Director/Screenplay/Producer/Photography – Phil Messerer, Music – Jezabella Kipp, Liz Lysinger & Dave Willis-Lopez, Special Effects/Makeup Effects – Randall Leddy, Set Design – Katherine Messerer. Production Company – The Sugar Factory Inc
Eilis Cahill (Lara Baxter), Devon Bailey (Helen Baxter), Jo Jo Hristova (Mom), Michael Strelow (Raymond Baxter), Peter Chaskes (Patrice Duchamps III), Anthony Morelli (Dad), Myles Angus MacVane (Freakatorium Owner), Evan Lucas (Grant Wizchewski), Dustin Leddy (Sandy Duvall), Samantha Phillips (Mrs Kerrigan)
Sixteen-year-old Lara Baxter is a Goth who lives with her odd family in the town of Sugar Loaf, New York. After their father leaves, Lara decides to get revenge by casting a voodoo spell on her seemingly perfect, much hated twin sister Helen. Instead, this backfires and causes Helen to die. As the family sit in grief, Helen returns from the morgue, covered in blood. She tells how she attacked a morgue attendant and they realise that she has become a vampire. The others reach the conclusion that they need to provide her with blood. They come up with the idea of luring the tourists that frequent Sugar Loaf to the house for the express purpose of imprisoning and then letting Helen drain them. However, Helen is a vegetarian and refuses to kill, waiting instead until the hunger takes over and drives her to feed.
Thicker Than Water: The Vampire Diaries Part I is a low-budget indie horror film from Phil Messerer. Messerer is a California-based filmmaker who has previously worked as an editor and directed the 55-minute documentary Hollywood Hustle (2008) about aspiring wannabes come to Hollywood looking for a big break. Thicker Than Water was made over a three year period on a budget of around $200,000. Upon its premiere, it won a number of independent film awards.
Thicker Than Water is clearly an effort made by a crew outside of the Hollywood system on a low budget but contains an intelligence of writing, strength of performing and grasp of the genre that is head and shoulders above a great many other professional productions out there. It is a vampire film but clearly one that has thrown out any of the modern darkly sexy vampires of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994) and Twilight (2008) – although a very dandified vampire with a Southern accent turns up later in the piece. It is more of a kitchen-sink vampire film – one that focuses on the grim realities that a modern vampire would face in procuring blood and the moral issues surrounding doing so.
I was considerably taken aback by Thicker Than Water from the opening scenes where the story (and presumably the vampire dairies, which we don’t hear much about) is being narrated from the point-of-view of Eilis Cahill’s modern teen Goth/Wiccan Lara. The portrait of her strangely dysfunctional family and her often wryly sarcastic observations are perfectly on the ball. The writing here is excellent and Eilis Cahill’s performance enormously convincing. The nearest point of comparison one might make is to Thora Birch in Ghost World (2001). Maybe you could call Thicker Than Water a version of Ghost World where there actually are ghosts (or at least vampires – it makes a better soundbite the other way). There is also something of the other low-budget vampire film The Hamiltons (2006), which concerned a strange dysfunctional vampire family.
Eilis Cahill’s voiceover narration and the dark humour that underlaces many of the early scenes is abruptly thrown on its head when Eilis’s voodoo spell goes wrong and perfect daughter Devon Bailey dies. The contrast between Eilis’s spell and her horror and guilt at seeing what she has let loose are excellent. Things become even more bizarre in the scenes following the funeral where Devon Bailey turns up at the door in a white dress and covered in blood. There is startling contrast between her previously portrayed innocence and the image of her covered in blood and her shock at realising she has killed a morgue attendant. The vampirism is ingeniously introduced. There is the character of the brother (Michael Strelow) who perhaps too conveniently also happens to be a biologist, but which nicely allows for a scene where he is analysing Helen’s blood under a microscope and discovers that it is absorbs other blood, becomes sensitive to ultraviolet light and so on.
The best parts of the film are when we get to the family trying to deal with Helen’s newfound vampirism. There does seem an astonishing casualness and lack of moral qualm to their decision to turn to murdering tourists but the scenes thereafter are excellent. There are some wonderfully droll scenes inviting the Mormons in for tea that have been modelled on Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) (although one has to technically quibble about the scenes where the Mormons are served up cups of tea – as tea is one of the drinks, along with coffee and alcohol, that are prohibited under Mormon belief). Particularly good is the way that the dialogue plays with the moral contradictions – how Helen the vegetarian is abhorrent at the idea of drinking blood but has made her peace that she will let the hunger take over and can then regard killing under its influence as a form of temporary insanity; how Lara then points out that no such excuse can apply to the rest of them who are all complicit; where the mother states that Helen is no more responsible for her actions than the son Raymond who has just come out of the closet; how the mother doesn’t want Helen to commit suicide to end her condition because she would be damned but is happy to condone murder. The play that goes between the mother’s religion and gradual loss of faith, Helen’s moral struggle about what she is doing and the justifications she allows herself is excellent writing.
The strength of the film is in its writing and characterisations but Phil Messerer does not neglect the horror elements either – there is a fine scene where Devon Bailey is locked up in the cellar with one of the Mormons (Dustin Leddy) and crawls across the cellar in a peculiarly contorted gait, her eyes unnervingly filled with blood, to feast on him. The film is filled with darkly incongruous images – like that of Devon Bailey asleep in a makeshift coffin surrounded by her fluffy toys. There is also a strong sense of dark humour that runs throughout the film – like the attempts of the family to sit down to a grotesque Christmas dinner with Devon Bailey in growing hunger, the walls behind them splattered with blood and a mechanical Santa singing “what a wonderful time of year”, as Eilis Cahill offers up grace: “Lord, thank you for the food we are about to receive. And thank you for the sacrifice in the closet that Helen is about to receive.” The blackness of the humour that Messerer digs at in this scene is merciless.
Thicker Than Water was part of a projected trilogy and Phil Messerer announced The Serpent Queen: Vampire Diaries 2, although this has yet to emerge. Messerer also admits that the subsequent appropriation of his series title by the popular tv series The Vampire Diaries (2009-17) has proven somewhat of a setback.