Now in limited release
Directed by Jordan Galland
Vampires spread their unholy appetite and flap their bat wings to the Off Broadway stage in the new vampire spoof Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead. By the fact that its title is inspired by the 1964 Tom Stoppard play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead, you can probably guess that this vampire comedy is going to be informed by the kind of brainy, hip humor that elicits knowing chuckles rather than any real guffaws. However, as the writing and directing debut of Jordan Galland, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead has the virtue of not being the smugly clever endurance test one might expect.
Detailing the slacker existence of Julian (Jake Hoffman), the son of a doctor (Chip Zien) who lives in his father’s office, Julian is unemployed but has no problems scoring one gorgeous one-night stand after another. Unfortunately, he can’t fully enjoy his prowess with women thanks to the torch he still carries for his ex, Anna (Decon Aoki). Motivated by his dad to apply for a recently posted opening for a stage director, Julian soon finds himself hired by the mysterious Theo Horace (John Ventimiglia, of The Sopranos) as the director of a play that Theo has authored (and will also act in) titled Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead. What Julian doesn’t know is that Theo and the attractive women in his company who follow his every command are vampires and that during the process of putting on the play, the entire cast will be converted to the ranks of the undead.
This is especially problematic seeing as not only has Julian cast his best bud Vince (Kris Lemche, of Ginger Snaps) as Hamlet but also his former flame Anna as Ophelia, putting the people closest to him in line to become bloodsuckers. Luckily Charlotte (Geneva Carr), a member of a secret society, is lurking in the wings to give Vince and Julian a heads-up about the “Shakespiracy” behind their play. According to Charlotte (or to the info on the DVD she helpfully has on hand) the story behind the play’s production involves a 2,000 year-old conspiracy and a centuries-spanning war between Theo and the real Hamlet (Joey Kern, of Cabin Fever). Theo had turned Hamlet into a vampire but by drinking from the Holy Grail, Hamlet cured himself (but retained his immortality). Theo believes that staging a production of Hamlet featuring vampires will draw out Hamlet for a confrontation and give Theo his long-awaited opportunity to destroy the Grail. Amid all this, much neck biting ensues.
The bad news is that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead is never very funny, which isn’t the best recommendation for a comedy. It’s a movie I smiled at several times but that’s about it. Call me overly stoic but I can’t imagine anyone finding this material uproarious. On the other hand, I can say that I never tired of the movie or the company of its characters. At a brisk 89 minutes, the story trucks along efficiently and the players are quirky without being obnoxious (Hoffman â son of Dustin Hoffman â gives an understated performance that makes him the ideal center for all the film’s kooky happenings). There’s a warm geniality to this movie that makes it feel like time pleasantly spent. While opportunities for mugging and overacting abound, no one in the cast tries to hijack their scenes.
This may be the indie debut of a first-time feature director but Galland scored an eclectic cast of mostly familiar faces. Besides the aforementioned Lemche, Ventimiglia, and Kern, there’s also a sizable role for Ralph Macchio as Bobby Bianchi, a rumored mobster (and Anna’s latest boyfriend) and Jeremy Sisto appears late in the film as Wembly, a NYC detective (a prescient role as Sisto shot this prior to beginning his turn on Law & Order). Wes Anderson alum Waris Ahluwalia (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited) is also featured as Hugo, a hypocondriac patient of Julian’s dad. Besides the impressive cast, the first class production values also belie the film’s low budget. Christopher LaVasseur’s cinematography (the movie was shot with Red Digital Cinema Camera, an ultra-high definition video camera also known as The Red One) is outstanding and the score by Sean Lennon rounds out Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead‘s impressive technical credits.
Not as unbearably pseudo-intellectual as one might fear but yet dangerously droll for a comedy, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead will appeal mostly to theater junkies or vampire completists. As an independently shot, art house-minded, NYC-set vampire film, it reminded me of the run of ’90s pics â The Addiction (1995), Nadja (1995), and Habit (1996) â that share a similar pedigree. This is a much lighter film than those dour offerings but it does seem like a throwback to an earlier style of indie movie. Even the dispositions of the characters make them appear more as Gen-X slackers than Gen-Y go-getters. Had Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead come out in the ’90s (with say, Ben Stiller as Julian, Winona Ryder as Anna, and Ethan Hawke as Vince), this vampire comedy might’ve been the real Reality Bites.