Title: Umbrage The First Vampire
Director: Drew Cullingham
Starring – Doug Bradley, Rita Ramnani, Jonnie Hurn, Natalia Celino
Released: Out now
Antiques dealer Jacob moves to a remote farm with his new wife and teenage ward Rachel. However his acquisition of an ancient mirror pitches his dysfunctional family into the crossfire of an ages-old feud between a cowboy vampire and a primordial Biblical demon...
...and no, I swear I'm not making this up! Now while the title may have had some of you wondering whether this is some species of dubious Harry Potter spin-off, Umbrage The First Vampire actually turns out to be a whole lot weirder than a pink fluffy jumpered Imelda Staunton sporting fangs and a thirst for blood. Yes, I know that sounds hard to believe, but it's true...
For Umbrage The First Vampire is a film that boldly mixes its genres, as you'll discover in the following expanded run down of the movie. Now normally I wouldn't sit and go through the plot with you but in this case it's the best way to give you the measure of this movie. Warning - there will be spoilers...
It opens in a sepia-tinged Old West, but then after this enigmatic prologue jumps across the Atlantic and into present day England. We meet horror legend Doug Bradley, sans his famous face full of pins, as antiques dealer Jacob, with his pregnant young wife Lauren (Grace Valorani) and teenage goth-girl ward Rachel (Rita Ramnani) moving into their new remote country home. Nearby are a pair of laddish blokes camping, well I say camping, more like drinking near tents, who can't believe their luck when a pretty ornithologist (Natalia Celino) drops by their campfire. Meanwhile a cowboy has apparently materialised in Jacob's barn for no readily apparent reason.
Now throughout this opening half hour, it would appear that we're gearing up for either a typical house under siege by dark forces romp or some rural stalk and slash antics. And indeed when one of the lads, the clearly more obnoxious one, is discovered dying from a severe physical discourtesy that will have the gentlemen in the audience wincing, and his comrade and the mysterious twitcher lady take flight and turn up on Jacob's doorstep, you're expecting the usual fun and games to begin and the characters to be picked off one by one.
Indeed this such a typical horror flick set-up, you can almost forgive the fact that the loud obnoxious fellow might as well have had 'First Victim' tattooed on his forehead, and that no one finds it suspicious that just before Mr Obnoxious got his nob ripped off, he'd disappeared off for a tête à tête with Miss Twitcher. After all, such clichés and character stupidities come as standard in this particular stretch of B-movie territory.
And generally it has be said that writer-director Drew Cullingham is moving things along nicely. The cast is ok, with Mr Bradley obviously shining, and the script, although seemingly stereotypical, has some witty lines and dramatic barbs to it. Plus the movie looks pretty decent too; Cullingham has a decent sense of cinematography and it's a credit to him that this micro-budget production looks as swish as it does.
So then, so far so good. However just before the halfway mark the movie takes an alarming turn. Half the cast are suddenly bumped off, Doug Bradley vanishes, not to reappear properly until the end of the film, and Celino pretty much pulls the same trick, although we do get to see more of her in the second half, and yes fellas, I do mean 'see more of' in the way you're hoping...
So then we're left with gothette Rachel confronting the mysterious cowboy in the barn, who turns out to be, as you expect from the cover, a vampire, but more surprisingly he's Irish and called Phelan not Umbrage. And they talk. Then talk some more.
Then we have some narrated flashbacks, which take us back the Old West, and then even more bizarrely, back the Garden of Eden done in a Quest For Fire style. And after these head spinning sequences we have, you guessed it, some more talk. And then a quick roll about in the hay fight scene and we're pretty much done.
Now are are plenty of plot twists I've missed out, but I think the above outline makes the problem with Umbrage The First Vampire clear. And that is that to all intents and purposes the movie stops dead in its tracks halfway through and doesn't actually go anywhere. Phelan is meant to be our wise-cracking anti-hero, and although he has all the best lines and actor Jonnie Hurn isn't devoid of charisma by any stretch, the trouble is you can't have a good half hour of your movie carried by snappy dialogue alone. And while Hurn plays him with relish, he just hasn't got the chops to pull this off, but in fairness having so much of a movie resting on your lines would sink the most accomplished star.
And if you're you're thinking a morally dubious smart-mouthed bloodsucker from the Emerald Isles sounds a bit familiar, allow me to identify that distantly ringing bell – Phelan is basically cut from the same cloth as Cassidy from Preacher. And indeed the whole of Umbrage, with its attempts to mash-up horror and westerns in a plot that draws upon Biblical mythology and is peppered with black humour and sly wit, is very redolent of the Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon comic series, and I'd lay good money on it being a key influence on this script.
Unfortunately all these elements thrown gleefully into the pot don't quite gel together. Now credit where credit is due, Cullingham clearly has ambition and his story has plenty of interesting ideas and concepts. And so, in one respect it's rather pleasing to see a movie that heads away from the expected template and into novel arenas. But sadly in the second half, the pace of the film drops stone-dead and while it attempts to set up an epic final conflict, ultimately it can only deliver a mild bit of rough and tumble. And hence you end up wishing he'd stuck to cranking out a standard cat-and-mouse game with folk in an isolated setting.
Now partly this is a problem with the structuring of the story; breaking up the backstory and flashbacks for example, could have kept the pace going. However I tend to think that perhaps this is a case of a short being overly extended to make it feature length. Certainly it seems that while there were good ideas and characters in the screenplay, there wasn't really enough money in the pot to have them do anything terribly interesting in the end.
Hand on heart, I can't really recommend Umbrage The First Vampire, for while it has a certain amount of style to it, the mashing up of genres is liable to limit rather than broaden its appeal, and ultimately the problems with the pacing are going make it a frustrating watch for all but the most forgiving viewers.
But that said, although the movie fails, it fails in the best possible way; by taking creative risks rather than dully covering tired old ground. As it stands it's something of a curio but it's perhaps just weird enough to earn itself something of a cult following. Certainly I think Drew Cullingham is a name to watch out for, as despite the patchy pacing Umbrage looks far better than it should for its tiny finances, and anyone who can show such flair in the severe constraints of mirco-budgets is well worth keeping an eye on.