Monday, 1 April 2013

Demon Under Glass

Director: Jon Cunningham
Writers: Jon Cunningham, DL Warner
Producer: Jon Cunningham
Cast: Garrett Maggart, Jack Donner, That Bloke from Babylon 5
Country: USA
Year of release: 2004
Reviewed from: UK DVD

What happened to the cast of Babylon 5 after the series finished? I’m sure if I could be arsed to check the IMDB I’d find they’d all been in all sorts of things but to the casual observer they all seemed to fade away. Except for Claudia Christian who got attached to all manner of crap and ended up slumming it in a terrible, unbroadcast, semi-amateur ‘sitcom’ called Star Hyke. Maybe everyone else just slunk away once people realised that B5 was overhyped sci-fi nonsense and J Michael Straczynski was a bit of a pranny.

I mention this because all the way through Demon Under Glass I kept thinking that the guy playing the vampire looked like That Bloke from Babylon 5. And lo and behold, the credits began and it turns out it is That Bloke from Babylon 5. The one with the goatee beard and dodgy English accent, here playing a vampire with a goatee beard and a dodgy English accent.

Now, although I’m reviewing this movie under its original title of Demon Under Glass, I was prompted to dig out the disc because the film was being re-released, in summer 2010, in the UK as... Vampire. Which is more accurate if less poetic. Let’s face it, you would assume that a horror movie called Demon Under Glass was about a demon. And/or some glass. There is neither in this movie.

Well, there are some windows I suppose.

It’s odd, isn’t it, that there has never actually been a film called Vampire. Even the Inaccurate Movie Database has to scrabble to find one. There’s something from 1920, which means it almost certainly uses ‘vampire’ to mean a vamp, a hard-partying jazz-age young gal, not a bloodsucker. There’s something coming out next year (2011) starring Rachael Leigh Cook and Kevin Zegers, directed by Shunji Iwai of all people. And there is a 1979 TV movie written by - good grief - Steven Bochco.

Apart from that it’s all near misses. There’s Grace Jones in Vamp, Jose Larraz’s Vampyres and John Carpenter’s John Carpenter’s Vampires. And The Vampire of course.

But now here is a film actually called - in a does-what-it-says-on-the-tin sort of way - Vampire. Presumably Stax Entertainment decided to try and cash in on the current popularity of the whole Twilight thing. Except that the sleeve image they’ve used, while having no connection with Demon Under Glass (it’s not That Bloke from Babylon 5) doesn’t look like a swoony teen idol vampire either. I don’t get that. If you’re going to misrepresent the content of your film, wouldn’t you at least misrepresent it in line with the current zeitgeist?

Maybe it’s a canny marketing ploy, designed to lure all those bloodsucker fans who are thoroughly fed up with the anaemic. shaven-chested girly-men of the Twilight franchise and who long for the days when vampires were real vampires - you know, actual monsters. So the disgruntled horror fan, perusing the shelves, spots this and thinks, “Aha! A proper vampire film with a proper scary vampire on the sleeve. That’s what I’m looking for.”

Of course, on getting the disc home, said horror fan is likely to exclaim, “Oh, what? That’s The Bloke from Babylon 5! Hang on, this is Demon Under Glass. I’ve already seen this.”

Stax originally released this - under its original title and with the standard international artwork which does at least show That Bloke from Babylon 5 - in 2005, the year after its US release (although it was actually filmed in 2002, possibly earlier, hence the enormous, clunky PCs on view). Boulevard Entertainment (which may or may not be part of the same company as Stax) re-released it in 2007: same title, same artwork. My copy is part of a ten-disc, 20-film box set which Boulevard chucked onto the market a couple of years ago, a twofer disc which improbably pairs Demon Under Glass with The Giant Spider Invasion like some sort of massive cult move non sequitur.

And now here it is again, with a new title and artwork (it looks a lot like the UK sleeve for Dead Wood but it’s not). Horror movie marketing. Who can ever work it out?

Demon Under Glass has, in its favour, a very original premise which raises some interesting questions, plus a couple of very good central performances and some good support. Against this must be levelled some cheapo-cheapo production design, a plot which doesn’t entirely make sense and falls apart completely at the end, a frustrating failure to really explore the questions raised - and the worst, flattest camera-work I have seen for a long time which makes the whole thing look like it was shot on VHS (which, quite possibly, it was).

