It isn't surprising that "Thicker Than Water: Vampire Diaries, Part One" contains an extraordinary amount of graphic and cartoonish violence.
It is, after all, a morbidly dark yet disturbingly funny film.
It isn't surprising that "Thicker Than Water: Vampire Diaries, Part One" features vampires, evil doings, family dysfunctions and images that will stay with you long after the closing credits.
What's really surprising about "Thicker Than Water: Vampire Diaries, Part One" is just how much you end up caring about the Baxter family and the unfathomable dilemma they face when Helen (Devon Dionne), the angelic twin of gothic Lara (Eilis Cahill), is inadvertently placed on the path to becoming a vampire when Lara tires of her sister's angelic ways and casts a spell on her intended to give her anal warts.
In a vampire film, albeit a darkly comical one?
Who'd have thought?
Yet, it happens, largely on the strength of a stellar ensemble cast who clearly has grasped the vision of the writer/director of "Thicker Than Water," Phil Messerer.
With the possible exception of the recent "Let the Right One In," no recent vampire flick has managed to be both this perversely horrifying and yet so incredibly satisfying.
Intended as the first in a now highly anticipated trilogy, "Thicker Than Water: Vampire Diaries, Part One" introduces us to the awkwardly dysfunctional Baxter Family including a father (Anthony Morelli), who largely leaves the scene early on, a Bulgarian mother (JoJo Hristova) whose injury kept her out of the Olympics and now wiles away her days quoting scripture and praying and the children who include the recently out of the closet Raymond (Michael Strelow) and the previously mentioned 16-year-old twin sisters, Helen and Lara.
Helen has always been the "good girl," a vegetarian and high school cheerleader whose popularity with the boys earns her the scornful wrath of her gothic, spell-casting sister. When Lara's spell against Helen goes awry, Helen suddenly goes from heavenly angel to otherworldly vampire whose bloodthirst unites the family as they explore increasingly demented ways to care for Helen.
Again, that's the weird thing about "Thicker Than Water" and it's what elevates the film above the usual tripe that we experience when the words "vampire" and "movie" are combined.
Rather than simply create Helen as a caricature of every other vampire we've ever seen on-screen, Messerer and Devon Dionne have united to create a wonderfully complex character simultaneously aware of the life she's leaving behind and the life that she's growing into at quite the rapid rate. When we are initially introduced to the teen Helen, the words "Mandy Moore" came to mind and by film's end I was utterly astounded and impressed by Dionne's transformation into a life of morally conflicted raw savagery.
Likewise, Eilis Cahill is spot-on perfect as the young girl whose gothic interests initially seem not much more than morbidly extreme teenage disenchantment. Over the course of the film, Cahill transforms Lara into a defiantly loyal young woman now forced into living out her teenage gothic fantasies to the utmost borders of inhumanity. Cahill is surprisingly vulnerable as the young woman, balancing irreverence, perversion, disgust and violence with loyalty, familial bonding and surprising depth.
As marvelous as were the performances of Dionne and Cahill, it is JoJo Hristova that gives "Thicker Than Water: Vampire Diaries, Part One" its remarkable emotional resonance and core. To give you an idea of just how amazing Hristova's performance is, when the film was shot she was a 32-year-old actress playing a mother 30 years older and, with nary a glitch, the young man playing her son in the film, Michael Strelow, was 33 at the time.
Yet, it was perfect.
Beyond this very basic transformation, it is utterly heartbreaking to watch Hristova's "mom" experience her changing family yet maintain her undying loyalty to her children. Seldom have I experienced such complete and utter tenderness from a character in a horror film, a woman who constantly balances maternal instincts with dutiful actions that conflict with her own morals and spiritual values. Hristova's award-winning performance provides emotional depth to scenes that would seem to transcend human emotion.
Oh, and I simply can't forget to mention that Hristova's killer sense of comic-timing is played to the hilt both in her dialogue and in dialogue that leaves you constantly wondering what she's going to be up to next.
While his may be the quietest performance within the family, Michael Strelow is enchanting to watch as he changes from closeted and confused teenager to confident gay man, admittedly one with a rather perverse tendency towards extreme medical experiments that would make Josef Mengele proud.
To fully accentuate the family's ever changing lives, Messerer provides us with an ever changing original soundtrack that slides like a rather sadistic Slinky from death metal to folk to oldies and pop classics. While the soundtrack occasionally becomes a touch intrusive, it's a bold touch that pays off more often than not.
If I am to quibble with any aspect of "Thicker Than Water" (and we all know I will), it would be in Messerer's decision to utilize an expository narrative that interrupts the film's emotional flow and completely pulled me out of the film's goings on and its nearly relentless irreverent tone. In a sense, it brought to mind the narration from "Rocky Horror Picture Show," simply working less effectively despite its obvious placement for background exposition.
Phil Messerer's cinematography vacillated between joyful and perverse with equal vigor, a largely successful exercise in shading and violence choreography that brought to mind Christian Bale's perverse glee in "American Psycho," though with a more satisfying degree of both glee and perversion.
Already named "Best Director" at the B-Movie Festival, Phil Messerer is clearly a promising new voice in independent cinema with a clear vision, gift for dialogue and unique sense of perspective for stories told and untold. With his first film, the Russian-born director has already raised the bar of expectations as he finishes out the "Vampire Diaries" trilogy. Filmed on a rather modest budget of $200,000, "Thicker Than Water: Vampire Diaries, Part One" far exceeds the production quality, performance quality and entertainment level of a large portion of today's widescreen releases, especially those of the horror genre.
For more information on "Thicker Than Water: Vampire Diaries, Part One' visit the film's website.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic