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