I remember when I first heard Juliet Landau announce she was working on a documentary about vampires. It was on Twitter and it was at least five years ago. (I had to check: I would’ve guessed more like ten.) It’s been a while, is what I’m saying, and it finally went to streaming last year after the brief fall reprise from lockdowns. I wanted to see it on the big screen and I finally got my shot when it played for one night at a local theater, with Ms. Landau and her husband Deverell Weekes in attendance (who actually gave us a spare ticket). Ms. Landau was brightly greeting everyone who had communicated with her on social media and the house was pretty full. (We neither stayed for the subsequent Q&A nor the after-party but it seemed like a friendly feeling all around.)
Now, something happened in the making of the vampire documentary (which is actually still being edited, I think), which was that she got it in her head to meld the documentary stories with a more traditional narrative and produce this film, A Place Among The Dead. The premise is that she’s interviewing Gary Oldman, Ron Perlman, Robert Patrick, and there’s some recurring Incident That Happened 15 Years Ago with a serial killer who thought he was a vampire. She then goes back to the scene of the crime (in beautiful Santa Barbara city!) to investigate what happens.
There is a moment of brilliance early on here where she’s constructed this parallel between vampires and actors: the narcissism, the hunger for attention, the vanity and desire for eternal youth—that essence of the glamour of constructed beauty. The cinema verité aspect combines with a more traditional aspect and we see characters (especially her) in their most unflattering views, often immediately juxtaposed with their more traditional look. An actress (Meadow Williams?) whose work I’m unfamiliar with and who isn’t in the actual documentary, as far as I can tell, appears in such flattering light with such heavy makeup, it’s impossible not to view it as some sort of statement. (She’s in her 50s and she doesn’t look it here, though she doesn’t look entirely human, either.)
This movie is chock full of the sort of raw, emotional acting that actors do in acting workshops with other actors. The movie begins with pictures of her parents (Martin Landau and Barbara Bain) and phrases they presumably said to her about not being pretty enough, about not daring to challenge them, etc. which is brutal. She’s a compelling actress, and the vampire metaphor makes a strong comeback at the end, when she has to face the serial killer/vampire.
The Flower sort of wanted to see this, as a fan of the old “Mission: Impossible” series and someone who went through a “Buffy” phase and when I told her about it, she said she would’ve liked to just given Landau a hug. (Barbara Bain apparently said Juliet would never be as pretty as she was, which was funny to us because we’ve always thought that Juliet looks like both her parents, but somehow makes it work better.)
That said, the rest of the movie—the bulk of it—is hard to take seriously. The basic idea here is a sort of “found footage” type thing, but it’s constantly undermined by, on a mechanical level, the profusion of reverse shots (and occasional visible camera man), and worse, on a narrative level, the framework of a police procedural—where we’re supposed to accept the Santa Barbara police working closely with an actress to catch a serial killer, doing things like inviting her into a (potentially hot!) crime scene and admonishing her and her husband (who is actually documentary cameraman, by the way) not to touch anything. Also, since we, the audience, are there to see Landau, and not her husband, he holds the camera while sending her into the supposedly dangerous locations ahead of him. In the hands of Christopher Guest, it would be high comedy.
The last act just goes full on Blair Witch Project, down to being lost in the woods alone for no reason and giving a long, impassioned, apologetic speech to the camera, in this case the speech being oriented around her husband. Which is nice. But between that and the extended mega-death-scene—oh, geez, and the extended chanting spells in Spanish scene—you’re gonna be feeling your butt by the 70 minute mark. Those last 4-5 minutes are going to hurt.
It needed much tighter editing, but it was barely feature length as it is.
I was glad I saw it, and pained mostly by the potential greatness that’s not realized. The raw materials in tighter rein could’ve been brilliant as a micro-budget film can be. The Boy, having none of the backstory—you wouldn’t necessarily even get that there was a documentary, originally, going on, if you weren’t plugged into Landau’s social media accounts—had a hard time following what was going on, and was left with a bunch of people he didn’t know (though he liked Gary Oldman anyway even without knowing who he was, because he’s Gary freakin’ Oldman) talking about vampire stuff that was a little too on-the-nose, and then some very goofy and highly improbable serial killer (or is it a vampire?) hijinks.
I’m afraid this narrows the audience for the film tremendously.