Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Vampire Diaries Part 1: Thicker Than Water (2008)

Twin sisters Lara (Eilis Cahill) and Helen (Devon Bailey) Baxter couldn’t be more different. Lara is a black-haired goth who has a shrine to Anne Rice in her candle-lit room and enjoys solitary walks in the cemetery while blonde Helen is in the church choir and is one of the most popular girls at school. They live with their religious mother (Jo Jo Hristova) and older brother Raymond (Michael Strelow), who is studying to be a doctor. One day, Helen suddenly dies after losing a lot of blood due to a nosebleed. After examining her blood, Raymond concludes that she was suffering from a rare blood disorder, one that isn’t listed in any medical book. Later that night, a bloodied Helen comes back, saying she drank the blood of the morticians…yup, sis is now a vampire. The family decides to protect her, which also means they must feed her, no matter what the cost…

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this low-budget vampire tale, but I wasn’t expecting to be so impressed! It seems that vampire movies have been making a comeback lately, and not just the tween fluff like Twilight. This new breed of vampire flicks, like Let the Right One In, take preconceived notions of vampirism and play with their conventions. The Vampire Diaries Part 1: Thicker Than Water is one of those vampire movies and one of the best low-budget ones I’ve seen in quite some time! I’m definitely looking forward to future volumes.

First of all, it starts like a quirky family drama, introducing us to the very different characters. While Lara acts as a kind of narrator and main character for the film, equal screen time is given to all of the characters within the Baxter family. Both Lara and Helen are well-developed, but surprisingly time is also taken to develop the characters of the mother and brother. All of the characters’ personalities and interactions with each other really bring the film to life and make you care about what happens to them. What horror-lover wouldn’t adore the character of Lara, with her Anne Rice shrine, cool, candle-lit room and obsession with death? Or the quirky character of Ray, whose room looks like a sterile, white-washed doctor’s office? In fact, the first 30 minutes or so when we are learning about all the characters and exploring their environment really feels like more of a Wes Anderson movie (along the lines of The Royal Tenenbaums) than anything else. I even enjoyed the campy New Orleans vampire that comes a’knocking later in the film, looking as if he was directly lifted from an Anne Rice novel! Though he felt a bit out of place, I’m betting future films in the series explain his character and introduce other vampire characters as well. All of these characters show that writer/director Phil Messerer really knows how to develop and connect his characters with the audience without sacrificing the pacing of the film.

Speaking of pacing, the film glides along at a near-perfect speed, something that is quite rare for an indie flick. We relate to the characters because of the development invested in them and after that connection you just can’t take your eyes off the screen. The writing, by Messerer, feels natural and has more heart and soul than most horror films. He really takes the time to not just make it another ho-hum horror film, but to invest some real emotion into the plot. So, along with the horror aspect of it, there are also moments of drama and comedy. I also enjoyed how Messerer beefed up the mythology of the film by interweaving the story of the first vampire, Oya, into the plot. This new mythology (and the beautiful accompanying paintings, by artist Rostislav Spitkovsky) really adds more depth to the film and takes a new approach as to where vampires come from and how they are created.

Besides the excellent writing, the acting is also stellar! Devon Bailey as Helen goes from a sweet sugar-and-spice 16-year-old to an uncontrollable and ferocious vampire – and we believe every second! She makes us feel both sympathetic and disgusted by her character, who covers the walls of the basement with the blood of her victims. Her character also requires a lot physically from Bailey, but nonetheless she delivers a stunning, provocative performance. Eilis Cahill as Lara is also excellent. Her character pretends to be sarcastic and cynical, but underneath it all she still loves her sister and would do anything for her. Cahill does an amazing job of letting her vulnerability peek out from beneath her hard exterior and is really a joy to watch in her role. Michael Strelow brings Raymond to life and really makes it scary watching his transformation from quiet and mild-mannered to an accomplice who brings men home for his sister to kill and later hacks up the bodies to get rid of them. Finally, Jo Jo Hristova as the mother really brings all of the characters together and makes it feel like a real family. Plus, her conflict over her religion and her love for her daughter really makes for some great drama.

Thicker Than Water also features some impressive special FX. The basement lair of Helen is coated in bright, sticky blood that drips from the walls. Helen’s special FX makeup is also impressive – she cries blood tears and is a pale, almost luminescent white after turning into a vampire. When she doesn’t feed her skin takes on a mottled, bruised and rotted appearance. The special FX were done by Randall Leddy and they are amazing, especially considering the low budget. Throats get torn out, a guy’s face gets cut off and there is blood constantly coating the walls of the Baxter home and pouring out of people’s necks! Kudos to Leddy and anyone else involved with the makeup and special FX because they look very realistic and professional.

As if I haven’t rambled on enough about praise for this film, the direction by Phil Messerer is also very professionally done. There are some great shots in the film, including one where a strange visitor to the Baxter home is shown silhouetted against some nighttime fog and another where Lara is traipsing through the snow-covered cemetery. Beautiful shots like this as well as the solid direction just add more allure to the film. It’s hard to believe that the film is Messerer’s first!

Truly my only real complaint with the film was the overuse of the background piano music. I feel that some scenes would have benefited more had they been shown in silence. It seemed that the piano music was playing constantly in the background and after a while this started to overpower everything (even though it was beautifully played). On the upside, the other music, ranging from rock music to slow ballads, used on the soundtrack was impressive and used more judiciously.

The Vampire Diaries Part 1: Thicker Than Water is a very impressive first volume in what I hope turns into a trilogy of vampire films. The well-rounded storyline, drawing elements from horror, family drama and comedy, the quirky characters and the awesome special FX really make this film something very special. Phil Messerer has created a unique vampire film, one that avoids the usual genre conventions of just using “boobs and blood,” and it has turned out to be one of the most memorable independent films I’ve ever seen. I can’t wait for the next volume!

Buy it on Amazon!

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