Batiste Sornin, Belgian films, Carlo Ferrante, co-writers, Dracula, exiles, film crews, flashbacks, Fleur Lise Heuet, foreign films, found-footage, horror-comedies, independent film crew, Julien Dore, Pierre Lognay, satires, Selma Alaoui, Vampire Code of Conduct, vampires, vampires vs humans, Vera van Dooren, Vincent Lannoo, writer-director
By this point in the 2010s, it seems that we’ve seen every permutation of vampire in films that we possible could: we’ve had the vampire as tragic Byronic figure [Dracula (1931 and 1992), Interview With the Vampire (1994)], rat-like monstrosity [Nosferatu (1922), 30 Days of Night (2007)], bumbling idiot [Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)], moony-eyed, sparkly teenager [Twilight (2008)], swinging ’70s hipster [Count Yorga, Vampire (1970), Dracula AD 1972 (1972] and even action-hero [Blade (1998)]. We’ve seen black vampires [Blacula (1972), Scream, Blacula Scream (1973)], female vampires [Queen of Blood (1966), Lady Dracula (1977)] and even non-vampires acting in decidedly vampiric ways [The Last Man on Earth (1964), Martin (1978)]. At this point, are there any vampires we haven’t seen?
Turns out we haven’t seen Belgian vampires yet, an issue which is handily rectified via Vincent Lannoo’s snarky Vampires (2010). In this particular case, writer-director Lannoo’s bloodsuckers are definitely of the more mundane variety: they don’t turn into bats or wolves, hypnotize innocent virgins or wear flared pants. There’s nary a cape to be found and there won’t be any one-way trips to Transylvania to tromp around mist-shrouded castles. What do Lannoo’s vamps do, you might ask? Well, they end up doing a lot of the same stuff that you and I do: they raise families and deal with defiant children, fall in love, fight with each other and make fun of people they consider “beneath” them. They go to school, hold down jobs (when forced to) and live in modest suburban tract homes. On the flip side, they also devour humans and turn to ash in the sunlight, so there are a few minor differences, I suppose. These are not vampires as terrifying, other-worldly harbingers of pestilence or uber-romantic, doomed poets: these are the obnoxious neighbors that you hide behind the couch to avoid whenever they come knocking at the door.
Vampires begins with an extremely funny bit that establishes the kind of world that we’re about to step into. We’re informed that the Belgian vampire community reached out to a small, independent film crew and invited them to come interview and film the community, as a way to open up understanding between humans and vampires. After the first couple of attempts fail spectacularly (some vampires are able to control their impulses better than others), we’re told that a third film crew was actually able to complete their assignment, albeit posthumously (in one of the film’s many clever bits, the film is dedicated to “Jean, Helene, Jose, Clarrise and Jerome’s arm”). In this way, Vampires parallels itself with similar found-footage concepts, such as Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and The Blair Witch Project (1999): we’re, essentially, watching the final footage of folks who are no longer with us. With this witty intro, we’re off to the races.
We’re introduced to the filmmakers’ subjects, a small family of vampires led by constantly put-upon patriarch, Georges (Carlo Ferrante). What’s piled up on Georges plate? Well, for one thing, he’s got a wife, Bertha (Vera van Dooren) who’s more “hillbilly” than European sophisticate. He has a son, Samson (Pierre Lognay), who’s managed to violate one of the only vampire taboos by sleeping with the leader’s wife and a daughter, Grace (Fleur Lise Heuet), who yearns to be human, files her teeth down, dresses in pink and has a human boyfriend. He has a contentious relationship with the downstairs neighbors, Bienvenu (Batiste Sornin) and Elisabeth (Selma Alaoui), a couple of old-fashioned vampires who are childless, slightly stodgy and entirely disapproving of their upstairs neighbors’ “wild” lifestyle. In short: Georges biggest problem is the modern malaise of “polite” society.
As the filmmakers continue to roll camera, we get plenty of insights into what it means to be a vampire in Belgium. Their “meals” are delivered by the police and consist of “undesirables” and illegal immigrants (“We’re currently having a wave of black Malians, all of them young, between 20 and 30…delicious!”). Only vampires with children are allowed to have their own homes (explaining why poor Elisabeth and Bienvenu get stuck in the tiny basement, forced to sleep standing upright in their coffins). Each vampire family lives with a human dubbed “The Meat” that provides them with continuous sustenance and no one has to work. For vampires, it’s definitely an ideal situation.
There are, of course, always flies in the ointment and Grace’s rebellion, combined with Samson’s hotheaded stubbornness, are two of the biggest ones. As things come to a head regarding Samson’s affair with leader Little Heart’s wife, Eva (Alexandra Kamp-Groeneveld), Georges and his family will need to make some big changes, some of them decidedly life-changing and rather frightening. The scariest of them, according to Georges? Why, moving to Montreal, of course! Will Georges be able to keep his family together, all while trying his damnedest to uphold the Vampire Code of Conduct (created by Count Dracula, himself)? Will Grace get her wish? Will Elisabeth and Bienvenu get a child? Will Samson ever learn to keep it in his pants? And what about the creepy, skeletal clown vampire, Ronald, that’s propped against one of the walls: what’s his deal? The answers, of course, all lie within…if you dare!
