By Tom Nixon
It takes an old soul to truly understand the melancholy and, yes, humour inherent to vampire lore, and both Jim Jarmusch and Amy Heckerling have been around the block a few times. They’re still doing the same thing of course — Heckerling her tacky, squealing romcoms with an undercurrent of whipcrack smarts and heartfelt poignance, Jarmusch his go-nowhere culturally fluid existential slacker comedies — only they’re a little more jaded now, resigned to their fates, perhaps more grateful for the simpler things in life. These filmmakers were always gonna end up here, because if we’re around long enough, we all do.
The plotting of Vamps is delightfully ludicrous and doesn’t warrant close attention in a film so focused on subtext, but there are cute boys, a suspicious father-in-law-to-be cum vampire-slayer, an accidental pregnancy and, needless to say, Sigourney Weaver hamming it up as a bloodthirsty vampire queen. Tonally speaking, Heckerling is reprising much of what made Clueless a hit, including a refreshingly giddy, engaged performance from Alicia Silverstone, still beautiful but a little rough around the edges. Naturally, her character, Goody, is lying about her age (by, oh, only a century or so); her sprightly younger roommate and BFF Stacy (Krysten Ritter, who alludes to her drug-addicted past in a probable Breaking Bad reference, because that’s the kind of film this is), though also a vampire and child of the eighties, has no idea she’s living with a woman who got turned way back in 1841. Not that Goody is particularly subtle, regularly forgetting herself and digging deep into a well of history no youngster would know or care about, or going off on grandmotherly rants about the obnoxiousness of the modern technology and pop culture to which Stacy has more easily adapted. But Stacy is too busy being young to examine Goody’s oddball qualities, and as becomes apparent later, Goody keeps her oblivious for her sake as well as her own.
What makes this film special isn’t that it avoids being a Clueless revamp, but that it is, knows it is, and intimately understands the tragedy of its own aspirations. Goody’s perspective is filtered through a bizarre, often subtly referenced concoction of cultural and cinematic touchstones spanning across decades and demographics, and she’s more than a little out of touch with the modern world as it inexorably speeds up into the technological era; her vampirism is an embodiment of the nostalgia most of us experience as we grow older. Certainly, she’s a quite personal surrogate for both Heckerling and Silverstone, neither of whom have retained their relevance into the new millennium, but there’s no bitterness here. There’s resignation and a little sadness, sure, but Vamps is a sweetly, heartbreakingly amiable passing of the torch, which ironically happens to be the most youthful, exuberant thing either of them have done in years. The penultimate scene packs a bigger emotional punch than a bygone vampire chick-flick littered with bad jokes has any right to, poetically visualising the way the present is both coloured by the past and defined in contrast with it. The sweep of history, the fleeting nature of time, laid bare before our eyes.