Alternate world vampire stories may be nothing new in literature, but – setting aside The Breed, which has a notionally futuristic setting – this New Zealand film from writer-director Glenn Standring (The Irrefutable Truth About Demons) stands as a modest first in the movies, even if it owes more than a little to Brian Stableford’s The Empire of Fear in its basic set-up. The premise, set out in a caption, is that vampires were created three hundred years ago by some species of alchemical genetic engineering. In the world of the film, ‘the Brotherhood’ co-exist with regular humanity as a pacifist church (‘the Church of the Holy and Noble Gnostic Brothers’), with human devotees weekly giving blood tributes to sustain the apparently saintly Brothers. Though their fangs are obviously adapted for biting, no Brother has ever killed a human being. How this history diverges from our own is suggested when Augustus (Stuart Wilson), head of the order, muses that ‘in another world’ the Brothers might have become monstrous predators and been hunted to extinction.
Brother scientist Edgar (a buff Leo Gregory) is infected with an uncontrollable bloodlust while conducting experiments the Brotherhood hope will ensure more of their kind will be born. In effect, he becomes the first true vampire, a sadistic serial killer who engages his heroic literal brother Silus (Dougray Scott) in a nasty game of one-upmanship and fixates on Lilly (Saffron Burrows), a human police officer assigned to the murder case. As in the Stableford novel, the presence of the powerful Brotherhood has inhibited scientific and social growth in ways no one within the film notices but which are all too apparent to us. Airships, a frequent signifier of alternate worlds (cf: that Doctor Who Cybermen two-parter), hover over a smoggy Antipodean city in an alternate present, with street urchins (and a rogue called Sykes) in Victorian-looking a slum area, 1930s-look police cars among pony-and-trap contrivances, traditional British bobby’s helmets, circular television sets, bakelite earphones for walkman devices, WWII-look guns and gas-masks, etc. It’s easy to see why so few films even attempt settings like this: every prop and costume and throwaway line of dialogue has to be crafted to reflect a world that is not our own.
Perfect Creature’s strongest suit is that it’s one of the few properly-realised alternate histories on film, far more complicated than, say, the handful of Nazis-won-the-war movies, C.S.A.: Confederate States of America, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase or White Man’s Burden. However, despite original ideas about vampires and how they might live alongside and affect humanity, it just isn’t a terribly exciting film. The three lead performances are good, but the characters remain a little too enigmatic or archetypal to be fully engaging, and quite a bit of the action or mystery is rote. Edgar has good, creepy moments in his ‘inescapable’ observation cell, preparing for a genocidal escape, but in recent years we’ve seen rather too many super-vampires leaping around, climbing through air vents and doing slo-mo kung fu. The finale feels like a deleted ending you’d find as a DVD extra, replaced by something more spectacular or conclusive: the villain goes down too easily (especially since he’s been tagged as ‘the first Brother who might actually die’) and the sequel-slingshot birth of the first female vampire (rather than the semi-expected transformation of the bitten Lilly) comes from and goes nowhere. The movie runs barely 80 minutes before the long, slow end credits kick in – which suggests that there must be a longer cut out there, perhaps answering some plot or character questions.