Films like Vampires live or die (no pun intended, I swear) by how insightful their commentary is, since this is, technically, a satire and not a regular-old horror film. In that regard, Vampires is pretty exceptional, finding some rather ingenious ways to blend discussions of Belgian and French-Canadian politics/mores within the context of a modern vampire family. The notion of the police “feeding” the vampires in order to take care of their own political issues is pretty biting (sorry!), as is the discussion of how humans aid and abet the undead: another great bit occurs when the family goes to buy Grace a new coffin for her “death-day” celebration (pink, of course) and we get to hear why the human coffinmaker, Jean-Paul (Julien Dore) is so willing to work with vampires. After all, who else ever buys more than one coffin in their lifetimes? A guy’s gotta eat, right? There are also some pointed insights into the vampire notion of education, which entails watching (and laughing at) gory horror films and practicing the proper way to bite victims (in a bit that closely resembles CPR training). The vampire school is held in the same location as the human school, albeit at night. As the human school administrator admits, they’ve rarely had problems with the vampires, save for the occasional spot of blood on the walls and that one kid who went missing at Halloween years ago: pretty good odds, as far as he’s concerned.
The film also attempts (and largely succeeds at) the same kind of meta-commentary that informed another Belgian pseudo-documentary, the incendiary Man Bites Dog (1992). In that film, a film crew follows around a serial killer and ends up assisting him in his crimes, unwittingly at first but more enthusiastically as time progresses. The point is pretty clear: there’s a fine line between being an unbiased observer and being an accomplish. In Vampires, we got a similar bit when the film crew observes the pen where the vampires keep their human quarry: as the humans beg the film crew to let them out, the crew refuses, on the grounds that interfering would upset the natural dynamic that they’re going for. It’s a thought-provoking notion and throws shade on a generation that would rather capture an incident on their iPhones than actually help someone: the point is as relevant today as it was back in 1992.
While Vampires is stacked to the rafters with political and social insights, there’s also plenty of room for more traditional comic beats. In particular, Grace’s desire to become a human is extremely funny (although it becomes poignant in a later scene that provides a breath of fresh air from the film’s overriding atmosphere of sarcasm), as is Samson’s generally shitty attitude: teenagers suck, vampires or not. The bit where Samson and his friend, Steve (an American who toured with the Doors, played a long gig and woke up as a French vampire, complete with accent), kidnap a mentally disabled man from a hospital (“Now we have The Meat AND The Vegetable!”) is particularly mean but leads to one of the film’s best set-pieces as the dumbass duo accidentally convert their victim into a vampire and must then chase him about in order to “put him down.” Georges exasperated response (“You really are little jerks”) should be familiar to any parent who’s ever dealt with a willfully obnoxious kid. We also get a great bit involving Grace and Samson insulting each other with increasingly hurtful insults (“Slut!…Cocksucker!…Babytooth!…Priest!!”), as well as the priceless “Gift of the Magi” bit wherein Grace only wants to become human, while her human boyfriend would love to be a vampire: oh, you crazy kids!
The acting in Vampires, especially from Georges and his family, is quite good and goes a long way towards selling the concept: if anything, everyone underplays which makes it all that much more plausible. I was particularly taken with Batiste Sornin and Selma Alaoui as the stuffy “old-schoolers.” At first, the pair seem like kind of one-note parallels to the more modern upstairs clan but become increasingly endearing and sympathetic as we learn more about them. Ferrante is excellent as Georges, bringing quite a bit of multi-dimensionality to the role, although I was always rather confused by van Dooren’s distinctly white-trash take on Bertha: it was the only performance that seemed overly goofy and over-the-top.
While Vampires works spectacularly well as a nasty little satire, it’s less successful as a first-person POV/found-footage film. Oftentimes, the perspective is confusing, making it unclear who, exactly, is supposed to be shooting the footage. We also get several flashbacks, fashioned as old-school newsreel footage, that further confound the issue: are we to believe that the film crew is somehow able to record their interviewees’ flashbacks? Color me baffled, to say the very least. There are also some tonal inconsistencies that prove a little jarring, including a truly horrifying attack on an apartment building that feels like it belongs in a different film. None of these issues are particularly deal-breaking but they certainly detract a bit from the movie’s overall impact.
At the end of the day, Vampires is an easy recommendation for fans of both vampire films and pseudo-documentaries (iffy perspective or not, the documentary aspect still comes through loud and clear and is very reminiscent of Man Bites Dog). While the film is generally easy-going and more witty than shocking, it’s still got plenty of eye-opening bits (the discussion of vampire sexuality, by itself, opens up a pretty big can of worms that includes incest, polygamy and implied pedophilia), as well as enough genuine blood and guts to satisfy the horror crowd. While it’s not always completely cohesive, Lannoo’s Vampires is always entertaining, frequently laugh-out-loud funny and often extremely insightful. If you thought that you’d seen every kind of vampire available. give Vampires a shot: these vamps may not sparkle or mention “the children of the night,” but they sure do look a helluva lot like average, everyday people. By itself, that’s pretty damned scary.