It is said that the proof of the mortal is in the drinking, and we have drunk. Following all of the media coverage and all of the hype, Bloodstone has been to see the first decent British vampire film since the decline of the Roman Empire and the closure of Hammer Studios in the 1970s. That said, does 'Razor Blade Smile' live up to its hype? All will be revealed...
'Razor Blade Smile' is what the British film industry has needed for a very long time: a sharp wake-up call that there are talented British directors with vision and imagination, who desperately want their work to be noticed by the world at large. That is should also be a horror film is a double jolt to the system, as this has been for some years a genre into which only the Americans with their inflated budgets and special effects teams have put any real time and effort. While we crawl along in our thousands to see the latest Wes Craven slasher it is perhaps time for a reminder that horror was once the staple of the British film industry's greatest international export. With the decline of Hammer Films, interest in making good quality horror in the UK seemed largely to have fallen by the wayside. So praise whatever deities you believe in for the passion and dedication of Jake West.
Despite its modest budget and home-grown cast, 'Razor Blade Smile' has all the promise of the resurgent British film industry riding on its shoulders. The success of this film will perhaps determine whether other British directors with similar energy and enthusiasm will step up and try to restore some of this country's former filmic glory. Made for an estimated £1m, 'Razor Blade Smile' was snapped up by Japanese animι giant Manga, who sought an opportunity to break into the live action film market. They invested a lot of money into the picture, enabling additional special effects work to be undertaken on the main titles and on the dream-sequence elements of the film. This post-production boost has given the film something of a split personality, and it is evident that the cash came after the film was primarily completed. However, this is not to say that it spoils the overall effect. Director Jake still maintained complete artistic control over the movie and the bottom line is that the film is strong enough to stand on its own merits, even if you took the special effects out which should always be the benchmark of a truly good film. True, it would be a very different film without the gloss, but it would still be a worthy film. The script is strong, all the characters are well rounded and with genuine personality, and the soundtrack is a perfect blend of techno, rock and classical elements, although with an original score by Richard Wells which keeps the atmosphere tight and sharp and adds depth to the whole proceedings. The action is well paced, the story clever, the humour black, the gore never overstated. In short, this is an original and thoroughly competent vampire film, played with sincerity and believability by all involved. With the extra injection of cash it has the potential to do exceptionally well at the box office, a fact which the recent controversy over the film's advertising images is sure to boost.
As director Jake West has been keen to promote, the film has a very strong and definitive 'look', created by the combination of imaginative lighting, location shooting, costumes and action sequences, including some deeply symbolic dream imagery and a beautifully lit flashback segment. As Jake says: "We wanted to use every trick in the book from camera speeds to lighting design." These often subconscious effects work upon the involved viewer to suggest elements about the characters and their interactions which aren't explicitly revealed, so how much you get out of the film relates to how much attention you pay to the minutiae of its production.
The colour schemes and camera speeds are probably the most obvious points of awareness, with occult references following closely behind. Repetitive use of blue (symbolic in magickal terms of occult power, higher wisdom, inspiration and the feminine) and orange (denoting sexual power, mental knowledge, practicality and the masculine) promote a subconscious polarity between the two key figures in the film, the justicial Lilith and the corrupt Sethane. When occult images like the Illuminati septagram (7 sided star) and the all-seeing Eye come into play, the films becomes instantly more profound, for those prepared to approach such imagery with an open mind. The conspiracy theory angle is a wonderful interpolation of modern ideas of hidden agendas onto the traditional activities of the vampire. Camera technique is also vital in suggesting the nature both of the vampires and of the rest of the mortal world. As the film opens in the past, black and white film was used to create the period atmosphere, and the majority of the past action was shot in slow motion. As Lilith is shot and supposedly dying the grainy quality of the black and white becomes more pronounced and the vividness of the blood is the only colour in the scene as Lilith is laid out on a blood-soaked bed to await her end. As she recalls the moment in a later dream, Lilith sits up as a vampire and screams at her maker: "What have you done to me?... You've made me a monster!" Cut to modern times and flashy colour is emphasised by double speed photography and the first of the thumping rock and techno elements to the soundtrack. Overall, the 'look' of this film is one of the many things which sets it above more conventional vampire fare, and makes it such an important contribution to the film history of the vampire.
