Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Movies You Can't Netflix: Dance With A Vampire

(In which I fill up space on the blog by sharing my thoughts on an obscure piece of cinema: Today's film comes from Kentucky circa 2006. I have no idea if this film was ever released for public consumption.)

George Bonilla is clearly someone who wants to be a great filmmaker. Unfortunately, he has no idea what makes someone a great filmmaker. Worse yet, he has no idea what makes someone a competent filmmaker.

Make no mistake: this film is not good. The acting is awful, the writing is worse. Most shots are so poorly framed it lead me to wonder who, if anyone, was behind the camera. The dialogue is muddled, the sound effects cheap. The film is overlong, there are too many subplots, too many characters. People come and go throughout this film with no explanation. And much like Bonilla's Zombie Planet, this film hasn't the common courtesy to wrap up the storyline. Instead it just sets up a sequel, which, if we're lucky, will never get made.

Worse yet, it's boring too. Pacing is a concept foreign to Bonilla. As any fan of cinema knows, fight scenes are supposed to be exciting, not just two guys flailing at each other with sticks. According to his bio, Bonilla "turned his back on a successful career in television" to pursue his aspirations as a filmmaker. What exactly was he doing in television prior to this? Was he a janitor at a TV station? There is nothing in his work that suggests he's had any training, much less any experience behind the camera.

Dance With a Vampire opens with some guy being interviewed by two other guys. It isn't really clear where this is or who any of these people are, but I guess the two guys are detectives, and the other guy is some other guy. No one in this movie much has a name, or if they do, I rarely caught them. This may have been due to the shitty sound quality, which made a lot of the dialogue unintelligible. Of course, one of the huge problems with this film is that there is too much dialogue to begin with. Anyway, the Main Guy (we'll just call him that until we learn otherwise) is trying to warn the cops about a group of vampires that have just rolled into town.

These are no ordinary vampires, no, these vampires became undead in the Seventies, so they've an unnatural affinity for polyester leisure suits and Giorgio Moroder tunes. The Main Guy tells the cops if people start ending up dead, there'll be polyester vampires to blame. It's not clear why the cops are even listening to this guy, as his mutterings hardly seem credible. I guess it was either this or another night of rousting kids in the 7-11 parking lot.

Nonetheless, he turns out to be right, and the leisure suit vampires show up in town. First stop is an old discothèque. Unfortunately, the disco's been closed for thirty years and now houses a biker bar. The vampire gang is made up of a guy in a white, Saturday Night Fever suit, a tall, black guy with a huge afro, and a gaunt fellow with long, black hair. There are about ten others, but they're pretty indistinct from one another, and besides, most them are never seen again after this.

The disco is closed, but the vampires head upstairs to the dance floor anyway. Fortunately, closing the disco consisted entirely of stringing some yellow caution tape across the top of the stairs. Everything else is exactly as it was thirty years ago. The lights, the disco ball, it's all still there. They even managed to leave "Disco Inferno" cued up on the turntable.

The vamps stroll through the tape, through the cobwebs, and… wait as second! Those aren't cobwebs, they're "cobwebs." You know the kind. They sell 'em in plastic bags at Target around Halloween. Most folks hang them around their porches, along with paper jack-o-lanterns and plastic spiders, and they pretty much look fake. And that's how they look here: fake.

The film has lots of crappy effects like that. For example, lightning is imitated by flashing a strobe on the actors. But the light only hits the person in the foreground, and nothing else, the end result looking more like someone taking a photograph than actual weather. (Which is what I thought was happening the first few times it happened, until I realized what was being attempted.) Or when one of the vamps spews smoke, but it's just an actor standing next to a billowing fog machine. I don't understand the desire to use cheap, fake effects. Why not skip them altogether? You don't get bonus points for trying, not if the result looks half-assed.

We, the audience, are then treated to a long, drawn out dance number. The bikers giggle, and the home viewers cringe. The leisure suit vampires shake their undead groove things, all except The One With Long Black Hair. He waltzes with his lady. I guess that means he's old. I guess that means he's the leader. Though, if he is the leader, he doesn't have much of a presence in the film. Saturday Night Fever is in twice as many scenes, has way more dialogue, and even leads the big shootout with the cops.

The bikers' amusement is short lived, as the discoing vampires suddenly attack them. It's kind of confusing, as the shots of mayhem don't seem edited together in any way, and it's sort of just a random montage of blood and dancing. And maybe we'd feel a little sorry for the bikers if they just didn't stand there and let themselves be attacked.

Fade in on the next scene, the aftermath. We're introduced to another half dozen cops and the coroner, all of whom get hefty chunks of dialogue. This scene goes on far too long. In fact, all of the cop characters, and their subplots, could have been jettisoned completely, and the film not suffered. But apparently Bonilla never met a scene he didn't like, and he's shoved everything he's filmed into his movie. There are a lot of scenes featuring these cops, and more. I am not going to tell you about them, because I don't have all day, and neither do you. And as I have said, they don't really benefit the movie any.

