Vampires: a Belgian French-language mockumentary that tracks the lives of a typical nuclear family – of vampires – as they face challenges with a rebellious son and a morose teenage daughter. It’s a spoof of sorts, not on reality television or specific vampire films; instead it uses the medium of cinéma vérité for a new spin on today’s pop fetish for vampires.
Think of the 1973 PBS show, An American Family, tracking the Louds over a period of time – only here it’s with the undead. We follow the ups and some unexpected downs, though none approach the collapse of the Louds’ marriage or or Lance Loud’s loud gayness in terms of capturing a Zeitgeist – in this film the current fixation with vampires and how they serve as metaphors for desire and youth – and as sexy aspirations for outsiders, to the degree that the insiders want out now.
Vincent Lannoo wrote (with Frédéric Broos) and directed the film, and on that last point – the false fetishism of the vampire – he finds his biggest success: these vampires are not glamourous (well, one is – I’ll get to her later), exotic, or erotic; they are common, vulgar, moronic, covetous, and burdened more than liberated by an absence of taboos. The teenage daughter, who is un-living the dream of the contemporary adolescent, wants out instead of in. Take that as your warning, teens of today: becoming a vampire does not free you from the trappings of a mundane world; it merely introduces a new set of trappings – that can last an eternity.
The nuclear family resides in an upper-middle class Belgian home, headed by the father (Carlo Ferrante), who maintains order in the family and ensures that everyone lives by the vampire code, which allows almost everything including incest (they’re only blood related in the bloodsucking sense), but does involve some rituals, such as proper family seating at the dinner table so that each member has a specific body part to sink their fangs into.
The mother (Vera Van Dooren) seems batshit crazy with wild eyes and a wilder, uncontained laugh, especially during her interviews, when she appears to be looking through the camera to the cameraman, deliberating whether to answer the next question or start killing the crew. Of all the characters in the film, she seems to most relish being a vampire; she also seems the most nuts.
Samson (Pierre Lorgnay), the horny, rebellious, dimwitted teenage son seems most like his mother, since they are both off-kilter – and frequently have sex – though his indiscretions break even the basic morés of the vampire code, which cause an upheaval for the family. He doesn’t do much thinking, but does engage in some pranking and sexual misconduct (sleeping with the clan’s leader’s wife) that spell enormous trouble for his family.
Grace (Fleur Lise Heuet), the morose teenage daughter, only mopes about and complains; her true wish is to return to her humanity. Seeing this as impossible, she repeatedly attempts suicide in vain – she’s already dead. The futile suicide attempts are meant to be comical, but we’ve seen it before. More interesting are Grace’s monologues about the weary, sad emptiness of vampirism contrasted with her memories of being alive – sentient and sentimental, not just carnal and cruel. This isn’t not just teenage angst.
The family of four thrives in Belgium, victimizing undocumented immigrants and keeping a former prostitute whom they refer to as “The Meat” as livestock for meals.
These vampires feed off the bottom but live on the top, unseen and unknown, save for handshake deals with authorities that ensure a steady supply of soon-to-be corpses of immigrants and petty criminals who they keep in behind the house in something akin to a pigpen, awaiting their slaughter on the family dinner table.
How much of the population is vampiristic? Are they the 1%?
If so, is The Meat the Tea Party? She is unquestioningly dedicated to the family despite their obvious disregard and even disdain for her, as she lies on the table for the teenage daughter’s deathday feast.
The above clip reveals the general tone of the fim. Riffs on normal rituals (birthday/deathday celebrations) and comments on the wife’s preparation of the dinner (I imagine to mean what she feeds The Meat to season her blood) show a casual cruelty in characters, but also a sort of ordinary, commonplace existence, one with no foreseeable expiration. No wonder the daughter wants out.
