Directed by Edward Drake
It feels like a long time since I saw a traditional vampire story. Over the years it’s become increasingly common to treat them as romantic protagonists, rather than just threats, and sometimes a guy just wants to watch a good old-fashioned bloodbath. The latest from director Edward Drake isn’t this, though with its focus on family politics over tortured romance it’s also a welcome return to something darker. In this case, the family are the Sinclairs: a wealthy line of vamps that got back centuries. However, lately, the draconian head of the house, August (Murphy), has become less popular – refusing to play by the rules guiding their kinds. It’s time for a coup, with a meal that’ll be poisoned by savant chef/ assassin Sydney (Lipnicki, aka the Jerry McGuire kid). Our way into this story, at least at first, is his granddaughter, and black sheep, Chance (Konrad): a moody teenager who thinks her aversion to the sun, and need for constant blood transfusions, is a rare illness. Lately, she’s been acting out at school, violently attacking one of her classmates. Maybe some time with grampa August will help her out.
This sounds like a fairly simple story, and it really should be. However, the tricksy narrative, that reaches back and forth through time, shifting perspective on the way, detracts from the plot – giving it an unfocused quality. It’s almost as if someone took a miniseries and tried to cram it all into an hour and a half, with something that’s tonally inconsistent and, in terms of pace, trips itself up. Both Chance and Sydney need to be introduced, though the lurch from one to the other in the first half means we’re patiently waiting in the second act while the movie turns back for more set-up. It’s just after halfway, when the starters get served, that it settles into a more linear approach. And it’s no coincidence that this is also the strongest section, by some way, with director Drake managing to find some sources of genuine tension between courses. The moments we wonder how much August knows about the plans to overthrow him are the most compelling and the game that underlies these bits is delightful.
The film is at its best when it’s exploring the dynasty’s politics, and delving into its vampiric lore. Much of the drama feels Shakespearian, particularly one very nasty twist, and it’s rewarding when their complicated familial dynamics at home hint towards a much bigger world outside the four walls. As part of the 1%, I like to think that their feasting on the blood of people is meant to be part of a message about exploitation and wealth. This is backed up by the shots of city office blocks standing like gods in the distance. These sorts of things should be left to viewers, and often the ambiguity works in Drake’s favour as a storyteller. Still, it’s frustrating that aspects, such as something called the harvest, remain so vague. As per We Are What We Are, much of the ritualistic behaviour is shown without much explanation. In theory, this is fine: as long as the characters seem to understand them. Though unlike that movie, or its remake, many of the things that aren’t put under the microscope are integral to the plot. In this case, I think it would have more impact were we better able to understand the rationale for Chance’s parents to hatch their plan in the first place – taking out a relative should be a big thing, no matter how much of an a-hole they are. This thin approach to characterisation is seen elsewhere, with the bratty Chance watching like many a misunderstood teen and the shy Sydney’s autism being treated like a plot device. Still, some of the supporting roles are enjoyably quirky. Likle Ready or Not, this one takes glee in making the very wealthy look very weird.
It doesn’t help that the acting is a mixed bag, with Timothy V Murphy being the clear standout among a cast who I don’t think are able to quite land the black comedy style. He plays the patriarch with a careful balance of malevolence and Irish charm, making for a memorable baddy in a not hugely memorable film. He’s both threatening and camp enough to ensure his scenes work. Elsewhere, there’s also an accomplished score that helps to elevate the action from an intimate family gathering into an epic battle spanning centuries. Quietly epic. Some of the mixing could be improved, with character voices sometimes getting muffled. Still, it helps a lot with generating tension during the frantic, but scrappy, third act. During which supporting characters are forced into leading roles and the narrative begins to hone in on a largely unearned relationship. Again, it’s a problem with the film’s structure gets in the way. Nonetheless, I applaud the writers for keeping me guessing with some surprising reveals – even if I was not fully invested in the final outcome.
Broil is out now on VOD.