When Julian (Jake Hoffman), a debauched, unemployed theater director, living in a spare room of his father’s doctor’s office, interviews for a chance to helm a vampire version of Hamlet, the wan, leering head of the theater company has just one question for him: “Do you suffer from any blood vessel anomalies?” This atypical job-interview query from a character that is quite obviously a real-life bloodsucker is one of the few passably comic moments in Jordan Galland’s vampire comedy Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Undead, a remarkably joyless affair that, despite its clever title, offers none of the expected pleasures of the genre: It’s not sexy, it’s devoid of campy thrills, and it’s singularly unfunny.
As dim-witted Julian attempts to direct his theater cast with a decidedly Method approach (as an acting exercise, he ties Rosencrantz and Guildenstern together with a rope, literalizing their tight bond in the play), he finds that some of the actors assume their vampiric roles with a strange facility. “There’s no separation between him and his character,” he raves about Theo’s (John Ventimiglia) performance as the vampire Horatio, since, as he soon finds out, that actor is an actual member of the undead who plans on turning the entire cast into bloodsuckers and who is part of a centuries-long conspiracy involving Rosicrucians, the Holy Grail, and the real-life Hamlet. Heady stuff, but in Galland’s hands it’s all about as fun as a bite in the neck, or rather, less fun, since the vampiric transformation at least offers the potential for giddy thrills that are sorely lacking in this picture.
Instead, we’re treated to a consistently unfunny gallery of supporting players (a stereotypical mobster-cum-entrepreneur played by Ralph Macchio, a Sikh hypochondriac, an actor who uses the words “bro” or “dude” in every sentence) and a few snippets of the play-within-the-play that fail to explore the comic possibilities inherent in the vampire-Hamlet pairing. Only a late bit of reflexivity in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern address the audience with grievances about the small role they’re given to perform and demand someone build a play around them hits the meta mark (“Do you think we can get Tom Stoppard to write it?”), but the whole theatrical setup feels woefully underimagined. “Since the 1600s,” the film’s opening title informs us, “there have been numerous versions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet adapted to portray vampires. This is one of them.” A modest claim for a modest film, but one that begs the obvious question: Why, then, do we need one more?