In the launch issue of Bloodstone we looked at the expectations which 'Razor Blade Smile' has excited in the vampire world. Having now seen the film at a pre-release press showing (the film goes on general release around Hallowe'en 1998) we can now exclusively reveal just how well it lives up to its hype. Media interest is remarkably high surrounding this release, with magazines picking up on a variety of different angles to the film in order to promote it. Horror mags have of course made the vampire connection, whilst the film's figurehead Eileen Daly (who plays assassin Lilith Silver) has drawn attention from publications such as 'Bizarre' and 'Skin Two'.
Now the danger with all this pre-publicity is that some very significant facts about the film might be overlooked in the rush to over-hype and bedazzle the public. The film is a low-budget production, even with the extra boost given it by Manga, and anyone going along expecting something with the plush sets and expensive costumes of, for example, 'Interview with the Vampire', will be sadly disappointed. This is not a grand epic vampire tale in the sense of million dollar backgrounds and a cast of thousands. It is a film which uses open sets and locations to great effect without needing elaborate stage sets, and whose cast numbers at most 50 people, including extras. This small scale modesty should never be underestimated, and it would be dangerous to suggest a literal comparison with a film of the kind of size of 'Interview with the Vampire' or 'Bram Stoker's Dracula'.
However there is a real magick within 'Razor Blade Smile'. Despite the obvious restrictions of time and money, the best seems to have been given by all concerned, and you can walk away from the film with a contented smile on your face and a feeling of having witnessed something very special indeed: a vampire film made for the sheer desire to make one. No studio or big name commissioned 'Razor Blade Smile', and the film happened because the people involved with it truly believed in it. It was a personal crusade, something with which we at Bloodstone can completely empathise, since this is exactly what Bloodstone and the Vampyria trilogy are a personal crusade. Even before getting distribution through Manga, director Jake West was determined to push his fangsome baby into the spotlight, and it is this determinism which weaves its way continually through the film's carefully executed images. From sharp visual treats, every camera angle and trick known, to subtle lighting designs which work subconsciously on the senses, this film is a visual and emotional treat, but for all the different reasons to a mega-budget Hollywood epic. It is the film's closeness which makes it far more believable than many a glossy flick. By keeping the action in confined locations, and keeping the cast small, the director is able to put more emphasis on the intricacies of the plot and the interaction of the characters. Jake's intention was to reclaim the classic model of the effective action film, but to use vampires instead of gangsters. "I've always loved vampire movies so writing one put the pressure on me to live up to my high ideals of what I think a vampire movie should be. Plus in the UK I'm fed up with conventional period dramas and social commentary what happened to entertainment? Nobody has made a proper vampire film in Britain for over a decade!" It is with this sentiment and passion that 'Razor Blade Smile' came into being.
So does this movie make the grade as a vampire film? The answer to this must be a resounding YES.
The story revolves around Lilith Silver, whose life as a vampire assassin began in 1850 when she almost died caught up in a duel over the man she loved. Now she fights the sinister forces at work around her, carving out a realistic profession for herself which enables her to work largely by night and feed her hunger for blood. Kitted out in the most fabulous rubber outfits, and with a coffin-filled armoury which any self-respecting psychopath would envy, she blasts her way into our affections from the very start. And as she sees it, we need to be told a few things about vampires. As she tells us at the start of the film: "I bet you think you know all about vampires believe me, you know fuck all!" She then proceeds to obliterate most of Bram Stoker's version of what a vampire is: garlic is objectionable but not deadly; sunlight attacks her super-sensitive eyes but only temporarily blinds her; she has no need to sleep in a coffin by day (where would she stash her weapons?!); and she cannot morph into bat, wolf or mist. As each layer of the vampiric myth is stripped away we are left with an altogether far more human vampire than we have ever been given on film before. And the misinformation which people believe about vampires is Lilith's ultimate weapon the humans simply cannot believe what they see. In her one-on-one battle with Detective Inspector Price (Jonathan Coote) she combats each of his stereotypical weapons (stake, crucifix, garlic, sunlight) with ease, using the unfeasible myths about vampires (and the natural scepticism of 20th century humanity) as her most effective combat tools. Price falls into Van Helsing mode very soon into the film, but unlike his predecessor the usual trappings of the vampire hunter don't work on this toothsome killer.
