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Sunday, April 18, 2010

KINGDOM OF THE VAMPIRE -- DVD review by porfle

If you're a fan of movies that look like they were shot with a camcorder (mainly because they were), yet are somehow--perhaps inexplicably--fun to watch, then J.R. Bookwalter and Tempe Entertainment have come up with another fun way for you to waste a few hours of your life that you probably wouldn't have done anything productive with anyway.

The most interesting thing about the KINGDOM OF THE VAMPIRE disc is that it's a double-feature containing the original 1991 flick directed by Bookwalter and shot in Ohio for about $2,500, plus its 2007 remake by Canadian director Brett Kelly (THE BONESETTER, MY DEAD GIRLFRIEND). With sixteen years of cinematic progress separating the two, you'd think that Kelly's version would be a significant improvement. And technically speaking, you'd be correct--it isn't nearly as hokey and slapdash as the original. But somehow, it isn't quite as much fun, either.

As the 1991 version begins, we meet Jeffrey (Matthew Jason Walsh, who co-scripted with Bookwalter), a nebbishy, inept night-shift clerk in a convenience store. When he drags himself home after work--to the only house in the neighborhood that is permanently draped in a shroud of ground fog--he's forced to clean up the blood-splattered Girl Scout currently decorating the kitchen after trying to sell cookies to Jeffrey's mom, who happens to be a vampire.

Imagine character actress Kathleen Freeman or "Everybody Loves Raymond"'s Doris Roberts as a frumpy, yet bloodthirsty vampire in curlers, a housecoat, and fuzzy slippers. That's Jeffrey's mom. Cherie Patry is hilarious in the role, always furiously nagging Jeffrey to stop trying to be normal and be more of a vampire like his late father and herself.

She wistfully regails him with stories about how vampires used to rule the world, with humans as their cattle, until they began to be hunted down and wiped out over the centuries. Then she frumps back to her comfy chair in the livingroom to watch TV and munch on Girl Scout cookies and stray kitty cats. And when she's not doing that, she's beating the bloody bejeepers out of Jeffrey with a big wooden crucifix while screaming at him like a bull moose in heat.

Well, Halloween's a-comin', and Mom's planning to snag herself a tasty trick-r-treater or two to snack on, while Jeffrey dreads having to help with the slaughter. Mom gets all done up as a wicked witch, and really looks natural in the part. She invites a mother and her little boy, who's dressed up like Robot Ninja ("He's cool! He kills people!" the kid gushes) into her house and the horrific fun begins, with Jeffrey as a reluctant accomplice. But before long, the resulting missing-persons investigation will lead the local law dog, Sheriff Blake (Tom Stephan) right to Jeffrey's doorstep.

Meanwhile, a pretty young girl named Nina (the cute Shannon Doyle) starts hanging around the convenience store and becoming romantically interested in Jeffrey for some damn reason that I couldn't quite fathom. She does explain at one point that he reminds her of a pet mouse she once had. So I guess I was just wasting my time back in high school, trying to get girls to like me by acting "cool" instead of behaving more like a pet mouse.

Anyway, Jeffrey's attraction to Nina rouses his mother's ire to rabid-dog proportions and the whole thing inevitably ends in a bloody showdown between Jeffrey, Mom, the sheriff, and some torch-wielding townsfolk, with poor Nina caught in the middle of it all.

This early J.R. Bookwalter effort is, to put it mildly, "unpolished." But it's also a lot of fun, especially the scenes with Jeffrey and his crazed vampire mom. The acting is a mixed bag, with some of the cast giving pretty solid performances (I love watching Matthew Jason Walsh and Cherie Patry screaming at each other at the top of their lungs and emoting their asses off) while others range from fair (Tom Stephan as the sheriff reminds me of a poor man's Kevin Spacey and does a pretty good job when he isn't staring directly into the camera) to totally inept.

But that doesn't matter. The script is tongue-in-cheek fun (despite Bookwalter's efforts to make it serious, Walsh insisted it be more in a NIGHT OF THE CREEPS vein), the story toodles along at a nice pace, and, except for a too-abrupt ending, KINGDOM OF THE VAMPIRE '91 is a fairly entertaining flick overall.

So now, on to Brett Kelly's 2007 remake. This time, the story is taken a lot more seriously (as executive producer Bookwalter originally intended) and the movie is not only better photographed, but contains some nice stylistic touches, a good score that reminds me a little of the music from PHANTASM, and a more consistently talented cast.

Kelly himself plays Jeffrey, who works in a video store this time, while Karen Landstad gives us a totally different take on "Mom." This time, she's sexy--sort of like an older Morticia Addams--and retains an air of the decadent vampiric royalty that existed long ago. Nina (Anastasia Kimmett), no longer an innocent high school girl, is now a streetwise drug addict who falls for Jeffrey because he's so unlike the abusive punks she usually hangs around with.

Brett Kelly gives his remake a good deal of atmosphere and draws some pretty deft performances from his cast while doing an okay job himself as Jeffrey. The story is tweaked quite a bit by scripter Janet S. Waltham, with some scenes switched around and altered (mostly for the better), and, as mentioned before, some characters are changed extensively.

Chip Hair (who might want to consider changing his stage name) is solid as Sheriff Blake, and a long exposition scene in which he tells his secretary why he believes there just might be vampires roaming their streets is placed much earlier in the story for better effect. The ending is a tad better, too. And this time, for those of you keeping score at home, Jeffrey actually gets past first base with Nina.

Of the two Jeffreys, Matthew Jason Walsh's portrayal is my favorite. A gawky, painfully shy scarecrow hiding behind long locks of stringy black hair, cowering like a whipped dog one moment and exploding with suppressed rage the next, Walsh's goofball energy and intensity compensate for his lack of acting refinement.

In comparison, Brett Kelly's portrayal is competent but rather bland, and far outshined by his skill as a director. And while Karen Landstad is exquisitely decadent and sexy as "Mom", Cherie Patry's dowdy, bug-eyed harridan is a pure delight and easily the highlight of this disc.

The DVD contains both films, a bunch of trailers for these and other Bookwalter and Kelly flicks, and a couple of talky, informative commentary tracks by the directors. For those of us who enjoy independent filmmaking on the low, low end of the budgetary scale, by people who obviously love to make movies, KINGDOM OF THE VAMPIRE is a whole evening's worth of breezy fun and an interesting double-take on the vampire mythos.

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