In the Undead Comedy Vamps, Amy Heckerling Loses the Pulse
At times winningly dopey but still easily forgotten, Amy Heckerling's undead-BFFs comedy Vamps sends up our pop cultural fascination with bloodsucking but is itself a bit stiff with rigor mortis. "Remember: We said we'd keep up with the times, even if they aren't as good as the '80s," Stacy (Krysten Ritter), her coffin lined with pinups of Michael J. Fox and Matt Dillon, admonishes Goody (Alicia Silverstone). In staying current, the vampiresses constantly—and to diminishing effect—point out the vapidity of Jersey Shore and iEverything.
The decade Stacy lauds was, of course, the era of Heckerling's first film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), among the greatest of all teen movies, as is Clueless (1995), her tart yet sunny SoCal girl-power update of Jane Austen's Emma. Heckerling's career has foundered since the mid '90s; Vamps is her first film to be released since 2000's Loser. (I Could Never Be Your Woman from 2007 went straight to DVD.) Reteaming with Silverstone, the alpha matchmaker of Clueless, for Vamps, Heckerling uses the actress as the mouthpiece for her complaints about how dumb everyone is today. The writer-director's nostalgia feeds the laziest type of cultural critique: never piercing, just grumpy.
For a while, though, the busy script and game cast override—or at least distract from—the old-fogy carping. Serving, as her character Cher did in Clueless, as first-person narrator, Silverstone's Goody announces that she was bitten by a "stem vampire" in 1841, cueing a jaunty montage of archival snippets and her fashion choices from the mid-19th century up through the present day. She and Stacy, attacked by the same vampiress sometime around the waning years of the Reagan administration, are intermittently summoned to the lair of that original biter, Cisserus (Sigourney Weaver), whose unquenchable thirst for human blood is at odds with her disciples' dietary choices: They don't harm people, preferring to stick straws into the rat corpses they find at their exterminating job.
Cisserus's insatiable appetite leads to a goofy final-act showdown at Grant's Tomb, the chintzy re-creation of which, like the majority of the movie's "New York," might be charitably thought of as an homage to Ed Wood set design—or simply the result of a penurious budget. (Most of the film was shot in Detroit.) In between, Heckerling shoehorns in plotlines involving characters name-checked from Bram Stoker's ur-text, updated for our numskull times: Clueless vet Wallace Shawn plays vampire hunter Van Helsing, now working for the Department of Homeland Security; Goody and Stacy meet Dracula inspiration Vlad the Impaler (Malcolm McDowell) at a meeting of Sanguines Anonymous. McDowell's Slavic accent is slightly less laughable than that of Justin Kirk, playing a lecherous Ukrainian vampire named Vadim; they are both master linguists compared with Kristen Johnston, whose Mrs. Van Helsing mangles posh Britspeak seemingly learned from Rosetta Stone software engineered by Madonna.
When Goody and Stacy aren't contrasting their more virtuous, non-homicidal vampirism to Cisserus's unslakable bloodlust—or, in another subplot, hypnotizing civil servants during a solar eclipse to destroy the summonses for jury duty that have been sent out to their daylight-avoidant kind—they're simply besties trying to negotiate Manhattan single life and its rituals. As in Sex and the City, this often leads to groaners: "I didn't put in rollers—I'm going to have coffin hair!" Smart-phone-savvy Stacy patiently explains to Goody the proper context for using "BRB," though the latter would rather continue her Andy Rooney–like gripes.
Despite their clash over the value of handheld devices, the undead roommates disagree on little else, remaining close and supportive throughout. (But not close in that way; this spoof steers clear of gesturing toward Vampyros Lesbos or The Hunger.) Silverstone and Ritter generate a serviceable buddy chemistry, one that's certainly preferable to the null dynamic between Ritter and Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens as Joey Van Helsing, who meets Stacy at a cinema-studies lecture on Un Chien Andalou and pursues her despite his father's hunches.
But the most pleasing coupling of all—and Vamps' single unmitigated pleasure—is the reunited Goody and Danny, her boyfriend from their radical '60s student days, now an ACLU lawyer, played by Richard Lewis. The supremely neurotic crank often seems confused by what, exactly, he's doing in this picture, a bewilderment that only adds to Danny's genuine sweetness and best exemplifies the genuinely warmhearted, if inconsequential, nature of Vamps. "Staying young is getting old," Goody grumbles to Stacy, though nothing ages the undead or the living as quickly as geezer-y complaints like this.
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