Megan Borns says Alice Maio Mackay's So Vam explores the link between vampires and queerness.
So Vam, directed and co-written by transgender filmmaker Alice Maio Mackay in her feature debut with Benjamin Pahl Robinson, follows Kurt (Xai), an out gay teenager in a conservative town. He dreams of moving to the city with his friend, Katie (Erin Paterson), to escape bullying and fulfill his dream of being a successful drag queen. Those dreams abruptly halt when a horrific old vampire, Landon (Chris Asimos), kidnaps and almost kills Kurt. His savior, April (Grace Hyland), a vampire herself, arrives just in time, quickly turning him.
Kurt must quickly find his footing as a vampire, leaving the life he once led behind. Empowered and confident since his transformation, Kurt, with his new friends, is immediately thrust into a frightening dilemma: the predatory Landon is still on the loose, creating new undead and threatening everyone in his path. Walking a tight line of feigned normalcy, Kurt must keep his loved ones safe while ridding the world of hatred—one abuser at a time.
Queerness has often been a subliminal message in vampire-centric films—more starkly depicted in The Hunger (1983) and the 60s and 70s in-vogue The Vampire Lovers (1970). Mackay's So Vam is another film that moves queer representation and themes into the inescapable forefront. At times coming off as clunky because of the frankly spoken exposition and strange pacing, it is nevertheless an excellent depiction of queerness in a positive and powerful light. Plenty of films in the genre rely on themes concerning death and unfulfilled romance, but So Vam doesn’t even glance that way. Instead, making the living dead characters the most sympathetic, confident, and fleshed-out part of the story. Similarly, the drag queens depicted are well-regarded, diverse, essential to the plot, and offer stunning performances that excite. Mackay brings forward struggles that the queer community face and does so with a triumphant voice.
Queer themes set up the film's foundation, and the characters flesh it out. The majority of the characters are vampires, and Mackay does a fair job sharing the backgrounds, history, and motivation of the vampires. April is the primary source of history and discussion of vampire mechanics throughout the film. Appearing first as Kurt's savior, April then mysteriously shows up in a mundane scene in a bookshop, where she knowingly lectures at length about Bram Stoker's Dracula. Far from speculative, April discloses details about Stoker's queer inspiration for the character of the Count and the xenophobic depictions surrounding his writing. This direct scene is fascinating, in essence, carrying throughout the film's duration. While providing context and foreshadowing for the reveal and connection to queer elements, April's lecture lets us peek at her relationship with the famous "mythological" creature, thus adding depth to her character.
Additionally, there are many refreshingly pointed dialogues between characters about queerness and transness and the joy therein that the bookstore scene sets as a base for the rest of the story. The scene celebrates queerness while directly and abruptly condemning the bigots and abusers who violently disagree with a gruesome death. Thus, further driving the horror home.
In the way that many well-written feminist films discuss gaining confidence and strength in femininity, So Vam does with being queer. Only once Kurt is turned, girded with his new vampire strength and status among peers in the community, does he self-actualize into a confident person. There is no room for shame, and Kurt can now stand up to his conservative father (Brendan Cooney) and bullies at school.
While the vast majority of So Vam is well-written and executed, some blunders become apparent early on. Perhaps because many of the actors are new to their craft, the performances can be somewhat wooden and lacking in appropriate reactionary emotion. Hyland, in particular, seems to flatten any emotion into a too-calm, unflappable mask. Even when the climax approaches, the final meeting and battle between the younger vampires and Landon, April hardly shows her panic or dismay. That is not to say that Hyland is the only one. Most of the cast, from the drag queens in cameos offering carefully-rehearsed advice and even Xai at times, all have trouble making their lines feel organic.
We rely largely on dialogue for the tone because the cast has difficulty conveying urgency, camaraderie, or the development of feelings. This makes the otherwise fun watch fall a bit flat. So Vam experiences some pacing issues and the urgency of the action may be partly to blame. At some points, the cast seems to become distant from the action, like in Kurt’s first feeding. April and Kurt track down several abusers in a religious conversion camp to feed on, and as they plan their attack, they spend several moments of the scene just giving exposition that feels a bit out of place. Additionally, Kurt’s love interest, Andy (Tumelo Nthupi), is introduced late enough in the film to feel strange and like an afterthought adding to the stilted feel.
While the pacing and performances interfered somewhat with my enjoyment, the overarching message of gaining confidence in your true self resonates and is well executed. So Vam and Mackay deliver delightfully refreshing queer-focused horror.
So Vam is streaming exclusively on Shudder.