Monday, July 25, 2011

'Vampire Conspiracy' is a good merging
of two sub-genres

Vampire Conspiracy (2005)
Starring: Sarah Boes, Adrian Pryce, Ron Mazor, Christiane Garcia, John Lopes, John-Marc Fontaine, and Jaret Sacrey
Director: Marc Morgenstern
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

“Vampire Conspiracy” tells the story of six apparent strangers (Boes, Pryce, Mazor, Garcia, Lopes, and Sacrey) who wake up in a dingy room. They have no recollection of how they got there, and there is no apparent way out. Soon, a strangely clad man who introduces himself as Von Rhylos (Fontaine) appears and explains that they are trapped in a maze, that they have until dawn to escape, and that those who do will inherit the vast fortune of a world-weary vampire while those who do not will be consumed by his blood-sucking minions.

As they search for an exit—moving down identical hallways between rooms that can only be distinguished from one another due to ashes arranged on the floors to spell out seemingly random words—while occasionally fending off attacks from bestial vampires, it becomes clear not only have some of them been chosen for this “contest” because of their skills (like the cop with combat abilities, the criminal with the abilities to pick locks, or the occult expert), but that each of them harbors a secret that connects them to at least one other person in the group. As those secrets come to light, the group becomes less and les likely to want to work together, and they eventually hold as much danger for each other as the vampires stalking them do.

For the most part, “Vampire Conspiracy” plays like a cross between “The Cube” and “Saw”, with vampires taking the place of the captors and traps. That could have made this an okay movie right there, as it’s a fine amalgam of the good concepts of those two other very successful horror films. However, the movie takes on a dimension that will appeal to fans of more classic horror films—the vampire movies from the 1930s through the 1960s—when master-vampire Thelonius Von Rhylos makes his appearance.

John-Marc Fontaine’s portrayal of Van Rhylos has an air about it that is at the same time noble and bestial, like Bela Lugosi in “Dracula”, Christopher Lee in “Horror of Dracula”, and David Peel in “Brides of Dracula”. This classical touch adds a sense of class that is all-too-rarely found in horror movies anymore.

But Von Rhylos isn’t just a bit of retro that’s in the film for traditionalists like me. Although he brings a bit of the classics to the film, he is a character with better-developed motivations than the vampires from the movies he brings to mind.

Von Rhylos has been around for 250 years, and he feels that humanity gets more and more corrupt with each generation that passes him by. He has therefore taken to creating elaborate webs of temptations designed to draw out the cowardice, greed, lust, and bigotry of seemingly decent people… webs that culminate with their confinement to his maze.

In the case of the six people in his current “contest”, as we come to learn their personal secrets and the event that connects them all (and how that event came to be), it seems the vampire may have a point… although this latest game of his doesn’t quite turn out the way he had intended because it is also being rigged by one of the “contestants.”

The motivations of the vampire, the secrets and hidden connections of the people he’s captured add up to a surprisingly effective third act and an ending that reminded me to never make up my mind about a movie until the end credits start to roll.

Although the various components that make up “Vampire Conspiracy” are not particularly unique by themselves--“catch ‘em and toss ‘em in a maze” seems to be the main starting point of every third indie and studio horror film, vampire movie have been around almost as long as there have been movies, and the featured characters are mostly stock figures that are expected to be in movies of both the vampire genre and the “capture” genre--writer/director Marc Morgenstern uses them in unexpected ways that ultimately adds up to a movie that keeps you wondering about how it will all end, right up until the final moment. (At about the halfway mark, I had decided this was an okay film, but nothing to get terribly excited about, but then Morgenstern stirred things up, and he kept crossing my expectations and assumptions about where the movie was going and left me with a feeling of “wow!” at the end that I rarely experience over movies anymore.)

I also tip my hat at Morgenstern for being a filmmaker who understands how to work within the limitations of his budget. The way he works his limited sets were great, and he doesn’t attempt any special effects or stunts that are beyond his means. He also knows that every second of screen-time has to count for something, or the movie’s impact is squandered.

Too many low-budget filmmakers have visions that are grander than their budgets and available talent pools, but lack the sense to scale their vision to match the budget and talent at their disposal, and even more have some sort of pathological need to pad their movies with nature shots and pointless scenes with characters wandering about doing nothing. Not so with Morgenstern. This is a sparse movie where everything is on the screen for reasons important to the film rather than its running time... and because things are so tight, the tension keeps building through the movie, and the various attacks the characters suffer at the hands of the bestial vampires in the maze with them seem increasingly frightening.

However, despite my loving it, “Vampire Conspiracy” is not a perfect movie.

Although blessed with a cast that are all better actors than many low-budget horror films, those actors bring a very theatre-like air to their performances. While it’s not the weekend community theatre they remind me of--they are all far better than that--I found myself repeatedly thinking of this as taped stage play than a movie. Part of this help underscore the classic feel that the Von Rhylos character brought to the film, but for the most part it was mildly distracting.

The fights between Sarah Boes and Adrian Pryce also had a clear stage-performance sense about them. I don’t know if the problem was not enough rehearsing, or if the problem was the wrong kind of choreography, but they felt more like they belonged on the stage at the Seattle Rep Theatre rather than on my TV screen. I also think the foley work on the fights was a bit too subtle. It’s a fine line between too much and too little when it comes to sound effects, but I feel like Morgenstern was just on the too little side of the line.

Another weak spot is the dialogue, and it’s the only weak spot in an otherwise well-written script.

With a movie that is driven first and foremost by the characters, like “The Vampire Conspiracy”, it’s important that those characters each have a different personality, particularly if they are stock figures like the ones we have here. One very good way to make each character different is to craft their language-usage. Here, though, each character basically sounds the same, particularly during the first few minutes where every character is yelling and swearing and uttering “fuck” with every third word. In fact, that seems to be the only curse word that any of these characters know. A little more time should have spent on polishing the script and giving each character its own unique voice.

In the end, though, these weaknesses don't drag the movie down too much... it still teeters on the higher end of average when everything else that's out there is taken into account.

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