Welcome back to another Friday Nightmares Review, wherein I tell you what you could be watching instead of taking the long, hollow view into the void of eternity, gazing achingly into the blackness in search of solitude but finding something new and horrible and woe betide those who see the truth in its abyss…. We’re tackling the brooding vampire this week.
Since their first appearance in the land of fiction back in the age of dirt and stone tablets, vampires have been a staple of our imaginary landscapes, making us swoon in lust and terror for as long as there have been scary stories to tell. This is something important to keep in mind next time you’re stuck at a dinner party or a social gathering where you are discussing life’s finer things and someone smugly announces that vampires have become so cliche and we all need to move on. The two things that you need to realize about this sentence is that I don’t attend any kind of dinner parties (as clearly, I have no idea what other non-dorky people actually talk about at them) and anyone who says such things has little to no grasp on history. I’m not here to give you an impromptu history lesson on vampire literature, but that said, it’s probably a good idea to have at least a little bit of background as a guide while we dive into this week’s movie.
A lot of people think that the vampire as Mr. Romance came along thanks to Stephanie Meyer’s teen romance with the undead, but vampires as romantic figures pre-dates that by quite a lot. Long before Edward sparkled his way onto the scene, one of the first high profile pretty vamps first fopped his way into literature during a ghost story contest in 1816. For those who aren’t familiar, Lord Byron was kind of like a 19th Century Kanye West. People praised the hell out of his talent, which he had a considerable amount, but he was also known for his almost sublime ability to piss of a great deal of people. Considering that he accomplished this without access to social media or award shows to embarrass young blonde singers with, that was kind of a feat. Among those people upon whose shit list he landed was his former doctor and travelling companion, John Polidori. Turns out his former friend had a few strong opinions about Byron that the world was about to find out about in a big way.
Polidori was with Byron as well as Percy and Mary Shelley when the group got snowed into their home (in June) and decided to pass the time trying to scare the shit out of each other with ghost stories. Byron initially came up with his fragment of a vampire story to tell that night but it was Polidori who would take it and give us the model for the romantic vampire figure to come. Published in 1819, The Vampyre was first attributed to Byron, which garnered it a lot of attention and praise, thereby making it a huge success. Makes it a bit of a funny story seeing as Polidori made the villain, Count Ruthven, a mocking portrait of Byron. I could go on about history of this stuff forever, but we’re here to talk vampires so let’s talk Ruthven. A lot of our modern ideas of the beautiful killer lurking in our midst comes from him. While he’s still your classic monster, preying on the living and being all evil for fun, this vampire wasn’t a desiccated corpse that returned to eat his family and mindlessly hunting blood. Lord Ruthven was well versed in how to move in social circles, easily able to charm humanity with his wit, his looks and his grace. By these powers combined, we got ourselves our first sexy vampire.
From here, we move from sexy evil monster to sexy monster who hungers for blood and companionship. That’s right, vampires went from sinister pretty things to brooding, sinister pretty things. This came about thanks to Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla. Still a monster in her appetite, she is one of the first vampires that we get to see who hunts people and yet she seems to like and even love her prey. Similar sentiments can be drawn from here to vampires like Varney in his own penny dreadful series, to the film Dracula’s Daughter, to Dark Shadows‘ Barnabas Collins, to the ever-shifting face of Dracula throughout the 70s turning toward a more sensitive monster, to the queen of the damned herself, Anne Rice, releasing the Chronicles of brooding vampires, to the 90s when brooding became a favorite pass time for basically all the creatures of the night. To be fair, there were still monstrous vampires present throughout all these years but by the end of the ’80s, the stage was set for a softer, more introspective look at these bloodsucking creatures. Then there was that tiny film that was supposed to be a “more accurate” take on Bram Stoker’s infamous Count released in 1992 that laid down an atomic bomb of influence on the vampire genre for the next decade and then some. The release of the lush, cinematic, completely inaccurate Bram Stoker’s Dracula was instrumental in turning the vampire from the corpse that it used to be into the tragic romantic figure it would become. Only Anne Rice before this can claim to have had that much influence over the way the monsters are portrayed and it can be argued that she was the one that built this stage for them to jump off of. And from here, jump they did!
