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Love, blood and motherhood
A UK region 2 DVD review of VAMPIRE DIARY by Slarek
 

I've seen a lot of vampire films over the years, have read numerous books on the subject and have even used it to teach genre to media students. I am so familiar with its codes and conventions and its multiple subtexts that I could recite them in my sleep, and am all too aware of the restrictions they place on the genre's scope for expansion of ideas, stories and themes. As a result I tend to approach any new addition to the vampire filmography with a mixture of curiosity, enthusiasm and dread.

I'll go out on a limb and suggest that there's little if any mileage left in the classical vampire tale as inspired by Bram Stoker. The lone aristocrat living in an isolated castle preying off the local populace is no longer a figure of fear or, thanks to his status as the number one vampire parody figure, any real credibility. The Count has moved to the city and he and his kind now run big corporations. To bring something new to the genre is tricky without violating the very rules that define it. Many have tried but with varying degrees of success – the best examples in the past thirty years, the period in which the modern vampire film came of age, have been made by filmmakers with both an understanding of the genre and the determination and imagination to bring something fresh to it.

Without doubt the most radical of all modern vampire films is George Romero's 1975 Martin, which threw off and even mocked the genre's core supernatural element and presented us with the vampire as an urban serial killer, teasingly refusing to confirm whether the title character was a real vampire at all or merely a fucked-up kid who believed he was one. Although never directly emulated, the film's influence can be felt in some of the more interesting vampire movies that followed, from the predatory travellers of Katherine Bigelow's Near Dark to the dark New York subculture of Abel Ferrara's The Addiction. It's in this vein (sorry) of reality-based vampire stories that directors Mark James and Phil O'Shea have grounded Vampire Diary, a low budget (the estimate is £650,000), shot-on-video feature that's uneven in development and execution, but has enough interesting and inventive elements to make it of real interest to horror and especially vampire movie fans.

The film is set amidst London's Goth scene, specifically the so-named "Weekend Vampires," who live up to the prejudices and outward perceptions of ordinary folk by making themselves up, wearing fangs and drinking each other's blood though razor-made cuts in their arms. A rather unlikely prospect in the age of AIDS, you might think, but these Goths don't seem to be quite as sharp as those I've met and known over the years. Yeah, well, that's London for you, or perhaps a slightly fantasy-tinged version of it. Making friends in this world is Holly, a young filmmaker shooting a documentary on the Weekend Vampire scene, who one evening notices that she is also being filmed by one of the Goth girls, Vicky. An evening at Holly's flat with some of the group ends with Holly offering Vicky a room for the night if she'll agree to be in her video, and the two become friends and soon lovers. But a number of murders that are blamed on a vampire-style attack prompt Holly to suspect there's something odd about our Vicky, and she's right. Vicky, it turns out, is no Weekend Vampire but the real deal, and on top of that she's pregnant. Reluctantly, Holly finds herself drawn in to Vicky's world and needs, and starts to help her procure what she requires to feed.

The filmmakers score their first points right here. It's a damned good set-up and an original take on familiar themes. They simultaneously bag their second points for a technical approach that incorporates the inescapable and potentially detrimental video look into the structure by presenting the entire story as footage shot by Molly and Vicky. Yes we've all seen The Blair Witch Project and its imitators and yes this involves a few stretches regarding whether either camera would actually be rolling at particular times, but on the whole it works well, and the restricted viewpoint even helps build tension when either girl goes wandering in the dark with their respective cameras on night vision mode. The low budget does show, but the intimate nature of the narrative and some pleasing cinematic economy (a large scale police operation is suggested almost solely through sound effects) mean this is rarely if ever an issue, and the quality of the make-up is easily equal to that of many mainstream horrors.

Elsewhere the film drops a few points. For the first third any audience with even a casual familiarity with vampire movies will be way ahead of the characters, and we thus spend a bit too much time waiting for them to catch up. The script wanders unevenly between the sub-functional and something smarter, while the performances suffer similar ups and downs, with scenes played with conviction and commitment undermined by others that feel uncomfortably under-rehearsed but are still too 'performed' to feel naturalistic. I couldn't help thinking that a more spontaneous and improvisational acting style would have better suited the film's visual approach, giving it a more genuinely documented feel.

When the actors do connect with their material it's a different story. Anna Walton in particular gets increasingly under the skin of vampire Vicky, proving there was a lot more to the casting decision than prominent cheekbones and her willingness to do the lesbian sex scenes. Morven Macbeth's hesitant start as Holly moves into a different gear once the truth about Vicky is out, Kate Sissons gets to play a great self-sacrifice sequence as committed vampire devotee Haze, and Jamie King makes for a likeable Adam, who may not be the world's most convincing (or perhaps that's convicted) Goth, but as the good friend who's secretly in love with Holly he always feels genuine.

Not everything works or hangs together, and occasionally I was reminded of the wittier and more consistent Vampirology episode of TV's Urban Gothic, in which a documentary crew follow an urban vampire around Soho. But Vampire Diary still has its moments, which increase in frequency as the film progresses and include some memorable and darkly effective scenes (including one that could put a sizeable portion of the male audience off fellatio for life), and the decision to arm Vicky with a bolt gun to disable her victims adds a level of brutality that very effectively strips the vampire of its romantic associations. Now and then it may feel like it's treading water, but it builds to a nicely devised and hauntingly handled final scene that lingers long after the incongruous final shot of Vicky that follows it (see the extra features below for more on this). A bold new direction for the genre it may not be, but Vampire Diary is still an intriguing and sometimes inventive take on the urban vampire movie.

sound and vision

Shot on what looks like a mixture of HD and mini-DV, the anamorphic 16:9 transfer retains the original video look, but this is both deliberate and appropriate. Inevitably there is some digital grain in places and the colour saturation and contrast can vary depending on the light levels and location. Detail is pretty good and black levels are solid when they need to be. On the whole, a decent transfer.

I've seen the sound listed on some on-line retailer sites as surround 5.1, but the review disc only sports Dolby 2.0 stereo. This does the job well enough, with the music tracks have the appropriate punch.

extra features

Vampire Diary Featurette (13:58)
A brief but comprehensive making-of featurette built around an interview with the two directors and including behind-the-scenes footage and brief interviews with the leads actors and make-up effects supervisor. The expected areas are covered, including the genesis and planning, the casting and the use of the video POV technique. There's enlightening coverage of the Isle of Sheppy shoot which was hit by a day of unexpected snow, weather that only appears in the film in that final shot, which does at least explain its discontinuity with the rest of the Sheppy footage.

summary

It took me a while to get into Vampire Diary, but it's worth sticking with it for the interesting twists and sequences of gruesome effectiveness that come later. It's unlikely to find much of an audience outside of the genre fandom, although its UK premiere at the London Lesbian and Gay Festival suggest is could find itself stuffed unfairly into two pigeonholes. I can't speak for the latter group – to get to the relationship story you have to handle the horror – but vampire film fans should definitely give it a look.

Vampire Diary

UK 2007
90 mins
directors
Mark James
Phil O'Shea
starring
Anna Walton
Morven Macbeth
Jamie King
Kate Sissons
Justin McDonald

DVD details
region 2
video
16:9 anamorphic
sound
Dolby stereo 2.0
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras .
Making-of featurette
distributor
Peccadillo Pictures
release date
21 May 2007
review posted
31 May 2007

See all of Slarek's reviews