Viewed today as something of an also-ran to the spate of "I was a teenage monster" comedies of the mid-1980s, "My Best Friend Is a Vampire" has two very good things going for it: charming, buoyant performances from most of its cast, and a clever screenplay that steers its story into fascinating monster-as-gay metaphor territory.
Or maybe I'm reading too much into it. But what if I am? "Vampire" works nicely as a sort of gay rights commentary when it was quite unfashionable to discuss such things. Sure, the script tosses us a handful of limp is-he-gay? jokes in an effort to diffuse the matter for 1988 audiences (including an obligatory sigh of relief once the parents realize their son is all hetero), but look at the rest of it: winky jokes about vampirism as "an alternative lifestyle," a climax that preaches tolerance and the need to understand those who are different, and Rene Auberjonois, who lends his "vampire mentor" character a century's worth of swish.
It's his smart performance that's clued in the most on the movie's subtext. And so Auberjonois camps it up with great flourish, so much so that we snicker a little every time the script tries to play up his character as a ladies' man. Meanwhile, the dialogue (by Tab Murphy, who earned an Oscar nod the same year for co-writing "Gorillas in the Mist") devilishly toys with jokes about persecuted minorities; a line about turning an enemy into an ally can be interpreted as a suggestion that most gay bashers are really just frustrated fools stuck in the closet.
Maybe the most daring move is in having the hero's parents (played by Fannie Flagg and Kenneth Kimmins) realize they're OK with the possibility of a gay son. The whole thing might just be a cheap running gag built on "Three's Company"-esque misunderstandings, and the payoff might be an 80s-friendly copout, but there's some bravery in refusing to take the joke to a level of fear. How refreshing to see characters in a movie from this decade decide they'll let love conquer their fears.
On the other hand, maybe it's just a comedy about a teenage vampire, with all the corny jokes and light plotting and terrible music that come with.
Robert Sean Leonard, a year ahead of his breakthrough turn in "Dead Poets Society," stars as Jeremy Capello, a mild-mannered teenager who winds up in the arms of the alluring vixen (Cecilia Peck) who just moved in to the creepy old mansion up the road. Turns out she's a bit friskier than anticipated, and a nasty bite on the neck turns Jeremy into a high school vampire.
There's not much else to the story, really. Jeremy spends time adjusting to the new lifestyle, with the help of vamp tutor Modoc (Auberjonois); he's left dodging the obsessed (and aptly-named) bigoted hunter Professor McCarthy (David Warner); he tries his best to not let vampirism affect his love life with potential girlfriend Darla (Cheryl Pollack).
The screenplay barely makes an effort in tying these elements together. One thread will be abruptly abandoned so Jeremy and his best pal Ralph (Evan Mirand) - presumably the first person of the title, even though Jeremy narrates the picture - can engage in a city-wide car chase with McCarthy and his bumbling sidekick (Paul Wilson). The whole thing meanders at a surprisingly slow pace, as if it has no particular place to go and no particular time it wants to get there.
But what charm that meandering allows. "Vampire" is a film that thrives in its laid back character work. The action may be dull and the jokes obvious, yet it's a delight to just watch Jeremy and Modoc hang out. Leonard does nice work here as the awkward teen trying to manage his changes (maybe the film is a metaphor for puberty, too? oh, how I enjoy overthinking all of this), Mirand makes the most of his clichéd "rude best friend" role, Warner hams it up to the hilt, and, as mentioned, Auberjonois steals the whole show. (And look for Kathy Bates in a small early role as Darla's overexcited mom!)
"Vampire" doesn't always work as a solid story, but on its own terms, it's agreeable, relaxing, cute. It's a teen comedy that would rather calm down than get loud, even during its frantic action sequences. Twenty years later, its friendly nature and intriguing subtexts keep it from being just another slice of nostalgic filler.
Lionsgate has released "My Best Friend Is a Vampire" under their "Lost Collection" label. The series' slogan - "The Best Movies You Totally Forgot About" - leaves much up for debate from several angles, and the package art is a tad annoying, as is the generic intentionally-tacky menu, but at least fans will appreciate finally getting a long overdue DVD release.
Video & Audio
The big problem, of course, is that like many other "Lost Collection" titles, "Vampire" is presented in a 1.33:1 full screen format and not in its original widescreen. However, this appears to be an open matte transfer, which zooms nicely on my set; no image information appears to have been lost. This might be the only version available: Netflix's "watch instantly" program offers this title, and it's the same full screen print.
That said, it's a nice transfer, crisp and solid with sharp colors and nice, deep blacks.
The soundtrack is listed as Dolby 5.1, but I'm pretty sure that's a misprint, as it all sounds so very, very stereo. Everything's kept squarely up front; all those terrible songs come across nicely. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are included.
The biggest drawback to the "Lost Collection" isn't the full frame presentations. It's the useless "trivia track" subtitles. Once again, this track offers behind-the-scenes trivia that's often mangled into dopy multiple choice or true-false questions. (Why bother with false trivia?) The subtitles remain on screen for a ridiculous amount of time, with expansive gaps in between. (And typos, too: One bit retitles the Blondie song as "One Way of Another." Sheesh.) For a feature-length collection of facts, you come away learning very, very little.
Previews for other Lionsgate releases are also included; they also play as the disc loads. (How did a red-band trailer land on a disc for a PG-rated movie?)
"Vampire" is better than you probably remember, and it's definitely worth revisiting. But the nearly-barebones disc isn't worth a purchase to anyone other than the most diehard of fans. Rent It.