Jul 25, 2009 11:08 AM EST

Philip A Messerer's Thicker than Water

As a FlickDirect reviewer, I am sent movies, and usually they are Hollywood releases from studios we have a relationship with.  We are not top tier, but we have good traffic.  Sometimes we get things from publishers that usually do not deal with us, but do have something they are promoting so hard that we get hit in the "shotgun spread" of their media blitz.  However, sometimes we get requests for reviews from independent film makers. These are always the hardest.

They are the hardest because the product is almost always necessarily poorly produced by conventional standards.  Hollywood may not make (in general) surprising movies, but they certainly make polished ones.  These are also the hardest to review because there is usually a single "real person" on the other end of the creative endeavor who is not being paid millions of dollars to make the film -- or does not have the full might of a studio behind them.  These people are working the best they can with fiercely limited resources and comparatively little support - and I know what that is like!

Therefore, feel I have a real obligation to be fair to them, to do my best to be insightful and to avoid being funny at their expense (something I feel relatively less obligated to do with a studio release:  I might mock Michael Bay, but ultimately let there be no doubt -- the joke is on me).

So how was it? That will take some telling!

Thicker Than Water: The Vampire Diaries Part 1
Thicker than Water is intended to be Part 1 of a series (I assume a trilogy) of low-budget vampire films by Philip A Messerer.  It starts with the story of a family with two teenage daughters (and one older son). One daughter is a snarky Goth, the other is a popular princess. The son is gay and in the closet, and the husband and wife is moderately dysfunctional.  We get Daria-style voice-overs from the gothic daughter who hates her sister, her town, and her life in maybe that order.

When the princess sister dies unexpectedly and then comes back as a vampire, the family has to learn how to cope. This is the basic framework for the story and takes a substantial portion of the movie to set up.  What you want to know is -- is it good? In order to be able to answer, I need to make a couple of observations.

All horror movies are tragedies.  In Slasher flicks, someone's sons and daughters spend the ends of their too-short lives in agony and terror.  In Godzilla, someone had just put their infant child to sleep before the monster smashed their building into dust.  In Ghost Stories, people's hurting, deep injustice, travels beyond the peace of the grave.  It is the pacing and direction of these movies that let us focus on the horror rather than the sadness.  It is the immediacy of the cameras and our own nature that lets us worry more about ourselves than that (imaginary) person on the screen.  However, when a movie slows down or stops entirely to show us the tragedy inherent in the system, it is there; and if you accept the imaginary realty then, in fact, people are suffering.

Vampires more than any other monster have been romanticized beyond almost all hope of redemption. Being a vampire is cool.  You get super speed, strength, and forever-young good looks.  You have a hell of a night life -- even if going out in the day gives you immolation-level sunburn.  It has gotten to the point where vampires have to apologize for being covered in sparkly diamonds; at that point, we might as well ask who we are kidding. Even if vampires are evil, they are the kind of evil we love to hate.

Thicker than Water brings home the tragedy of the horror and de-romanticizes vampires in a way that is almost unique.  In the movie, it is a disease; and the hollow eyes of Helen when she needs another body full of blood are anything but sexy.  It is degenerative.  It is frightening.  If it happened in your family, it would not be cool.  When the vampire daughter asks her Gothic sister if she is jealous and the black-clad sister says "no", you do not think she is joking (okay, I presume maybe she is a little jealous -- but really? No. Not so much.)

Thicker than Water is not an especially polished piece of work.  While I do not think I could do better, some of it is uneven, and the pacing left me wondering if they extended scenes just to finish out a given song.  Large chunks of the movie are simply montage scenes set to music -- a virtual necessity to pass time in a story line that takes months to get where it is going.  The movie is reasonably complete; the ending certainly does not resolve everything, but it feels satisfactory enough to roll the credits.  I found some of the camera work distracting and some of the techniques (such as the Mormons being pictured in underwear as imagined by the Gothic sister) to be distracting as we are not usually treated to the world through her imagination.

