How ‘Vamps’ Showcases the Importance of Women Friendships

I’m reposting my review of Vampswhich previously appeared at Bitch Flicks on May 3, 2012in honor of Vamps opening in theaters (in limited release) tonight and releasing on DVD November 12.
Movie poster for Vamps
Vamps, the new indie film directed by Amy Heckerling and starring Alicia Silverstone and Krysten Ritter (the upcoming star of the TV show Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23) takes the vampire genre and turns it into a fun, feminist celebration of youth culture and female friendship. The film is part spoof of the recent onslaught of vampire fare, part romantic comedy, part buddy movie—with women!—part history documentary, with some astute political commentary thrown in, and, ultimately, a film about aging, which pays particular attention to the struggles women face within a culture that values youth and beauty above all else.

Jason Buchanan on Rotten Tomatoes effectively captures the plot as follows: “Radiant New York City vampires Goody (Alicia Silverstone) and Stacy (Krysten Ritter) find their immortality in question after learning that love can still smolder in the realm of the undead. Meanwhile, Russian bloodsucker Vadim (Justin Kirk) prowls the streets in search of the next big thrill, and Dr. Van Helsing (Wallace Shawn) seeks to exterminate the creatures of the night as young Joey Van Helsing develops an unusual fixation on Stacy. As ravenous ‘stem’ vampire Ciccerus (Sigourney Weaver) presides over her dark dynasty with the help of her loyal assistant Ivan (Todd Barry), oddball Renfield (Zak Orth) strives to impress Stacy and Goody by any means necessary. Amidst all of the bloodshed and intrigue, nefarious vampire Vlad (Malcolm McDowell) works to perfect his knitting skills.” 

Alicia Silverstone as Goody and Krysten Ritter as Stacy in Vamps
It’s a fun cast of characters for sure, but Silverstone and Ritter shine as the main (women) characters. And for once there’s almost no reason to discuss The Bechdel Test; these two ladies barely talk about men for the first half of the film. Instead, we get to see them playing practical jokes on each other, hanging out in their shared apartment (often texting back and forth while inside their two side-by-side coffins), discussing their fashion choices—which is hilarious, as they struggle to make sure they’re fitting in with the latest 2012 trends (Stacy was first turned into a vampire in the 80s, and Goody lived all the way through the 1800s)—and generally looking out for each other and even (gasp) looking out for other women.

[SPOILER] Case in point: one of my absolute favorite scenes in the film happens early on, when Goody and Stacy head out for their nighttime ritual of club-hopping and imitating the new dance moves of the local youth “Day Walkers” (the term they use to refer to The Living among them). A couple of particularly horrible dude vampires approaches a woman after she bends over, ass in the air, with the word “Juicy” written on her tight pants. The dude vamps merely introduce themselves to her, to which she responds, “I’ll get my coat.” Goody chastises the horrible dude vampires—Goody and Stacy drink only the blood of rodents, not humans—and the dudes respond with, “She’s asking for it,” referring to her “Juicy” attire. It’s a pretty fucking great commentary on the victim-blaming that always accompanies any instance of the rape or sexual assault of women

Stacy and Goody on the computer
Goody walks over to the woman with the goal of getting her to stay away from the vampires, but she ultimately ends up hypnotizing her; in this film, vampires have the power to erase the memories of Day Walkers. At first Goody says something to the woman (paraphrasing), “Listen, you don’t want to leave with them. They’re really bad guys.” The woman says, “I like bad guys.” Goody begins hypnotizing her, repeating, “No, I like nice guys.” The woman walks away, passing the horrible dude vampires, while saying, “I like nice guys. I like guys who listen to me when I say things.” (I laughed out loud at that.)

This scene makes me so happy for a couple of reasons. First, a woman intervening to help another woman avoid getting killed by two horrible dude vampires—an obvious metaphor for rape in this scene, rarely happens in movies. How lovely to see that! Because women looking out for their friends certainly happens in real life—first-hand experience! Second, while I don’t necessarily like the implication that women always go for Bad Boys, I appreciate the acknowledgment that bros like this, who want to harm, abuse, and assault women, definitely exist. 

Stacy, Goody, and Sigourney Weaver as Cisserus in Vamps
Also, get this: I turned 33 six months ago. I still have my crappy 35-dollar Blackberry that my sister’s dog spent an hour chewing on. (There are bite marks on the fucking battery.) Let me just say, I could relate to the commentary about youth culture in this film. Heckerling makes wonderful observations about technology, with constant mentions of Twitter, Facebook, texting (there’s a funny reference to someone being in a “textual relationship” due to lack of real-life communication), and other technological stuff I’m probably forgetting because I don’t know what it is. While the film definitely celebrates youth culture, especially in its appreciation of women’s fashion (which reminded me so much of Heckerling’s famous film Clueless), it also juxtaposes that celebration with a critique of the value our society places on youth. That theme comes into play throughout the film, but the focus on women and aging sharpens with the introduction of the head vampire in charge.

