Razor Blade Smile Review
Vampire movies, there's just so many of them isn't there? Perhaps the biggest, single problem is that too many of them lack any kind of originality these days. Sometimes a vampire film tries to do something new in dispelling certain myths, to throw away the usual stereotypes that had been started by Bram Stoker but in recent years the vampire genre has been uninspired, focusing largely on huge CG visuals and little in the way of storytelling. The 80's produced some fine flicks such as The Lost Boys and Near Dark and in the 90's Robert Rodriguez tried to put a new slant on things with From Dusk 'Til Dawn but the whole vampire shenanigans was tiring, despite some great effects work. Now with the likes of the dreadful Underworld it seems that the vampire film should be laid to rest for a while.
So let's cast ourselves back to 1998 when British director Jake West unleashed a small budgeted B-movie known as Razor Blade Smile. Three years in the making the film went on to become something of a cult favourite, making an appearance before Blade (for which it draws many comparisons to) and enjoying a short theatrical run during a popular time when Buffy the Vampire Slayer was just starting to enjoy huge success on television. Not only was Razor Blade Smile well timed but it also introduced some alternative ideas that have since been reproduced in subsequent films. The only shame is that the film has by large been overlooked in favour of glossier yet vapid Hollywood productions. Sure Razor Blade Smile isn't genre defining but it is a very admirable film that offers an all new take on the vampire mythos and manages to pull off a series of decent action, blood soaked nudity and unashamedly over the top performances.
The film follows our heroine, Lilith Silver (Eileen Daly) who for the past 147 years has been living life as a vampire, courtesy of Sir Sethan Blake (Christopher Adamson) who murdered her lover Jack Ryder in 1850 and subsequently buried his teeth into her neck. Due to his charitable nature he allows Lilith to live freely and do what she will as he carries on in his nefarious ways. Being a slave to time Lilith naturally gets bored, just because she's a vampire doesn't mean she can't enjoy herself and so she regularly visits bars, sleeps with whoever she feels like, has conversations with wannabe vampires, oh and she's also a contract killer.
Lilith is a top assassin known as "The Angel of Death" who has been contracted to take out every member of the sect known as the "Illuminati", an organisation that use technology as a major resource and the dabbling of cult activities. Hot on her trail is Detective Inspector Price (Jonathan Coote) who is convinced that these peoples’ deaths are being covered up by a vampire killer but of course no one wants to believe his theory. When Lilith's part-time lover and boss, Platinum (Kevin Howarth) is kidnapped by the "Illuminati" she must seek out and rescue him, but she has many foes to deal with and conspiracies to unravel.
Razor Blade Smile doesn't pretend to be the greatest vampire film of all time, that task is impossible but what it does promise is a film that is different from the usual Hollywood cliché, keeping its tongue firmly in cheek. The trouble with this is that its ideas can make or break it and depending on how devoted the viewer is to Stoker's mythos they may find a film that doesn't sit well with them. In Razor Blade Smile Lilith dismisses the well known traits that are so often attributed to vampires. In reality the sunlight can't kill them but it is a bitch on their eyes, so they need to wear shades. Garlic and crosses are useless but stakes and swords still seem to do the trick and they like to keep low profiles while wearing tight black leather and/or rubber. Well just because Bram Stoker set the foundation for popular vampire tales doesn't mean that his ideas shouldn't be developed or skewed for entertainment's sake. Jake West's ideas may seem pretentious at first as basically he tells us that we know nothing about vampires but then who really does? Razor Blade Smile is original enough at the very least, though a little uneven in places.
Given the nature of the production, a budget of £12,000 and a shooting period of three years Razor Blade Smile got itself through hard times and was picked up for a theatrical release in 1998 but despite the lengthy shooting process the film still contends with several irregular moments that threaten to halt proceedings, and as Jake West acknowledges a lot of this comes down to one shot takes. This is often a pity as when the action gets going the film is lively and fun but when the detective element is dragged back and forth the pacing suffers, with the exception of the great David Warbeck appearing in his last ever role, affectionately known here as "The Horror Movie Man" whose final moment is all the more poignant as if the man knew it would be his last.
Action wise the film is rather well made, not by Hollywood standards but by respectable low budget means that achieve enough in the way of frenzied bloodshed. It's nice to see a good sense of style in the action department as Jake West exhibits an understanding at this point of his limitations and with some quick cutting he manages to avoid most problematic situations and still get the feel of the scene across, if not at times making them a little silly looking. But the film does suffer in several areas that appear like they were simply victims of time, with one such glaring example showing Lilith sneak past two guards unnoticed along a fence in the clear of day while wearing black rubber, or maybe it is that she's just too damn good.
And as we head further into B-movie/exploitation territory things wouldn't really be complete without exceedingly over the top acting most notably from Ms. Daly and Mr Adamson. If anything they sure do relish their roles. Eileen Daly has the most crucial task of all and pulling off the role of Lilith takes a great amount of conviction on the actress's part but it is a performance that goes from being wonderful to just flat. Watching Eileen at work is great, she definitely has a good look and naturally it has been exploited to provide us with a titillating and seductive vampiress, whose character if harnessed that little bit better would have given us a real treat. I guess when it comes to complaints I'd have to say there are a fair few moments where her delivery falls flat, but if she struggles in a few places she more than makes up for it in other areas. Eileen would no doubt make a fine comedic actress, some of her funnier dialogue becomes her and these moments are where we draw a greater sense of her personality.
