“Follow your dreams,” people often say. It’s a nice sentiment—chasing after the thing you’re most passionate about will fulfill you to the greatest through the hard work you have to do to get there. But what if you’re not entirely sure what your dreams are? And what if, when you finally think you have your goals figured out, you end up stepping on the hopes and dreams of others along the way? The darker side to chasing one’s ambitions drives the horror-comedy adventure Danni and the Vampire, showing at Another Hole in the Head Film Festival 2020.
Written and directed by Max Werkmeister, this offbeat story follows Danni, a young drifter living out of her car who can’t find the fulfillment she craves. Her past constantly nips at her heels; in college, she set about hunting down the Jersey Devil but secretly let it go free. When offered an opportunity to assist a captured vampire named Remy, she dives headfirst into helping him achieve his life ambitions with no regard for the well-being of anyone standing between her and her goal. As Danni gets closer to feeling something again, she doesn’t realize the consequences of her actions are not far behind.
Two to three gory moments aside, Danni and the Vampire leans hard into the “comedy” side of horror comedy, even as the stakes (ha ha, vampire jokes) become increasingly serious. Werkmeister’s cast excels in walking the line between moments of comedy, drama, and awkwardness. In one moment, Danni and Remy open up to each other about their troubled pasts, and in the next, Remy shows off the marionettes he’s made from the body parts of some of his victims.
The goofiness of a human and a vampire on a quest to make themselves happy would be fine on its own, but the serious dangers the leads put themselves and others in along the way give it a surprising emotional weight. By its end, Danni and the Vampire brings both comedy and tragedy full circle. The story concludes a little more abruptly than I would have wanted, but Danni’s character arc still comes to a fitting end as she realizes the consequences of her actions.
A character like Danni isn’t easy to pull off. She goes out of her way to give Remy everything he desires to make herself happy and doesn’t seem to care about the collateral damage she leaves in her wake. In the wrong hands, she might come off as a malicious character actively screwing others over on purpose. Fortunately, lead actor Alexandra Landau brings lovely humanity to Danni’s selfish selflessness. When things are going her way, she’s laughing and jumping up and down, but when they aren’t, Landau lets the cracks show in her quirky demeanor to heart-wrenching effect. In a way, she reminds me of the protagonists of Good Time and Uncut Gems, characters who believe they’re doing the right thing even as their actions cause harm to others. Her face acting is incredible as well, reacting to successes, setbacks, and drunken antics with wonderful expressions.
Alongside Landau, Henry Kiely lends a surprising warmth to Remy the vampire, who starts to have second thoughts about Danni’s plans as they slowly go from friends to lovers. A subplot follows monster rights activist Margaret (Caron Clancey) and monster hunter Kaine (Scott Vermeire), mortal enemies who find themselves chasing after Remy together. Margaret’s caring exterior and Kaine’s gruff military-style behavior play off of each other nicely as they each realize the other one might have a point.
Even the smallest parts in this film are a joy to watch. Lew Hopson appears as Father Williams, a priest Danni and Remy run into with ambitions of his own, and Megan Therese Rippey appears as Zelda, an old vampire friend of Remy’s who disapproves of the way he’s living now. Both are compelling characters who light up the screen with every appearance, despite not being there for long.
This film looks and sounds d*mn good as well, aside from a couple of moments where music drowned out the dialogue. Danica Carothers’s production design matches the movie’s energy, offsetting quiet moments with gloomier locations and manic ones with fluorescent colors, all gorgeously framed by cinematographer Jaime Ballesteros. A black-lit moment early on showcases this in action, as spurting blood glows bright red in the light. Elsewhere, Sean and Brendan Kelly provide an awesome original score that adapts itself to the story’s shifting tone. Silly story beats get offbeat guitars, tense ones get pulsing electronics, and emotional ones get atmospheric textures. It all makes for an immersive and entertaining experience to watch and hear.
While things conclude with less of a bang than one might hope for, Danni and the Vampire sticks the landing on several fronts. It balances comedy and tragedy, making you laugh even when it hits you in the gut. It carries several wonderful performances from a cast who I hope to see more great things from in the future. There’s even a theme among all the fangs and occasional spurts of blood; maybe it’s worth looking out for others as you go after the things you want in life. There’s so much to love about this movie, and I highly recommend you give it a watch.