Saturday, October 22, 2011

DVD Reviews: Renfield: The Un-dead and My Stepdad’s a Freakin’ Vampire!

Text © Richard Gary / FFanzeen, 2011
Images from the Internet
I put these two reviews together because, well, they’re both independent films about vampires! Duh!

Renfield: The Un-dead
Directed by  Bob Willems       
Distributed R-Squared Films, 2010
120 minutes, USD $19.95

There have been two really great Renfields in cinema history that led up to this film: Dwight Frye in the original Tod Browning’s Dracula (1930; starring Lugosi), and musician Tom Waits in Francis Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). In both (and the original novel), he was, indeed, quite mad. Over the years, it seems, the cinematic character has been interchanged with Jonathan Harker, who originally went overseas to see the infamous count in Transylvania about a land sale in England.

This new telling and updating takes place in the mythical American city of Bayou City (though many shots are of the Ginni and Richard Mithoff Trauma Center, which is in Houston), as we find the police looking for a supposed serial killer by the name of “the Butcher,” who apparently likes to remove heads. Of course, I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I say that it’s our pal Renfield, who is chopping the heads off the victims of fellow vampires Mina Harker (Roxy Cook Hixon), and her long hair and mustachioed hipster son Quincy (Tyler Tackett, who also was the film’s creature effects assistant), to keep the prey from becoming vamps themselves. To give you an idea of the Quincy character, when a soon-to-be target asks him how he moved so fast, his response is the humorous, “I’m a vampire, dumbass!”

The titular character here is played with constant energy by the short-but-muscular Phil Nichols, who also wrote the story, the screenplay (with adaptions from the original novel, the ’29 film, and F.W. Murnau's (1922), though there is a shadow nod to Coppola’s, as well), co-produced, and co-designed the special effects and make-up (he is apparently a maven in this field, and was trained by the Dick Smith). He plays Renfield as a loon, with a constant laugh that sounds a bit like Cesar Romero’s Joker from the television Batman (1966), looking like a biker with his bald head and goatee beard. His veneer shifts often from just a bit of a pancake look, to complete white face, to having full vampire-on (again, with nods to Murnau and Coppola). The make-up design for him and Dracula (also well played by John Stevens, with a Malcovitch vibe; this is his only listing in IMDB!) are fun, with big pointy front teeth (again, Murnau). For Mina and Quincy, though, the only make-up seems to be huge, oversized teeth that don’t work as well. Most of the other appliance effects, especially, are fun, though occasionally overdone (i.e., the bug headed ex-cop, the final battle between Renfield and Drac). The visual special effects are WTF, though, and I say this amusedly. Obviously occasionally filmed in front of a blue screen, there is heavy use of computer graphics (rather than CGI), like a cartoon or video game from 10 years ago. Once in a while, it may blank out behind someone, and you can definitely see the wires in one shot as a vampire hovers. While this cartoony effect may be seen as a detriment, I actually enjoyed that part of it! Like the rest of the film, it was a hoot (or as Renfield may say, “hoo-haa-hee-haa-hoo”).Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens

Getting back to the story, Renfield is in possession of Dracula’s skull, which Mina and Quincy want to find to resurrect the villain through a blood ritual. Along with a well-done origin story for Renfield, we get to see some fierce battles between the forces of, well, evil and more evil. Drawn into this action are forensic doctor Bonnie Johnson (Keli Wolfe), and her ex-husband, Cranston (British actor Paul Damon), who is the head detective on the “Butcher” case. Wolfe delivers one of my fave lines in the piece: as Renfield is about to walk out of the autopsy room, after creating havoc, he says to Bonnie, “I’ll see you soon,” to which she whines, “Oh, God, I hope not!” (See the trailer, below.)

As a life-long fan of the horror genre, I noted many tips of the hat to previous Dracula incarnations, especially Browning and Murnau, both of whom are thanked during the end credits. Here are some examples:
  • The sea captain (I am assuming of the Hesperus) who is killed during the crossing that brings Mina and Quincy to the States is named Max Schreck, after the actor who played the Nosferatu character in Murnau
  • Of course, at some point, Renfield rises up straight as a plank, as Drac did in Murnau, and then was repeated in a similar honor in Coppola’s retelling.
  • When Bonnie is taken to Renfield’s lair, which is a cemetery tomb, he repeats the famous Lugosi line, “I bid you welcome. Enter at your own free will.”
  • In a flashback scene, Dracula comments to Renfield about howling wolves being “the children of the night,” and of their music.
  • In one of my favorite and possibly most subtle homages, when we first meet Dracula in the flashback, he enters the room exactly like Schreck did in Murnau.
  • There is also the shadow of Nosferatu clutching Mina’s heart, as well as his grabbing her breast as he sucks her blood (yes, the 1922 version has that).
There are a few other clichés here and there, like Renfield telling Bonnie, “Come with me if you want to live!” though its delivery is projected so that the viewer is not to take it as anything but recognition.