Now is time for a little background on the Main Guy. He's standing on the street passing out flyers. Someone is missing and he wants to find her. Handing out leaflets is tiring work (just ask anyone at Tony Alamo Ministries) so the Main Guy ducks into a coffee shop for breakfast. In a stroke of good luck, his waitress claims to have seen the missing woman in that very diner just a few days ago. The Main Guy immediately jumps up and flees the diner. "What about your food?" asks the waitress. I was sort of wondering the same thing. But the film is filled with moments like this, where the characters do things for no rational reason. It's not like he actually had somewhere to be, because in the very next scene he's wandering a dark ally taping up more flyers. (And dude, using masking tape on brick: that ain't gonna hold.)

Being in the alley does give the Main Guy the chance to finally run into one of the vampires. The vampire is big and bald and assaulting a street preacher. This is our first real peek at the vampire makeup. Shamefully, it's just a rip off of the scrunchy forehead look from Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. Big Bald recognizes the Main Guy and asks "Is that you, Elwood?" Finally, a name! I think. I mean, it's hard to understand Big Bald. First of all, his prosthetic teeth are really impeding his speech. Secondly, his voice is processed in a way that is far too reminiscent of Zandor Vorkov's in Dracula Vs. Frankenstein. Big Bald rips out the preacher's throat, despite Elwood clubbing him over the head with a tire iron. "That's gonna leave a mark, Redwood." Wait. Is his name Elwood or Redwood?

Oh, Jesus, who cares…

Before Big Bald can really beat the shit out of Elwood, a homeless man shows up and jumps on the vampire. A long, drawn out fight sequence follows. The director wants to make a point that this is no ordinary hobo. No, he's some sort of super-hobo. Still, he'd get his ass kicked too if yet another cop hadn't shown up. Yes, this cop brings with him his own subplot, but I am not going into that one either. The cop breaks up the fight, allowing everyone to escape.

Saturday Night Fever, Afro, and A Female Vampire In A Prom Dress stroll down a different fog-laden alley (yes, Bonilla got him a fog machine on the cheap and discovered shooting in alleys was easy to do) and into a Neo-Nazi rally. There's lots of exposition before a long, drawn out scene where the vampires attack the Nazis. Again, the victims just stand there and allow themselves to be bitten. I think we're supposed to feel glee at the vampires slaughtering the Nazis, but it doesn't really work. First off, the vampires are the villains of the movie. And when one group of bad guys kills another group of bad guys, it's hard to figure out who you're supposed to be rooting for. Secondly, the vamps have already been shown to murder innocent people, so their killing of the Nazis fails to interpret as some sort of moral victory. The vamps are indiscriminant killers, and the Nazis just one more meal for them.

The homeless man, we learn, is named Bolt Upright. He may be a superhero; then again, he may be a nutcase. Still, Elwood decides to join forces with him and stop the vampires. This is followed by a long, drawn out training montage, where Bolt schools Elwood in the ways of hobo-fu, which largely consists of hitting one's enemy with a long stick. We also learn that Elwood is something of a gunslinger, which sort of explains his cowboy hat and duster. It also stands to reason his name might actually be Redwood after all.

Their plan is to wash up a homeless woman, drape her in an evening gown, and use her to lure the vampires into a confrontation. I am not sure what the rest of their plan is since the last time they ran into a vampire they both had their asses kicked. The homeless woman cleans up real nice, as they say, and Redwood is immediately smitten with her. That doesn't stop him from using her as bait, mind you.

Before they can put their plan into action, we have to meet two more characters. Did I already mention this film as far too many characters and subplots? For the most part, I've tried to ignore them, but in this case, while the characters are superfluous, their contributions aren't. Doc Q (get it?) and his girl are mad scientists, of sorts, and they arm Bolt and Redwood with two things: a fistful of holy water bullets, and a gun that fires wooden stakes. These come in handy later. Much later. Okay, admittedly, the stake gun is never actually used, and the holy water bullets become a minor, distracting plot point later. Nevermind.

But it's time to put the plan into action, which means Redwood is again alone in an alley. I don't know what happened to using Homeless Woman as bait. Nonetheless Redwood suddenly finds himself surrounded by Saturday Night Fever, Afro, and A Vampire In A Miami Vice Jacket. Not too long later the cops arrive. All of them, it looks like. And suddenly, the cops are engaged in a shootout with the vamps. Do I need to mention it's a long, drawn out gun battle?

The shoot 'em up scene ends after Redwood plugs Afro, Saturday Night Fever flees, and Miami Vice is "killed" by police. (That last bit is just a set up for a long, drawn out sequence where Miami Vice springs back to life in the back of an ambulance, à la Hannibal Lecter. The best part about that sequence is how it suddenly jumps from the middle of the night to the afternoon for no apparent reason. It also features the least exciting car chase this side of Apocalypse.) After the dust settles and the fog machine shuts off, Redwood is arrested and presumably taken downtown.

