A blog exploring the sexy, shocking, surreal, and silly side of horror films.

August 24, 2011

Ninjas vs. Vampires (Review)

Ninjas vs. Vampires (2010) 

Director: Justin Timpane

Ninjas vs. Vampires is already available on DVD in North America, but it is being released on Aug 29th in the UK from LEFT Films. I missed this film on its initial North American release, so the good people at LEFT Films hooked me up with a screener.

Let me preface this review by saying that movies like Ninjas vs. Vampires are hardest for me to to review. For one, they're low-budget, independent features, so these films become saddled with technical and budgetary restrictions that prevent the movies from being their best. At the same time, films like Ninjas vs. Vampires are clearly made by people like me and for people like me: fans of popular culture and genre film. Ninjas vs. Vampires, for example, is rife with references to other comic books, horror films, and comedies that I love. These filmmakers are people after my own heart and sensibilities, so I want to like them and their films. With this in mind, the temptation is to overlook the film's technical and budgetary problems. I'm not going to do that, however. That would be dishonest. Therefore, I'm sad to report that despite its potential,  Ninjas vs. Vampires is a boring and relatively forgettable mash-up of the horror-action-kungfu-comedy-fantasty genres with lackluster effects.  


Ninjas vs. Vampires is the sequel to Ninjas vs. Zombies, in which some friends are magically turned into Ninjas so that they can fight some evil soul-eating ghouls. Now, in Ninjas vs. Vampires, these magically-powered Ninjas -- along with a Witch and a Vampire-turned-good -- must tackle a group of evil bloodsuckers hell-bent on...well...becoming invincible or something. At every turn, the film distracts you from the plot with a large cast of characters that are poorly defined. We start with Aaron (Jay Saunders) and Alex (Devon Marie Burt), two friends who are attacked by vampires and saved by the Ninja super team consisting of Kyle (Daniel Ross), Cole (Cory Okouchi), Lily the vamp (Carla Okouchi), and Ann the witch (Melissa McConnell). After Ann wipes Alex's memory so she'll forget the incident, Aaron tracks down the Ninjas to find out what's going on. On the side of the villains, a needlessly large cast of vampires led by the PAINFULLY stale and uncharismatic Seth (Kurt Skarstedt) employ a growing roster of other eccentric-looking vamps to help kill the Ninjas. These weirdo vamps are all trying to be this movie's Boba Fett and include Manson (Daniel Mascarello), a sadistic psychopath bound in leather and chains; Maximillian (Will Stendeback) and Manguy (Dan Guy), who dress like they raided a costume store; and The Bishop (P.J. Megaw), a masked vampire and unintelligible leader of the identically-masked acolytes.

There are lots of scenes in houses, lots of crappy-looking day-for-night fight scenes in which people die, and I get increasingly bored with a film that doesn't make clear what's at stake or why we should care until too late into the proceedings. My favorite characters make some truly moving sacrifices, and then they are stripped of their emotional resonance by a pre-credit sequence intended to set up another sequel. Ho-hum.

Rating: 2 / 5 Bad Day-for-Night Scenes


My main beef with Ninjas vs. Vampires is that the film becomes incredibly silly in the absence of accomplished effects, impressive actors, and a big enough budget for costumes and equipment. Without these crucial elements, most of the action looks like footage of people LARPing in their homemade costumes touched up in Adobe After Effects. "Look at me, I'm a bad-ass Ninja! Heeeya!" / "No, look at me! I'm a Gothic vampire sex pot. Hiss hiss, purrrrrrr!"

