The Weekly Creepy: Nosferatu Family Values in ‘The Vampire Diaires’

22 Sep

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Thicker than Water: The Vampire Diaries Part 1 (2009) NR 86 min, Directed & written by: Phil Messerer Starring: Devon Bailely, Ellis Cahill, JoJo Hristova, Michael Strelow, Myles MacVane

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Leave it to the low-budget film scene to find a way to rejuvenate the modern concept of the vampire. And in the wake of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, which has firmly locked in the nosferatu as mopey, faux-Victorian super heroes, a bloodsucking makeover was indeed in order. Phil Messerer’s Thicker than Water  may be as low budget as they come but it’s also original, intelligent and legitimately funny. Unlike the current CW emo-vamp fiasco, this Vampire Diaries takes its titular creatures all the way back to their mythic roots and adds a few new wrinkles of its own. Most compelling among these fresh insights is that although they have given up solid food for the red stuff and prey often on the innocent, vampires do retain a fierce sense of mi familia.

The film opens with footage of the pyramids at Chichen Itza and a dodgy narration that introduces the viewer to the origin story of vampires. Moments later, it ditches this thread (turns out this ancient history legend is a framing device of sorts) and opens far away from Mexico in, of all places, the suburbs, with the Baxters. The Baxter family is a far cry from the dead-eyed Cullens; mama Baxter(Hristova) was once a russian ice-skater, papa Baxter is on the way out after announcing divorce at the dinner table, son Raymond has a veritable science lab in his bedroom, and the gothic Lara and preppy Helen are twin sisters who couldn’t be more different from one another. Initially, the script paints the whole clan as portraits of typical dysfunction, but when Helen gets sick shortly after her 16th birthday and then dies, Messerer forces all of the narrative elements into the orbit of this off-kilter family.

It isn’t much of a surprse to suggest that when good-girl Helen, who loves cute little animals, academics and Jesus, passes away, she doesn’t stay dead. Her return is the point where Thicker than Water ceases to be just another clunky indie movie and transforms into a creepy and poignant story of unconditional love and familial support that takes tried-and-true hallmark moments of togetherness and puts a deliciously twisted spin on them. Every member of the Baxter family, including the brooding loner, Lara(who initially blames herself for Helen’s death), is developed as a living-breathing person and not a stereotype or a plot device.

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One of Messerer’s best choices for his film is the decision to subordinate his sprawling vampire origin myth to a smaller, more cloistered tale of a family coming around a member in need. When Helen returns to her mother’s doorstep, like the wayward zombie son of The Monkey’s Paw, plastic coroner’s sheet still wrapped around her like a bridal veil, the Baxters can’t help but feel blessed. When Raymond and Lara explain that she is a vampire, Helen is distraught. When they tell her that she has killed the coroner and fed on him to sustain herself–and that she will need to do so again–she is horrified and shocked. She once made a promise to God that she would live her life to benefit others, and cannot bring herself to voluntarily drink of the captured ‘sarifices’ that Mama and Raymond procure for her. Also terrified of suicide (she’s a Catholic), Helen starves herself; abstaining from blood until the moment where her new, animalistic nature takes over and forces her into predatory mode.  

More or less, this knotted predicament is the entire foundation of the first installment of The Vampire Diaries. As a singular story it has a surprising effectiveness. The Baxters interact like a real family, and it is easy to have compassion for each and every one of them. Keeping it small in scope ensures that Messerer’s home-video style cinematography never really looks out of place. In fact, he really gets some nice frames and compositions going here. Some shots go on for a bit too long, and could stand with some editing, but mostly he knows what he wants and he gets it. The cast, for such an independent effort, are all pretty good and they can handle the unnatural close-up shots that sometimes make it seem like we are staring right into the character’s souls.

