So Vam is the feature debut of 18-year-old Australian transgender filmmaker Alice Maio Mackay, a newcomer hedging to overhaul the horror landscape. Its seat-at-the-table aspirations are aligned with Brad Michael Elmore’s Bit, but with an Everest-sized disclaimer: Mackay is operating without robust funding—the only credited producer is “Alice Maio Mackay”—and there’s a very “student thesis” presentation to the affair. Its technical motions are janky and unpolished, but that doesn’t discredit Mackay’s stronger voice as a storyteller and scene composer. So Vam is a tale of intent versus execution, masking low-budget gumption with passionate narrations.
Mackay and co-writer Ben Pahl Robinson introduce South Australian makeup artist & drag performer Xai as teenage Kurt, who’s ostracized for their queer identity. Kurt’s regularly beaten by slur-serving bullies and dreams of escaping small-town bigotry to become a famous drag celebrity. After an especially violent alleyway assault leaves Kurt spitting blood, compassionate vampires dispatch the nasty attackers and vanish into the night. However, the absurd occurrence turns out to be a prelude: Elder vampire Landon (Chris Asimos) feeds on a vulnerable and lonesome Kurt, who’s saved by their newfound allies, who teach the newly-turned outcast vampire survival skills. Basics like keeping a low profile and feeding on the worst bastards alive: White supremacists, predators and so on.
Frequently, So Vam encounters smash-sudden editing, bland supporting performances and clunky fade-away transitions. Mackay’s crew struggles to counter hazy natural sunlight and background noise in more public locations, emphasizing their meager production means, and there’s certainly no fight choreographer, given how the film’s shaky-cam tactics can’t hide the weakest of “action” interludes. So Vam compares unfavorably even to less wealthy Shudder indies like Spider One’s recent Allegoria, mimicking friends living their vampire fantasies with someone’s family Handycam. At times, it’s inexcusable and speaks to novice abilities—yet that’s expected from a literal novice.
Mackay certainly shows promise as a developing filmmaker with a prominent vision. As Kurt struts down their high school hallways past judgmental eyes or attends a supernatural nightclub, Mackay and cinematographer Aaron Schuppan design fetching frames drenched in catwalk bravery or neon luminescence. There’s confidence and boldness behind So Vam that previews what style and substance Mackay harbors, unafraid to champion LGBTQ+ themes at their most frustrated and uncomfortable. The script’s shining accomplishments tell of Bram Stoker writing Dracula as a monstrous manifestation of Stoker’s repressed queerness, and unleash vengeful ‘80s exploitation retribution on conversion camp counselors. So Vam is uncontained, messy and aggressive in ways that swing hard and don’t fret about misses, which is once again both a compliment and plea for adjusted expectations.
It’s a tale of two movies: The one on paper and the one in practice. Special effects that melt blood-sucked victims look like dyed chocolate sculptures under a super-hot hair dryer. Impactful plot advancement that resonates thematically must be uncovered behind sometimes sloppy on-screen camera tactics. Mackay does what every aspiring filmmaker’s told and makes their movie, odds be damned. Whether that’s the correct course of action for So Vam will be in the eye of beholders, dependent on their patience for microbudget humbleness. Mackay’s empowering presence and constant strive to make something more than just another drab Dracula riff will mean infinitely more to the right audiences.
Mackay recognizes the horror genre as a place where “monsters” and “innocents” are often recontextualized, covering topics from homophobia to chameleon identities. Outsider audiences aren’t given a diluted glimpse into the oppression and intolerance that universally exists as Xai navigates misguided conversations with parents or laments with veteran drag show performers about the worsening conditions outside establishment safe-havens. A cast that includes trans activist Grace Hyland and other local drag talents creates a cinematic bubble where queer horror fans can feel seen and comforted, elevating what could be another poor forgotten vampire dud.
There’s an audience who will adore the camp, carnage and cathartic commiseration of So Vam. There will be others who won’t endure the introductory nature born from its behind-the-scenes barriers. Indulgence is the name of So Vam, as drag sequences devour chunks of runtime and vampiric horrors aren’t ever adjacently horrific. Specifically, Mackay favors the later-night genre crowd who might holler along as goth-chic vamps share a criminal’s blood on date night. It’s a bruised fruit that might deter based on appearance, but those who recognize the beauty underneath might still find some pleasure in sucking its tantalizing juices dry.
Director: Alice Maio Mackay
Writer: Alice Maio Mackay, Ben Pahl Robinson
Starring: Xai, Chris Asimos, Emma Bleby, Grace Hyland, Molly Ferguson
Release Date: August 25, 2022 (Shudder)
Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.