The Reluctant Vampire (3.07)
“Over the lips, over the fangs, say goodbye to hunger pangs!”
WHAT IS IT?
A nebbishy vampire working at a blood bank turns vigilante to keep the struggling business afloat.
The director is Elliot Silverstein, director of a few grudgingly recalled Westerns (A Man Called Horse, Cat Ballou). It’s cool that they got some old Hollywood talent to shoot one of these, even if he’s not one of my favorites. He did get Lee Marvin an Oscar, so that’s something. The cast is actually pretty gangbusters. Malcolm McDowell plays the titular hero, George Wendt is his windbag boss, and a couple small supporting roles are played by genre heroes Paul Gleason (Die Hard, The Breakfast Club) and Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes).
HOW IS IT?
I don’t like this episode. It’s grown on me a bit, mostly because there are too many fun conceits at play, but it’s not remotely good. Two things, I think, cripple it utterly. First off, it has absolutely no ambition to be anything but a silly little comedy, and secondly, it’s got a terrible sense of humor. The premise could easily have come from a book with a title like 1001 Kooky Vampire Jokes, but with the cast that’s been assembled, it might have been a fun goofball joke. But a dogged refusal to raise the dramatic stakes and the cast’s visible contempt for the dialogue win the day. What it ends up like is another Goosebumps episode, albeit one starring a bunch of characters in their forties and fifties.
It opens with a truly Garfieldian statement of purpose (“Oooh, I hate Mondays!” ) as Donald Longtooth (McDowell) awakens in his subterranean crypt. Donald is a scaredy-cat vampire who works at as a night watchman at blood bank, sampling the product so he doesn’t have to hurt anybody. McDowell is an actor that can be anything from excellent to terrible, and it seems largely contingent on his respect for the material. Guess where he comes out here! Donald is a solitary character, which means a lot of speaking his thoughts aloud, an awkward gambit that thuds badly here. As a mild salve, Donald gets a pet rat (‘Leopold’) to talk to, which mitigates it somewhat. The low point of the whole affair comes early, when Donald celebrates the blood feast he’s about to enjoy with a labored and unnatural bit of impromptu poetry and capering (see the quote above). Alex DeLarge had a similar penchant for poetic capering, and the gap between the two might as well be the Grand Canyon.
Like most small businesses, the blood bank is a hotbed of Machiavellian power plays and unrequited longing. Mr. Crosswhite (Wendt, impersonating a John Goodman villain) is the bullying boss, who spends much of the episode bellowing threats and telling shrinking violet Sally (Sandra Searles Dickinson) that she’s fired if she doesn’t let him bang her. Sally, for her part, is infatuated with Donald, and he likes her too, but anytime she talks to him, his fangs pop up like a pair of shameful teenage erections. These two lonesome dorks trying to figure out how to connect with each other is kind cute, even if the actors aren’t, and the use of vampirism as a metaphor for sexual anxiety is counterintuitive enough to be interesting, but it doesn’t go anywhere unique or worthwhile. Also, this relationship cribs hugely from Little Shop of Horrors, right down to Sally’s ditzy squeak voice.
Donald’s sampling of the product may have put the blood bank in financial straights, though, and he’s forced to go collect a refill. Fortuitously, he runs into a mugger, who he joyfully exsanguinates in an alley. The process is kinda like the Let the Right One In serial murder sequence played for slapstick laughs, with Donald jumping up and down on a corpse to pump the blood out into a plastic jug. This murder attracts the attention of not only the police (led with rumpled irritation by Paul Gleason), but fearless vampire hunter Rupert Van Helsing (Michael Berryman), who offers his services to Gleason as the only one able to battle the mysteries of the unseen world. There isn’t nearly enough of these two, and in fact I wish they’d been the whole episode, watching Gleason’s oblivious, irritated detective bump up against the old world superstitions and general freakishness of Berryman. My enjoyment of this is probably just the casting, as the gags remain pretty juvenile, but still, it’s a great pairing.
Business remains terrible at the blood bank, and Crosswhite is threatening massive layoffs, especially if no one puts out. Donald steps up to the task, becoming a more literal Batman and taking out the local criminal element, told to us through old school montage (spinning newspapers and all). Finally, everything culminates in the big finale sequence/tying up of loose ends. Donald comes home, Crosswhite jumps out at him and attacks with holy water squirt guns, plotting to enslave him. Then Sally jumps out, says she loves him and has always known he’s a vampire, which, you know, whatever. Donald knocks Crosswhite out with his Murphy bed/coffin, and is about to devour him, when Gleason and Berryman show up as well, and mistake Crosswhite for the vampire killer, and stake him. They buzz off, Sally asks Donald to turn her into a bride of the undead, and he does, and they’re happy. And I believe, the first time Crypt went with an unambiguously happy ending.
Honestly, the plot here is adequate, if awfully silly, and there’s no reason it couldn’t have been fun, especially with this cast. But the tone is just punishingly unsophisticated and low-aiming. It’s not just the banal puns or the ham-fisted performances, but the overall approach from the top on down. There are several moments where the characters look directly at the camera and shrug, as if to say ‘Can you BELIEVE how lame this is!” Nothing is given any dramatic weight by the script, the direction, or the performances, so the only thing to enjoy is uncommitted name actors reciting bad writing. What it mostly feels like is they’ve been forced to appear in an old school Saturday morning cartoon (I was personally reminded of Rick Moranis in Gravedale High, so thanks for that, Reluctant Vampire). I recently saw Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos for the first time, and found it to be audacious in the way it subverted all expectations of how you might tell a vampire story. It’s a movie made with passion and creativity so thick in the air you can practically see them. The Reluctant Vampire is the cosmic inverse of that film, a lazy slog through familiar tropes it would rather stare lazily at than engage with. So of course that’s the one I end up writing about.
HOW EVIL ARE THE WOMEN?
Not at all! It’s even progressive, casting an older, unattractive woman as the ingénue.
ALSO WORTH NOTING:
*George Wendt stars in a flat out excellent episode of Masters of Horror that’s more Tales From the Crypt-y than most Crypt episodes, including this one. It’s called Family, and it’s not only the best MOH episode, it would be high on the list for Crypt too.
*Donald Longtooth would eventually be used as a writing pseudonym for future Crypt episodes None But the Lonely Heart and Beauty Rest. No idea who it really was. Anyone know?
*Did you know Michael Berryman suffers from Hyphidrotic Ectodermal Displasia, which means he has no sweat gland, hair, fingernails, or teeth!
WORST CRYPT KEEPER JOKE:
“Now that’s a relationship they can sink their teeth into!”
This is one of the few episodes I saw in my youth, and it probably should have stayed that way. Like John said, there’s fun to be had with this cast and premise but the execution isn’t there at all. It’s almost strange to say that McDowell is slumming it here, since he gave up being a serious actor long before even this episode in 1991, but as good as he is at hamming it up in films like Tank Girl or Rob Zombie’s Halloween, I don’t think he’s a particularly gifted comic actor. Michael Berryman is a joy to watch, though, especially in the costume they gave him, which makes him look like a turtle dressed as Judge Doom.