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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Near Dark, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Once Bitten, Blacula, Love at First Bite, and Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter (review)

The New World Vampire

Of course, most respected anthropologists and biologists recognize that the New World Vampire, or vampirus americanus, differs greatly from the European species, or vampirus continentalus, but few films have recognized that the wide-open spaces of the U.S. produce a vastly altered creature than Europe’s dense urban spaces or intimate, if remote, medieval villages. But years before John Carpenter and the team of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez documented the vampires that dwell in the lonely stretches of the Americas, the criminally underappreciated ethnographer Kathryn Bigelow did it — spookily, grimly, hilariously, gloriously — with 1987’s Near Dark, in which a coven of nasty bloodsuckers roam the deserted American Southwest.
People going missing, never to be found, from empty highways? Vampires. Mysterious, late-night massacres in roadside taverns? Vampires. The presence of country music on jukeboxes may even be attributable to vampires, though not all the evidence is in on that one yet, vampires being notoriously camera shy. Which is why Bigelow had to “dramatize” stuff, using actors in a reenactment of the famous tale of farmboy Caleb Colton and his misadventures in the vampire world. Supposedly some of the vampire footage — including the vampire-on-fire bit at the end of the film — is the real deal, captured by sheer luck by Bigelow’s cameras after she and her team stalked their Arizona range for months, but when we see Caleb, he’s being portrayed by Adrian Pasdar (Secondhand Lions), the real Colton apparently unwilling to have anything to do with the film.

And no wonder. Pasdar plays him to the hilt as a “dumb hick” who stumbles into the coven after picking up pretty hitchhiker Mae (Jenny Wright), who gives him the worst kind of hickey. But it’s the old-hand vampires who are the interesting ones, anyway, and they’re portrayed by a veritable Aliens reunion: Lance Henriksen (Alien vs. Predator, Millennium) and Jenette Goldstein (Duplex, Titanic) as a couple that preys together to stay together, and, stealing the film (and I say this not just because he’s one of my perpetual boyfriends), Bill Paxton (Thunderbirds, Broken Lizard’s Club Dread) as Severen, who picks fights in those aforementioned roadside taverns in order to get himself a meal and says things like “I hate a man ain’t been shaved,” though that doesn’t stop him from enjoying a victim’s neck so thoroughly that he belches with satisfaction afterward.

As darkly amusing as Near Dark is, though, Bigelow never romanticizes one of the great American perils. This is an intense film, an eerie depiction of the isolated, empty middle of America and the dangers that lurk there… and a surprisingly haunting, if never entirely sympathetic, portrait of the loneliness and torment of the eternally undead.

Most attempts at revealing for general audiences the lives and undeaths of American vampires end up descending into camp, almost always unintentionally so. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the awful 1992 film, is so unendurably bad that its screenwriter, Joss Whedon, was moved to remount his idea for TV (and rather more successfully so, too). The heroine, for whom I guess we’re supposed to root, is a cheerleader/reincarnated killer of vampires (Kristy Swanson) who is only slightly less superannoying than her Valley Girl pals, one of whom is played, good lord, by Hilary Swank (The Core, Insomnia), in the role she’d probably like the Hellmouth to swallow whole. When Buffy spits out totally groady things like “my secret weapon is PMS,” you can’t help but hope the vampires bring her down… but they’re all either hopeless, puny protogoths who’d pull a muscle turning over their Cure LPs, or they’re Pee-Wee Herman (Blow, Mystery Men). And that’s not even the worst of it. Oh, sure, the flashbacks of Buffy’s past life look like they were shot at Medieval Times, but that’s nothing compared to the fact that Luke Perry (The Fifth Element) is here as an oily high-school loser who teams up with Buffy. Grease in the 80s… with Vampires. Ugh.

And still, it’s not as bad as 1985’s Once Bitten, featuring a then pretty much unknown Jim Carrey (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, In Living Color) as the world’s oldest high-school student. I mean, yes, teenagers are almost always played by twentysomethings, but here Carrey actually comes across as older than the 23 he was: when his “dad” busts into his bedroom and discovers him doing something embarrassing (though not what you’re thinking, you dirty-minded so-and-so), it’s just ickily wrong and disturbing — doesn’t anyone notice he’s an adult? The vampire stuff, too, is downright weird in no good way. The Countess (Lauren Hutton: 54), an L.A. vampire of some 300 years, needs to suck the virgin blood of a young man three times before Halloween, which is like a Gremlins thing that goes unexplained and makes little sense (how long before Halloween? when does “after Halloween” one year become “before Halloween” the next?). Virgin blood isn’t easy to come by these days, the Countess moans, because apparently there was a time in human history when people did not have sex as early and as often as possible. Jim, naturally, is a virgin, and quite a frustrated one, though you’d imagine that he’d be put off sex forever by the sight of his won’t-put-out girlfriend (Karen Kopins) and the Countess having a dance-off for him at the Halloween dance in the high-school gym. It’s the only scary thing about the film… and the only funny one, too, even if that wasn’t the intent.

