses of the heavily over-used term ‘genius’ that I have ever come across. Michelangelo was a creative genius. So was George Bernard Shaw. In film-making you could maybe apply the term to Welles, Griffith, probably a few others. But creative geniuses don’t make indie zombie and vampire films. No offence, but they just don’t. Truth in advertising please.

Many of the cast and crew also worked on Zombie Planet (which has even had a UK release care of Odeon) and/or its sequel Zombie Planet 2: Adam’s Revenge. Few of them seem to have made any non-Bonilla films - but then, I suppose that opportunities to be cast in features come along only rarely in Kentucky. Bonilla and co are now finishing off his fourth feature, The Edison Death Machine which sounds like an intriguing premise and will feature a mummy and possibly a werewolf.

Clearly Bonilla has plenty of enthusiasm, as well as a hard-working and dedicated rep company of cast and crew. One thing he desperately needs to learn, however, is pacing (well, scriptwriting too, obviously). Dance with a Vampire is simply far too long at 116 minutes. Let’s be clear: this sort of low-budget indie should run between 75 and 85 minutes. It needs a damn good reason to go over 90 minutes and there is no excuse for stretching past a hundred. Even if it was any good - artistically or technically - Dance with a Vampire could take some serious trims throughout the film: the neo-Nazi sequence goes on too long, there’s too much subplot around the numerous cops and the fight scenes are, to be brutally honest, dull and devoid of tension.

There is very little to make this ultra-low-budget vampire movie stand out from all the hundreds of others out there - apart from the disco angle which disappears all too swiftly. (NB. Since posting this review it has been brought to my attention that the disc I was sent to review was not the final edit. The cut playing festivals runs 94 minutes in total, which sounds like a much more reasonable length but is unlikely to save the poor characterisation or the five-dollar special effects).

MJS rating: C-

review originally posted 15th August 2006

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