But none of those are my complaints.  My complaint with the movie, if I have one, is that it was unpleasant for me to watch.  In order to explain this, I will need to spoil things slightly and so before the spoiler marks, I will say this: Thicker than Water is less a horror movie than a very, very black comedy.  I don't mean that as a compliment; while I can't accuse it of being mean-spirited (as it is not), it finds itself in an absurd situation and then gives Daria-esque voice overs to a section of human tragedy that left me disconnected from the characters and the plot.

I am not sure there is a good way to solve it other than to have the characters take a very different course of action; one that I will get to below; but given that it goes where it goes, I found myself curious about where it wound up -- but no longer identifying with the family as victims.  That hurt my engagement in a way that, for me, Thicker than Water never recovered from.  The brilliance and powerful bleakness in its vision didn't overcome the lack of connection I suffered at roughly the mid-way point.  I wish it were different, but it is not.

Spoilers
The problem is this -- your beloved daughter needs to inhale a lot of blood every few days in order to live. You consider robbing blood banks, but, that is too much work (and, really, how would you do it?). So you hit on a plan -- kill people, and take their blood.  You might think no good could come of that; but if you did, you wouldn't be the people in the movie who either think they can go on killing indefinitely, or maybe, are so emotionally traumatized that they aren't thinking.

The problem with the former is that while the movie delivers first victims in the form of door-to-door Mormon missionaries, it doesn't take the coward's way out and make them villains.  They speak pretty straight up, and the writer-director shows more than minimal competency in their portrayal. Yes, they're a bit annoying.  No, they don't deserve to die.  I expected the family to, in fact, wimp out on capturing, holding them, and then leaving them to a hunger-driven berserk vampire to die.  They didn't.

After that, with continuing voice-over, I felt that the family was no longer the victims and had, instead, become, sort of the villains.  The movie did proceed to play the captives for something akin to laughs which made it visually easier to swallow but seemed incongruous with the family wondering if they were all going to Hell.  I choose not to speak for how I think the almighty would judge them, but as an audience member, I didn't find them especially innocent; and it was exceedingly clear that both the director and the characters themselves were aware of their own agency and responsibility in the situation. Why not try to get her transfusions?  Hand her over to the CDC or the hospital?  And what did happen to the coroner she ate anyway?

I think there were other solutions, but they wouldn't have been as funny.

Spoilers
For being complete enough not to leave the viewer feeling cheated, the movie is definitely "Part 1" of a series.  There are several dropped plot-threads (the book that explains a lot -- what was up with that?) The question of how vampirism came to the family in the first place is never adequately explained, and it ends very inconclusively.  Given that I did not especially enjoy the sensation of watching the first movie, I am not sure I would sit through another.

The craft itself is not bad.  It certainly isn't polished and it is not without flaw; the voice-overs for the back-story (starting with the Mayans) were cringe-inducing in its fervor.  I suppose a hollow, female voice intoning "In the beginning ..." would not have been much better, but I suspect a guy just reading the script without the vocal theatrics wouldn't have left me expecting the historical-breaks to be some kind of in-reality TV show full of misinformation.

The makeup is excellent, the casting is okay, and the dialog is definitely the strong point.  There was a brilliant bit where the gay son comes out and his very conservative, very religious mother says exactly the perfect thing.  There were a few shining parts like that Thicker than Water, but overall, I found the gestalt somewhat pale.

It is hard to rate a movie like this.  Against a multi-million dollar Hollywood release -- even a bad one -- it should get an A just for being made at all.  Compared to student films I have seen, it should get an A for being full length with passable camera work, effects, sets, and so on.  With the level of freshness, it brings to the genre, it should get an A for being everything Twilight was not.

But as an experience, when it settled into its story, I found myself wishing I knew how long it was so I could gauge how much I had to sit through -- that's not a good sign.  When I thought the family might make a different decision, I was sitting forward in my chair; but by the time I sat back watching, it was an exercise in trying to decipher what the creator thought versus being in the story.

Over all, I have decided to rate it a C with a note that if you like vampire fiction or if you kind of like very, very dark comedies, you should most definitely give it a watch.

 

For more information visit the official website at -- http://vampirediaries.wetpaint.com

-- Marco Chacon

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