Wow that was a lot of pre-amble to get to where we are going! The reason that all that was important was not just so I can justify all the vampire books on my shelf (don’t ask, there are many), but also so you have an idea about why this week’s film even exists. Like I said before, vampire stories are always going to be around and when some new twist on them pops up, the inspiration and clones catch like wildfire. In the early 90s, we had already seen the start of this trend before Dracula hit in 1992 but that affinity for brooding, gothic settings and drool-worthy costumes got a good shove from that film. That shove only got more intense when Interview with the Vampire came out a couple of years later. Buried between these giants are a lot of knock offs that checked off the lush settings and the brooding from the list, but usually skimped on the all too necessary plots and back stories. There is much that could be said about many of them, most of it negative, but one that really tried its hardest to keep up with the pack is this week’s movie, Vampire Journals. For that, I think it deserves more love than the lack of reviews and the 46% Rotten Tomatoes score it got. Let’s get our brood on, shall we?
Right from the beginning, let’s talk about that title. If you’re noticing that it might be harkening to a particular very well known vampire series that you can’t quite put your finger on but you could have sworn was Chronicled somewhere, you might want to keep that in mind as we continue on. I will say, however, that the journal aspect of the title isn’t simply an attempt to cash in on something popular, as it does actually have a nod towards something of a journalistic element in how the story is told. We are gifted with a continuing monologue voice over from our main character Zachery, as he wanders through somewhere in Eastern Europe to dispatch other vampires while giving us long mournful passages of exposition. He does tend to lay the woeful tone on rather thick and it’s over written as fuck, but it is also written as though he’s reciting a diary entry so we’ll let that one pass. After angsting a bit over things like not being able to catch a sunrise and the loss of his lover and his humanity, Zachery explains that he’s all for killing most vampires but for the moment, he’s in Eastern Europe (somewhere) looking to cut off the head of the Master Vampire, Ash: The Music Lover.
Art appreciation isn’t exactly new in the romantic vampire trope but in this film, it turns out that vampires are art snobs to the highest degree, wherein beautiful works turn them into the Phantom of the Opera on a fairly highly potent catnip. The opening scene shows a girl who might be a dancer of some kind showing off her penchant for twirling alone in the dark when along comes a vampire to rip open her dress and bloody up some boobies before Zachery takes a sword to him. It’s a typical excuse to feature getting an actress naked for a kill scene, but the fact that the initial vampire is so taken with her as she dances around sets up a kind of basis for this world’s reality. Art will get you unwanted attention and if you’re really good at it, a vampire will try to eat you. This is indeed the case with Ash, a super powerful Master vampire with more money and fledglings at his disposal than he knows what to do with, when he is all aflutter about an American pianist named Sophia.
As the story actually kicks in, Ash initiates probably one of the most cringeworthy attempts at seduction ever seen before setting off to eat his new obsession. Meanwhile, Zachery stalks along behind him all inconspicuous like with a motherfucking sword in his hand and repeatedly manages to miss him in an awkward chase attempt of our lead crybaby – I mean actress. Sorry. Anyway, Zachery manages to chase off our powerful vampire and we get some more exposition before the next day arrives. As she’s preparing for her second day in a new country, our sobbing female lead gets a street side proposal to play at Ash’s personal nightclub for ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS. Because she’s a paragon of extremely well thought out and discerning choices, our weeping pianist blindly accepts the invitation and discovers that maybe the guy who scared the shit out of her the night before really was a bad guy after all.
Because I’ve brought it up a couple of times now, why don’t we interrupt this synopsis to talk a bit about our character(s) and the accompanying cardboard cut outs that populate the story around them. Zachery is about the only character that we get any real back story on and to be fair, it’s not entirely out of place in this genre. As a man, he was a poet in love with a girl, and life in general, yet still allows himself to be seduced by a vampire who engages him in a weird threesome. Somewhere his girlfriend also becomes a vampire and we don’t know why or how. Our hero vows to destroy every creature of the night who robbed him of the ability to get a sun tan, including his own girlfriend, the vampire woman he cheated on her with and especially Ash. Yes, he killed his own beloved girlfriend for a condition that he also had. Didn’t really go into the why on that one but the reality is that you can’t have a lost love if she ain’t dead so perhaps if we look at it another way, Zachery is trying to live his best undead trope-filled life and is willing to murder whoever he needs to in order to make that happen.
