My notes on Phobia (2013), which is released in the UK as Dracula Bloodline.
This low-budget horror mystery has a lot of ambition – primarily filmed in Dallas, Texas, it’s set in 19th century Paris and San Francisco, and mixes history, psychology, whodunit and gothic horror with resources comparable to the old Dark Shadows show. The sole ‘name’ in the cast is Erica Leerhsen, who had a couple of solid genre credits around the turn of the century (the first Wrong Turn and Blair Witch sequels, the Texas Chainsaw remake) and here gets a showy role as Dr Lesley Parker, traumatised in childhood when her mad war veteran father killed her mother and came after her with a knife.
Lesley dresses as a man to attend classes in Paris held by Dr Charcot (Michael Crabtree) and is befriended by Sigmund Freud (Matt Moore in an outrageous crepe beard), who sees through the imposture and introduces her to patient wannabe Val Drakul (Chase Jeffrey), a brooding poetical type who has memory lapses whenever a prostitute is having her throat bitten out in a city he happens to be passing through, and is convinced that he’s due to inherit the vampire curse of his ancestor Vlad Tepes. Also loitering suspiciously near murder sites are Val’s cousins Guy (Jonathan Brooks) and Marcia (Tiffany Lonsdale), who run a Grand Guignol type theatre (which we only see when there isn’t a show on), and I.M. Casey (Matthew Tompkins), who happens to be a) a Scotland Yard man, b) a spirit medium, and c) a hypnotist pupil of Charcot’s.
After a long prologue, partially in French and all with odd accents, the action moves to San Francisco and the mansion of Southern widow Annabel Lee (Carolyn Wickwire), who agrees to let Dr Parker host a pioneering group therapy session to deal with phobias and delusions – which brings in knife-nervous Albert (Trey Walpole) and vertigo-sufferer Roberta (Ambre Low), plus housekeeper-poor relation-domestic tyrant Elisabeth (Stephanie Rhodes). This section of the film includes murders committed by several people and a séance with sudden CGI ectoplasm apparitions that seems to tip the film off its rationalised supernatural ledge into black magic and works up some claustrophobia and cliches – like the storm that cuts the mansion off from help just as the bodies start to pile up.
It’s also as if a whole film were dropped into the ongoing vampire curse/doctor-patient dangerous romance storyline, with a never-quite explained bodycount and a lot of suspicious characters, including a whole sub-plot about how Mrs Lee came to be widowed and the hold her ‘niece’/maid has over her. This works up some suspense and allows director Jon Keeyes (Suburban Nightmare) to play with tilted angles, Victorian clutter and jittery performances, but then there’s a long-in-the-coming reveal about a character no one would ever trust and suddenly we’re back in that theatre in Paris with only a single shot of Notre Dame to cover the trip and the vampire curse business plays out again with speeches from now-fanged characters, some reasonable CGI staked-vamps-burn-to-dust stuff and a fudge of an ending that will satisfy no one.
Leehrsen and one or two of the other players are good, but Freeman in particular acts as if he were appearing in a 19th century melodrama (his Transylvanian accent is dreadful) and some of the other cast members just aren’t up to the demands of Anne L. Gibson’s literate but also chatty script. In a key role, Jeffrey acts like the pissed-off runner-up in a Desmond Harrington lookalike competition, and it’s hard to believe in his inner torment or his instant romance with the heroine, whose involvement with her patients goes well beyond psychiatric ethics even as they’d evolved by 1886. It’s canny enough not to try for effects it can’t achieve on the budget, but that means some scenes – a mademoiselle being stalked by a vampire serial killer in a Paris park – are just rote while the housebound section is if anything overdirected.
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