Los Angeles is the setting, too, for 1972’s Blacula, one in the series of films in which vampirus continentalus travels to the New World and doesn’t do too well in the transfer. Mamuwalde (William Marshall) was a visitor from the “dark continent” to Transylvania in 1780 when he ran afoul of Dracula (Charles Macaulay), who sucks his blood and actually dubs him “Blacula.” Incredible. To its credit, this classic example of blaxploitation does invoke the C-word, but not before “camp-eee!” actually crossed your mind, which is while you’re putting the DVD in the player. And ho boy, does the film deliver. In the “present day,” two “faggot interior decorators” remove Blacula’s coffin (where Dracula imprisoned him) from Transvlvania back to L.A. along with a bunch of other junk, candelabra and the like, that they imagine they’ll make a fortune selling. Fortunately, theirs is the one home guaranteed to have at the ready a satin-lined cape for the funky bloodsucker to appropriate when he wakes up in La-la Land. There’s not a lot of story beyond Blacula hassling lady cab drivers and pursuing his reincarnated wife, but there is some proto disco to dance to and Blacula’s weird facial hair: it’s not like he needs a shave after two hundred years; it’s like patchy werewolf overgrowth. Maybe it was a makeup test for Black Wolfman.

The Count himself fares much better when he comes to New York City in 1979’s Love at First Bite (source of the greatest Dracula quote ever: “Children of the night: shut up!”) George Hamilton (Hollywood Ending) is a hoot — and actually kinda sexy, too — as Vladimir Dracula, who’s having a really bad week: not only has he been evicted from his castle by the Soviets, but he’s getting lonely in his immortality. It ain’t quite Woody Allen (70s Allen, that is, back when he was smart and insightful), but setting Dracula loose on a Manhattan dating scene populated by confused sexual-revolution feminists and wishy-washy, defanged men sets up a clever, funny commentary on a new era of interpersonal relationships when no one knew what they wanted or how to articulate it. Vlad, who certainly isn’t defanged in any way, masculine or vampiric, is a hilarious contrast to shrink Dr. Jeffery Rosenberg (Richard Benjamin), his rival for the hand of liberated career gal Cindy Sondheim (Susan Saint James) — the strongest emotion declaration Jeffery can muster is “There’s a good chance I love her,” while Vlad wastes no time and just demonstrates how he feels — “That’s so kinky,” she coos, “are you biting me?” It may not be P.C., but I know which man I’d prefer.

Sex and vampires get mixed up and mixed in with an unlikely third party — Jesus Christ Himself — in the outrageous cult flick Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter, from 2001. The ultimate undead guy, Jesus is back, gets a shave and some piercings, and indulges in badly synched song sequences during which he revives some corpses… just as you’d expect the Big Guy to do first thing upon his return. But there’s also the missing-lesbian situation to look into, too — turns out vampires have been targeting ladies of a particular persuasion, and Jesus (Phil Caracas) ain’t none too happy about this, even if the local parishes couldn’t care less if these specific sinners are disappearing. Director Lee Demarbre and screenwriter Ian Driscoll (who also portrays the hilariously named Johnny Golgotha) have crafted a pro-Jesus, anti-Church screed against hypocrisy and bigotry — “there’s nothing deviant about love,” says the J-man — that’s bizarre and funny and full of the good Jesus stuff that no one could argue with. The charmingly low producton values and creative use of entrails are just bonuses.

Near Dark
viewed at home on a small screen
rated R
IMDB

[Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
viewed at home on a small screen
rated PG-13
IMDB

[Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]

Once Bitten
viewed at home on a small screen
rated PG-13
IMDB

[Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]

Blacula
viewed at home on a small screen
rated PG
IMDB

[Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]

Love at First Bite
viewed at home on a small screen
rated PG
IMDB

[Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada]

Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter
viewed at home on a small screen
not rated
official site | IMDB

[Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]



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