Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Thicker Than Water (2008): or, Send Me a Postcard from Macchu Picchu

Mircrobudget independent vampire movies (MIVMs) get a bad rap generally, and if you think about it, there's a pretty good reason. As cheap and easy as it is to squirt some bottled latex in a friend's face, tear up some old clothes, layer on some corpse paint and call him a zombie, it's even cheaper to pencil in some eyeliner and call him a vampire. (And if you or your friends are part of your local Goth scene, the overhead goes down even more.) Because the setup requires less money and less skill, unfortunately the MIVM has attracted the most inept, unoriginal, creatively bankrupt independent filmmakers of any genre. The fact that the built-in audience for vampire movies of any level of quality still greedily devours everything that hits the DVD shelves with a half-naked Goth chick on the cover does little to discourage this trend.

As a result, it's often difficult for a horror fan with any level of discernment to find a MIVM that they could actually call...you know...kind of good. Like trying to find the proverbial toothpick in a stake-stack...or something. That's why your ever-lovin' Vicar was suprised and pleased to find that Phil Messerer's 2008 MIVM, Thicker than Water: The Vampire Diaries Part 1 (official site here), is actually more than a few cuts above its mini-budgeted brethren. Well shot with an engaging amateur cast and even a few (dare I say it?) original ideas to offer, it's definitely a MIVM worth checking out, if you're into that sort of thing.

And you are. Don't lie. I know you.

The New Groovy Goth Girls™ Playset

The movie kind of digs itself a hole right at the beginning, as a trying-to-sound-creepy but-failing-miserably narrator intones "OUR STORY BEGINNNNS...." while still photos of Mayan pyramids flash by onscreen. Not still photos, actually--I think they're honest-to-God postcards. The voice-over says something about Mayan gods and their insatiable thirst for blood, but I was too awash in the slideshow to care. Luckily things get better, as we're next presented with a well-crafted tableau of dolls and bones that gives us a capsule visual summary of the movie to come.

After the credits we meet soon-to-be 16-year-old Goth girl Lara Baxter (Eilis Cahill), who has constructed a black magic altar in her room as a way of escaping from her dysfunctional family--mainly from her "twin" sister Helen (Devon Bailey), a popular cheerleader sort who enjoys ratting on Lara to their ultra-religious Mom (JoJo Hristova). (Upon seeing Lara's altar: "Mom! Lara's playing Anne Rice again!") Rounding out the family unit are henpecked Dad (Anthony Morelli) and reclusive weirdo brother Raymond (Michael Strelow), who also happens to be an independent researcher (read: Mad Scientist).

Lara: The Only Goth in the Village

The story is told mostly from Lara's point of view, with periodic voice-overs by Cahill as she writes in the titular diary. From the opening dinner scene, where super-stern Mom enforces "Accomplishment Time," demanding each child list his or her achievements for the week, we know Messerer is aiming over the top and plans to stay there. Often this is an excuse for dumb jokes and poor writing, but thankfully Messerer (who also wrote the script) has an ear for a good line and an actress in Cahill who can deliver withering sarcasm in a funny, engaging way.

After Dad announces he and Mom are separating, he completely disappears from the movie, leading me to wonder why the character was even there in the first place. In the tension-filled aftermath of this and a double-birthday party gone awry, a sibling scuffle leads Lara to cast an "Ancient Anal Acne" spell on her sister. She figures she got the ingredients wrong when the next morning Helen comes downstairs bleeding profuseley from the nose and eyes. A tearful deathbed reconciliation later and Helen is a corpse, leaving Lara guilt-wracked and the rest of the family in shock.

Bet you wish they'd tested that makeup on bunnies *now,* dontcha?

I don't want to belabor the plot too much, so instead I'll sum up. Helen comes back from the dead Monkey's Paw-style, only now she's a vampire (try not to look so surprised). The family decides to do their best to keep her alive, which means kidnapping unwitting victims and sacrificing them to Helen's cyclical bloodlust. While Lara educates them (and us) on the niceties of vampire lore, Raymond experiments in his bedroom lab in a search for a cure, or at least an explanation. Mom wrestles with her religious beliefs and the need to keep her daughter alive.

The focus in the movie is really on the family dynamic rather than on the "vampire run amok" idea, and this is to its strength, I think. Helen is kept hidden in the basement like a dirty family secret, while her family becomes kidnappers and murderers in order to keep her alive. Helen is by no means an Anne Rice-ian vampire as most MIVM characters become, but rather a scared, confused teen with uncontrollable impusles (we've all been there, right?) who occasionally becomes a monster. Again, I think this is an interesting angle--in fact, late in the movie an Anne Rice vampire does appear to claim Helen in a funny (if a bit too broad) comic scene, only to find he's drastically underestimated the Baxter family.


The movie is shot pretty well, with some nice dark shadows and a few good mise-en-scenes. The makeup and effects are understated for the most part--dark eyeliner and lots of fake blood--but occasionally graphic, and we even get an exploding head courtesy Raymond's experiments, which is always a treat.

I mentioned Cahill's performance as Lara earlier, and it really is rather good--on the sliding scale of MIVM acting, anyway. She's engaging and funny, and really seems to inhabit the character (or else the character *is* her, which works just as well). Bailey does a pretty good job as Helen too, but the real show stealer is Strelow as Raymond, who takes the opportunity of his sister's first death to tell Mom he's gay and afterwards transforms gradually from shy reclusive nerd to svelte, confident gay vampire killer.