The best performances in the film belong to Jo Jo Hristova and Devon Bailey. Hristova as the God-fearing matriarch of the clan is devout and pious, but doesn’t bat so much as an eye when deciding that if her daughter won’t feed on her own, she will go out and bring the food to her. She is not deluded about what she is doing–knows full-well that it is murder and that the fires of hell may await her–but Helen is her family and she will sacrifice everything for her if need be. In a darkly comic and thrilling scene, where Hristova and Cahill lure in a pair of Mormon preachers as potential sacrifices, the movie doesn’t shy away from religious discussion and the philosophical quandries of the problem with evil. Watch Hristova’s face, and you will see genuine conflict and resignation play out on her features.  Later, towards the film’s finale, she rachets up one scene until it achieves a profoundly tragic power. This is anything but amateur work.

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Bailey as Helen  is the film’s strongest performance. She transforms this perky, self-confident social butterfly into a bitter, worn-out shell who strives to do the right thing, but is increasingly held in check by this new, dark and unnerving side of her personality. Whether it’s a poignant pe-death scene where she tells Lara that she wished she had been a better friend to her, or sequences where she sits at the dining room table shivering and convulsing with hunger, Bailey really seems to understand the ways in which her character is stretched through this ordeal; for Helen, being a vampire is an anathema to everything she has believed. That makes her more organic and believable, which is important because it provides a sturdy contrast when she turns into the vampire.

As the vampire, Bailey is a truly creep piece of work. This is one of the most unsettling interpretations to grace the screen since 1922’s Nosferatu. When she gives into the hunger, Helen doesn’t don scads of make-up or lumpy prosthetics. She doesn’t go all ‘cgi’. Instead, she twists her body into animal like configurations that would baffle a professional contortionist and mimics the kind of instinctive behavior that is found in big cats when they are hunting prey. Everytime Helen gives in, she seems to give away another piece of herself. When she goes under, she sheds every noticeable trace of humanity. To portray such an alien concept is no easy task. I look forward to where Bailey will take the character in future films.

Strelow and Cahill are also good in their respective roles, and although they don’t shine as brightly as Hristova and Bailey, they prevent their characters from being simple one-note types; in this case the closeted gay and the mopey goth. Myles MacVane as a creepy occult bookstore owner is more Crypt Keeper than Rupert Giles, and he and his hairless cat seem like they would be most at home on one of those late-night cable programs hosting old horror films. The film’s weakest acting spot  is a late arrival from a Southern gentleman vampire. His presence hearkens back to the kind of amateur filmmaking that Messerer has largely avoided until that point.

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And, ultimately, there is no getting around the fact that The Vampire Diaries feels alot closer to a student film in its materials and budget than it does to a polished feature. The musical cues are too numerous and often distracting; played so loud we often can’t hear anything else. Somtimes they feel just plain wrong. Though there is some truly creative cinematography,there are numerous shots that are unecessary and Messerer is still too young a filmmaker to start relying on musical montages already. The inclusion of the passages from Myles’ dark tome recounting the first vampire’s journey across the world is part of the film’s refreshing originality and telling it via engravings worthy of Varney the Vampire only reinforces those ties to true gothic horror. However, all of those more mythic elements have little bearing on the story in this film. I kept waiting for them to gain relevance but they must be waiting around for the sequel, which is already in the cards. Apparently, even indie features think in franchise terms these days.

For all of it’s faults, Thicker than Water: The Vampire Diaries does what few films of its caliber can do;it stands on its own. It is so good, that it challenges us to compare it not to shoddy DTV movies made on a similar budget, but to all of the more established familiar entries in the genre. It is a delightful surprise to realize that it holds it own. Proving the specific strengths of independent filmmaking, Thicker than Water skips the last 50 some years of vampire lore and manifests itself as a bloody, witty penny dreadful awaiting more freakishly compelling future installments.

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One Response to “The Weekly Creepy: Nosferatu Family Values in ‘The Vampire Diaires’”

  1. Xiphos September 22, 2009 at 3:13 pm #

    I wonder if the similar titles will suck in the tweener girls that are the TV shows prime demographic. I hope so because it sounds like the ensuing hue and cry from parents will be funny to read.

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