What follows I a long, drawn out interrogation. Not of Redwood, no, but of Bolt. Huh? Somehow, Bolt is now in custody, taking the heat for the shootout, despite having not actually been there. And where is Redwood? Fuck if I know. What I do know is Homeless Woman breaks Bolt out of jail, so they can go save Redwood somewhere else.

It turns out Redwood is being held at the vampire's lair. (How'd that happen? I have no idea.) The lair appears to be decorated with items from the Hot Topic clearance aisle. There are velvet curtains, plastic body parts, "cobwebs," and of course fog. Redwood is tied to a skull-emblazoned throne, I think stolen from Alice Cooper's house. (For supposed vampires on the move, do they actually lug this thing from town to town with them?)

Now comes the tearjerker scene. (Okay, I admit, my eyes only watered up because I was tired and yawning.) Redwood is finally reunited with the woman he's been searching for. It turns out she's his sister and he wants to save her. I'm not really sure what he planned to do once he found her, because, as I understand vampire lore, once you're undead, there ain't exactly a cure. Another thing I was wondering as I looked at her: She's a fair bit older than Redwood, and if I've followed what's been going on, she's been missing a long time, all the while trapped in an ageless state, which means she must've disappeared when Redwood was all of four years old. I am surprised they even recognize one another.

Their reunion is short lived. (Oh, who am I kidding, it, like everything else, is long and drawn out.) Bolt, Homeless Woman, and a dozen or so cops descend upon the vampire lair. What follows is battle between the cops and vamps, and the two parties dutifully snuff each other out one by one. Somewhere during all this Homeless Girl is sucked into a dream sequence with A Different Bald Vampire.

First they're in a white room, where Different Bald explains she's just dreaming, before he whisks her off to a meadow for tea and biscuits. I have no idea what the point of this is or why it was included in the film. It makes no sense and contributes nothing. I suppose though, that last sentence could apply to most scenes here.

Really, you could, as I mentioned earlier, ditch the cops and their subplots, especially all the stuff about their petty political maneuverings. You could get rid of the bit with the Nazis, this dream sequence, the mayor's press conference, the training montage, the car chase, and you'd still have too much movie. If you narrowed it down to just the vampires and disco, you'd at least manage to stick closer to what the film is allegedly about. Unfortunately, the whole disco angle is pretty much ditched after the opening scene.

What we have here is not a film, so much as a vaguely connected series of scenes. It seems Bonilla is trying to tell a story, but it all adds up to little more than a couple guys fighting some vampires. Somehow, the whole is less than the sum of its parts, as a slapdash, would-be epic collapses under the weight of its own pretensions.

Though, when stupid, random shit starts happening near the end, all pretense goes out the window. Or at least it should.

Four things happen next that seem so arbitrary that it's hard to make much sense of them: 1.) After rescuing him, someone hands Redwood a poncho, thereby completing his gunslinger look. 2.) Homeless Woman breaks her ankle and disappears from the film. This effect is achieved by her suddenly hunching over and saying "Ow, I think I broke my ankle." 3.) Bolt Upright suddenly dons a superhero costume, including cape and mask. 4.) The Vampire With Long Black Hair has suddenly mutated into a soggy-faced creature.

Okay, the last two are easy to explain. The stars have been replaced by different actors, and this was the director's way of hiding that fact.

By this point, all that is left is the big finale. The cops, Redwood, and Bolt must destroy The One With Long Black Hair. Guess what happens next. If you said long, drawn-out fight scene, you're right. It's discovered that wooden stakes and holy water don't work on the master vampire, for some stupid reason. It is also discovered that Redwood's sister has been spirited away by another vampire.

So, does that mean three of the main characters have disappeared from the set prior to the film being completed? Come to think of it Saturday Night Fever hasn't been around in a while either. Hey George, maybe you want to start paying your actors in something other than bologna sandwiches. It'll probably save you a lot of rewrites.

One thing is certain, the whole basic story, Redwood's search for his sister, remains unresolved when the credits roll. Bolt mentions he's going to set out after them, laying the way for a sequel. The One With Long Black Hair is eventually killed when Bolt stakes a block of C4 to his chest. The One With Long Black Hair makes no attempt to save himself, he just stands there growling until he explodes.

So, here we are, at the end of this thing. Finally. Taking into account all the dozens of characters, all the plot points, subplots, and set-ups throughout the film, how many have reached a resolution by this point? Zero. This movie has ultimately gone nowhere. That may be its worst offense. If a filmmaker's job is, at its most basic level, to tell a story, Bonilla has failed in this regard.

Bonilla is quoted as saying "Don't confuse independent film with amateur film." Well, George, an amateur film is exactly what you've given us. There isn't one ounce of professionalism in the whole endeavor.


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