Monday, February 7, 2011

Dark Angel: The Ascent (1994) & Modern Vampires (1998): 2 by Matthew Bright

When I first saw the Oliver Stone-produced Freeway (1996), I am almost certain that it was via cable television. Its star Reese Witherspoon (whom I had only known previously from her turn in twisted American-indie, S.F.W. (1994)) was a modern-day Little Red Riding Hood, off from L.A. to see grandma while the Big Bad Wolf, in the form of a psychopath (Keifer Sutherland), gives her a ride. It was a clever premise for the film, but even more impressive was its screenplay, penned by its director, Matthew Bright. Bright had a sharp wit, an acid tongue, and possessed a keen sense of his culture. His work pre-dates kindred spirits such as Matt Stone and Trey Parker and is also reminiscent of John Waters. Freeway is full of cultural stereotypes, and its humor always pushes the edge of being offensive. The humor does not derive from depictions of the stereotypes unadulterated, as, of course, that would be uninteresting: the stereotypes are polarized, perverted, and subverted, where everyone is the target of the joke and everyone is simultaneously taking aim. At the time when it was released, this type of humor was still cutting edge. Now, mainstream cinema and stand-up comedy has absorbed this style, and it is fairly common. Freeway is sick fun; and it was even more shockingly entertaining, because I happened to stumble upon it via a late-nite cable viewing. “A common theme through all of these stories [screenplays by Bright], including Modern Vampires, features a violent, vulgar, and totally misunderstood young lady who Matthew claims is based on composites of the main women in his life.” (quote from a supplemental text biography on Bright included on this Modern Vampires DVD.) This description is apt, but I thought that I would take a look at two very different treatments of Bright’s screenplays, Dark Angel: The Ascent (1994) and Modern Vampires (1998). Dark Angel: The Ascent is a Full Moon Pictures production; and this statement says a lot for those familiar with the company. Charles Band’s Full Moon Pictures enjoyed its heyday in my teens. I loved the fact that the local video store had at least one title from them a month; and their VHS covers always emphasized the comic-book quality of the films’ style. Full Moon released comic tie-ins with their successful series, like Puppet Master and Subspecies, and collectibles, like toys, were available. Band had a strong commercial sense; and notably, every Full Moon release certainly had a formula for success. What is notable about the majority of these 90s releases is that they are rarely overtly comedic and almost never provocative. Band never wanted to purposefully offend any prospective viewer (at least those viewers who enjoyed crossing the B-movie threshold). For anyone who had seen Freeway, how would a Bright screenplay play out where its lines were delivered often serious and straight with not a hint of irony to be found anywhere? Veronica (Angela Featherstone) is a young demon, living with her working parents, in one of the lower circles of hell. She desires more than anything to walk above “under the golden orb” amongst the humans. This is forbidden, however. After a spat with her parents over dinner, she runs away and makes it topside. Veronica assumes a human form. Uneducated in human culture and their ways, she gets struck down by a car whereupon she is brought into the arms of a very pure and kind-hearted young doctor. He treats her and eventually houses Veronica in her home. Dark Angel is weird, not because of its premise, but because it’s played so straight. Veronica’s “programming” from her upbringing in hell makes her a vigilante on Earth: she’s killing criminals in the most violent methods, like ripping someone’s spine out. One of the inherent jokes, which is lost in this production, is that Veronica is really the product of a dysfunctional family and community. Her behavior stems from some idea of good and evil, yet her methods aren’t demonic, just misguided. Conveniently, when Veronica wants to fornicate with her young doctor, she’s immune from sin, as demons cannot receive a blessing from God for nuptial bliss. A good opportunity to pop in a sex scene. The dichotomy of the dysfunction vs. the demonic could have been brilliant, but Dark Angel is just too conservative to see it.However, Angela Featherstone as Veronica is quite enchanting. That is to say, once she takes human form and gets the demonic special effects off of her face. She is able to deliver lines with such genuineness that few actresses are able to muster. Again, just another lost opportunity of this production to capitalize on her talent.

Modern Vampires (1998) is written by Bright and directed by Richard Elfman, brother of Danny, who composed the film’s opening score. Elfman reveals on a “behind-the-scenes” featurette included on the Modern Vampires DVD that he and Bright were childhood friends. Bright had penned the screenplay for the film a decade earlier, and Elfman helped him polish it up. The familiarity between Bright and Elfman is definitely a reason why Modern Vampires is the superior film of the two.
Natasha Gregson Wagner is Nico (no, not that one, but they do look alike at times), a young woman walking the streets as a would-be prostitute: she gets picked up by her johns, and then she drains their blood. Count Dracula (Robert Pastorelli), who is currently residing in Los Angeles among the vampire culture, is a little pissed at young Nico. She is not being discreet at all with her feedings, and soon enough, she will be caught by the police, revealing to the world the existence of vampires.
Enter the very-good-looking Dallas, portrayed by Casper Van Dien. Dallas is an exiled vampire returning to Los Angeles for a while, to see some old friends and have some good times. Some of his old friends are Ulrike (Kim Catrall), Richard (Craig Ferguson), and Vincent (Udo Kier). Dallas is also on the bad side of the Count; and perhaps, his outsider status draws him to the young, rogue vampire, Nico. The true star of this excellent ensemble cast is Rod Steiger as Van Helsing. Steiger plays Van Helsing as an ego-maniacal Austrian with so much zeal that it’s infectious. Van Helsing, upon arrival in L.A., puts an ad in the local newspaper to find an assistant in vampire hunting. One of the local Crips, named Time Bomb (Gabriel Casseus), answers the ad; and for the money that Van Helsing is offering, he’ll fuck up anyone that Van Helsing wants. The two actors have a terrific chemistry and comedic timing. As Modern Vampires went on, I just started laughing when I saw Steiger’s face. He’s that funny. Wagner’s Nico is the heart and soul of Modern Vampires. It’s interesting to watch as seemingly everyone wants to tell her how to act, speak, and dress, while all she really wants is to have some friends and a good time. It’s unsurprising that she’s an outsider and a non-conformist. There is only so much bullshit that one can take before rebelling. Wagner is often endearing and often extremely funny.

Underneath the humor and its often sharp cultural anecdotes, both Bright screenplays show a real affection and kinship towards outsiders. Interestingly, both Featherstone as Veronica and Wagner as Nico understood this sentiment very well with their performances. While unfortunately Dark Angel is hampered by everything around Featherstone’s Veronica, those curious should still seek it out. Modern Vampires is very clever fun and is very much recommended.


A.D. said...

Good finds, Hans. I absolutely love FREEWAY for so many reasons, but I never really sought out anything else by Bright. I did take a gander at his IMDB page once upon a time and was a little intimidated by the amount of B-movie titles listed under his writer/director credits, which is probably why I didn't seek out his films. These look like fun, though. Natasha Gregson Wagner is a fox (coincidentally, she was also in SFW, which you namedropped in your review).

Your description of DARK ANGEL reminds me of NECROPOLIS in that they're connected by the theme of a demonic young woman thrust into modern times. Have you seen that one? Keep up the great work, Hans!

Stephen said...


I too am a big fan of FREEWAY and, for some reason, apart from its sequel, I never thought to investigate what else Matthew Bright had made.

Then I stumbled across thanks. These films, Modern Vampires especially, sound like they have the same energy found in FREEWAY.