Three Imaginary Girls

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{Vampire screens at SIFF on Wednesday, June 1, 6:30pm and Thursday, June 2, 4pm at the Egyptian; and again on Sunday, June 5, 8:30pm at the Admiral Theatre}

I hereby claim Vampire as a fine example of modern psychological horror (for its own category, the Seattle International Film Festival 2011 puts it in its “To The Extreme” canon, which is a good way of telling people it’s probably going to shock you but not necessarily scare you, and avoids being punchy with genre tags).

It’s about a shy, scruffy, but charming high school biology teacher who has a brain-sick mom (Amanda Plummer! I was just watching her hold up the restaurant with Tim Roth again at the beginning of Pulp Fiction! Weird timing, where’s she been in the meantime?) who has to be tied up with big white balloons by her offspring whilst he’s working. She’s a piping hot mess expresso! That’s some creative home-care health solutions there, sonny boy, but then like most mother-son relationships in horror movies it’s less than DSM-V ideal. That of course spills over into his dealings with the ladies.

Four words to blood-boil it down: First date suicide pact! For most young gals I know, that tends to be a deal-breaker. But director Iwai Shunji (the boundary-bumping creator of Love Letter, All About Lily Chou-Chou, and Hana and Alice) makes their hook-ups seem sympathetic and sweet, a strange form of courtship where an adorable (if perhaps slightly damaged-appearing) young woman becomes the center of sweet attention — but for her own demise. If suicide is considered a supremely narcissistic act, and pretty girls have a tendency to like a lot of attention, this all ties together in a bizarrely sort-of-makes-sense way. (I can hear the yammering of some critics now wondering why such attractive kids would do such a thing, but self-destruction and a desperation for connection leads a lot of normal-appearing, much-to-give humans into hastened demises in the “real world.”)

Yes, that modern-slimy, demiurge-from-all-inner-darkness The Internet has a lot to blame for all this, and Kevin Zegers seems Ted Bundy-level believably duplicitous, charismatic and dangerous in portraying professor Simon. (Luring lasses through websites, bonding over despair in chat rooms, etc.) But all kinds of prickly questions about death wishes, sensually extreme desires, mental illness, emotional co-dependence, and how every day bellwethers can move a mob to destruction, are provocatively provoked (and the lush camerawork, excellent dialogue, and often rough buy enjoyable acting make this a pleasant way to encounter these queries). One particular scene might remind one of occasional news reports of apocalypse cults; and when a central character confesses why she wants to have Simon’s assistance (however cheating it might be, as he shows no interest in joining those he “pacts” with) it’s pretty fucking heartbreaking.

Early on in the film though, in one scene probably meant to juxtapose Simon’s serial killer-like cravings with the even more crass and banal fixations of a more physically vicious, bisexual fang-fetishist, drove some people out of the press screening. I was sitting in the front, so didn’t really see how many people left (someone I trust said about “half”; a dude on his cell nearby afterward said “most” but I still think there were quite a few viewers left); and I can’t blame them, it’s pretty raw and intense and a little at odds with the more gentle narrative imagery of the rest of the film. (Besides this one arguably deplorable exploitation-level scene, there’s nothing here you haven’t caught on Dexter.)

That and the 119 minutes seeming maybe fifteen or twenty minutes too long for the material, and Vampire isn’t perfect for everyone (though many might like it for its expansive visual charm, which seems to float elegantly around such depressing material). I actually think it’s “up there” with the 90s-released creepy, sexy Kissed with Molly Parker, another Canadian film which merges arcane ideas with morbid urges, art film with exploitation material. I recommend it, but it’s an enigmatic mix of morality with cruelty, transcendence with terror. And susceptible Gothy kids should probably wait till they have some success in careers and dating before trying it.