A quick note to Manga Entertainment - Well done folks, well done...for the most part.
Manga give us Razor Blade Smile in a newly released 2-disc edition that features some worthy extras. The amaray case comes with a card slipcase, showing alternative artwork to that on the standard cover. The release also comes with a nice little booklet from Jake West whose words are an inspiring read.
Razor Blade Smile has never been released on DVD elsewhere in Anamorphic Widescreen - and it isn't here either. I'm not sure why this is so difficult to achieve so I won't speculate but it would have been nice to see. Aside from this the transfer holds up reasonably well and looks about as good as we can expect, considering its budget. There's a slight softness in areas and obvious grain which adds to the atmosphere, with colour reproduction proving to be strong throughout the many moments of lighting changes. There doesn't seem to be a great amount of edge enhancement applied to the image but it looks better than the original VHS release and to expect much more would be a little silly. Once again though Manga's "Digitally Remastered" tag appears to be a gimmick as dirt and marks are still visible, with no noticeable clean up process being evident.
We're given a choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and a simpler 2.0 track. The film was designed for 5.1 and mixed at World Wide Sound in Soho for its theatrical release. The dialogue throughout is often clear but a tad subdued during crowded scenes, such as in the earlier bar sequence. The film's action and music is carried across well and does typically well bearing in mind the budget. I wouldn't have expected any more or less from this in the audio department.
Audio Commentary with Jake West and Eileen Daly
This newly recorded track features the director and star who reminisce about their time on set and speak fondly of the cast and crew. The track is very lively and both contributors are tremendous fun, telling small anecdotes and bouncing jovially off of each other. Eileen Daly is a lot of fun and is pretty candid during the track as she goes through scenes she seems to have forgotten until recently. Jake West throws in a lot of little bits and pieces and acknowledges a few problems that the film clearly has but also manages to give plenty of tips for wanabe filmmakers as he shows us where he filmed and what resources were available to him. Overall this is a pleasant listen and one that fans should lap up.
Club Death (30.04)
Jake West made Club Death in 1993 as his graduation film, though as he explains it wasn't finished until a year later. Still, on a budget of £3,000 the film is an impressive one - a tale of love and redemption which explores the human soul and questions if it can be bought with an instant credit card ("Karma Card"). Fans of Razor Blade Smile will instantly recognise Christopher Adamson carrying a role not a lot unlike that of Sethan Blake, enjoying the madness of it all and of further note much of the same crew from West's debut feature film had worked prior on this. The film switches between colour and black and white and it captures a nice sense of macabre and morbidity that given more work could do well as a feature length film. Curiously this is presented in anamorphic widescreen, as supervised by Jake West so it looks like Manga simply dropped the ball with the main feature.
Slices of Life Documentary
This feature is indispensable for fans of the film. A great amount of detail has gone into bringing us plenty of facts and reminiscing about the shooting process. Christopher Adamson, Eileen Daly, Jonathan Coote and Kevin Howarth head up the actors contributions and Jake West and some of his crew go through the motions to provide an entertaining hour long piece.
Theatrical Trailer (1.31)
The original trailer for the film is something fresh indeed. It starts off by asking us if we're tired of the same old predictable films and promises to deliver something different, which as said already it does manage. Cue a selection of clips, mainly of Eileen Daly wearing rubber.
This menu is split into three pieces: Outtakes/Bloopers, Deleted/Alternate Scenes and CG Test Shots. Running for a little over 7-minutes the outtakes comprise of various onset gaffs, people forgetting their lines and makeup tests. These scenes are time coded. The deleted scenes run for just over 8-minutes and are not of much interest. Some are effects test shots and others are dialogue based scenes with unfinished sound. Lastly the CG test shots were a practice run, with West hoping to include them in the final film. Here we are presented with the theatrical trailer that includes some of those shots, which in all honesty don't make much more impact that they already have.
Cannes '97 Footage
This is a collection of pieces from Cannes '97 that include the film promo reel (10.55) which is introduced by composer, Richard Wells. The Cannes video diary (4.12) is brought to us by Jake West and Robert Mercer as they set out to promote their film. Jake shows us the collection of postcards and booklets used for promotion and takes us on a very brief tour of the festival. Lastly is the Cannes '97 trailer.
Photo Gallery (10.08)
This is a really nice selection of photographs that cover promotional material, on set work, stills and generally people enjoying themselves on set. These can only be viewed as a whole 10-minute sequence, which plays out to atmospheric music with no option to skip.
Thanks to Jake West for pointing these out himself:
If you go to the 'Audio Set up' button on Disk 1 and press 'left' you'll get an easter egg slide show of unseen poster art concepts.
If you go to the "manga preview" button on disk 2 and press 'right' you'll access a hidden featurette called "The Evolution of the Dream Sequence"
If you load disc 2 onto your PC or Mac you'll find a PDF of the original script which you can then print or read. Also the "Rocks action Scene Storyboards are here but I still haven't managed to open them.
Manga Previews (33.12)
That’s right, 33-minutes of Manga trailers for just about every one of their anime releases. I’ve expressed my disliking for such a lengthy reel in the past but at the end of the day I don’t suppose you have to actually watch it.
In the end Razor Blade Smile just doesn't take itself too seriously. It's fun, trashy, and campy, has plenty of blood, slyly winks at us and delivers gothic lesbianism. It even goes so far as to offer a neat and surreal twist of which the acting is perhaps more surreal, but entertainment is the name of the game and the film certainly delivers enough in that respect.