Joseph Graham, the mind behind the excellent film "Strapped," started with this very short piece full of vivid imagery but some odd ideas.In San Francisco, Mike- I swear someone in the film called him Mark- (Matt Klein) is a buff gay man enjoying some casual sex. His partner makes Mike choke him, and in the heat of the moment the man dies. Mike takes a hankering to the whole choking angle, and is soon picking up other men in gay bars and killing them, earning the nickname "the Bay City Strangler." He then goes out to a local park infamous for cruising, and puts a bullet in his head.
Onto the scene comes high school student/photographer/artist Jeff (Ryan Allen). Jeff seems to be struggling with his sexual identity, finds Mike's body, and takes some photographs of it before falling in the water and losing his camera. He reports what he found, and becomes a bit of a local celebrity. The problem is Jeff is becoming obsessed with the strangling case. Nightmares begin involving the killer, and soon Jeff is conversing with a ghost of one of the victims. His artwork begins to change, and he catches the eye of one of his father's coworkers, David (Michael McAllister).
The film is only forty-six minutes, and Graham wisely uses the first dialogue-free ten minutes to set up the killer's character. This is the best part of the film, shot in black and white, and very reminiscent of David Lynch. The scenes are intense and scary, with nice optical effects enhancing the mood.
I also liked the character Jeff, but I thought Graham went a bit off the rails as Jeff's obsession deepened. Because the film is so short, we are never privy to what Jeff was like before the body's discovery, so I was not sure if he really changed at all, or if the murderer was changing him from beyond the grave. Jeff's sexual fantasies involving the murderer are very uncomfortable, but the climax of the film tries to do too much, with the viewer at a loss. The musical score by Patrick Bowsher and the songs by Reza are outstanding, setting the mood whenever they are used."Vanilla" is not a complete wreck; I did recognize some ingredients here that made "Strapped" the best film of 2010, so we'll split the difference with three stars.