Writer-director Amy Heckerling has long shown a fascination with youth culture, from the comic sociology of Fast Times at Ridgemont High to her Jane Austen version of valley girls in Clueless. It was the latter film that became Heckerling’s most enduring work (though Look Who’s Talking, zeroing in on youth culture so nascent it’s downright pre-verbal, remains her biggest box office hit) and made a temporary star out of Alicia Silverstone. Since then, Silverstone made a few ill-fated vehicles before re-emerging as a low-key character actress, while Heckerling has struggled for a follow-up hit, moving from teenagers to college kids with Loser before shifting to the concerns of middle age via the barely-released I Could Never Be Your Woman.
Almost two decades after their 1995 triumph, Silverstone and Heckerling have reteamed for Vamps, a low-budget vampire comedy that received a cursory theatrical release in late 2012 before making its DVD debut. Silverstone plays Goody, a friendly vampire (she only sips blood from rodents, never humans) turned in the 19th century who holds on to her youth well into the 21st. The role shifts her from central object of Heckerling’s fascination to her older stand-in and mouthpiece. The girl who once showed off Heckerling’s mix of slang research and invention—she didn’t coin “as if!” but she and Heckerling made it her own—now insists that “200 is the new 80” and complains, with frustration bordering on the hostility of a 60-something screenwriter, about keeping up with new technology.
Heckerling may be feeling frustrated or even dismissive of the youthful energy she once sought, but that conflict between staying forever young and trying to act your age lends Vamps a palpable sense of anxiety different from most horror comedies. Even Goody’s younger fellow vampire friend Stacy (Krysten Ritter) suffers from displacement: she became a vampire in the ‘80s, locked into her college years as well as her now-retro fashion sense. Now she’s secretly approaching middle age while still attempting to maintain her appearance as an on-trend 20-something.
The best friends’ insecurities are reflected through a pair of romances: forever enrolled in college—the vamps would have long since graduated, they explain, if the ceremony wasn’t held during the day—Stacy meets the younger Joey (Dan Stevens), who happens to be a member of the Van Helsing family, while Goody runs into Danny (Richard Lewis) an old flame from her ‘60s protest days. He has visibly aged; she has not.
In its bubbly, cutesy way, then, Vamps achieves a more resonant sense of melancholy human-vampire romance than any of the Twilight movies: the subtext of self-obsession here is intentional and observant. It also sometimes overwhelms the movie; Heckerling so transparently addresses her own conflicted feelings about aging that the characters can feel secondary to their representations. As a result, the movie’s horror elements—hypnotizing vampire eyes, bent-around vampire walks, a beheading or two—are ill-considered, not just jokey but kind of slapdash, even when her badass highness Sigourney Weaver contributes a two-scene cameo as the woman who sired both Goody and Stacy.
The skimping on horror is also clearly, at least in part, the work of a miniscule budget: the special effects are Nickelodeon-sitcom chintzy, but moreover, the movie’s technical production looks like an amateurish rush job, advertising the cheapness rather than obscuring or ignoring it. Heckerling attempts to film everything in bright, poppy colors, but in doing so overlights scene after scene until most of the actors appear bathed in spotlights.
Heckerling still has a way with snappy dialogue (even the quips that don’t land have high spirits), and a more polished screenplay or tighter ensemble might’ve outshone the movies technical limitations. Instead, the movie sincerely offers a bittersweet love story with a more mature Silvertone and… Richard Lewis, who can’t tone down his twitchy, antsy schtick long enough to let the oddball pairing breathe. Silverstone and Ritter have better chemistry; with so few other characters of interest, Heckerling might’ve been wise to drop the other vampires, drop the crummy effects, and just give her actresses the whole movie. Silvertone still has a girlish intonations, but Heckerling’s writing brings out such cheer in her.
The actor and filmmaker pairing complements each other well, and it’s a shame that they haven’t made more movies together (several other Heckerling alums, from Clueless and Loser in particular, also rematerialize here); they haven’t even recorded a commentary track for this one. At its most insightful, Vamps portrays vampirism as kind of slow-motion time travel—and certainly watching the star of Clueless play old-fashioned and a little weary will have its own time-bending qualities for viewers over a certain age. But as with many looks into the past, it’s hard not to get wistful about what could have been.