At a cost of an estimated $170 grand, I’m sure most of it went to effects and perhaps a bit to pay for some of the large ensemble. This is cheesy entertainment, but it is so obviously not expected to be anything but. One aspect I like about independent films, especially in the horror genre, is that it is so obvious that they are out to have some fun, as well as having a final project. Well, Willems and Nichols succeeded here. Despite the blood, gore, and gratuitous female nudity, this is certainly above, say, the Troma level, but not rocket science either. Just a fun blast. In fact, this film was the Remi winner at the 2001 World-Fest Houston International Film Festival, and an official section at the 2010 Bram Stoker International Film Festival.

The extras as a bit skimpy, being the films trailer and a few from R-Squared. But, there is a title card at the end of the film proper indicating that there will be a sequel (which would probably explain the flashed scene of Mina Harker full-on kissing Lucy Westerna). Something to definitely look forward to in the future.

See trailer below

My Stepdad’s a Freakin’ Vampire
Produced and directed by David Matheny           
Level 33 Entertainment, 2009 / 2011
85 minutes, USD $16.95

I don’t believe it would be any stretch of the imagination to state that this has a really bad film title, right up there with So I Married An Ax Murder and Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies.

Part of the reason for it being so is that it sounds more like a 'tween Afternoon Television Special than the slacker high school black comedy that it is (such as The Faculty). Borrowing heavily from the likes of Fright Night, My Stepmother is an Alien (hey, another great disaster of a film name), and the “Head of the Class” episode of long-gone television anthology series Amazing Stories, the premise is that small-town anti-hero and rebel high school student Rusty resents his new step-dad, Richard, for recently marrying his mom. While she’s away on a business trip, a surfer-type mailman friend of Rusty’s disappears and then reappears later fanged and in thrall to Richard (after the title, I don’t think I’m giving away much on who is the vampire here), and yet retaining his duuude-ness (aka, the comic relief, well played by Casey Myers). Rusty and friends set out to stop Richard from finding a key that will open the door to an army of hungry (and drippy/slimy) vampires. And, of course, it’s Halloween.

Rusty (played by the diminutive Lachen Anajjar, who looks like a cross between a much-younger David Schwimmer and Jason Schwartzman), does well as the go-to-guy who the school’s administration hates (except for one of the school counselors, who happens to be duuude’s bro, bro). He’s kind of too cool (you can tell because he often wears his hoodie up) for his own good or even credibility to the story, but that’s just one of many “suspensions of disbelief” that run through this film. I’ll get to a couple of them here and there, but will try not to give away too much. Being more of a buddy film than anything else, we meet Rusty’s best pal (Brandon Martin), and a kind-of doofusy guy (M.A. Alford) who wants to hang out with the cool kids, and the girl the latter likes (Anita Cordell). Oh, other than the mom (Kate Forristall), she’s just about the only female in the film with any screen time, and she’s in it for like five minutes at the beginning and end. Naw, it’s just the three school buds, the “mentor” janitor, the duuude and his bro (called “Mr. B” by the “cool” guys), and of course the titular vamp.

For an indie film, there are actually some high quality effects throughout, including some CGI zombies, exploding heads, and impalings. Lots of appliance and make-up effects as well, especially with the risen vampires, and oh, those fangs. Most of the teeth look pretty good (especially the duuude’s), but Richard’s are way too big for his face to the point (pun intended) that the Robert Kennedy-look-alike Larry Peterson – who is also the best actor of the bunch – can’t even close his mouth. It’s kind of obvious they had to overdub his voice during these scenes because there is no way he could have said his lines with that monstrosity in his maw. But since he’s the big cheese, the head honcho, the grand high exalted mystic leader, his teeth obviously had to be the biggest.

Director David Matheny seems to be confused a bit when it comes to whether or not this is a horror (albeit comedic) flick or one geared towards 14 year olds. The risen vampires apparently are way too easily dealt with (despite the occasional flight, they move more like the vampire examples of the Romero zombies, or Chaney Jr.’s mummy), and the only ones who really seem hard to get rid of are Richard and the duuude. And while there is the spurt of blood here and there, present is also a Nickelodeon green goo level that is overused. Also, not only are the kids the heroes (okay, they look more like college age), but there is no cursing or even the hint of sex anywhere to be seen.

Extras include the film’s trailer (and others by the film company), a gag reel that is “meh,” and a full-length commentary by the composer of the music for the film, which is totally skipable (other than the first five minutes when even he mocks the title: “With that name, It’s either going to be really good, or really bad, but either way I wanted to be involved”.

And yet…

For what this movie is (and titled), it was definitely a fun ride; it has even won some awards, such as Best Feature at the Black Swamp International Film Festival, the Killington Film Festival, and the Little Apple Film Festival. I whole-heartedly suggest that if you do see it, watch it as a group. This is just the kind of film that it’s fun to talk to the screen, so have some fun with the buds. Or the duuudes.

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