Far be it for this horror fan to say it out loud, but the vampire is kind of a one-note monster, isn't it? Come on; a Frankenstein can be formed out of any old combination of personal – or otherwise – parts, and celebrated shape-shifters like the werewolf and/or Courtney Love can skinwalk into any manner of morph they wish to wiggle around in. But the Count can only be a canine-crawed neckbiter with a low tolerance for even the merest hint of UV rays. If they drink blood, they live forever. If they don't, or have the unfortunate luck of running heart-first into a wooden stake or a silver bullet, they're Transylvanian road kill. Sure, you can dress them up in turn of the century frocks, early 80s headbands, or Marilyn Manson inspired gender-bending Goth rock garb, and they still come off as hyper hungry hemoglobin has-beens who literally are only what they eat. That's why, in the pantheon of possible movie monsters, Drac and his fellow undead dudes usually end up with the most mediocre motion pictures about their plight in the afterlife. Oh sure, Near Dark reimagined a band of bloodsuckers as Hell-raising hillbillies with a hankering for human smoothies, and Blade used cool school gadgets and wild-eyed technology to become the undead James Bond of clot cravers. But over the course of modern cinema, the vampire has been saddled with several less-than-successful interpretations of his unquenchable thirst. Leave it to Troma and its low budget bottom of the barrel scraping to find a trio of tangy terror titles that finally give the throat garroters a decent depiction. While far from perfect, Tainted, Sucker the Vampire and Rockabilly Vampire prove that there is some sanguine sustenance left in the coffin-dwelling corpuscle lickers after all.
Tying together three toothy treats onto one single DVD, Troma's Tainted Vampire Collection is a wonderful collection of some of the low-budget genre company's most celebrated titles. Focusing on vampires and bloodsuckers, the films Tainted, Sucker The Vampire and Rockabilly Vampire make up the triple feature. Since each is an entire film in its own right, it is best to deal with them individually:
JT and Ryan are a couple of video store employees looking forward to attending a Blade Runner double feature on the outskirts of town. When their potential ride can't make it, the boys are stranded. Luckily, new employee Alex has a car, and he's willing to give them a lift. While on the way, Alex's vehicle overheats and the gang is left stranded. Having a go on foot, they confront a mugger. One neck bite later and there's a dead body and blood everywhere. You see, Alex is a vamp – a vampire...one of the living dead. And what all three don't know is there's another vampire named Slain, who is out to destroy the entire bloodsucking nation, one hemoglobin goblin at a time. His plan is perfectly simple. He will collect samples from the demons he destroys and contaminate the blood banks of the hospitals. Then all transfused patients will join the legions of the undead. The guys must find a way to stop this diabolic design.
Like a high budget Clerks crossed with a no-budget Blade, Tainted is a highly ambitious, ultimately uneven attempt at creating a vampire epic out of broken down cars and incredibly mediocre acting. Written by Sean Farley – who plays the cynical, motor-mouthed pop culture referencing nerd JT in the film – and hacked...sorry, helmed by director Brian Evans, this brilliantly imagined, but terribly executed tribute to the films of Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith is like sitting online with a bunch of film geeks waiting to see the next installment of the Star Wars saga. Farley fills the screen with interesting individuals, characters with clear-cut dimensions to their personality. You can occasionally hear him reaching for an obvious joke in the riff-heavy dialogue, but most of the witty repartee is natural and novel (anyone who praises Raising Arizona and the Coens as much as the guys in this film do is OK in this critic's book). But once the film moves into the vampire against vampirism plot, things take a financially strapped production path that grows more and more dissatisfying. By the end, when it's time for the ultimate showdown between the bloodsuckers, the hospital-set heroics are quite anti-climactic. But for the most part, Tainted is a cleverly crafted take on the entire 'underworld of vampires living among us ' ideal. Score: 3 Stars
Sucker, The Vampire (1998):
Anthony is the lead singer for the rock and roll band Plasma. His assistant Reed is a socially retarded, overly ambitious nurse who helps out his boss with his problems...the main one of which is groupie disposal. You see, Anthony is a vampire, and he kills his conquests after a night of carnal and claret bliss. Reed disposes of the bodies at the hospital where he works. When Vanessa Helsing stumbles upon Anthony's resting place, she has revenge on her mind. Vampires destroyed her entire family and now she wants the heavy metal monster to pay. But her plan for payback is cold and calculated, and when Anthony falls for it, he has more than wooden stakes and garlic to worry about. Hopefully, with Reed's help, and the guidance of Queen Vampire Lenore, they will find a "cure" for Anthony's very modern malady.
