In Amy Herckerling’s film, being a vampire is ordinary rather than remarkable – which pretty much describes VAMPS.
Writer-directed Amy Herckling’s horror-comedy is a bit clueless about what makes vampirism interesting. VAMPS is built around a premise as thin as the last anemic drops of blood dripping from the veins of a blood-sucker’s victim: For a couple of beautiful women, being vampires isn’t all that different from being ordinary humans; you share a nice apartment, go to clubs together, lie about your age, pine over past relationships, and hope to meet Mr. Right. In other words, being a vampire is rather ordinary – humdrum, rather than remarkable. Which pretty much describes VAMPS. The potential in the concept of a hip, sophisticated vampire-comedy-romance goes mostly untapped, as the film focuses on silly sit-com humor and poorly executed sight gags.
Alica Silverstone plays Goody, who is trying to keep up with modern times with the help of the much more recently vampire-ized Stacy (Krysten Ritter). Living off rat’s bloody, the pair work a night job as exterminators and find time to hit the clubs while earning multiple college degrees at night classes. The SEX IN THE CITY story line is not enough to transfuse any life into VAMPS, so a couple complications arise: Goody and Stacy are occasionally summoned by their domineering “stem,” named Cisserus (Sigourney Weaver), who is ranking up quite a body count around town. (What’s a stem, you ask? A vampire that can make other vampires.) Next, Krysten meets Joey (Dan Stevens), who surname just happens to be Van Helsing (cue spit take – and I mean that literally). Joe’s father (Wallace Shawn) just happens to work in Homeland Security. This is meant to explain the persecution being suffered by the vampire community, whose members are being hit with a raft of subpoenas, tax audits, and jury summons – all of which are presumably meant to force the vampires, figuratively and literally, into the daylight.
It’s a sign of VAMPS’ overall sloppiness that Dr. Van Helsing’s connection to this persecution is never clarified; although we presume he must be behind it, he is never shown shown orchestrating these events, nor is he held accountable for it. Likewise, we never learn how a vampire becomes a “stem” (the concept is just used as a plot device to contrive a happy ending: kill your stem, and you revert to normal). Nor do we get a convincing reason for why Goody, who has been undead since the 1840s, tells her much younger companion Stacy that she’s from the 1980s; the deception never pay off in any dramatic way (unless you count the unfunny running joke, in which Goody continually explains her vast knowledge of past events by crediting the History Channel). You get the impression that Heckerling just ran with her premise wherever it took her, regardless of whether it made any sense.
Which would be okay of the comic set pieces were hilarious, but they’re about as lifeless as the drained rats on which Goody and Stacy dine. A few of the jokes are amusing (e.g., the girls applying embalming fluid instead of skin lotion), but the scenes that attempt to exploit the vampire element for scary giggles betray signs of a director who simply does’t know how to make this kind of material work. To cite two examples: When Stacy foils an armed robbery, the speeded-up photography looks about as lame as the effects work in the first TWILIGHT FILM. Later, when Cisserus attacks Dr. Van Helsing, her smooth glide across the room – meant to convey an unstoppable supernatural attack – takes so long that Shawn has to just stand there and wait for Weaver to reach him, leaving you to wonder why he doesn’t use the time to raise a crossbow at her heart or swing a scythe at her neck.
Silverstone and Ritter are pretty but bland, unable to breath life into either the comedy or the romance. Malcolm McDowell is amusing in a bit as Vlad Tsepes – yes, that Vlad Tsepes, who has learned to sublimate his impaling proclivities through knitting and shoving the sticks into candy appels. Richard Lewis, as Goody’s old flame, has a sincere moment or two. Sigourney Weaver is okay at best; we know she can do much better, judging from her work in GHOSTBUSTERS, but her role here feels rushed, as if she was paid for a day or two, and every first take was printed as long as there were no obvious flubs. Shawn fares a little better, because his nervous-humor shtick suits the material. Somehow, Dan Stevens comes across well in what is essentially a straight leading man role – usually a thankless task in this kind of genre comedy.
Amy Herckling had big hits with CLUELESS and LOOK WHO’S TALKING, but VAMPS (which is currently in limited theatrical engagements and available through VOD) is not likely to follow in their footsteps. The film offers occasional glimmers of wit, and even a moment or two of genuine pathos, but Heckerling never comes to grips with the horror element, which seems tacked on as an afterthought. (Even the title is a misnomer: Goody and Stacy are not “vamps” who ruthlessly enthrall and seduce victims.) Even on a spoof level, Heckerling winds up trashing her own best gags (when Goody and Stacy find Cisserus sated amid a pile of drained victims in a Chinese restaurant, we instantly get the joke – when you eat Chinese, you get hungry again – but then Heckerling has Weaver say it out loud for the benefit of those too stupid to figure it out on their own). Perhaps Herkerling should have taken a cue from Ivan Reitman’s handling of GHOSTBUSTERS, in which the special effects (though not played exactly straight) were handled as well as in any serious movie, allowing the humor to come from the characters’ reactions to the supernatural shenanigans.
It’s too bad that, in the era of TWILIGHT, recent vampire-comedies (this means you, VAMPIRES SUCK) have been unable to hit such an easy target. Perhaps the problem is that the TWILIGHT films are so bad that they make parody irrelevant; there is simply nothing that anyone else can do to top their absurdity. VAMPS is not intended as a TWILIGHT spoof, but it plays with similar elements (veggie vampires versus homicidal blood suckers, love stories, vampires as outsiders trying to blend inconspicuously with humans). You would think that a film could do something better with these elements; unfortunately, VAMPS does not. In the end, this vampire-comedy is much less funny than any of the TWILIGHT films.
VAMPS (Anchor Bay, theatrical release: November 2,2012). Written and directed by Amy Heckerling. Cast: Alicia Silverstone, Krysten Ritter, Dan Stevens, Richard Lewis, Sigourney Weaver, Wallace Shawn, Malcolm McDowell, Marilu Henner, Justin Kirk.