Georges Saint Germain is a vampire. So are his wife Bertha and his teenage kids Samson and Grace. Who aren’t really his kids. And his wife’s actually his mom. And they’re all living happily in Belgium.
In the mockumentary Vampires, director Vincent Lanoo has an outstanding premise and a strong cast for his story of an underground world of vampires and their families. They do make families it turns out, assembling their victims and/or vampire companions, into pale (ha!) reflections of human domestic situations. In fact, we learn that this idea informs vampire identity to such a degree that the undead are only allowed to own a house if they have selected someone to be their child. Bertha and Georges have two 19th century vamps living in their basement because the couple hasn’t had children yet.
The idea of vampires living in an alternate human world provides much of the humor for this effort. Lannoo plays around with many of the traditional vampire tropes of blood-hunger and coffins and crosses, but does so to deploy a barrage of satire against the typical family rather than against imaginary monsters. Arguing parents, rebellious sons and sulking daughters sit down together at dinner that involves the inevitable “How was your day?” discussions with a side order of mutual recrimination and conflict. And dinner just happens to be the prostitute they call “the Meat” that they keep, semi-captive, in their house. Tonight, she’s flavored with ravioli.
Despite the film’s emphasis on the “Hey we’re a family, too,” many of my favorite moments in the film concerned the larger world of the vampire, the idea that it functions as an alternative society. We learn, for example, that the Belgian authorities actively support the vampires by turning over to them various “undesirables” including both criminals and immigrants. Lannoo here takes an easy, if much deserved, shot at some of the right-wing movements in Europe that would like nothing better than to turn over African immigrants to monsters. In Vampires, the authorities even pick up the bodies on garbage day.
The story of Grace, the sulky teenage girl, became my favorite character arc. I disliked her intensely at first but, it turns out, I was supposed to. Her desire to be human, a particularly annoying kind of young, blonde human who wears lots of pink and puts on a spray tan, set us up to watch her become an actual person. Her Pinocchio story convinces us and her occasional attempts to off herself are hilarious (as is, frankly, the willingness to poke at pieties about teenage angst and the risk of suicide). “But how could that be funny?” you say. You should see Vampires.
Horror fans will be pleased to see that the director took pains to make this truly a tale of monsters rather than creating a family friendly vampirism. The vamps in this film feed on their victims like wild dogs, an effect all the more shocking, given the domestic surroundings.
I was also glad to see that the filmmakers kept references to recent pop culture at a minimum rather than assuming Twilight worked as a hypertext for exploring the vampire mythos. It does critique the “sparkly vamp from a good family” phenomenon, but in an oblique, and more powerful way, than films and books that have gone after it with broad comedy.
The reliance for laughs on various Stoker/ Lugosi produced tropes of vampire life works better than insistent references to the vampires du jour. A favorite moment, for example, presents Grace being taken by her doting father to a funeral home to get a new coffin—a pink one it turns out. And, shouldn’t they have expected to run into a crucifix or two at a Belgian mortuary?
The film ends with the family having to move to Canada after Samson breaks the one sexual taboo the vampire community maintains. He can’t stay from the community leader’s significant other (this appears to be the only area the vamps aren’t acting out the naughty bits in Freud). Georges and Bertha find life in Montreal not at all congenial since the rules of the community force them to work and its here that Grace finally gets her shot at being human. She promptly starts wearing black.
The special features are not really very special although the outtakes are funny and underscores what any viewer would already guess… this had to be a fun film to make. The special features also included some deleted scenes but not much that will be of added interest.
Horror is an absurdist genre at heart, giving good writers and directors a scary sandbox of crazy to play in. So I’ve enjoyed the recent run of horror mockumentaries, especially those that use humor. I should add quickly that this film never reaches the transcendent heights of Trollhunter (2011) the best found footage/mockumentary horror film in recent memory. And yet it’s hard not to have a soft spot for a film that advertises itself this way: “They’re not scary. Not sexy. Not trendy. Just Belgian.”