‘Vlad’ was a big idea that comes out small

[rating=2]Starring: Billy Zane, Paul Popowich, Kam Heskin, Nicholas Irons, Brad Dourif, Francesco Quinn, Monica Davidescu
Director(s): Michael D. Sellers
Writer(s): Written by Michael D. Sellers, based upon a story concept by Tony Shawkat

'Vlad'
‘Vlad’

This was a difficult review to write. After watching Vlad — due out on DVD September 21st — I had to really sort through my feelings to figure out exactly what I thought of it. In the end, I was left with a rather ambiguous, it’s not bad… but it’s not exactly good, either.

Basically, the concept of the film has four college students embarking on a research project about Vlad the Impaler. However, their trip is threatened by a mysterious group who wish to get their hands on a mystical necklace, which one of the students has in their possession. The necklace’s powers soon bridge the past and future, by bringing Vlad the Impaler into the present day where he quickly sets out to wreck havoc.

Let me just say right now that the best thing I can say about this film is the acting. Surprisingly, it’s really not bad. I’ve seen my fair share of bad movies. In fact, I often revel in them. And many of them feature some really bad acting. But this film is actually well acted, with only one minor exception. Kam Heskin, who plays Alexa, hams her part a bit. Not a lot, but it’s a clear case of over acting. Otherwise, everyone else turns in a fine performance that really surprised me.

Unfortunately, I cannot give the rest of the film much credit. The story is unfocused and rather slow. There is virtually no character development, which hurts the film more than anything else. You just don’t care about any of these people. And without that emotional involvement, you really don’t care whether any of them live or die.

The uneven writing contributes to this factor, as well. When we’re introduced to the four students, Justin (Nicholas Irons) is a rude, obnoxious Brit who comes off clearly has the jerk of the group. Yet, halfway through the film, his character does a complete 180 and is suddenly this sensitive, caring person. This lack of focus affects several elements of the story, damaging the film.

Much of the story surrounds the power of Vlad’s mystical necklace. The trip by the students is arranged by Brad Dourif, a university professor. He and Billy Zane’s character are interested in getting their hands on the necklace, supposedly to protect people from its dangerous powers. However, we never really learn much about who they really are or what exactly they plan to do with the necklace.

Plus, several unnamed people also try to get their hands on the necklace. This is the weakest part of the tale. One sequence has Billy Zane being attacked by these men, but we never really learn who they are or what they want the necklace for.

Billy Zane was in the film for only a brief amount of time, but his presence elevates the movie. He’s a talented actor, and delivers an understated performance. But, his character dies halfway through the film, and he only pops up from time to time before that. Brad Dourif, the only other notable actor in the film, appears for only a few scenes at the beginning and never appears again.

The only other recognizable talent in the film is the unexpected voice of John Rhys-Davies — who many may know has Gimli from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He acts as a narrator in the opening sequence of the film. While I could listen to Davies read stereo instructions, his role here is rather odd. There is no real reason for his narration, since he does little more than describe the action we’re seeing on screen. Plus, his narration never comes up again.

The film also features a few moments of gratuitous nudity, a requirement in such fare. The first time is actually understandable. It doesn’t come off as being out of place. The actress, Romanian-born Monica Davidescu, is one of the highlights of the film. A talented actor who delivers a strong performance.

However, later in the film there is a sex scene between her and the film’s male lead, Paul Popowich. This scene, while generally entertaining for the obvious reasons, is completely unnecessary. With the context of the story, it has no purpose. Of course, sex sells, so I get why it is there. But the story makes no effort to even try and justify it.

And while the producers touted how the creators were steeped in the legend of Vlad and Romanian culture, none of it really impacts the film. The use of Romanian culture is interesting, but doesn’t have anything to do with the story. And at the end your left wondering how much of the Vlad history is based on fact, and how much is pure fiction.

Visually, the film has a nice style at times. The flashbacks are rich with color and texture. However, it falters often with editing problems and the poor DVD transfer. The locations are also impressive, but completely underutilized.

The DVD’s behind the scenes footage is also not very revealing, as it simply consists of footage shot on the set. But none of it is tied together with cast and crew interviews. It’s basically like watching a home movie or vacation video.

In the end, I very much wanted to enjoy this film. At the least, I was looking forward to viewing a fun B-movie. Sadly, fine acting aside, I just couldn’t get myself to enjoy this film. Ultimately, Vlad was long on concept but way too short on story.

*UPDATE*

Just wanted to note that while the original copy I received of the Vlad DVD did not have the director’s commentary — which had been noted on the back cover — I was recently sent a new version which did.

While the commentary is a little dry at times, the director, Michael D. Sellers, does express the difficulty he had due to budget constraints and time limitations. These cornerstones of low-budget filmmaking did cause me to feel for Sellers more than I had initially. I’ve experienced those problems myself, so I could understand his dilemmas.

At the same time, his commentary explains scenes and story points much clearer than the film actually does, making me wonder if perhaps he was too close to the project. That maybe it would have benefitted from someone else taking the helm, or at least a few more pairs of eyes to review the script and help rein in the scattered storytelling.

Rated: R
Run Time: 1 hr., 38 mins. 

Michael Sheridan

Michael Sheridan has written, directed and produced more than a dozen short films under the banner of Maynard Films, and has worked as a writer for more than a decade for websites, magazines and newspapers.

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