Okay, so it’s not the best back story and our hero is technically to blame for his own condition, but he’s still someone that we get why he’s doing what he does. Then there’s Ash, who is just a villain for the fun of it, more like our sexy Lord Ruthven from days gone by (minus most of the sex appeal). That said, the actor who plays this role, Jonathon Morris, is so over the top, you can’t really hold it against him. He’s exactly the kind of person you want to see in that role and exactly as you want to see your ridiculously overwrought vampire villain. True, at times he seems like he’s been reduced down to vampire babysitter as he tries get his brood to act like the aristocrats that he wishes they were, but he’s just so delightfully snotty about it. And when you see him get evil, it’s deliciously satisfying, so I am okay with the fact that he’s got a little bit of cardboard going on with his character. What ever cut out they provided him with, he fills it with every bit of effort he’s got and I can respect that. Then there’s our wailing woman, Sophia, who exists mostly to get bitten. Or really any of the women save for one in this film.
Most of the women in this film are basically there for the sole purpose of having at least one of her tits hanging out, but there are about three exceptions to this and only one of them is really interesting. Of course we know about Sophia who is supposed to be a pianist but, as you can guess from my preferred nicknames for her, basically exists to cry and get bitten a lot. She also makes horrible decisions and has some of the most insipid logic I’ve ever seen. (Pro tip: Ladies, there’s no such thing as overreacting to a man who licks your finger after you start bleeding from it and then tries to follow you home. Being told that he’s a patron of the arts doesn’t mean he didn’t lick the blood off your finger the night before. No matter where you are in the world, this is creepy and an inappropriate gesture to register his interest in your musical talents.) She does have a few nods towards trying to do something to defend herself but that’s usually just the prelude to her sobbing again before getting bitten. Then there’s Cassandra who plays Ash’s former sex kitten who vies for his attention. The actress who plays this role does a good enough job at making her immoral and kind of evil but really, she’s got nothing to work with on any level. Then there’s the one that’s almost got a character of some kind. Iris is the human operative that runs the nightclub that Ash owns and keeps him abreast of what’s going on. She’s supposed to be evil but really, she comes off like someone who’s just had enough of working for The Man. She even has the lady balls to tell Ash how it is sometimes too, which does threaten her life to a degree but it doesn’t stop her from doing it more than once. She’s got angry “not having even an ounce of your bullshit” spunk. I dig it. I don’t always get what they were trying to do with her character but in the end, she made the movie more fun to watch just by being in it and I’ll take what I can get.
Anyway, back to the lack of plot: Zachery warns our weeping willow that going to the nightclub of the guy who creeped her out by licking her the night before is a bad idea and, by a stunning turn of events, it’s actually a bad idea. Ash becomes so swept up in a single song that she plays that he bites her right there and fireman carries her to his bedroom like he’s got a wicked case of the trots. Meanwhile Zachery volleys between worrying about Sophia and trying to figure out how to get to Ash, even though his lair is in plain view and after several hundred years, this seems like it should be no trouble. After the plot wanders off to take a pee break for a while, our hero of sorts finds his way in to confront Ash. The drama! The intrigue! The ten seconds it took for him to basically be reduced to having a blood cup of tea with him only to have them glower at each other like ancient rivals at a quilting bee.
From here, things get a little swampy. We see Zachery anguish himself as he tries to avoid feeding and fails, Ash is still barking up the wailing tree trying to get Sophia to say yes to a tiny little life of servitude as a lounge pianist for all of eternity and all the while, our Master Vampire is forced to reckon with the daily goings on of the nightclub full of vampires like a resentful nanny. It’s not the most engaging plot but it sure is pretty to look at. At some point we get some back story on Zachery, some minor exposition on that sword he carries (and loses within a fraction of a second of walking into the club), some history on the club that Ash owns and a single throw away line of dialogue wherein we get the whole reason this film even exists.
You see, Vampire Journals was produced by Full Moon Productions, and if you are at all familiar with the quality of their brand, you already know that cheese isn’t just the additive to their films so much as the foundation upon which they are built. It’s also a company that is literally built on pumping out sequels for every franchise they come up with. I was familiar with precisely none of this when I was but a wee vampire fan but even so, I still remember watching this as a kid and feeling like I was missing something. I mean, yeah the characters don’t really have a whole lot of charactery bits to them but that had never been an issue before. It still felt like there was something that the movie kinda took for granted that you already knew and it was only when I rewatched it as an adult that I realized that this was because it’s a sequel. Vampire Journals is technically the fourth instalment of the Subspecies series and the only one that didn’t carry that name in the title, even though there is a Subspecies 4 with a different title that came out after which ties this film into the series better. I’m sure that’s clear as blood but one thing it does clear up is why it feels as though large sections of the plot are either missing or not as well developed.