This vampire gets a poster but two minutes of screen time
When you see a superhero movie being filmed in person, it never looks as cool as when you see it on the big screen after post-production. Ninjas vs. Vampires, however, looks like a superhero film being filmed in person. It's shot with little flare or visual style, I suspect because of the limitations of a low budget. Also, instead of practical effects, the film relies heavily on low-grade CGI to generate muzzle flashes, magic spells, and blood spurts. Unfortunately, this means that when a vampire is shot, for example, we'll see blood spurts but no actual exit wounds. And it looks fake as hell. The artificiality of the effects enhances rather than obscures the silly nature of story, which looked at objectively has all the sophistication of a superhero comic from the 1990s being dramatized by a group of adults playing Ninja with the patrons of a local vampire Goth club. I'm not saying Ninjas vs. Vampires is any less silly in premise than Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, or Captain America, but unlike these recent Marvel blockbusters, Ninjas vs. Vampires lacks the means to fully envelop us in its comic book-inspired universe. Captain America has the funds and the technology to make us forget how goofy it is to watch a man dressed like the American flag punch a skull-faced Nazi. Ninjas vs. Vampires, in contrast, is filmed on what appears to be a handheld digital camera and has costumes that look too real-world and effects that look too digital. It's an unfortunate place to be, but that's where Ninjas vs. Vampires lives.

Nothing in the movie looks as cool as this publicity still
When Ninjas vs. Vampires is viewed as a stand-alone movie, Aaron and Alex become our entry point characters into film, but we don't get to learn much about them, and their awkward relationship doesn't ground us in the movie's comic book plot. Aaron changes too abruptly from a dork into a kung fu master when he's granted magic Ninja powers whereas Alex spends most of the movie with short-term memory loss. Neither are very compelling characters, and with a few exceptions neither are the rest of the cast. The good guys are broadly defined almost solely by their female love interests (Cole loves Lily, Kyle loves Ann, Aaron loves Alex) whereas the bad guys are defined by their gimmicky wardrobe. To create drama, the women are always being kidnapped or killed or hurt. It's lazy comic book storytelling. I'm just surprised we didn't see any women in refrigerators.  

Characters are difficult to invest in when they can't remember anything
Limited in scope and limited in character, Ninjas vs. Vampires is also limited in technical prowess, and the result is a silly-looking movie. Although a lot of scenes are shot in houses (to save on shooting costs, no doubt), Ninjas vs. Vampires wants to be an action movie, so the fights do move outdoors. Unfortunately, since vampires are involved, the fights have to be staged in the evening or at night. These "evening" and "night" scenes are, in fact, painfully obvious day-for-night shots in which a filter is used to darken the characters in a shade of blue, but it does nothing to change the fact that the sky is bright as the God damned afternoon. Even worse, there are actual night scenes later in the film that just make the filtered scenes stick out like a sore thumb. Again, I feel for the filmmakers. Low-light shooting is hard to do, but the alternative -- day-for-night filters -- is no real substitution. Hokey and fake-looking, these scenes not only obscure the action but remind me of the film's low-budget as I watch.

Not Night
Finally, the dialogue is silly and shallowly dramatic. It's all "Final Hour" hero speeches and stale super villain monologing that might look acceptably cheesy in a comic book word bubble but sounds atrocious coming from the mouths of live actors. When the acting isn't painful, it's stale and perfunctory, with the exception of two performances. Daniel Ross as Kyle is a saving grace. He's genuinely funny, emotive, and fun to watch. His character is comic relief with a welcome bit of soul, and even when he's spouting line references from other movies they make me laugh rather than dwell on how much better those lines sounded in the original source material. The other standout performance is of Manson by Daniel Mascarello. Although none of the vampire villains get much back story, Manson feels like the most complete character. Despite his small amount of screen time, he feels like more of a character than Seth, the Big Bad.


All in all, Ninjas vs. Vampires is a disappointment. I empathize with the writer/director and the rest of the crew. The deck was stacked against them from the start; nevertheless, technical issues, low-budget effects, and stale casting and dialogue prevent Ninjas vs. Vampires from being the sort of comic book-inspired action and comedy film it wants to be.

I appreciate Ninjas vs. Vampires for what it wants to be, but I can only judge it on what it is. And it's neither a satisfying nor very interesting movie.


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