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Putting
the
Bite
into
Britain




Back in 1998, when posters for Jake West’s debut feature appeared, they carried two quotes: one from SFX magazine (written by me) and one from Total Film (also written by me). One of them - I can’t recall which - called it “the best British vampire film for nigh on two decades.”
      One of the more astute readers queried this: wasn’t Razor Blade Smile pretty much the ONLY British vampire film for nigh on two decades? Well yes, yes it was. Therein lies the poster-quote-provider’s skill. (Actually, there had been a couple of others: the truly odd I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle and the Japanese-influenced Julian Sands-starrer Tale of a Vampire. But neither of those was as good as Jake’s film, in my humble critical opinion, so my quote still stands.)
      Rewatching it a couple of years ago - a full decade on - I expected to find Razor Blade Smile less effective and enjoyable than I recalled, and certainly less than I had claimed in my enthusiastic reviews. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that it stands up pretty well. It’s still exciting, sexy, action-packed fun with dear old Eileen Daly having the time of her life in her signature role, supported by British horror (semi-)regulars such as Chris Adamson, Jonathan Coote and Kevin Howarth, plus the final screen appearance of Twins of Evil’s David Warbeck.
      So where has the British vampire sub-genre gone since then? There have been a few interesting UK bloodsucker features, so I would like to take this opportunity to highlight three worthwhile little pictures that you may not have seen - and one stinker that you definitely don’t want to!

      The Witches Hammer was the solo directorial debut of James Eaves after sharing duties with Johannes Roberts on Sanitarium and Hellbreeder. There is a thematic link to Razor Blade Smile as this film also follows a female vampire assassin: Rebecca, athletically played by Claudia Coulter. This ‘genetically engineered’ bloodsucker is trained by mysterious Government unit ‘Project 571’ to hunt and kill other vampires using a variety of nifty martial arts moves and assorted bladed weapons.
      When all of Project 571 are murdered by vampires, Rebecca finds herself under the default control of the even more mysterious Project 572, lead by a high-ranking witch who is played as a sort of supernatural Ann Robinson by Dracula AD1972’s Stephanie Beacham. Meanwhile arch-vampire Hugo Renoir is attempting to take over the world (somehow), and two comedy vampires are searching for legendary grimoire, the Malleus Maleficarum.
      To be honest, these two subplot characters are what you will recall most after seeing this film (and possibly Claudia Coulter in motorcycle leathers...): a midget and a rotund, buxom lady who carve a bloody path through the movie while cooing luvvy-duvvily at each other. And the interesting point is raised that a sufficiently fat vampire is impossible to stake! This low-budget, high-ambition actioner about a sort of white, British, female Blade was released on DVD by Blackhorse in 2007 and is now deleted, although the US disc from MTI is still available.

      Distribution is always the stumbling block of independent cinema and another British vampire film, High Stakes, remains unreleased on either side of the Atlantic. Pitched as Assault on Precinct 13 meets From Dusk till Dawn, this Welsh indie feature shares with The Witches Hammer the concept of vampire-vs-vampire conflict. In this case, some brutal gangster vampires lay siege to a church/community centre after a dupe escapes from a fatal gambling den incident and seeks sanctuary. A teenage girl is also seeking sanctuary after her father was bloodily murdered. But sanctuary can be deceptive because the young people gathered inside the church are also vampires. Except that these ones have repented and found God so the local vicar cares for them in a fake church where they survive by organising blood donations from the unknowing townsfolk.
      It’s a unique set-up and an original take on vampires although - unlike Rebecca and co in the Eaves film - these are your old-fashioned, traditional undead. Sunlight is deadly and they can’t enter a building unless invited - that sort of stuff. (One of the unavoidable problems of any vampire film is that these things come with so much optional cultural baggage that somewhere in the first act we always need a scene where someone lays out the rules in an infodump.)
      With a cast barely out of school and lots of new talent behind the camera, High Stakes was directed by actor Peter Ferris in the charming seaside town of Penarth, using a real church. While this gives the mise-en-scene a terrific verisimilitude, it did limit the schedule for principal photography to six days because the building was in use every Sunday. Obviously. Still, our Lord managed to knock together the entirety of creation in six days - how hard can it be to make one feature film? A smart script by Michael Doyle is well-performed by the neophyte cast with a stand-out performance by Jason Excell as the sympathetic vicar who is turned and whose bloodlust then presents a threat inside the building, leading to much running from one room to another.

