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Vampires (2011)
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by Jay Seaver

"Even for vampires, you need kids to get benefits."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2010 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: It's not that you can't make a scary, surprising vampire movie any more - my last two trips to this festival delivered "Let the Right One In" and "Thirst", so it can be done. It's just hard; the bloodsuckers have grown so familiar that it's easy to slip into what movies like Vincent Lannoo's "Vampires" do, treating monsters like something commonplace and trying to be clever with the details.

Georges (Carlo Ferrante) is the head of a vampire family living in Belgium. He's got a regal air, even if his wife Bertha (Vera van Dooren) doesn't quite charm the television crew doing a documentary on them quite so much. They keep a relatively low profile, mostly feeding on a former prostitute they call "The Meat" and a pen of illegal immigrants in the backyard, with the local police helping with procurement and disposal. It's not a completely tranquil household - "son" Samson (Pierre Lognay) has been sneaking off with the local head vampire's girl, and "daughter" Grace (Fleur Lise Hevet) wishes she were human. And then there are "the neighbors", two vampires that they graciously allow to live in their basement because the vampire code says that vampires must children in order to rate a house of their own (Elizabeth and Bienvenu have their own individual self-control issues with kids).

Vampires straddles the line between parody and satire, spending most of its time on the broad, somewhat silly side of the line. It's still often mean-spirited humor - the opening bits about why a film crew might be unwilling to take on this assignment are as bloody as they are exercises in perfect set-up and delivery. A lot of it is relatively simple jokes, though they work - there's a visit to the funeral home to pick out new coffins; Georges finding himself just unable to understand his daughter, wearing all that pink and dyeing her hair blonde; a move to Montreal find Belgian Samson unable to understand a word that his Québeçoise girlfriend is saying; that sort of thing. A fair amount of fun is had mocking the sometimes torturous rules that vampires live by, both socially and biologically (is the way they are shown to mediate disputes here really that much more illogical than having to be invited into a room?).

As much as many of the jokes come at the expense of vampire fiction, though, Lannoo and co-writer Frédérique Broos have the occasional sharper point to make, too. If they don't quite make a direct connection between the attitude toward immigrants in Europe and the family's own experience in North America, they at least give the audience a little bit to chew on. From what I've read, Georges' horror that in Montreal, vampires are actually expected to work may not just a comparison between the lingering aristocracy of the Old World versus the democratic foundations of the New, but a comment on Belgium in particular as a nanny state.

Other jokes may also be fairly Belgium-specific, although if they are, they're not so specific that non-local audiences will find themselves confused and perplexed by references. They also don't allow themselves to get too hamstrung by the demands of a particular story; although everything in the movie follows on what has come before, the documentary style allows the filmmakers to jump from one good bit to the next without the scenes necessarily having to be connected. The flip side is that the documentary style shooting and subject matter makes for an inky picture; it can be difficult to see what is going on.

The cast does a good job, let by Ferrante as Georges. It's a funny part, with Ferrante capturing the right mixture of snobbery and gregariousness. He's got the air of a natural aristocrat, but does wonders with just the expression on his face and slumped body language when faced with the facts of life in Canada. Lognay and Hevet are both very funny as their trouble-making teens, handling both the standard stuff and morbid slapstick with style. I wasn't quite so taken with Vera van Dooren as Bertha, though that may not really be on her; the character seems to be written as not too bright (she manages to seem unintelligible despite clear subtitles, actually), and thus doesn't seem to fit with the rest of the cast. The collection of one-off characters is almost uniformly entertaining, though, especially Julien Doré as a coffin salesman and Paul Ahmarani as the cheerful vampire leader in Montreal.

"Vampires" hits a lot of easy jokes, but executes them well. Its vampires may be domestic if not domesticated, but the movie manages to sneak more than a few clever bits in among the familiar vampire jokes.

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originally posted: 07/31/10 10:22:13
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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