The pivot of the film is Lilith's involvement with the ultra-sinister Illuminati, a pseudo-Masonic elite known also as 'The Lost People'. As Lilith's conspiracy theorist friend tells her, the Illuminati are the ultimate in shadowy organisations. Even he, used to breaking information out of top secret societies, couldn't get anything on them. All he is able to tell her is that they are said to "possess the light" from a higher source (hence the name Illuminati), and he describes them as "Freemasonry on acid"! It is this 'Lost People' that Lilith is being commissioned to kill, one by one. As she draws closer to the sinister sect, she discovers that her vampiric maker Sir Sethane Blake is its figurehead, ancient and powerful and totally corrupt. With typical arrogance he states: "When you've been around as long as I have you don't just infiltrate the power structures... you are the power structures!"
As the trailer promised, this is a film which steers away from the boring formula of period dramas, the more common fare in recent years of the British film industry. The romance of the vampire as typified in virtually every film ever made is noticeably absent, replaced by sexually predatory vampires, ruthlessly going about their business and crushing anyone who stands in their way. Whilst most of those who die in the film could be said to deserve their fate the Illuminati baron who makes his money from the suffering of others, the sleazy photographer who seeks to exploit Lilith for his own ends, the assassins who take the chance of being killed every time they enter the fray some of the key deaths in the film are apparently motiveless, inspired only by the baser reasons of spite (Sethane's fatal wounding of Lilith's boss and some-time lover Platinum), contempt (Lilith's seduction and brutal slaying of the ultra-goth Ariauna) or practicality (Lilith's killing of Cindy, the last remaining witness to her assassination of the Illuminati baron). It is this ruthlessness which typifies the vampire so perfectly, and yet most film-makers have purposefully avoided such extremes of cool violence in the past in favour of following an equally motiveless romanticism. The graphic nature of the death of the photographer paralysed by a fatal bite to the penis and then finished off by having his head snapped around on his spinal cord (ΰ la 'Interview with the Vampire') stands out for its brutality, whilst the heavy eroticism of the seduction of Ariauna stands out for its bloodiness and gothic sensuality. This scene, replete with beautiful touches of passion and irony Lilith removes the fake fangs from Ariauna's mouth before so much as kissing her is the closest the film ever gets to all out romanticism. When Ariauna asks "Am I dreaming?" Lilith replies "Maybe. Does it matter?" and goes on to announce in voice-over that "For the right victim I can make it the most beautiful way to expire." But as the lingering pan-shot of Ariauna's lifeblood trickling down the tight lacing of her boot and onto the bed pulls back into a view of the dead girl, Lilith casually lights a match and sends the entire room up in a burst of flames.
Lilith's philosophy is simple: she didn't choose to be a vampire but now that she is one she might as well be pragmatic and face up to it. She chooses a job which suits her hours and her temperament. She kills without guilt or conscience (the closest she comes to this is when Platinum is fatally wounded and she must choose whether to finish him off or not), and even makes the killing entertaining by rating the blood on a scale as to its taste. An early victim is dismissed as "F grade druggy shit" whilst Sethane taunts her that Platinum is probably A class! Lilith sees vampires as a contradiction, unconditional individuals who seem evil but know better than human beings how to really enjoy what they are. "Humans never smile enough," she laughs at the end of the movie. It is her ability to find humour and entertainment in her existence which makes her eternity bearable and worthwhile most human beings have difficult even keeping their short lives full of things to smile about. This is vampirism without the angst of seeing mortal lovers grow old and die, without the fear of sunlight and crucifixes, without the gothic sentimentality to be found in most films and novels of the genre.
