[1 July 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It hasn’t been the best of times for everyone’s favorite neckbiter. Oh - don’t be confused. The vein sucking member of the undead is quite the media darling as of late. He (and she) are part of the questionable Twilight phenomenon, said sacrilege helping keep sex and splatter fests like HBO’s True Blood and the CW’s far less tawdry Vampire Diaries popular. They’ve gone from ghouls to Gothic cool, and there’s really no mainstream middle ground. Where once we feared their creature feature of the nightmare persona, we now long for a more romance-oriented up close and personal approach. This makes the new black comedy from Belgium, Vampires, a real joy. Not only does it dial directly in to our current fear factor fetishism, but it offers up an unique and rather pointed look at European class lines.
After several attempts to make a documentary on the native vampire population in their country, a camera crew finally gains access to one welcoming group - the St. Germain family. It consists of the rather snooty head of household Georges (Carlo Ferranti), his slightly unstable wife Bertha (Vera Van Dooren), their party-oriented free spirit of a son Samson (Pierre Lognay) and their angry teenager daughter Grace (Fleur Lisa Heuet). Unlike other subjects, who merely set-up and slaughtered their documenters, this brood is proud of being one of the nation’s nattiest and most influential and want to show off.
We soon learn many of the rules of modern vampire society. Almost every household keeps their own “meat” - a victim who willingly supplies them with blood…and flesh. For the St. Germains, it’s a thoughtful ex-prostitute. They also have a childless couple - they are referred to as ‘neighbors’ - living in their cellar and a fenced off coop filled with illegal aliens/provisions out in the backyard. But all is not well with the otherwise content clan. Samson is constantly pushing the boundaries of The Vampire Code and Grace longs to revert back to her original state and be ‘human’ again. Things eventually come to a head after a party at the home of Little Heart, their local leader. While they may be diabolical, the St. Germains are also quite dysfunctional.
It’s rare to see a social commentary as biting - both literally and figuratively - as Vampires. Within the mock documentary conceit of filmmaker Vincent Lannoo lies layers of truth about his homeland’s current state of rich vs. poor, immigrant vs. native. Along with co-writer Frédérique Broos and a cast of excellent actors, we get a vision of a post-millennial Belgium overflowing with prejudice and a sense of privilege. In the guise of the standard superstition, and as enacted by foppish fiends, we can see how the old school looks down on the young, how those with kids dominate the discussion, the way youth struggles and rebels to be heard, how the standard individual graces can apply to beings both straight and supernatural, and the on-going debate over the place of foreigners and their “smelly, foul” ways from infiltrating their close-knit (and critical) community.
It’s more than just natives vs. outsiders. Buried under all the fake format elements and filmmaking flair is a look at how vampires could and would function within the boundaries of believability. We learn that Belgium doesn’t mind it’s nationalistic Nosferatus and does things (some of them illegal and unethical) to keep them happy. We learn that the government even uses them to “thin out” the undesirables - living or otherwise. Similarly, the weird set-up between those with kids and those without is accented by the childless couple’s situation and claims (their reasons for remaining is such a state are quite shocking). In fact, like any good satire, one can easily unearth a number of known critical quantities here. We aren’t in this story for the sake of scares. Vampires is actually more interested in its message than its monsters.
The comedy comes early on, as when Grace does her best Harold and Maude imitation, attempting suicide with very little success (she’s already dead, remember). Similarly, Bertha’s initial fascination with the camera equipment is hilarious in a kind of cruel, crazy way. As the voice of reason - and on occasion, racism - within the group, Georges is a typical upwardly mobile snob. He is proud of his part in the purification of his surroundings, and doesn’t mind sharing his views with the world. As the story plays out, the laughs grow more infrequent, saved for sequences where we learn about vampire school (where they show the students gory slasher films in order to aid in their sense…of humor) and the stark differences between Belgium and Canada, undead wise.
In order to keep things from getting too staid, Lannoo experiments with style and substance. When Little Heart has a party, we think that the main meet and greet is the gathering’s purpose. Then we see the real reason (offered in a frenzy of night vision violence) and the impact is equally pronounced. Similarly, the tensions between the St. Germains and their neighbors come to a head. When the issue is finally resolved, the result has a poignancy that’s hard to ignore. Even the ending, which suggests one thing but then doubles back and undoes it all, skews more toward a serious examination of a subject versus a goofy scary movie comedy.
Certainly there are loose ends and legitimate qualms with a movie like this. Vampires might think of themselves as superior to humans in both ethics and heritage, but they are still murderous fiends at heart. The opening “punchlines” prove that out . Instead of balancing the horrific with the humorous, Lannoo and crew avoid the jugular and go straight for the funny bone. In today’s confused climate, there is nothing wrong with turning Dracula and his descendants into arrogant social climbers. Most genre mavens consider the creature more Eurotrash than terrifying anyway. At least Vampires doesn’t pretend to mix fear and high fashion. Instead, being blasé about one’s tendency toward corpse grinding is as funny, and sometimes flawed, as you might imagine.