They have downstairs neighbors, in the cellar to be precise, who envy the family for having the rest of the house to themselves, yet pride themselves on their own vampiristocratic origins. It’s like old Europe vs. new Europe, or old money vs. new money. The former is humbled by the latter but still clings to a past that seems more remote and unimportant as each day passes.
And if you are stuck in a cellar forever, like the snobbish Elizabeth and her nebbish husband, those days pass more slowly every year.
In addition, the family flaunts its wealth and current status to the vampires downstairs. They purchase showy coffins, a plasticky pink one for their daughter’s deathday, from a mortician played by French pop star Julien Doré, who loves having vampire clientele because they are the only customers who buy multiple caskets during their existence.
I hope Julien Doré’s films become as big as his videos.
The spying cellar tenants plus the vampire son’s sexual misadventures and tomfoolery (tomfoolery here meaning kidnapping a mentally impaired, disabled man in a wheelchair, laughing about having meat with a vegetable, turning him, then having to re-kill him as he morphs into an uncontrollable vampire)
lead to the family being evicted from the Belgian enclave and forced to emigrate to Canada, where the status they once enjoyed vanishes and they are forced to start anew. Like many first- and second- generation immigrants, the parents become wistful and forlorn, while the kids strike out to create new lives for themselves. The vampire culture of Quebec is quite different. Samson can adapt and Grace can only evolve.
Immigration can be hard on vampires, just like people, but other facets of vampirism can also be surprisingly difficult. Since vampires are made, not born, some formal education is expected; thus there is a vampire school. One of the first exercises for vampires is to watch gruesome horror movies and learn to laugh at the extreme gore and killing, which begins the process of complete desensitization, making the hunt and murder of humans more effective by eliminating empathy and replacing it with pure cruelty.
Hello Saw and Hostel franchises. If watching the unrelenting torture of human beings is entertainment, what exactly constitutes entertainment, and what does it mean if you feel entertained by it?
Parts of Vampires, like the school’s movie assignments, do not feel comedic at all; however one scene that did spark a laugh from me was with the irascible anatomy/physiology/biting teacher who fumes at her pupils for mis-articulating the neck for proper artery puncture. They’ll never get it right!
Bits like this suggest the 1960s sitcoms The Munsters and The Addams Family, if the programs had included the actual carnage and cruelty associated with monsters and vampires. The laughs might sound a little different. Or there wouldn’t be any laughs at all, especially coming from a 1960s television audience.
Would Herman Munster be as funny snapping necks or Lily and Grandpa biting into them?
Would we really want to see what Cousin Itt would do to a cornered victim if opportunity arose?
Maybe this is the next logical step in horror parody: Beloved and benevolent monster families re-envisioned as bloodthirsty, merciless monsters.
Imagine that, and then gauge whether you might enjoy Vampires.
My favorite scene in the film, one that exposes me as vulnerable to the seductive allure of the vampire, was the brief interview with Alexandra Kamp-Groeneveld as Eva, the glamourous German wife of the clan leader, himself an eternal child, before she is executed (off camera) by daylight exposure for dallying with Samson, the dimwitted teenaged son. In her interview, she calls on a cigarette-swirling, mid-career Marlene Dietrich
for inspiration with the German version of Falling in Love Again, Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt – and then she translates the lyrics from German to French, which is the closest she can come to explaining herself and her allure to the interviewer. Then she laughs – a vulgar vampire laugh that Dietrich would have limited to a smirk – and shrugs off her plight, appearing indifferent to her fate.
Eva is a mystery even to the vampires.
She disappears into nothingness as the sun rises, uninterested even in her own demise, as her existence has meant nothing – nothingness will be nothing new. Now that’s world-class world-weariness.
On the other end of the spectrum is Grace, the teenage daughter whose only true desire is to re-appear in life, as a sentient, sentimental human. The vampires cannot understand her either.
Grace and Eva are the fringe of vampire society. They escape it just as the rest of the world sets its sight on getting in. Vampire enthusiasts/wannabes take heed. The most compelling characters in the film are heading out, not in.