The movie starts as a police procedural. Actually, it starts with a hooker and her client. This turns out to be a police sting to try and catch ‘Vlad’, a serial killer with the habit of murdering prostitutes and draining their blood. The hooker is Police Lieutenant Gwen Taylor (Shakespearian stage actress Denise Allesandria Hurd) in a dodgy wig and, although the first kerb-crawler turns out to be merely a creep, the second is That Bloke from Babylon 5. Suddenly finding himself surrounded by cops, he superhumanly rips the door from its hinges with one hand and runs off, fighting like a bad’un and killing two or three of his assailants before finally being subdued by overwhelming force.

He is transferred to a secret government medical facility rather bizarrely located on the top floor of a working hospital with lifts that go up to Floor 6 even though only five floors are listed. A room has been set up for the containment of the captive with a viewing room behind a one-way mirror. The former at least looks like a room in a hospital. The latter looks like a few stage flats knocked together with no attempt at set-dressing. As production design goes, it’s amazingly poor.

This secret project is managed by Dr Bassett (Jack Donner: Retro Puppet Master, Stigmata, episodes of classic Trek, The Man from UNCLE, Buffy and Power Rangers!), an elderly bloke with a grey goatee of his own. (Strictly speaking it’s a Van Dyke but no-one calls them Van Dykes nowadays, do they - all small, pointy beard styles have coalesced into the generic ‘goatee’ - where was I?) Overseeing him is some sort of bellowy government fellow, Conroy, played by Harrison Young (Waxwork 2, Children of the Corn 4, Humanoids from the Deep remake, Yonggary, Bubba Ho-Tep, Crocodile) as a sort of low-rent Rip Torn. And there was a medico involved but he was apparently one of the men killed in the struggle to capture That Bloke from Babylon 5. The rest of the staff seems to consist of one (commendably mature, non-bimbo) nurse (Jean St James: Class of 1999 II, Wishmaster), some sort of unshaven techie and a couple of soldiers.

Needing a replacement clinician, the project recruits one of the doctors from the hospital downstairs: Dr Joseph McKay (Garrett Maggart: The Sentinel). We have to believe that no-one in the hospital knows there is a secret sixth floor, although Lt Taylor spots the anomaly straight away when she visits later in the film and, you know, surely people would just look up occasionally from the car park. It’s not as if there hasn’t been major building work. The room in which the vampire is contained has a sliding roof so that it can be flooded with sunlight when required - although the narrow angle of the opening severely limits the operational hours to a very few in the middle of the day, a problem addressed in the dialogue at quite unnecessary length. Even then, wouldn’t there be at least one end of the room in shadow any time either side of noon? And couldn’t anyone seeking to avoid direct sunlight just hide under the furniture?

More to the point, how was a movable roof (which we see open and close several times but never in a shot which shows us anything else) installed without anyone knowing, on top of a major public building which, by necessity, is staffed and operational 24 hours a day, 365 days a year?

So anyway, Dr McKay is recruited to the project which basically involves a medical study of the vampire. That Bloke from Babylon 5, who gives his name as Simon Molinar, claims to be about 2,000 years old, has no heartbeat and is kept alive using transfusions. Taking no chances, the team transport him in a large, metal box on wheels. Not a coffin per se, but clearly fulfilling the same role. It looks escape-proof and Molinar is locked up, inside it, for about 20 hours a day. During the time that he is outside the metal box, he is securely strapped to an operating table.

This level of security is slightly compromised by the bits inbetween these two situations, when the two soldiers have to physically lift him out of the box and onto the table, then fiddle about with the leather straps for his wrists and ankles. If he wanted to escape while being lifted in or out of the box, it would be very easy as he is physically unrestrained and both his armed guards have their hands full. Not really thought that through, have they?

In any case, when Dr McKay wants to examine the patient’s back to see how his bullet wounds are healing, the leather straps are undone so he can sit up. So really, what’s the point?

While examining these rapidly healing wounds, the doctor finds a musket ball inside Molinar’s body, which is obviously meant to indicate that he really is very, very old. Despite this, his amazing longevity isn’t touched upon except at one later point when the bizarre argument is made that this might not be Vlad, on the grounds that Molinar is two thousands years old but the exsanguinous serial killer has only been troubling the area for six months.

I don’t know, maybe he’s got a bicycle or something.

In fact, this bizarre argument is indicative of the film’s biggest problem which is that it is incredibly talky. This is a movie about a vampire who doesn’t really do anything except sit there and let himself be poked and questioned by a doctor. There is one sequence later on when Dr Bassett picks up a prostitute and brings her back to the almost-deserted lab for Molinar to feed on. Presumably no-one in the hospital notices a senior doctor walking through the building with a hooker, but then presumably nobody notices the two uniformed soldiers who arrive every morning, leave every evening, but aren’t seen working on any of the five known floors.

