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Modern Vampires
Posted 1 October 1999

by Sean Axmaker

Directed by Richard Elfman

Starring Casper Van Dien, 
Natasha Gregson Wagner, Natasha Lyonne, 
Rod Steiger, Robert Pastorelli, 
Udo Keir, and Kim Cattrall.

Written by Matthew Bright

Director Richard Elfman’s reputation, such as it is, comes largely from the cult film Forbidden Zone, which he made decades ago, and the luck of being Danny Elfman’s brother. I confess that I have yet to catch up with his claim to cinema fame, and if his latest effort, Modern Vampires, is any indication, perhaps I’m better off leaving his canon to my imagination.

Written by Matthew Bright, the writer/director of the intelligent post-modern twist on Little Red Riding Hood, Freeway, and screenwriter of the Drew Barrymore cable hit, Guncrazy, the story of Modern Vampires is a promising bit of genre-bending. LA is an underground of vampire activity dominated, in fact almost exclusively populated, by old world Euro-types. Americans are tolerated at best and Dallas (Casper Van Dien) is the quintessential young blood, a James Dean in the land of kinky Bela-Lugosi types: rugged, daring, a bloodsucking rebel without a pedigree who blows into town on a mission in a fast car and a fun-loving, fanged smile on his face. Nico (Natasha Gregson Wagner) is another American and an even more insidious threat to the well-organized undead empire, a feral girl living in the slums who has earned the nickname the “Hollywood Slasher” for her risky killings and lone-wolf lifestyle. The real power of the vampire, of course, is that no one really believes in them. No one, that is, except Van Helsing. Played by Rod Steiger chewing his way through an outrageous sauerkraut accent and a holier-than-thou, mission-from- God attitude. He’s shadowed Dallas to LA to settle a personal score and has hit the jackpot with the cream of the Euro-vamp royalty thriving in LA, led by the controlling Count Dracula (Robert Pastorelli). (Aside: with silky Udo Kier in the cast why make Pastorelli the Count?)

Bright’s busy screenplay tosses dozens of characters into the fray of criss-crossing conflicts. Dallas is out to save  Nico from Dracula, who carefully regulates emigration to the undead world; he doesn’t want his court in exile overtaken by Americans. The bad blood between them simmers to a boil when Dallas and his friends (including a hilarious Kim Cattral going for broke with a Zsa-Zsa-Gabor flourish) adopt Nico and try to civilize her. Meanwhile Van Helsing puts out an ad for an assistant and earns himself a well-meaning gang-banger fresh out of prison (“You’re telling me you don’t believe in vampires, yet you’re willing to drive a stake through someone’s heart?” “I really need this job”). Soon Van Helsing is puttering around LA in a VW van full of dope-smoking, malt-drinking Crip buddies, blasting their rap as Van Helsing screams for peace and quiet, hysterical scenes directed with all the grace of a drunk water buffalo.

The script is promising if a little rough but Elfman’s clumsy handling only points up the deficiencies without celebrating the virtues. Apart from Van Helsing and all street thug gang, the only humans in the story are screaming victims: deserving patsies or faceless cattle. When a snarky salesgirl keeps up a barrage of insults aimed at the fashion disaster Nico, her cultured guardians smile with bemused resignation and set her loose: “Go ahead, rip her throat out.” Kinky basement vampire watering-holes are stocked with naked chained humans taunted, tortured, and noshed on with sadistic delight. Elfman has no love for the Count and his preening emigrant acolytes, but he has even less use for the humans and seems to enjoy the brutality perpetrated on them: a sick twist on supernatural Darwinism. Even Van Helsing is a tarnished hero, accused of being a WWII concentration camp experimenter (“I only experimented on vampires!”) whose crusade of undead decimation is less a holy crusade than a mission of revenge and racial intolerance -- all interesting elements that Elfman plays as broad slapstick rather than insidious irony.

If he were a more talented technical director it might be forgivable, but Elfman falls down in the simplest of action exercises. When Nico chows down on the salesgirl’s throat she first has to dance her off-camera, and their fumbling looks more like a stunt rehearsal, looking for their marks while trying to keep their balance. Every cut from a real life action to a special effect is jarring, drawing attention to the fakery like a sleight-of-hand magician with the jitters. While hammy vets like Steiger turn their goofy parodies into overbaked caricatures, the youngsters like Van Dein, Wagner, and Natasha Lyonne (as a teenage raver) are cast adrift looking for motivation and settling on attitude. Elfman seems to like what Bright is reaching for but can only hammer his ideas with sledgehammer skits. There may be no life in these characters, but that’s not reason to deny them a personality. Ultimately the US-vs.-them conflict degenerates into a campy bloodfest, with a snarling, invigorated gang of freshly-turned young Americans taking out the jaded and complacent European lords in a flailing free-for-all of jumbled tumult and screeching violence 

There’s a wealth of ancient hostilities woven through Bright’s script, and in the hands of an ambitious (or even merely competent) director Modern Vampires could have turned into a captivating, clever take on the age-old genre. It’s certainly a more interesting premise than such recent attempts at genre transfusions from Innocent Blood to Razor Blade Smile (aka “La Fang Nikita”), but Elfman’s execution is worse than clumsy, it’s incompetent. Working on a low budget isn’t such a handicap that you have to flaunt your deficiencies or your distractions.

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