Messerer's script has some funny lines in it, and while he occasionally skirts the "too broad and stupid" comic line, he seldom goes over it. There are some scenes that don't work in my opinion--everything that uses a postcard for a background, for a start, and the out-of-place expository scene with the Dr. Strange-type owner of the local Freakatorium shop--but there are also scenes that work really, really well, such as an extended conversation with some door-to-door Mormons the Baxters have chosen for Helen's next meal (my favorite set-piece). There are also a couple of well-edited montages that I found funny and fun to watch.

No more, mon.

I have to say that when I first received the screener, I was quite prepared to dislike this movie, and one of the reasons was the title--that is, the FULL title, which is this: Thicker Than Water: The Vampire Diaries, Part 1. I still don't like it, for three reasons. Number one: when it comes to indie movie titles, shorter is better imo. "Thicker than water" is a well-known phrase, implies the "blood" without coming out and saying it, and is easy to remember. Adding that lengthy subtitle just dilutes it. Number two: there is really no need to announce the proposed franchise until at least the second installment. Yeah, we all know you have big plans for your baby, but so did the guys behind Buckaroo Banzai and The Sword and the Sorcerer. And number three: there's already a Vampire Diary. Sorry guys, but you've been scooped.

That said, I was pleasantly surprised by Thicker than Water, and entertained by it pretty much throughout. I did think Lara's centrality to the plot should have been maintained; she starts off very strong, but by the end she seems a secondary character. I wasn't a huge fan of the music in the movie, but it won awards for it at some festival or other, so what do I know.

Anyway, if you're a fan of MIVMs, you could do lots, LOTS worse than Thicker Than Water. I will admit that those not already aficionados of microbudget movies might not be able to get into it as I did, but on the sliding scale us fans learn to apply, it does rather well, with some good ideas, a refreshing sense of humor, and periodically effective filming. Taking a page from the Duke's book, I give the movie 2 thumbs if you love MIVMs and vampires generally, and 1.5 if you don't.

Paper Plates are the Scientist's Friend

You can visit Thicker Than Water's Official Site here.


Jenn said...

So do the goths seem goth? You know, I watch so many movies where the goth chick acts completely not goth, at least by my definition and understanding - like joining a sorority or engaging in sports. It would be nice to actually see a believable goth chick once in awhile.

Thicker than Water don't sound half bad. Another indie vamp movie I rather enjoy is Razor Blade Smile - it offers a bit of originality and adeptness, although it's maybe not as el cheapo as TTW.

The Vicar of VHS said...

There's only one goth in the flick, and that's Lara--she seems believably goth to me, but then I'm not an expert; Little Rock isn't exactly known for its burgeoning goth scene. :P She didn't seem to be ladling faux goth on with a spoon, to me, anyway.

I've heard good things about Razor Blade Smile ever since it first appeared, but never got round to seeing it. I tend to bury my head in the warm sand of the 70s, as the reviews show. It's just so comfy there. :)

Samuel Wilson said...

This is an exemplary blog post, Vicar, because you call to our attention a possibly worthwhile item, warts and all, amid the dross of postmodern "folk art" and you made me interested in a movie I might otherwise never know existed. These microbudget films are where we'll find the Woods, Milligans or Adamsons of today -- or better.

Ashton Lamont said...

Another winner sir!.....never usually do many vampires (not in that way) so i may have to look this up!

The Duke of DVD said...

Oh come now, Vicar. How can you claim no goth presence in Little Rock when most Saturday nights find you strolling down the Rivermarket, flourishing your cape, puffing our your ascot and randomly scaring passers-by with your powdered face and oiled beard, not to mention black lipstick and eyeshadow.

I once bought a double pack DVD set at some random discount store that had two of the worst micro-budget goth vampire movies ever in it, so I know where you come from that most are bad, but it's nice to hear about one that is actually watchable. I didn't think the ducal DVD player would recover.

Bravo on a stellar review, as usual. LOL @ "Helloooo".

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Samuel Wilson: you're too kind! I agree though that the microbudgets are more interesting (when they work) than the better funded horror flicks coming out these days, generally. It's the Grindhouse of today, as you rightly point out. Though I have to wonder if the world will ever produce another the likes of the triumvirate you name. ;)

@Ashton Lamont: Thank you, sir! It's my opinion you should do a vampire every now and then, just to keep the edge on. Yes, in *that* way. ;)

@Duke of DVD: You know what they say--BE the change you want to see in the world! If we can't find our scene, then we must BE our scene! :) And I think I know the microbudget set you mention. If so, "dire" is woefully inadequate to describe the direness of the offerings. Caro syrup + giant balloon boobs =/= cinematic excellence, as illogical as that statement sounds.

The Costuminatrix said...

This is really only semi-related, but back when I used to review for AVN, they would occasionally send me these micro-budget horror flicks. Hell, I even got a shot-direct-to-video Jess Franco thing once, starring an ageing Lina Romay. Something about killer snake gods.

Sadly, they were all terrible, and I had to keep saying things in the review like "Um, there is no sex in this film and no one even gets nekkid, so I am not sure what the appeal is for readers of this publication."

The Duke of DVD said...

The world is not ready for the film I could birth using just syrup and balloon boobs as creative constructs. End of the world-type stuff, dogs and cats living together.


Anonymous said...

I don't know, "authentically goth" would probably come down to slightly overweight (but still buying regular sized clothing), whiny, and as opinionated as clueless about anything coming close to authentic knowledge about the occult or anything encompassed by the term "Gothic" - not the sort of character I'd want to see in a horror movie (at least not as a main character).
Might be just my annoyance with students though, but Goths are certainly the bane of every historian's life.

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