Two words: Sigourney Weaver. Do we not adore her? The Alien films, mainly due to Weaver’s badass role as Ellen Ripley, remain one of the quintessential go-to franchises for getting that much-needed feminist fix that Hollywood movies today seem less willing to provide. (Quick shout out to Hunger Games, though!) And Weaver’s role in Vamps as Cisserus, the head vampire, or “Stem,” as they refer to the few vampires who possess the power to turn people into vampires, displays some feminist qualities—strength, leadership, and ambition, to name a few—but her character isn’t without flaws.

While the other vamps fear Weaver’s character—because she’s In Charge—they mainly fear her because she’s the evil, murderous villain. She obsesses over acquiring the love of young men, and when she doesn’t get it, well, you know, she eats them. In many ways, she reminds me of a vampiric version of Miranda Priestly, Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada. She often summons Goody and Stacy (by psychically speaking to them), and it’s almost always to make them model clothing. (Ha!) See, vampires can’t see themselves in mirrors (invisible!), so Weaver wants to look at these women wearing her very youthful, fashionable clothing so that she can visualize what it possibly looks like on her. Eventually though, Cisserus’ power goes so far to her head that she begins putting the other vampires in danger, and the tagline for the last act of the film basically becomes “This Bitch Needs to Die.” 

Vampires hanging out at the club
A woman-in-charge who becomes an evil, power-hungry bitch who ruins lives? Where have I seen that before? (Clue: EVERYWHERE.) I did get the sense from Vamps, though, that it’s making light of that trope rather than relishing in it, and casting feminist film icon Weaver in that role further pushes it toward satire. An interview with Weaver in Collider sheds a bit more light on that:
Collider: What made you decide to jump into the vampire genre with Vamps?

Weaver: Well, I’m a big Amy Heckerling fan, and I also loved the character. She was so unrepentant … I love playing delicious, evil parts like that.

Collider: How does your character fit into the story?

Weaver: She is the person who turned the girls into vampires. So, they have to do her bidding, and she’s very unreasonable and demanding. I would have to say that the one change I made was that I thought she was not really enjoying herself very much, in the original script. I thought, “What’s not to enjoy?” She’s 2,000 years old, she can have anything, she can have anyone, she can do what she wants, so I wanted her to be totally in-the-moment. So, I talked to Amy about it and she just evolved that way. She’s a really happy vampire. She digs it.

(I have to admit, I can kind of get behind a woman—vampire or not—saying, “Fuck it; I own this town.”)
Most of the descriptions and plot summaries I’ve read of Vamps say things like: “Two female vampires in modern-day New York City are faced with daunting romantic possibilities” … (from imdb). True, but not quite. It’s ridiculous to reduce the film to the status of cheesy rom-com because, while both Stacy and Goody somewhat struggle with their hetero-romantic relationships, Vamps ultimately celebrates the friendship and love between the two lead women. (I will say that I have a feminist critique of the ending, but I can’t give it away YET; the movie only recently got picked up by Anchor Bay Films and will be released in theaters around Halloween.)

Stacy and Goody at the club
Overall, it’s pretty significant that I left the theater feeling that this movie—a vampire movie that follows most of the same vampire tropes as all vampire movies—explores something new. It’s also disappointing that I left with that feeling. Because when I thought about it later, I realized what felt so new to me was the depiction of a female friendship that seemed wonderfully authentic. Their dude problems were fairly secondary; their loyalty to each other trumped all other obstacles. Their friendship, in fact, resembled my real-life friendships with women: we don’t fight over men; we don’t sit around endlessly talking about men; we don’t get together and stuff our faces with entire cakes if a man doesn’t call.

That’s why this close relationship between Goody and Stacy is so important to see on The Big Screen in 2012.

In an interview conducted with the director Amy Heckerling by Women and Hollywood, Melissa Silverstein asks the question, “Do you have any comment on the fact that only 5% of movies are directed by women?” Heckerling’s response? “It’s a disgusting industry. I don’t know what else to say. Especially now. I can’t stomach most of the movies about women. I just saw a movie last night—I don’t want to say the name—but again with the fucking wedding, and the only time women say anything is about men.”