If Yasujiro Ozu (or perhaps Joseph Losey) had ventured to make a Gothic horror romance, he might have come up with something like "Tale of a Vampire." By ordinary entertainment standards, this movie is soooo slow and ponderous and under-dramatized that it feels like a half-hour television play padded out to feature length. But in spite of its often leaden and mawkish dialogue, hamfisted acting, corny genre trappings, and congealed-syrup pacing, there are a few nice things to recommend about this production. For starters, there are all those cold, clean minimalistic sets and artfully prepared Gothic interiors. And one could almost mistake the shots of warmly filtered amber light with frames from "The Double Life of Veronique."
This tale is set in a fictionalized version of London as a depopulated ghost town undergoing what appears to be some kind of total eclipse or nuclear winter. Probably owing to an inability to secure the proper shooting permits, there are only a few stock images of the Thames and Big Ben in long shot that establish any real sense of locale. Indeed, most of the production expense seems to have gone into renting the camera equipment, hiring out the services of the crew and processing lab, designing the interiors, and of course, paying the salaries of the three lead actors. Save for an old librarian, a dying old man, some offscreen voices, and a few homeless people, there is virtually no supporting cast to speak of.
The plot concerns Ann (Suzanna Hamilton), a young woman mourning the tragic death of her fiancé in a mysterious car explosion (this aspect of the story, and the elliptical dialogue which follows, seems curiously reminiscent of a Harold Pinter play). As fate would have it, Ann lands a job at a library specializing in arcane research and the occult. There she catches the eye of Alex (Julian Sands), a brooding and melancholy young scholar. It turns out that Ann bears an uncanny resemblance to Alex's long lost love, Virginia (also played by Hamilton who wears a wig in the flashback sequences). Soon after, Ann also crosses paths with Edgar (Kenneth Cranham), a pushy and obnoxious library patron who is not what he seems (actually his character is quite obvious from the outset, we're just not supposed to know about it, I guess).
Well...you get the picture?
No doubt Julian Sands was hired for his impressive Aryan-Byronic appearance and precise, martini-dry diction (he looks set to be remembered as the ersatz-Christopher Lee of his generation). But the script undermines his seductive Old World manner with its overemphasis on Alex's all-too-contemporary geeky obsessiveness and chronic adolescent depression (more than 100 years of it!).
Likewise, Suzanna Hamilton's Ann is a self-defeating Victorian stereotype: the sweet and passively winsome young innocent oblivious to her distress. The script makes too much of the fact that Ann is a helpless sweetheart and shrinking violet; and thirty-something Suzanna Hamilton seems too old to still be playing such chirpy, wide-eyed schoolgirl naivete. If anything, Ann just comes across as an implausibly dimwitted pushover who is manipulated with no great difficulty and predictably blunders into disaster. Fortunately, we are granted the pleasure of seeing Miss Hamilton do a Suzanna Hamilton specialty: the Sleeping Beauty. Indeed, I can think of no other actress who slumbers before the camera with such timeless grace and affect!
As the menacing imposter, Edgar, Kenneth Cranham easily delivers the worst performance. Had the film simply been about the blossoming romance between Ann and Alex (who happens to be a vampire), this might have been quite a charming and clever little picture. But alas, we are forced to endure the sustained annoyance of Cranham as he chews and spits scenery like tobacco and spouts atrocious, hackneyed, overwrought horror-movie dialogue meant to advance and explain the plot in the most clumsy and awkward way.
It doesn't help that Cranham is a terribly, terribly unattractive actor and he delivers an overaggressive and embarrassingly obvious performance. There is no elegance or seduction in his evil, and no grandeur in his lust for revenge either. He looks a bit like Vincent Price in "Witchfinder General," but the resemblance only makes you wish that Price was alive and fifty again to do justice to this kind of role.
Saving the worst for last, the ending of the film is flaccidly anticlimactic. In a sequence which seems to last forever, Ann's curiosity about Alex's vampirism is roused and she eventually tracks him to his lair, Nancy Drew-style, and confronts him. I won't give anything else away.... Suffice to say, it is at this point that the movie really falls apart and any developing interest in the characters (and the story) collapses with a resounding thud.