One of those soldiers goes crazy at one point and tries to kill the vampire but is stopped. After which, incredibly, they are down to one soldier. I mean, jeez, the whole point behind using soldiers for, well, anything, is that you use them in large numbers. You don’t just get two. Apart from these brief moments of action - neither of which leads to any significant exploration of ideas - everything is very static and talkie until the end.

The end - ah, that just doesn’t make any sense. Lt Taylor turns up again, having been peripherally involved in a subplot around the father of one of Vlad’s victims (David Jean Thomas: Witchcraft V and VIII, APEX, The Crow: Salvation) and having had erotic dreams about That Bloke from Babylon 5. A couple of security-or-something guys dressed in black also turn up and various guns are pointed at various people for various poorly explored reasons.

Which reminds me that we previously saw some security-or-something guys when Vlad was actually subdued and captured and shoved into the metal box on wheels. Except that those guys not only had full body armour but had a large white Christian cross on the front of their uniform. This briefly raised the hope that they might be some sort of secret church police unit but religion is never in fact mentioned by anyone and the security-or-something guys at the end don’t have crosses.

Demon Under Glass tries really, really hard to be a thoughtful, different, imaginative vampire film but it just doesn’t work. The central character simply isn’t very interesting and nor are the ones surrounding him. The plot is mainly lots of chit-chat about moral, social and scientific aspects of the situation, such as whether the vampire is an experiment or a patient. But there is no actual exploration of this potentially fascinating debate, no serious discussion of whether he should be considered human and if not (or indeed, if so) can he be legally terminated? A pseudo-scientific explanation for vampirism is advanced - that it’s some sort of virus - and dental x-rays reveal that the vampire’s canine teeth can retract into cavities in his jaws. But nothing is done with all this. So what?

The whole thing goes nowhere, interrupted occasionally by the equally unsatisfying Lt Taylor subplot, before fizzling to a halt with an utterly incomprehensible lot of gun-waving and arguing.

This was one of those films that felt the need to document its development and production in minute detail online, with fans invited to join an exclusive ‘fan club’ and contribute funds to receive exclusive treats and benefits, all of which comes across, inevitably, as rather desperate and a distraction from what the film-makers should have been doing. Which is polishing their script and dressing their sets.

That Bloke from Babylon 5 turns out to be called Jason Carter and to actually be English although as he is from Lincolnshire that explains why he has replaced his natural accent with the sort of Britoid accent that Hollywood likes. His other genre credits include, pre-B5: Tales of the Unexpected, Jim Henson’s The Storyteller and She-Wolf of London; and post-B5: indie DTV obscurities like Blood Ties and The Daughters of Darkness plus James Bond and LOTR video games. Other cast members, some of whom had bit parts in B5, include soft porn starlet Kira Reed (Sex Files: Alien Erotica etc), James Kiberd (All My Children), Scott Levy (The Hell Patrol) and David Weisenberg (End of Days, I Know Who Killed Me).

Incredibly there is actually a credit for set decoration, although as Steve Llamb was also visual effects supervisor and on-set stills photographer you can kind of see how he didn’t have time to really do much with the basic, empty sets. The even odder-named Sunshine Lliteras handled art direction and also contributed to the VFX, as did Gabriel Koerner (Battlestar Galactica remake, Captain Scarlet remake). The embarrassingly poor cinematography was shared between Michael Dean (camera operator on the US reality TV series Survivor) and Morgan Susser (DP on an extra-long, live-action Ben 10 episode). Since none of it’s any good, they must share equal blame.

Demon Under Glass was evidently a labour of love for its married creators, writer Deborah/DL Warner and director Jon Cunningham who together were Dragoncor Productions. Their only other work, either together or separately, seems to be an unbroadcast indie TV pilot called The Privateers, shown at Trek conventions and touted as ‘Pirates of the Caribbean meets Star Wars’. Warner also wrote a self-published novel of Demon Under Glass - and indeed, a sequel! - and has also written some dodgy-looking gay military vampire romance erotica with manga-style cover images. According to her blog, she and Cunningham are working on other film projects including what seems to be an online video series based on Demon Under Glass.

Or Vampire, as some people know it.

If I had to sum up Demon Under Glass in one word it would be ‘over-ambitious’. Unfortunately, if I was allowed three words the other two would be ‘pretentious’ and ‘dull’.

MJS rating: C
review originally posted 14th July 2010

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