16 May 2005 | BrandtSponseller
Mostly impressive low-budget flick with some plot problems
There's no end to my contrarianism today. First I write a review saying how I believe that The Godfather, Part III (1990) is as good as Part II (1974), then I write how horrible I thought Female Vampire (aka Les Avaleuses, 1973) was, and now here I am against the grain again--telling you about how I thought Project Vampire was a pretty good film. I was actually tempted to give it an 8 out of 10, or a "B" for much of its length, so my 7 is a high 7.
Maybe it's that I watch a lot of low-budget dreck. I'm on a never-ending (maybe futile) quest to watch every horror film ever made, so I see a lot of super-low budget stuff like Back Woods (2001), Night of Horror (1978), Blood Cult (1985), The Black (not Blair) Witch Project (2001) and Insaniac (2002). Many of those kinds of films are complete messes. Often all of the technical elements are bad, including the sound, cinematography, lighting, editing, etc. The performances are bad. The scripts are bad. Often it's clear that the cast and crew weren't even trying to make a decent film.
Project Vampire comes from a comparable budget to those films. But even though it has some problems, director/writer/art-director Peter Flynn has made a work that easily compares to films with much higher budgets and casts/crews with far more experience.
Project Vampire begins with three men in lab coats running through the streets of Los Angeles. A car is chasing them. It's late at night and they can't find a place to hide. Finally the car catches up to them, but two of the men manage to get away again, even though they end up beaten and bruised. We end up following one of them, Victor Hunter (Brian Knudson). He eventually runs into a nurse, Sandra Jensen (Mary Louise Gemmill). She wants to take him to be looked at, but when she discovers his unusually low body temperature and slow heartbeat, she takes his reserve more seriously. As a doctor friend says, with the stats that Victor has, he should be dead. And maybe he is. The plot revolves around a grand sci-fi horror scheme to develop vampirism serums and anti-serums--"Project Vampire". The three men were running to escape the "evil genius" behind the plan, but the mastermind can't let them get away, or they may blow the lid off of the whole operation.
The first thing that is evident while watching Project Vampire is that Flynn certainly knows how to direct--even though this was his first film. He blocks scenes well, they're well shot, well lit (especially those difficult to execute night scenes), well edited and the action is clearly conveyed. Prior to directing Project Vampire, Flynn had worked as an art director, construction foreman and even a cinematographer on other films. So he probably picked up a lot from those experiences.
More surprising, perhaps, is that the cast does a mostly admirable job. Sure, there are a couple occasions where a bit of amateurism shows through--there are some awkwardly delivered lines--but for the vast majority of the cast members, this was their first film. Flynn made a smart move in that all of the female cast members are beautiful, even those in smaller roles, but he made an even smarter move in picking a skilled, charismatic cast. Knudson is likable as the lead. So is the very attractive Jensen. Myron Natwick, as Dr. Frederick Klaus, one of the few experienced actors in the cast, has an almost Udo Kier-like vibe going. His gorgeous assistant/partner Heidi (Paula Randol-Smith) conveys that she may be the most evil of the bunch, as she seems to be manipulating and controlling things behind the scenes. There is also a fair amount of comic relief, often coming from Dr. Lee Fong (Christopher Cho).
Flynn and his crew show that they have a great eye for sets and locations. The beginning takes place in greater L.A.'s semi-urban wastelands, which helps create the perfect atmosphere of desolation for our three "heroes" on the run. There are later external daytime shots set in industrial areas. Flynn picks intriguingly painted and textured buildings for backdrops to his action. There are a number of stylistic interior shots with unusual lighting.
Although Project Vampire may be short on deaths and graphic violence, those that are present are respectable, as are the limited effects and make-up. Flynn even gives us a bit of gratuitous nudity. But he always lets the story and the ideas take precedence, as he should. Still, he goes to the trouble of hiring a performer for a fire suit stunt in the climax--a relative rarity at this budget level.
The biggest problem with Project Vampire is that the overall story is a bit muddled. In the details, the script is fine. It's only if you take a step back and assess the larger picture that it begins to fall apart a bit. It's not clear just what the point of the widespread vampirism project will be for Dr. Klaus, and it's not necessarily clear why our heroes are on the run as they are, why the henchman who are after them would make such an effort, and so on. In the details, though, the story is intriguing. There are elements similar to Blade suggested in the antidote, the "warring" factions of vampires, and perhaps even in the desire for a vampirism spread.
But this is not really the film to focus on broader arcs. If you watch Project Vampire while thinking about how well Flynn achieved the fine-grained basics of good film-making, especially in comparison to like efforts by lesser talents, there's a good chance you'll come away at least slightly impressed.