Originally released in 1997, The Vampire Journals is a spinoff from the successful Subspecies franchise, telling a tale that does not involve Radu (Anders Hove), although it does have ties with the former. Writer and director Ted Nicolaou does an excellent job with the vampire genre, in some ways setting down ideas that would be explored later in many other vampire flicks. There’s also a distinct Gothic flavor to this movie that will not be lost on hardcore vampire fans—it is this Gothic sensibility and atmosphere that many modern vampire movies have either forgotten or ignored outright.
The story pits two vampires against each other. The first is Ash, a malevolent vampire associated with the mighty Radu, who has a coven within a wealthy business district and is using humans as pawns in expanding his empire. The second is Zachary, a turned vampire who hates his state of being and has become a vampire hunter. Zachary has set his eyes on Ash, as it was Ash who turned his lover into a vampire long ago. Both vampires fall in love with the luscious Sofia (Kirsten Cerre), and thus she becomes a pawn in a tragic game of chess in which both vampires battle to the bitter end. Armed with the mythical Sword of Laertes (not much is said of it, but perhaps it is a blade capable of slaying vampires—Laertes kills Hamlet a poisoned blade, so there is a possible connection, with Zachary serving as Laertes and Ash serving as Hamlet), Zachary intends to put an end to the coven of vampires that has no plans to stop spreading.
Filmed in Romania, the movie takes full advantage of the scenery (unlike some of the Subspecies movies). The night photography is effective and showcases distinct facets of Romanian cities. Ash’s home base is the basement of an opera house in Budapest, and this location screams Gothic, from its elegant spiral staircase and chandeliers throughout. The photography and editing contribute to the movie’s overall Gothic atmosphere, with director Nicolaou making the movie look much more expensive than it really is. Nicolaou also takes advantage of updated to special effects, in particular the “shadow” effects used to depict the supernatural movement of the vampires.
Although Nicolaou mines the stories of Anne Rice for inspiration, he manages to create his own distinct vampire universe, one in which turned vampires are subservient and live in fear under the master vampire. Watching sniveling, cowering vampires associated with those in control really adds to the atmosphere of subdued horror, as the character of Ash haunts scenes that he is not in (reminiscent of the novel Dracula, where the vampire is felt even when he is not in a scene).
The acting is solid throughout, with David Gunn turning in a brooding but intense performance as Zachary, contrasted by the menace of Jonathon Morris as a hideous and conniving Ash. The supporting cast is also good, as is Kirsten Cerre. Also worth mentioning is the performance of Ilinca Goia as Cassandra, perhaps the most captivating and alluring female vampire ever to appear on screen—she is a classic example of a Gothic-age vampire in a modern setting, one whose ruthlessness is rivaled only by her cruelty.
If the movie has a weakness, it is the feeling that the story starts at its center, with no prequel or sequel to fill in the necessary details. Although the movie does offer flashbacks, it would have been better to start at the beginning. There’s also a sense that the movie was intended as the first part of a secondary franchise that never saw production, as the ending does leave viewers yearning for a better closure. The dialogue could also have been crisper, as some sequences are bit overdramatic (calling attention to themselves), but otherwise the script is fine.
Fans of vampire films owe themselves a viewing of The Vampire Journals. Although the movie lacks the special effects of modern vampire flicks, this movie more than makes up for it with atmosphere, fun and charismatic characters, and a descent storyline. Those of you who at one time or another played the gothic-punk role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade (and you know who you are) will have flashbacks when watching The Vampire Journals.