Sunday, November 15, 2015

Graveyard Shift (1987)

Vampire Stephen Tsepes (Silvio Oliviero) spends his nights as a taxi driver, from time to time breast-biting women either with a death wish or a terminal illness. For reasons we’re not privy to yet can assume have mythical and perhaps Freudian sex and death reasons women in that sort of situation feel rather drawn to him. Stephen turns them into a variation of the good old vampire brides in the process, and unlike him, they seem to lack self-control rather badly.

Particularly once Stephen meets Michelle (Helen Papas), a director without a promising career with a cheating husband (Cliff Stoker), and a fresh diagnosis of terminal illness. Michelle may or may not be a reincarnation of a former lover – or they might just have dreams that suggest they’re destined for each other – and she’s the first woman Stephen meets he wants to fuck instead of bite, which he hopes will somehow(?) end in his own death. He’s not even wrong there.

Jerry Ciccoritti’s Graveyard Shift is a peculiar, personal, at times frustrating, more often fascinating effort, a film that often feels more like a US local production made in the 70s than a Canadian film that probably only scratched together its tiny budget because 1987 was a big year for vampire movies, and there’s always some producer trying to cash in on a trend who will let directors make whatever weird stuff they want as long as the money-making element of the day is in the film.

As a vampire film Graveyard Shift stands with one foot in the more romantic approach to the genre (at least, Stephen isn’t a simple monster and clearly truly convinced his Freud-baiting breast-biting is good for the women he vampirizes – they certainly seem to agree, so who am I to judge?), the other in the artsy philosophizing sort of vampire film, and its tail (bats have tails, right?) in the trenches of exploitation. I wouldn’t exactly say these three things go together perfectly all the time (philosophy and romance and mild sleaze aren’t exactly on a talking basis at all times) but when they don’t, they do lead to interesting friction that keeps the film lively and certainly never boring. Well, almost never – there are the inevitable scenes about two character-vacant cops trying to solve a series of murders mostly committed by Stephen’s brides (the film never calls them that, but it’s clear it is playing with the trope) that really lead nowhere and could have used cutting, but we’re not talking about Last House on the Left levels of self-sabotage here.

Ciccoritti’s direction is at times awkward and stiff like an art school project gone wrong, often creative like one gone very right, and certainly moody, showing 1980s Toronto as the grubby Canadian sister to the grubby 70s New York we know from so many other movies, and using its urban decay as the perfect - slightly unreal in its grimy reality - backdrop for a story about a bunch of people and not-people-anymore close to death. This provides the film with an effective mood of decay that’s even further increased by the sometimes curiously affected, sometimes natural, and sometimes just plain weird performances by Oliviero (who is called Michael A. Miranda today, it seems) and Papas. Thanks to this internal strangeness, it is often not clear at all if any given scene is a dream sequence, a vision, a memory, a wish of one of the characters or a metaphor, an approach to depicting the precarious position of reality in these characters’ lives that also takes the film close to European horror of the decade before. Ciccoritti isn’t quite the poet Rollin was, obviously, or the obsessed man Franco was, but he’s clearly giving the film a dream-like mood of its own devising. It’s probably a death-dream though, giving the ideas about Eros and Thanatos Graveyard Shift is interested in.

So, given my peculiar tastes, it’s no surprise I’m quite enamoured with the film. Because really, what’s not to like about a film that takes elements from downbeat US horror of the 70s (the ending, the grubbiness), and Europe (the mood), swirls them with urban decay, and philosophizes about death, sex and love, and the point where it becomes very difficult to distinguish one from the next?

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