With AIDS a primary player in this story about a lonely vampire and the strangely savant-like sidekick who helps him, Sucker is a surprisingly effective, emotional movie. Part lampoon-like comedy, part meditation on the solitary existence of a night creature, writer/director Hans Rodionoff has created an inventive and involving spin on the entire vampire mythology. Keeping the items that feed his themes and metaphors (darkness, the psycho-sexual urge for blood) while tapping into some post-modernism ideals, Rodionoff manages to find the proper balance between pensive and the pratfall to deconstruct his Dracula. As Reed Buchholz, the mutton-chopped choad to Anthony's suave bloodsucker, actor Eric Erkiletian steals the film with his mannered, over the top facial tic-filled performance. Giving each of his line readings a ridiculous twist and topping off every scene with a strange gesture or some comic mugging, his necrophilia-loving nurse encompasses portions of Dwight Frye's original Renfield in combination with Stephen Stucker's Johnny from 1980's Airplane!. Along with equally effective turns by Yan Birch (as Anthony) and Monica Barber (as Vanessa Helsing) Sucker the Vampire overcomes its low budget production values to find the balance between horror and hilarity. Score: 4 Stars
Rockabilly Vampire (2001):
Iris Dougherty is obsessed with the 50s. She dresses in the fashion of her favorite decade, decorates her crappy apartment in the same retro style and even works in a thrift store featuring arcane items from over 40 years ago. But her most manic fascination is with Elvis (naturally). As a matter of fact, she believes the King of Rock and Roll is still alive, and has written a book proving it. Bored with her life and the stiffs she dates (like the Fab Four loving Beatle Boy) Iris wants a man like the Graceland guru to come along and sweep her off her feet. Enter Eddie Vincent, a mysterious loner with a decidedly throwback greaser look. Iris falls head over heels for the leather-coated lothario and it's not long before she learns his secret. He is actually FROM the 50s. He's a vampire, turned into a monster by his bad boy brother Wrecks long ago. Now Iris and Eddie must keep the determined sibling from destroying their happiness. Wrecks will not rest until Eddie is back in his "gang". And he will stop at nothing to get his way.
For the first hour of its running time, Rockabilly Vampire is an excellent variation on the tacky teen horror films of the 1950s/60s mixed with the rampant reinvention mindset of a post-millennial independent film. The reliance on Ike-era nostalgia (an instance of a narrative theme that is so uncool it's now become intellectually groovy) plus an ear for authentic juvenile delinquent dialogue makes something potentially pathetic into a novel, new twist on an old idea. From the Goth girl behind the counter in the thrift store to the intensely determined Beatle Boy (whose costume and attempted accent are hilarious) Rockabilly Vampire is loaded with interesting, three-dimensional characters. And it all seems to be going fine up until the 60-minute mark. Then the movie goes astray. It kills off a favored member of the cast for no specific reason, and like a chicken script with its head cut off, the narrative runs around in circles for an additional half hour just trying to regain its bearings. Instead of exploring a momentary voodoo angle further, or letting Wrecks and his gang have some more arterial rumble fun, we end up with a missed opportunity that stumbles, not soars, towards its far too conventional conclusion. Director Lee Bennett Sobel keeps his creatures in the dingy daylight of New York City and there is a real feel for the insular urban community the characters live in. Not every element works, but the overall effect of Rockabilly Vampire is one of something special, not standard. Score 2.5 Stars
If there is a single circumstance linking all three of these low-budget independent horror/comedy films together, it's the incredibly well written scripts each film contains. Now, it may not be possible initially to see the skill and craft that went into each narrative here. After all, direction and action can stifle even the most gifted scribe. But if one pays close attention to the words and what they are trying to say, it is easy to envision each of these films being heralded as some manner of intelligent reinvention of the genre. Of the three titles in contention, Sucker wins the race as being the most complete film. Its narrative flows naturally from plot point to character quirk and never lingers too long in any one tone (comic, sexual, suspenseful, etc.). It's hard to mix moods, but somehow the film manages to overcome the possible problems to deliver outright. Both Tainted and Rockabilly Vampire have third act anxiety, almost as if the creators lost faith in their project and started looking for a mainstream manner of dealing with the dilemma. Unlike Sucker, both movies rely on a final confrontation between good and bad (or since they are all vampires, bad and worse) elements to decide the fate of the storyline. Yet since there is not enough budget to incorporate classy special effects or amazing action sequences, we are left with homemade histrionics and some badly choreographed fight scenes.
To blame this all on the writers is really not fair. For example, Tainted has some of the worst work behind the camera of any low budget movie, not just of the threesome offered here. Brian Evans never met a medium shot or close-up he couldn't over-employ and he seems to think that silence is lethal to a film. Rockabilly Vampire's director, Lee Bennett Sobel suffers from the same desire to keep the screen active, hoping that constant motion – of either the characters or the camera – will keep the audience distracted. Nauseous is more like it. Both lensmen could take a cue from Sucker's Rodionoff. He realizes that mood, atmosphere and control are the keys to quality filmmaking. Running off half-cocked only results in a piss poor motion picture. Acting is also an aggravating factor in the success of these films. Again, Sucker wins the thespian award with its professional cast, each of whom creates compelling and complex characters (even when they border on the cartoonish). Rockabilly rolls in to take second place, as both Margaret Lancaster as Iris and Stephen Blackehart as Eddie's brother Wrecks are perfectly believable in their roles. But Ed, played with limited magnetism and even less grasp of jive jargon, by Paul Stevenson, is a lifeless dude. He tends to swallow his ersatz Elvis impersonation in a haze of far too modern mannerisms. As for Tainted, frankly, everyone is terrible here. Their line readings are reminiscent of first run-throughs, not well rehearsed takes. While occasionally rising above their retarded role-play, they are never completely believable.
