CampBlood Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy


Vanilla Joe Graham 2006

Sweet Dreams

Thoughtful. Dreamlike. Beautiful. Dangerous. Real.

These aren't words you'd normally associate with serial killer films, but Vanilla isn't your average slice-and-dice: in fact, it seems to take pride in bucking convention whenever it can. A mesmerizing, bittersweet story of self-discovery, this film puts out its scent and dares you to follow it. In short, Vanilla is anything but.

Ryan A. Allen plays Jeff, a San Francisco teen oddly fascinated by a recent string of gay murders who, when taking photos for a school project, stumbles across the body of the serial killer in the woods. The killer has taken his own life after strangling 3 young men, but for Jeff the journey into the darkness has just begun. Although the local media turns Jeff into a sort of de facto hero for being the man to discover the killer, for Jeff the case is anything but closed -- his obsession with the crimes and the man who committed them takes on an all-encompassing relevance, invading his dreams and hypnotizing his waking hours. Jeff ventures out into the gay subculture, looking for answers about the crimes and about himself, and along the way is visited by ghosts of the victims, visions of the killer himself, and living, breathing men who challenge his feelings about sex, intimacy, and danger. His first encounter with a man (a colleague of his father whom he runs into at a bar that the killer frequented) doesn't satisfy him -- and his journey takes him further, past his own death to the world he might leave behind, and eventually back to the present, where he still has the opportunity to choose and to change.

Doesn't sound like a horror movie? Well, in the purest terms it really isn't -- but that's not saying that Vanilla fails on any level. Rather than focusing on the grisly aspects of a string of gay killings, Vanilla quietly dares to look at the ways in which these happenings affect us personally. Initially, like any sensitive soul, Jeff is obsessed with the victims of the crimes, normal gay men who apparently just picked up "the wrong guy" (an all-too-real possibility for any one of us, gay or straight). We even see how the pattern began: one of the killer's partners encouraged him to choke him, to the point where it killed him. Much like Jeff's motives, the motives of the murderer are complex -- having been unwittingly made a murderer in a moment of passion, a pattern emerged that he was sadly unable to break until he took his own life. Will Jeff's quest for fulfillment lead to a similar fate? That's the journey that Vanilla takes us on, and it's a surprisingly thoughtful, beautiful trip.

Attraction and sexual desire are complicated, many-limbed creatures, and not ones that many genre films address fully -- for the most part, a sex killer is a sex killer and that's that. When the "dark side of desire" is explored, it's generally thrown up on screen to be a kinky, perverted thrill -- the cop investigating the killer becomes a helpless obsessive who suddenly drops his or her middle-class values to become a part of the game. Cinema loves to punish those who investigate for stepping out of their "safe zone", in order to teach the rest of us a lesson -- in doing so, the status quo remains intact and the rigid lines between the dangerous and the safe remain clear. But Vanilla doesn't play to such extremes or force such didactic comparisons -- Jeff is understandably fascinated by the events that he has been inexplicably drawn into, and all of his preexisting notions of power, safety, and idealization are challenged. As the title suggests, Vanilla is about fetishization -- and not necessarily in a cut-and-dried S&M, leather, or Foot Friends sort of way. Power and mystery have undeniable attractions that most of us succumb to in one way or another -- whether it be in trying to find out more about the mystery guy we spot on the subway every morning or fantastizing about being hate-fucked by Eli Roth (and no, I'm not speaking from experience). Is fetishizing something other than traditional lovemaking wrong? Of course not. But sex of any kind has consequences, and attaching meaning to any sort of coupling will lead to certain behaviors down the road. But when death is introduced into the mix, the waters become cloudier, and the consequences become more extreme -- and Vanilla's meditation on the "hardening" effect of detachment and internalization is one that's definitely worth considering.

Aside from all the touchy-feely stuff (which is quite refreshing, don't get me wrong), Vanilla is also a rapturous watch from a purely aesthetic standpoint. Director Joseph Graham weaves a tapestry of images, sounds, and colors that is both unique and assured -- comparisons could be made to the dreamlike visions of Cocteau or Jarman, but Graham has an eye and sensibility all his own. The trip is surprisingly gentle, and has an underlying sweetness to it that reassures even as it takes us into territory that we may not want to visit -- the drifting camera and gorgeous score are downright hypnotic. But although there's not a word of dialogue for almost 10 minutes, it's not a trip to Planet Pretentia -- the narratvie aspect of the film has enough oomph behind it to make the more experimental tangents refreshing without getting tedious. And my interpretation here certainly isn't the definitive word on the subject -- I've watched Vanilla twice already and I'm still digging for clues and answers. This is the kind of story that washes over you and leaves a bit more behind with each wave, which is a nice change of pace from some of the more abrupt and easily categorized fare that we're used to. But don't worry, there are some blood and scares to keep the horror fires burning as well.

The film is also quite explicit in its handling of sex -- there are a few fairly graphic scenes, but Graham deftly keeps the scale from tipping to Porny (a feat that the vast majority of gay films aren't able to pull off, or don't care to). Making scenes involving a gay serial killer downright romantic is not exactly easy -- nor is it the easy way out (just rent Cruising if you want to see the opposite). The emphasis here is clearly on the connection being made between these men, not simply the slap-and-tickle, and a lot of care has been put into the way that the scenes are staged and filmed. Sure, there's plenty of naked flesh to be had -- of several refreshing varieties, in fact -- but it's there not simply for the sake of titillation, although it is a welcome side-effect. As someone who's generally leery of sexploitation and flesh for flesh's sake, I'm happy to say that it's really quite well done.

I also want to give special mention to the actors -- as the thoughtful, troubled lead, Ryan A. Allen is fantastic, underplaying his role just enough to keep us guessing without shutting us out entirely (much like a sensitive yet frustrating 17-year-old really can be). He's incredibly watchable, and is a real grounding presence, which is essential for a film that asks us to suspend our expectations so much. I'd be very interested to see what more he can do. As his aggressive but patient older lover David, Michael McAllister is also quite good, as are the rest of the supporting cast. Isn't it amazing how watchable a film can be when it's got a good script, thoughtful actors, and a director who can actually direct them? This movie was made for less than the catering budget of your standard studio romantic drama and it's far better executed on almost every level. Take note, aspiring filmmakers -- this is how you make a standout film on an indie budget.

I know it's odd that I've written more than usual on a film that's actually only about 45 minutes long, but there's a hell of a lot packed into Vanilla that deserves to be discussed. If you're looking for a standard 3-act horror film, this should wait for another night. But if you're in the mood to be taken on a thoughtful, occasionally disturbing, and overall quite beautiful trip, definitely give Vanilla a try -- it's a sweet and refreshing approach to an oft-mistreated subgenre.

Rating (out of 5):