Did the romantic inklings of the TWILIGHT vampire series propel horror filmmakers to run in the other direction? It seems that most new frighteners coming down the pike these days, especially vampire movies, are more and more violent and nihilistic. Thus, it is with the new horror film TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL. It’s one of the five major horror films being showcased in the “After Dark” program as part of this year’s Chicago Film Festival. It screens October 14 at 10:30 PM at the River East 21, as well as on October 16 at 1:30 PM and October 21 at 9 PM. If you choose to attend, be warned...this film is not one for the faint of heart.
Not only is there a ton of vampiric bloodshed in this one, there are so many bullets shot into the heads of characters onscreen that I lost count of how many deaths there were just 20 minutes into it all. Cuddly Bella and Edward types are nowhere to be seen here. Instead, TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL showcases only killers and victims. And the extravagant bloodletting is such that one wonders if the four quadrants for this film are cannibals, serial killers, Medieval surgeons, and the Manson clan.
When this film isn’t preoccupied with being as vicious as it can be, it loves being eccentric, almost to a fault. Yes, eccentricity and surprise tend to be two of the greatest characteristics of Japanese director Sion Sono, and there is a lot of hilarious craziness on display here. One of his main characters is an aging and decrepit vampire queen presented laid out on a stretcher with a human head, and a cartoonishly fake torso that looks like a giant marionette. It's so over-the-top, one has to admire Sion Sono for much of his gonzo sensibilities, but everything is that way here. From the violence to the oddball characterizations to the hyperkinetic camera work and editing, manic is a word that doesn't do it all justice.
In fact, such excesses have become somewhat of a plague in the thriller and action picture genres these days. It seems every director working in those worlds wants to be the one that edits the fastest, moves the camera the craziest, and jolts the audiences the most. Is Paul Greengrass that much of a role model? Sono doesn’t just want to manipulate his medium, he wants to fold, spindle and mutilate it. But movies need to breathe too, and this one needs an oxygen mask.
Originally conceived and shot as a nine-episode vampire series for Japan Amazon.com, TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL has now been edited down to a 142-minute film for the festival circuit. Cutting a TV show down like that is never the best gambit, and indeed, the narrative here is rendered choppy, disjointed, and difficult to follow because of it. And it's fine for a TV show to have an ambitious storyline that includes two warring vampire families, the backstory of Count Dracula, the rise of a messianic female named Manami whom both sides are after, a chic hotel that serves as a metaphor for the elitist one-percent, as well as an apocalyptic plan to purge the world of all residents outside the hotel, but it's too much for a two-hour movie. (What, no werewolves? At least TWILIGHT had those.)
Sion Sono has some excellent instincts as a filmmaker. He strives to entertain certainly, knows how to film action, and culls great things from his production department and virtually all the crafts below the line. He has a game cast, and they all match his energy and commitment to the material. Sion Soon also knows how to wring maximum impact out of the shocks in his horror tale too. But this movie simply has too much going on - too many plots, too many characters, and maybe too much style for its own good. It often feels like the director is showing off more than showing things as cogently as possible. And it is quite evident that a lot of crucial exposition ended up on the cutting room floor. All to make room for the director's delight in setting off squibs?
The hotel setting is sumptuous and striking in this, even breathtaking, but we barely get to see it when the story stuffs hundreds of extras in it to keep the hectic plot chugging along. It becomes all too apt a metaphor for the film - each frame is simply packed with too much. There are dozens of great ideas here, perfect for a TV series, less so for a film.
And no matter the medium, the violence jars in ways that overwhelm the rest of its charms. Obviously, a film about vampires isn’t going to shy away from rivers of red, but why are there so many head shots from uzis and other automatic weapons here? The necks being drained by fangs weren’t enough? Call it bad timing, but after the rampage in Las Vegas two weeks ago, it’s hard watch automatic weapons do so much damage with such blitheness onscreen. Granted, most horror fans don't want the cooing lovebirds that Mr. and Mrs. Cullen were, but do we need scores and scores of extras mowed down in their place instead?