Indeed, there will be many genre fans that will tear apart this trio for not offering enough of the three B's that make horror films so fun – breasts, beasts and blood, that is. Both Rockabilly Vampire and Tainted are fresh out of flesh, and measure out the raw meat in ounces, not pounds. Sucker gives us several sexy babes in boob baring brazenness, but it too keeps the vein volume at a trickle, not a truckload. The vampires here are never scary – funny, foolish, fey and flawed, but nary a one will give you the late night frights. Unlike other bloodsucker sagas - From Dusk 'Til Dawn or Blade come to mind- these films just don't focus on the Nosferatu as a super-human badass. Our vampires here are emotionally complex, alienated creatures that can't stand the animalistic bloodlust they've been marked with. They aren't out to destroy mankind (many don't even feed on humans if they don't have to) but simply live with the curse that plagues their daily – or is that nightly – existence. Unlike Anne Rice, who turned the entire world of bats and neck-biting into a homoerotic saga of softcore proportions, the creative minds behind the movie's offered here want to take the myth into a far more realistic realm. Like most of the people populating the planet, Tainted, Sucker and Rockabilly Vampire treat their fanged fiends as terribly tortured souls. While not really terrifying, unhappy immortals make for some inventive and engaging alternatives to the standard cross and wooden stake takes on vampirism. Troma's Tainted Vampires Collection is an incredible, if inconsistent, presentation of divergent Dracula dioramas.
Each film is offered in a 1.33:1 full screen transfer that, no matter what Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman says about being "lovingly remastered and digitally recreated", looks pretty damn crappy on this disc. Tainted is the worst, as it is filled with obvious grain, horrible contrasts (it's either too dark or too bright) and a near total lack of color (even the blood looks more brown than red). Rockabilly Vampire is better in the clarity count, but also has compression issues. There is some pixelating and slight video flaring (even though it is a filmed presentation – go figure). Oddly enough, as the newest film here (2001) it has the most aged look, as if the print used was passed down through a couple cinematic generations. Sucker stands out as the best image of the bunch, but it still has all the problems (age, grain, overly dark) the other films contain.
Over the course of the DVD, the sound goes from good, to acceptable, to completely crappy as each film unfolds. Tainted is best; it is easily understood with semi-professional sound throughout. All the dialogue is clear and the background music mixed well with very little drop out or distortion. Sucker sounds a little worse. Characters occasionally find their words disappearing behind sound effects and/or songs, and the conversations are often muddy and indistinct. Rockabilly Vampire is just terrible in the aural attributes. With the tinny, overmodulation resonance we've come to expect from mangled MPEG files on our PC's, dialogue is grating with far too many unsuspecting silences, music is conversation crushing and the flat lack of ambient atmosphere makes even the most critical moments as lifeless as some of the performances.
While Lloyd Kaufman and B-Movie scream queen Debbie Rochon may think a 6-minute discussion of Mr. Troma's prostate and taint spot is lowbrow comedy gold, there is nothing funny about the intro to these movies. Lloyd offers no insight or information about the titles present and Rochon can barely keep a straight face, chuckling through her crude lines. As for any other extra content, Troma takes a similar stance as Something Weird Video when it comes to a triple feature package. Three films should be enough "added content" for even the most distressed DVD aficionado, according to Toxie's parent company, so all we get are two trailers, one for Tales from the Crapper (funny) and Citizen Toxie (just OK). With four hours and forty minutes of movie time here, it's hard to complain. But it would have been nice to find out a little something about the creative people behind these titles.
OK, so vampires in general, suck. And movies about their late-night feeding frenzies suck too. From Bela Lugosi's immigrant with an itch for heady heart home brew to ABC's daytime soap opera slurper Barnabas Collins, relying on the factor of fear to dramatize your Dracula has never really worked. Oh sure, Christopher Lee sinistered the suet out of his portrayal of the Prince of Pain. And Gary Oldman's suave Slavic sucker saved some of the more routine ridiculousness of Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Hollywood's Dracula. Yet it's interesting to see how three divergent directors, working separately from each other, still all manage to key into a similar theme of loneliness and disconnect in their interpretations of the vampire's plight. For Tainted, Sucker and Rockabilly Vampire, the tone may be irreverent and the monster mythology caked with conditionals, but in the end, each film really wants to focus on the isolation of immortality. You could argue that the only good blood drinker is a deranged animalistic a-hole with seduction and thirst satisfaction on their morbid mind. But thanks to the Troma Triple Feature of the Tainted Vampires Collection, we can see what living death looks like from the other side of the coffin. While fright fans might feel flummoxed by the lack of gore and/or gratuitous gals, lovers of obscure, challenging cinema will be delighted. These engaging, energetic re-readings of the neck-noshing nocturnal nasties prove conclusively that while decidedly one-note in the horror hierarchy, vampires vault over and above all other creatures in sad psychological circumstances. And in today's high stress world, what could be scarier than that?
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