All the films of this series were written by director Ted Nicolaou and by this one, he’d more or less settled into his vampire world. The problem was that none of these characters were in the previous sequels. The main character of the Subspecies series in all the films except this one is Radu. While Ash features in the next instalment, Blood Storm, Radu is mentioned in this film only in passing, saying that was the one who built the underground passages beneath the nightclub. If one is being a bit cynical, one might see this as a bold attempt to start off another spin off franchise to fall back on as they were running out of ways to resurrect Radu after part three. With the next instalment being reduced to a prequel, it could be argued that the filmmakers were attempting to try to get lightning to strike again and that argument gets stronger when you see how this film ends.
After a thrilling ride of him getting out of a locked room because someone let him out, Ash being evil, Sophia managing to stop sniffling long enough to barely consent to some less than stellar fluid bonding and a chase scene that leads them to a Phantom-like hideout beneath the stage we saw the piano performance on, we arrive at the climax. Here we are at the final showdown. Master vampire versus tormented vampire hell bent on revenge. Ash has got the whimpering girl Zachery failed to save and the sword. Whatever will happen next?
Well, I’m not going to lie, I didn’t see Ash deciding that making terrible decisions was a good way to make the final act more challenging for himself. It was foretold in the beginning of the film that he would be victorious. He was going to win because he was the stronger one of the two of them. They even show this when Zachery shows up initially to challenge him. Now here they are at the end, there’s Zachery with a fucking music stand between him and this incredibly powerful vampire holding an equally powerful sword. And said very powerful vampire tosses the sword to his incredibly untested, untrained and rather inept sex kitten fledgling to finish off the guy who wants to murder him. I won’t spoil how the fight goes but suffice it to say that it doesn’t last long and the last person standing isn’t female. And after an undignified, rather anticlimactic and stupid death of our major antagonist, the two leads find shelter in the dark and the movie ends immediately after. No really, it bluntly cuts off the end without even much narration from our mopey hero and no epilogue. It really smacks of a film that is truly trying to create a sequel but one never came.
So what can I say about this film? It’s bad but in such a way that it’s delightful. It means well and it tries so damn hard, you can’t really fault it for all its failings. And then there’s the backdrop that it was filmed in. Ted Nicolaou wanted that air of authenticity to his films and thus, he shipped production all the way to Romania to do the entire series. The look of the film is absolutely spot on. If we’re going by aesthetics alone, it’s so pretty that it truly does deserve to be compared to Interview with the Vampire. The costumes, while nowhere as elaborate, were still nice and nothing stuck out too sorely. I will absolutely give this film credit that it knew the importance of nailing the aesthetic and it really did have a look to it that helped you suspend your disbelief about the existence of the vampire. The acting is over the top and not always well done but that’s pretty forgivable too. For one, if my villain is going to be evil for the sake of evil, I want him to be like Ash. I want him to come out with the scowling expression as he asks to be left to his meditations and even his whining sounds classier for it. Zachery broods entirely too much but it’s not a deal breaker and is kind of endearing if I’m being honest. The dialogue in this film is beyond cringeworthy but given the aesthetics and the over acting, it kind of only feels right, you know? It’s like putting a really expensive wine in a plastic goblet that is meant to look like glass but you can see the seam. You know it’s not right but you can still kinda get behind it if you use your imagination and surrender to the illusion. That’s what this movie is. It’s cheesy as fuck and some of the lines will leave you laughing but the look of it is perfect and if you’re willing to surrender to the creatures of the night for a short while, it hits the spot.
Thanks again for joining me for another Friday Nightmare Review. If you are itching for more content, please join me on Monday for another instalment of Hello Dolly, the story of a horror hostess and her misfit and monstrous friends trying to make a show online and dealing with otherworldly creatures at the same time. And whether you’re brooding or wailing this weekend, here’s hoping you see another sunrise and may all your nightmares be pleasant ones!