Director: Nabil Shaban
Release Date: 2009
One of the joys of the vampire genre is that it is so broad, both symbolically and in what may (or may not) be a vampire film. I had a brief correspondence with actor/director Nabil Shaban who confessed that once I had watched Morticia I would “realise that it is not a genuine vampire movie in the conventional sense”. That intrigued me but not as much as the trailer and excerpt that I found online, which held me spellbound.
Why was that? Dialogue, purely and simply there was actual good dialogue. This is something that the independent film maker needs to keep in mind. This film is described as “very low budget, very guerrilla filming, self-financed, cost... £10,000 to make.” But dialogue costs nothing other than the artistry and sweat of the screenwriter – in this case Nabil Shaban.
The film starts with a theme song about Kylie/Morticia (Jenni Young) and the theme is effectively played with, in different styles, through the film. Kylie is an eleven year old girl, living in Edinburgh, who has developed a, shall we say, Gothic mentality. She habitually wears a Marilyn Manson T-shirt and prefers to be called Morticia. We also see three women (Christina Strachan, Lisa Nicoll and Caroline MacKellar) gossiping about the girl. They won’t let their children play with her and have lurid tales about her (such as, when born she had three teeth and bit into her mother’s nipple, drinking blood as well as milk). Again I want to mention budget and those things that transcend budget. The ability to reference clearly is a directorial skill that transcends budget. The three, in the way they were shot, cackling and gossiping, immediately brought Macbeth to mind - specifically the three witches. They are credited as the three witches.
Morticia wants to be a vampire. Her room has various vampire posters, one from the 1992 Dracula seems obvious enough but as I watched I wondered at the incongruity of a vampire wannabe having Buffy the Vampire Slayer posters – until, in close up, we realise that she has drawn fangs on Buffy. When Millie (Karen Douglas), her mother, goes in her room she finds two dolls with some goo like blood, posed as vampire and victim. Millie actually gets some of the goo on her finger and tastes it, the substance is unpleasant.
The film follows Morticia as she lives her life. When her dad, Malcolm (Ricky Callan), and her mom go out for the evening she blackmails the babysitter, Maria (Sofie Alonzi), into putting the 1992 Dracula on. Later Maria can’t get in the toilet as Morticia has locked herself in – indeed she is nearly forced to pee in the sink, an action curtailed as the parents come back. Morticia later emerges from the bathroom, her finger bandaged up and blood at her mouth.
This is an early warning sign that is missed entirely by her mum and dad. The more extreme indicator of the near blood sacrifice of a cat is not missed but it does not appear that her father acted in it either, other than the immediate protest. At which point it seems the ideal time to look at her parents, and in doing so the layers of social commentary Shaban has put in the film. Her dad is a veteran and lost the lower part of his leg in the Gulf. He obsesses about this, putting his uniform on daily. Millie doesn’t understand this and bates him about the politics of the war and his actions during it. This leads to discussions, which Morticia listens in on, about the killing of women and children. Unbeknown to them, she deems her father as a murderer – due to what she has heard within the discussions.
I must say that Ricky Callan plays a blinding role. Malcolm comes across as uneducated and thus (at the very least) ignorantly offensive. He is also hypocritical and lacking in parenting skills. Morticia steals a copy of the novel Dracula and starts highlighting passages. Millie finds this and is disturbed by the blood themed nature of those passages, and his reaction is to simply throw the book away – whilst watching a (much more) gory section of Day of the Dead. As for Millie, she treats Morticia like a baby, speaking in a ‘baby voice’ to her daughter and giving in to tantrums.
Indeed the only individual who treats the girl like a person is the school psychologist Dr Moores (Nabil Shaban). He does not become involved when her dad catches her about to sacrifice the cat, as I said the enormity of such an act seems ignored, but after a school outburst. Morticia is forced to attend school after a visit from the truant officer (James McSharry) and, in class, writes an essay on her ambition (to become a vampire) that disturbs her teacher (Suzanne Dance) and leads to said scene. It is within this we get a clue to her behaviours, she mentions that as a vampire she can get revenge on boys, the vicar (Andrew Dallmeyer) and other dirty men... this hint floats tantalisingly before the audience but is never grasped by the players in Morticia's life. It appears that her parents seem to have been determined to find a problem with their daughter from birth and see her as stupid. When Moores speaks to the girl alone he discovers an intelligent girl who has given much thought to death, the linguistic root mort and the affinity between love and death.
There is so much more within this. The references are wonderful – Morticia has a musical box that plays Swan Lake – which is, as we know, the primary theme in the 1931 Dracula. We see, at one point, a dream where images from that film are reflected in the musical box and the irony of Dracula being reflected was, I suspect, deliberate. Beyond genre references we get political messages about the armed forces, the morality of the Gulf War(s) and society generally. We meet a disturbed little girl, clinging to the vampire genre to escape the pain that she is clearly in. Jenni Young must be mentioned as she manages to carry of a very demanding role with dignity.
Is it perfect? Of course not, it is a low budget film and things can be telling. Probably the worst of this is the Count – the bat at Edinburgh Zoo that Morticia decides is a vampire at night, taking bat form during the day. Interestingly she calls herself daughter of Dracula and yet is to marry the Count one day raising a question about the incestuous nature of vampirism; the vampire turns the victim (becoming their father/mother) and yet penetrates them to do so, becoming the lover, and maybe this offers more of a clue to her real world plight. However, as much as I love crap bats, this is a real crap bat syndrome moment. It may have been meant as ironic, but that irony was restricted by the rubber nature of the bat (and the puppeteer when in its bat house). EDIT [5.4.10]: It has just been pointed out to me that the rubber bat is the same one that was hanging in Morticia’s bedroom. I had missed that but the irony of the scene works so much better and, of course, it offers the scene a deeper meaning.
Yet this should not distract you from what is a marvellous feature debut for Nabil Shaban. He has made a subversive, thought provoking piece of cinema that may lose those looking for a straight vampire film but for those wanting something a little different, and rather special, I do recommend this film. I have to also add that there are other themes presented within the film that I have not touched on here, this is trully complex drama and the world needs more of that. 7.5 out of 10.
The imdb page is here.
Saturday, April 03, 2010
Director: Nabil Shaban