      Much more sedate than either of the previous two films is Vampire Diary which was shot as Vampire Video Diary and has probably suffered somewhat from being so closely followed by the unrelated Vampire Diaries TV series. Or maybe it has benefited from extra sales to the inattentive. As can be surmised from the working title, this is part of the found-footage sub-genre of fantasy-horrors which was in vogue a couple of years ago. The Zombie Diaries, Diary of the Dead, Cloverfield, [rec] and this were all released within about 18 months of each other. A pre-Hellboy 2 Anna Walton stars as Vicki, an enigmatic lesbian subtly inveigling herself into a group of ‘weekend vampire’ goths who meet up to sip each other’s blood and discuss Anne Rice novels. Morven Macbeth is documentary-maker Holly whose fly-on-the-wall reportage of the eyeliner-and-corsets crowd provides the rationale for the film’s cinema verite (a rule occasionally broken for narrative purposes).
      The developing relationship between the two marks this out as ‘a lesbian vampire film’, but it’s about as far from the heaving bosoms and softcore titillation of The Vampire Lovers as you are likely to get. As such, although not specifically aimed at gay audiences, Vampire Diary had a tremendously positive response from the lesbian and gay community. In fact the UK distributor, Peccadillo Pictures, is a specialist ‘gay cinema’ label (although this is far from their only horror title - maybe that’s another blogpost to be written some time).
      But what really marks Vampire Diary out as arguably the best British vampire film of recent years is its ambiguity. This is one of those movies, like Romero’s Martin, wherein the central character’s vampiric nature is debatable and can be read either way. We never actually see Vicki do anything supernatural and she claims to have had her enlarged canines removed. Though she kills people and drinks their blood, that doesn’t make her a vampire per se. She could just be a delusional psycho with a fetish.
      When I interviewed (separately) the writer, director and producer of Vampire Diary for Fangoria, I was absolutely delighted to find that, in response to my question “Is Vicki a real vampire?”, one said of course she is, one said of course she isn’t, and the third was completely undecided. Two UK DVDs of Vampire Diary are currently available (or at least, listed on Amazon): the original Peccadillo disc and a mid-price re-release on the Bad Cat sub-label which more prominently features Anna Walton. There is also a US disc available from Monarch.

      Elements of gritty realism mark Vampire Diary as more closely aligned with the dominant trends of the 21st century British horror revival than the martial arts action of The Witches Hammer or the supernatural siege drama of High Stakes. A couple of other British vampire films have also taken the path of dark, urban angst: Lawrence Pierce’s Night Junkies is a tale of blood addiction as metaphor for drug addition set in a seedy, unlit London underworld of prostitution and vice. While DJ Evans’s Daddy’s Girl equates vampirism with mental illness as Jaime Winston (from TV zombie mini-series Dead Set) leads her psychiatrist on a journey into her bizarre behaviour.
      Unfortunately, both films suffered from bad marketing in the States, with Allumination’s release of Night Junkies showing irrelevant neck punctures and Lionsgate’s release of Daddy’s Girl (retitled Cravings) opting for generic sleeve imagery of vampire fangs - presumably on the basis that you can’t sell vampire films to punters unless you imply that the central characters have enlarged canines, thereby ignoring those vampire fans who prefer their bloodsuckers without dental extravagance and disappointing those who don’t.
      Night Junkies remains unreleased in its home country. There was a UK disc of Daddy’s Girl from Contender but it sneaked out without the slightest ripple of publicity and has now been deleted. Ironically, Daddy’s Girl was shot in Wales at the same time as High Stakes, which generated more publicity (largely through myself, I admit) but remains unseen. Such are the vagaries of independent distribution.

      Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom among the British undead - there are comedies too. Long-gestating OTT romp The Vampires of Bloody Island has finally been self-released by its makers and we can’t omit to mention Lesbian Vampire Killers, the only British vampire flick to receive a theatrical outing in the past decade (I’m not counting Hollywood features with a percentage of UK funding like Underworld). LVK (which was retitled Vampire Killers in the States - go figure) suffered from overhype, basing its publicity on the presence of two stars from hit sitcom Gavin and Stacey who, alas, were only given their desperately unfunny sketch show just before the film opened, killing its chances. Nor did it help that Doghouse came along a few months later, taking a similar idea but dealing with it very differently and certainly more successfully. Incidentally, Keith Lee Castle who played the lugubrious Patrick in Doghouse has, without anyone noticing, become Britain’s premiere vampire actor de nos jours. He’s in Vampire Diary, he was in ‘Vampirology’ the best-remembered episode of Channel 5 anthology Urban Gothic, he plays Count Dracula himself in well-crafted CBBC kidcom Young Dracula, and he was in a vampire-themed episode of Canadian sci-fi oddity Lexx.

      Finally, I promised you a stinker. This one is semi-British because it’s really an Anglo-Greek co-production, an anthology variously filmed in Elstree, Islington and Athens. Sentinels of Darkness is seriously bonkers, stars the wonderful Eileen Daly (again) and has only ever been released in Greece, making it one of the rarest British horror films of the past ten years.
      With writing credits almost as long and complicated as the cast list and dialogue which all sounds like sixth form poetry, the only work by Manos Kalaitzakis crams a great deal of rubbish into its short running time. ‘Curse of a Deathless’ is a thoroughly incomprehensible mishmash with Eileen as some sort of vampire high priestess in wartime Greece. The second segment, ‘Vampire Vendetta’, is supposedly the real story of what happened on a 1970s vampire film but swiftly turns into a daft detective/action-picture about a ‘slayer’ who confronts a vampire ‘Duke’ with a penchant for nibbling hookers. This leads into ‘The Coven’, in which a young woman from the present-day prologue to segment one and her friend become vampirised in a nightclub, take bloody revenge on some slimeballs and then somehow resurrect Eileen’s priestess. All of which leads into scenes at a horror film festival where the characters watch trailers for Satan’s Sluts and Dungeon of the Demonic Doctors.
      A gloriously insane car-crash of a film, Sentinels of Darkness is thoroughly deserving of its obscurity.
      There aren’t very many British vampire films, but there are even fewer Greek ones. I think we’ll let the retsina-drinkers lay claim to this one.


MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fi fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and numerous other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time but promises to have it finished very soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.