Director Amy Heckerling shaped my adolescence, as I'm sure she did many girls. Her two biggest films to date, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Clueless, have been led to millions of dollars and a steady following. Unfortunately Heckerling hasn't been able to recapture that the former glory she felt in the 1990s, nor has star Alicia Silverstone. So I guess it's only appropriate the two try to recapture lightning in a bottle with Vamps; a vampire movie desperate to remake Clueless in its own image. While the film is fun at times, and loves the vampire genre, it never goes further than stating “We love vampires” through video clips and character names. The majority of the film is a love story between a vampire and a human, a bizarre plot to get the vampires into the daylight, and a moral treatise on why youth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In trying to remake Clueless, Heckerling and crew seem to be saying it’s time to move on, while never actually moving on.
Goody (Silverstone) has been a vampire since the 1800s. Stacy (Krysten Ritter) was turned in the 1980s. Both have been friends a long time and yet can’t seem to capture the love they once felt for life. Things change when Stacy falls for the sweet Joey Van Helsing (Dan Stevens) whose father is a prominent vampire hunter. At the same time both discover that the vampire community of New York is being forced out into the day, forcing them to band together for their survival.
Vamps desperately wants to be Clueless with fangs and while I applaud the attempt, it doesn’t coalesce into a strong film. I did enjoy what the film wanted to be with its focus on trying to find a life worth living and following a vampire who had been around for decades. Vampire films generally follow the newly created who struggle to overcome their bodily and life-style changes. By focusing on two vampires who have seen everything, and have figured out how to live their lives, you remove all the exposition that would come about. The vampire community of New York is actually a pleasant one! On top of that the film knows the glut of vampire films out there and does pay loving tribute to the classics. There’s characters named Renfield (Zak Orth), the aforementioned Van Helsing’s, and a pretty awesome one-liner about “I never drink…mojitos” (the original ending was “wine” and if you didn’t get that then you are a bad vampire lover).
Along with that, there are a few actors who really run with what little they have to work with. Someone needs to create a film where Wallace Shawn plays a vampire hunter because he is one of the few reasons to watch this. I know people who find Shawn annoying but between his performance in The Princess Bride, and Clueless, playing a vampire hunter is a given. It’s such a creative angle for him, especially considering his height and lack of threatening presence, and makes for a few laughs. We also have Malcolm McDowell playing Vlad the Impaler for crying out loud. Heckerling has so many fun ideas but never pushes them along. Shawn and McDowell have minimal screen time and are the strongest elements within the film.
The main players fare less well than the supporting cast. I find Krysten Ritter to be a darling and yet she’s second banana in Vamps. Her character is essentially Cher Horowitz all grown up and Ritter is fantastic. She’s snarky although the film would have benefited from letting her curse a bit more (it really feels like she’s holding back). She’s poised to be the leading lady but the film gives Silverstone all the weight and it’s detrimental to the plot. Silverstone isn’t a bad actress, but she’s not 23 anymore. The opening narration has her painfully trying to talk and emulate Cher from Clueless and it seems like a poor imitation. She’s given a plotline about reuniting with a former boyfriend who’s older and the relationship feels weird (probably because Silverstone is significantly younger than Richard Lewis who is the love interest) and she never gives a performance with bite, pun intended. Silverstone is content to smile and walk through her scenes as if the combination of her and Heckerling is supposed to make audiences happy.
Vamps' major problem: it feels that if it takes everything that made Clueless good, the magic will rub off. You have Heckerling, Silverstone, and Shawn reunited and a plot that’s just as surface level as Clueless but yearns to be deep. Clueless worked so well because it took Jane Austen’s Emma and tweaked it to modern audiences. Here, the vampire story has already been modernized so the film tries to go back in time to show how vampires, and life in general, was better in this timeless “before.” The character of Goody, more than the others, is tired of evolving technology and the dull repetition of being young. It’s an understandable conceit but the film only gives Goody long monologues to show her unhappiness and nothing else.
The film just goes in too many directions within its 93-minute runtime. You think the plot revolves around the various deceptions to get the vampires out during the day by sending them subpoenas and jury duty notices (Stacy voted in the 1980s but she’s just getting a jury duty summons now?). Nope, a convenient, two-hour solar eclipse happens to allow the vampires to hypnotize state employees to delete their files. What about Goody’s ex-boyfriend Danny (Lewis) with the dying wife? Easily solved by turning her into a vampire. The actual climax of the film is discovering the hideout of Goody and Stacy’s maker (or “stem” in this film) Cisserus (Sigourney Weaver) to turn them mortal. The finale is marred by atrocious special effects that looks like Weaver’s head was pasted onto a skeleton using Windows Paint. It’s bad.
There’s a lot of questions I had with this movie that the film never explains or just fails to recognize. Both Stacy and Goody are apparently exteriminators (I say apparently because they wear exterminator uniforms but never actually say that’s their job) but why can’t they get a better paying job at night? I find it hard to believe that if they want rats to drink they can’t do something that pays better and find rats somewhere else. It’s New York, there are rats everywhere I’m sure (no offense, New York). Why does Stacy show her powers to her boyfriend before telling him she’s actually a vampire? You don’t expect him to freak out? And for that matter, why is Joey Van Helsing English and yet his father is Wallace Shawn who is distinctly un-British yet apparently worked for MI-6? And let’s not forget the bizarre rape joke involving vampire Vadim (Justin Kirk). He meets a woman wearing a pair of pants that say “Juicy” along the bottom. The punch line is Vadim saying because the word is on her bottom that “she’s asking for it.” Funny?
Vamps is a bizarre movie. It has good things in it, but it’s screaming at the audience “Remember how much you loved Clueless? It’s like that!” Ritter is amazing and should have been given the lead. Side performances from Shawn, McDowell, and Weaver elevate things a bit more. Ultimately, the plot is too convoluted and the jokes feel about three years too late. The DVD doesn’t boast any bonus features aside from HD trailers (none of which are for this film). It’s an Amazon Instant Rental if you love the cast or director.