Of course the film is not just Lilith. Christopher Adamson as Sethane Blake makes a superlative vampire: physically far removed from the ethereal beauty of Brad Pitt's Louis or Tom Cruise's Lestat, his fiery dark eyes and rugged face give him a realism which is altogether lacking in the 'beautiful people' of American vampire films. He is the quintessential Victorian villain at the start of the film one could almost imagine him twirling his oiled moustaches in fine imitation of Tod Slaughter in 'Maria Marten'! and in the modern day he is the ruthless and all-powerful head of the ultra-sinister occult brotherhood, the Illuminati. The conflict and personal rivalry between Sethane and his vampiric child Lilith provides much of the incidental humour and black wit in the film, and Sethane is frequently portrayed in settings where potential humour arises. (I particularly enjoyed the scene where his feeding is interrupted by a phone call and his hunger-extended fangs get in the way of him speaking.) That said, he is still the single most dynamically evil character in the entire film, and Adamson plays the character with zealous aplomb and real energy... and that voice!
The other key character in the film is Detective Inspector Price, the human brought in by Sethane to investigate Lilith's organised slayings of Illuminati initiates. As he bumbles from fatal misjudgement to total catastrophe he exemplifies the role of the audience in conventional vampire films. We look at his use of all the typical weapons of the vampire hunter the stake, the crucifix, garlic etc and find it amusing that everything fails against Lilith. Unaware that his employer Sethane is also a vampire, as are his bodyguards, Price becomes even more the comedy figure until his final, inevitable end. That said, the character of Price may be of the familiar 'bumbling detective' type but the actor who portrays him, Jonathan Coote, could not be more competent at his job. As the figure most easily associated with by the majority of the audience, he acts as our guide to the real world of the vampires, as Price slowly becomes enmeshed in the games being played by the Illuminati and by the assassin Lilith. Gradually realising that all the myths about the vampire are just that fictional he has to think on his feet continually throughout the movie. Coote brings a likeable innocence to the role, generating sympathy and collusion from the audience despite our secret hopes that the vampires will win out in the end, we feel on the surface that we ought to be on Price's side simply because he's such a nice guy. (Well, that's if you can forgive him attacking Lilith with a stake and trying to kill her even whilst she's in police custody!)
The film is dedicated to the memory of David Warbeck, for whom 'Razor Blade Smile' was his final film. His cameo as the 'Horror Film Man' a forensic pathologist with a particularly black sense of humour tailed a career which was largely spent in the Italian horror and action arena, but which included an early appearance as the hero of Hammer's superlative vampire picture 'Twins of Evil'. Unfortunately, owing to his death in July 1997, Warbeck never got to see a completed version of 'Razor Blade Smile', though he was able to see his scene and was very pleased with how it looked. Director Jake says: "David phoned me from his hospital bed after seeing the scene and said it was the best work he'd done for ten years! I was overjoyed, as David was a genuine star who agreed to a cameo appearance in the film, and for that... I feel greatly honoured. He was a truly courteous man and helped many low budget film-makers, like myself, because he loved his work and was actually willing to give his time for free a real statesman for the industry." It is as a mark of ultimate respect to this true English gentleman who enriched the lives of those who knew and worked with him that the film is dedicated to his memory.
And so to sum up, how fares 'Razor Blade Smile' to a vampire audience? Casting aside the conventional vampire film stereotypes, 'Razor Blade Smile' presents vampires as they should always have been portrayed: practical, ruthless, sexy and devastatingly powerful. Although the romantic angle of the film is kept to a minimum, which might offend some of the gothic purists amongst us, there are a dozen other strengths to the film which make it one which every self-respecting vampire should go and see. Go to support the British film industry; go to show solidarity for a young director who works with a rare passion and vision; go out of respect for all the hard work and energy expended in getting this picture onto the cinema screens in the first place; but first and foremost go because it is a glorious, witty, energetic, bloody, sexy, powerful vampire film.
see also on this site: Razor Blade Smile
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