Sterling // 1998 // 95 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // October 31st, 2000
Campy vampire fun and gore.
From the brothers Elfman came a deceptively fun and outrageous vampire film, which ignores the rules and goes straight for the jugular, if you'll pardon the pun. Richard Elfman (The Forbidden Zone) wrote and directed and as a special bonus his brother, the famous composer Danny Elfman, did the musical theme. These two original members of the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo had their tongues firmly in cheek when working on this film, which belies its violent nature with a lighthearted air to the music and attitude. For reasons unknown, Paramount sat on this and tried to market it as some Blade wannabe, but it is far from that. Leave it to Sterling, that little distributor who can do more for films nobody else will touch than any other, to provide a fine DVD of the film at a price that is irresistible.
Dallas (Casper Van Dien, Starship Troopers), a former WWII pilot turned vampire, is heading into modern day Los Angeles after a long absence. After re-introducing himself to his bloodsucking friends in town, he goes after a rogue vampire called the Hollywood Slasher (Natasha Gregson Wagner, High Fidelity), who pretends to be a streetwalker to find her prey. Finding her, he tries to integrate her into vampire society proper, which comes complete with their own nightclubs and a corpse retrieval service, but runs up against two major problems. One is Count Dracula (Robert Pastorelli, Murphy Brown), who wants her and Dallas dead, for different reasons. The problem Dallas has with the Count has also come to town, in the person of Dr. Van Helsing (Oscar winner Rod Steiger, In the Heat of the Night), a professional vampire hunter with a vendetta against Dallas and killer of any other bloodsucker that gets in his way. He, with the help of a band of Cripp gang members from South Central, are out hunting him and his friends, with unexpected results.
A straightforward telling of the story doesn't do the film justice. Certainly there are action scenes and violence and gore galore. But those are almost side effects to the often silly and over-the-top situations that also occur. Here the vampires are the stars and the protagonists of the story, even as they gleefully kill people for fun and food. Only rarely does the film take that violence seriously, and then only when it is one of the vampires who are killed. If this film has a kindred spirit, it would probably be Evil Dead II, though it lacks the innovative directorial techniques Sam Raimi pioneered. But here the idea of good guys and bad guys are turned on their ear, as are many of the rules you've ever been told about vampires. The humans are largely parody figures to be killed in interesting ways. The supposed hero, the vampire hunter Van Helsing, is an aging Nazi scientist. Rod Steiger portrays him so over-the-top for comic effect any chance of his being the real hero is lost, especially since he is just as likely to invoke the name of Hitler as of God in his "holy quest."
While I couldn't exactly call the performances riveting, they were all done so tongue in cheek as well that even some poor lines and all-over-the-map accents can't stop the fun. Natasha Gregson Wagner and Casper Van Dien are especially good when it comes to the physical demands of the roles, and Wagner turns herself into quite the wildcat when it comes to a fight. Friendly vampires played by Kim Catrall and Craig Ferguson (The Drew Carey Show) get some of the best lines, and the boyz from South Central who are recruited to help Van Helsing make fantastic comic foils with the straitlaced doctor.
The film is absolutely decadent in this unrated director's cut version on DVD. The nightclub scenes, with full frontal nudity and wanton violence, and the many scenes of the vampires with their prey, just ooze a total disregard for human life while celebrating the vampiric. But it's all in good fun, though definitely of a darker sort than some may be used to.
There are times when I review a disc from Sterling that I find it difficult to be objective. This little distributor does a great job on the technical end of things, and nearly always provides quality bonus features with each disc. The only thing wrong with them is they often get films that nobody else wanted with good reason. So while I like the company and really like to root for the little guy, too often I have to give a negative review to the film. So I'm particularly glad I can say something good about the film as well as the DVD in this case. As usual, Sterling does a fine job with the picture and sound when given decent elements to work with. Unfortunately this did not get a theatrical release here and I don't know of any widescreen version of the film, so we get a full frame transfer. This may just be the original aspect ratio or an open matte since nothing seems to be noticeably cropped. The image quality is very good, with sharp detail and vivid, rich colors, including deep blacks. There are some small problems with artifacts such as pixelization, but these are minor and not truly distracting. Despite those minor flaws, the image is more than just watchable.
Unlike many Sterling discs, this one only has a Dolby Surround track, but it is quite good for what it is. Bass response is deep, and the front soundstage is wide and spacious, with the mono rear channels providing ambiance and extra room for Danny Elfman's musical theme, which is reprised often. The airy, somewhat light music also alerts the viewer that the film is not taking itself seriously, and lends itself well to what you see. I would expect no less from one of my favorite composers. The rest of the score runs the gamut from industrial to rap to more sedate fare, but each fits into its moment. Dialogue is centered and very clear and understandable.
Sterling doesn't skimp on the extras, and here we get several. A commentary track with director/writer Richard Elfman and star Casper Van Dien comes first, which is very illuminating about the film and the fun had by all putting it together. I enjoyed it very much. A behind the scenes featurette and two trailers, one for Modern Vampires and for Sterling's Progeny, along with cast and crew information complete the extra content.
How much does Sterling ask for this? I paid under $11. The retail price is $14.95 and you can of course find it cheaper. The film and disc are well worth that low price.
I'll be the first to admit this is a B-movie schlockfest. The film is very aware of this, and revels in it. The dialogue doesn't always work, and as I said the accents aren't always consistent. But I get the feeling that the makers of the film simply didn't care, so long as it was fun. Fun and stretching the boundaries is what this film is about, and it accomplishes both those goals.
My biggest complaint has to be about the marketing and packaging. Ignore the picture on the case and the marketing blurbs on the back. They tried to make this out to be something serious and action oriented, and the picture on the front has nothing to do with the film. Either the marketing folks didn't actually see the film, or they just didn't believe the over-the-top schlock and comedy would sell.
Of course I'd have rather gotten an anamorphic widescreen transfer for the film, and a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Sterling is usually very good about the latter. But I have no real complaints for what it is.
Just in time for Halloween, I finally got around to doing this review. I first saw this disc before Halloween last year, but never got around to writing something for it. Unfortunately Sterling never sent us this one even though they've sent us plenty of others, some of which were pretty bad films. But when I heard about their lowering their prices I knew I had to buy this one, and got it just in time. If you can come across this one, it would make a fine rental for Halloween, and is certainly worth purchasing for the low price.
I will caution that this is an unrated version of the film, with full frontal nudity and plenty of violence and gore, so you might want the kiddies to go to bed before popping in this one. This is raunchy stuff, but all in good (albeit very dark) fun.
Richard Elfman is absolutely acquitted and even commended for daring to make this film since it was sure to worry the powers that be. While we were denied the chance to see this in theaters we get to see it at home, and for that I'm glad. The stars are likewise acquitted. Sterling gets a nod and a release from the court for finally having a film worthy of their efforts.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Commentary Track
* Behind the Scenes Feature
* Cast and Crew Info