Dead or Undead
The undead in Uli Edel’s The Little Vampire are really quite nice, in a refined-British-nobility kind of way. In fact, they prove to be the best friends a human boy could ask for. The boy in this instance is Tony Thompson (Jonathan Lipnicki, also know as “that Jerry Maguire kid”), an imaginative, friendless only child who has been transplanted along with his parents from sunny San Diego to the spooky Scottish moors.
The premise is that Tony’s dad, Bob Thompson (Tommy Hinkley) is in charge of building a new golf course on the estate of Lord McAshton (John Wood). Tony’s mother Dottie (Pamela Gidley) is a stay-at-home mom; she keeps the castle they live in, looks after Tony, and occasionally attends boring obligatory social functions with her spouse. Overall, the Thompson family seems to have a good, if somewhat stilted life. As the adorable child, Lipnicki makes the most of his younger-than-his-age looks, and who can blame him, given the rewards he obviously receives? Lipnicki delivers his lines as if expecting people to say how cute he is, like everyone did with Jerry Maguire, which quickly grows annoying. Still, he is convincing as the social outcast at his school, the new guy who is too small and—despite some heavy Timberland product placement—lacks the right clothes.
Since moving to Scotland, little Tony has been beset by dreams of vampires and has become obsessed with these creatures. Dressing up as a vampire one night, Tony is mistaken for a brother by a real vampire boy named Rudolph (Rollo Weeks). After this error is sorted out and some initial mistrust overcome, the two become fast friends. Tony teaches Rudolph the proper way to intone “duh!”, and Rudolph takes Tony flying. This is not an even trade in my book, but Tony makes up for it by offering to help Rudolph and his family end the curse of the vampires so they no longer have to roam the earth, persecuted. And the vampires in this small Scottish village are a persecuted minority.
In The Little Vampire, the lords of the underworld are “family, not fiends,” as Rudolph explains to Tony. They are misunderstood and hunted by oafish bigots like the local vampire hunter, Rookery (Jim Carter). They only drink cow’s blood, and only do that after lulling the cows to sleep. Blood sucking is never directly shown on screen, but instead is represented by sound effects and implication. Further, the cows do not even die—they just become, well, different. Rest assured no real cows were harmed in the making of this film. As Rudolph tells Tony, the vampires “want to become humans, not eat them for dinner.” This is a film about fitting in, celebrating families, and appreciating friendship. Dead or undead, according to this film, all families are basically the same - at least those who include a mom, a dad, and a child or two. Here it is not the vampires that seem out of place, but the frighteningly perky, living Americans. Perhaps this is a way of letting us know that the American way is not the only way, and that a little consideration for other cultures might be in order. The primary dissimilarity here is between “normal” Americans and eerie Scots, and that between human and vampire is trivial.
There are so many messages in this movie that I only hope I got them all: the children have much to teach us; if we all open our minds and hearts, the world will be free of evil; and we shouldn’t let one bad apple like Rookery (we know he is bad because he smokes and is rude) make the minority groups think we don’t like them. The Little Vampire also stresses that it’s okay to be different, and that sometimes we fear what we do not understand. And that folk who look different and eat different things than we do might seem strange, but they’re just regular people like us. Except, as usual, nobody seems to question who constitutes “us.”
Despite the fact that the cast and crew of The Little Vampire is decidedly not American, this film takes a distinctly American point of view, and a particularly white middle class position at that. What is “standard” is actually quite a limited number of the world’s population. However, in this paradigm of the strange being saved by the normal, the strange becomes less so by seeming more like the ideal standard. Further, in this case the “normal” American white boy is charged with the fate of an entire vampire community—without him, they suffer.
The vampire and human families parallel one another. In both cases, mom is gentle and permissive; dad is more demanding and a bit out of touch. Vampire mother Freda is played gracefully by Alice Krige, best known in the U.S. for her role as the Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact. (Perhaps that’s where she got her motherly instincts.) As Freda, Krige resembles an ethereal Morticia Addams, all at once a refined woman, sexy wife, and caring mother. Rudolph also has the company of his siblings Anna (Anna Popplewell) and Gregory (Dean Cook). At the end of the day, or rather, night, it is the members of each family coming together, communicating, and trusting one another—and the bridging of the human-vampire gap—that allows everything to turn out okay.
Much of the film takes place at night, and these scenes are beautiful and mysterious without being too scary. Edel’s directing credits include Last Exit to Brooklyn and episodes of the TV series Homicide, Twin Peaks, and Oz—each offering a completely different kind of scary than The Little Vampire, but each also representing the gothic depths that can be found by looking in the oddest places. The cinematography is lovely and the vampire costumes are beautifully creepy. The vampires are pale and romantic with decaying clothes of nobility from days of yore. In this case, the monsters hiding in the basement—imaginary or not—make life more interesting and exciting, not just more frightening. However, this is definitely a children’s film: when it’s on the verge of becoming too dark and creepy, something amusing will happen to lighten things up (think: a clever combination of vampire cow poop and “The Ride of the Valkyries”). While there is nothing particularly innovative about The Little Vampire, it is still fun, “feel-good,” and visually pleasing. There is mystery, intrigue, a little tiny bit of kid romance (a harmless crush), and a satisfying ending. And though I might risk giving away that ending for the scant few who fail to predict it, I’ll say this much: everything turns out okay when everyone starts to seem like “us.”