Amy Heckerling’s Vamps is awash in pop-cultural, cinematic, and historical references. But while the film is ridiculously clever in its deployment of these allusions, they’re never dropped for the sake of mere showiness, even as they range from the hyper-literate (a subtle reference to Siegfried Kracauer’s classic tome of film crit, From Caligari to Hitler) to the populist (two separate mentions of Jersey Shore characters). If these cultural markers are how we define our relationships to the wider world, they also can signal our sense of being out of place in time as well as speaking to the rich layers of history that comprise personal and communal experience.
These issues of timeliness are central in Heckerling’s film because the two lead characters, Goody (Alicia Silverstone) and Stacy (Krysten Ritter), are vampires, destined to live eternal lives. While Goody was “turned” in the 1840s and has been undead for the better part of two centuries, Stacy was transformed into a vampire in 1992 by the lonely sesquicentennarian to serve as her “bestie.” Everyone in the film has their own relationship with time and culture. While Stacy uses the 1980s as her continual reference point while having no trouble adapting to the slang and technology of the moment, and while an aging ACLU lawyer and former flame of Goody’s is firmly rooted in the 1960s, the elder vampire’s relationship to past and present is more complex.
One of Heckerling’s smartest conceits, one which endows a seemingly lightweight genre piece with an aching sense of melancholy, is to present Goody’s view of history as a palimpsest of scenes and impressions. When she walks down Manhattan’s now heavily commodified St. Mark’s Place, she discourses to Stacy on how the building that now houses such businesses as Chipotle was a methadone clinic in the 1970s and then continues backward in time, Heckerling overlaying images of past incarnations of the street as they appear in Goody’s brain. The corollary of Goody’s history-weighted memory is her inability to keep up with present-day culture. Tired after nearly two centuries of adapting to historical change, the present speed of technological development and the corresponding alterations in human interaction have finally defeated the vampire, who simply lacks the energy to make these latest adjustments.
This sense of anachronism is what provides the film with its melancholy heart, never more so than in a stunning Times Square-set finale in which past and present alternate, bringing home the sweep and variety of the centuries. But that doesn’t even begin to speak to the myriad pleasures that the film offers, from its sharply drawn characters and situations, to its perpetually witty screenplay replete with clever updates to the undead narrative and allusions to classic vampire films, to its political engagement, which posits the vampires as a persecuted minority group being hunted down by a Patriot Act-enabled Department of Homeland Security. Just about everything works in Heckerling’s film, a smart, open-hearted piece of work that manages to put its seemingly endless supply of clever conceits in service of a rich and moving tale of friendship, love, and the crushing weight of too much history.