Richard E. GrantJim CarterAlice KrigePamela Gidley
The Little Vampire
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Director: Uli Edel
Writer: Angela Sommer-Bodenburg, Karey Kirkpatrick, Larry Wilson
Keywords: fantasy, vampires
Country: Germany, Netherlands, USA
Actor: Jonathan Lipnicki, Richard E. Grant, Jim Carter, Alice Krige, Pamela Gidley, Tommy Hinkley, Anna Popplewell, Dean Cook, Rollo Weeks, John Wood, Ed Stoppard, Jake D'Arcy, Iain De Caestecker, Scott Fletcher, Johnny Meres, Georgie Glen, Elizabeth Berrington, Harry Jones, Nick Smith
Format: 95 minutes
Website category: Fantasy
Review date: 7 April 2011
Imagine it as the kiddie film equivalent of an Anne Rice adaptation. It feels a bit Disneyfied (though it's not a Disney film), but if you can get past the vaguely annoying bits, it's pretty good underneath. The main problem is the child actors, but most of the time even they're okay.
Seriously, there's a lot here to appreciate. Everything's solid and there are some genuinely nifty touches, but unfortunately there are also kiddie film performances. The subplot with the bullies is fine in theory, for instance, but unfortunately after their big comeuppance I wanted to punch someone every time they appeared. The child actors are failing to sell the scene so badly that it's become unwatchable. They're clearly the worst, but Rebel Teen Vampire is painful in the scene where he's called upon to act and even the adults are capable of Children's Film Foundation ham. As for the two leads, Jonathan Lipnicki and Dean Cook, they're watchable with the odd glitch, but you'd never call them good. I see both of them are still getting acting work today, but not quite enough that you'd feel comfortable saying that they're definitely going to make a career out of this. That seems about right to me. Cook's doing slightly better out of the two of them, although Lipnicki was more famous at the time (e.g. Jerry Maguire, Stuart Little) and is also by five years the younger.
For me, it's what derailed the movie. Everything else about it, I liked. The plot's fairly predictable and there are a couple of moral hiccups where the film doesn't seem to have noticed that one of the human characters has more or less committed murder, but those aren't crippling faults. No, the problem is that a perfectly normal story beat can be killed by child actors who are having an off day. I was curling up in pain when Lipnicki started teaching Cook slang, although surprisingly this then gets forgotten so completely that it made me laugh when it popped up again much later.
As for the adults, Cemetery Guy is annoying on first acquaintance and at first Jim Carter struck me as just a buffoonish comedy villain, but he later turned that around and became a real person. (Any blame goes to the film, not the good actor.) He tries to get the local lord to pay him a fee for his vampire-hunting, can convincingly threaten to kill someone and even has one quiet scene where he's just sitting by a fire and talking about the past. I'd have liked him to be terrifying, of course. He should have been. He's a full-time vampire hunter who has a ton of equipment and isn't too particular about choosing his targets, or even about sacrificing innocents to the bloodsuckers if that happens to serve his purposes. This guy could have traumatised an entire generation... which of course is why they didn't go down that route and he's got that buffoonish edge instead. I still quite liked him, but he'd be the blundering comic relief in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
It's not all bad news with the actors, though. Lipnicki's parents are solid and really made me laugh towards the end, just by being decent actors in an extreme situation. It also has to be said that the casting director's picked actors who really look like vampires, as is demonstrated in the scene when they're not in full costume. They still looked vampiric to me! That was good. Cook's parents are being played by Richard E. Grant and Alice Krige, so no complaints there except for the moment where I presume the editor chopped out one of Grant's acting beats.
However as I've been saying, underneath all that it's pretty good.
I really like the vampires. The production design is excellent, with some 17th century flashbacks that would fit into a proper Hammer horror film except that they look way too good. They're all uber-goth, but that's fine. Furthermore they've gone for a high-powered (and fun) interpretation of vampire lore, not dwelling on their weaknesses and instead concentrating on more entertaining stuff like flight, crawling on ceilings and weird bat metamorphoses. Grant and Krige appear to have some kind of subtle mesmeric powers, which is handled delicately enough that you couldn't say their victims were hypnotised and you couldn't say they weren't. I really liked that scene, if only because it's very funny. Then you've got unexpected moments like the scene where Anna Popplewell solemnly gives Lipnicki a dead mouse. This isn't just a string of vampire cliches, but something richer and more characterful. I'd have been happier still if I could have believed for a moment that these 300-year-old children really were that old, but for various reasons that was never going to be an option.
Oh, and the film's chosen rules are that anyone bitten becomes a vampire. It's the most virulent kind of infection, in other words, instead of a more restrained Buffy-esque approach to siring. This yields one of the film's funniest ideas when the vampires feed on cows.
The plot's based on a MacGuffin hunt to "cure the curse", unfortunately. It's adequate, but it railroads the story down familiar lines and diminishes the vampires by making it their motivation just to become ordinary people again. In fairness, Lipnicki's early scenes contain some shreds of dialogue that suggest we might get an exploration of this, e.g. "it's great to be a vampire" and "I want to be a vampire too". Unfortunately the script then forgets that it ever went there. The movie also has less fun than you'd expect with the wish-fulfilment factor of children with superpowers sneaking out at night to do whatever they want. Before long we're seeing the vampire family as a unit, with Richard E. Grant as the patriarch and the children mostly following along behind him.
The setting's great, though. Lipnicki's American family has moved to Scotland, so you've got modern kids in a moldering Tim Burton setting of castles and graveyards. I liked the moment where someone says "vampires" and an entire hall full of people falls silent. The film does rather well at making it feel absolutely like the modern world, but one that's keeping one foot in the old ways at the same time.
I should return to those moral hiccups, though. One's from the vampire hunter and hence legitimate characterisation, but even so you've got to be aghast at what he does to Silly Cemetery Guy. It's only the audience who know we're watching a kiddie flick in which vampires are nice and no one's going to die. However the other one's even more shocking, in which Lipnicki's nice dad pushes the vampire hunter over a cliff because he's found him annoying. Yes, they put a splash on the soundtrack. You could redub it with a splatter and it wouldn't change what Lipnicki's dad just did. Note that both of these incidents involve a human sort of murdering another human.
Incidentally it's based on a series of German children's books by Angela Sommer-Bodenburg. There had also previously been two TV series, one in 1985 from Canada and a sequel in 1993 from Germany.
This is a witty film. Look at the telephone conversation between an American and a fraught Scottish babysitter with a strong accent, for instance. "In English!" I like the production design, the worldbuilding wrinkles and the way that these feel like real vampires in a real Scotland. I could easily imagine lots of people really loving this film, but I'd still hesitate about recommending it. The performances are the stumbling block. They trip up the movie and make good stuff look bad. It would be possible to write this off as a dumb kiddie film with some nice twiddles in the corners, whereas in fact it's better than that. Personally I enjoyed it and I might yet recommend it to someone who liked the sound of it and had been forewarned about what they were going to watch, but a movie might the worst way to experience it. I bet the books are good.