Britain, 1850. A pistol duel between the decidedly evil Sir Sethane Blake (Adamson) and Jack Ryder claims not only Ryder's life, but nearly that of his lover Lilith Silver (Daly). Only, this fateful passion play takes a supernatural turn for the unexpected when Blake reveals himself to be a vampire, saving Silver from the brink of death with the "gift" of immortality. One hundred and fifty years later, Silver has taken on the mantle of a highly paid assassin, employed by a faceless, though wealthy, employer through middle-man Platinum (Howarth) to terminate members of an underground cult known only as the Illuminati, an altogether more powerful splintered faction of the former Freemasons.
Not unsurprisingly, Blake resurfaces as the head of the sect, with his vampiric origins well guarded, who in turn calls upon New Scotland Yard Detective, and fellow Illuminati member, Inspector Price (Coote) to investigate his suspicions of a vampire killer known to the authorities as the "Angel of Death". While Price does his best to make Lilith's evening job harder for her to carry out, her affiliations with American hacker The Chill Pilgrim (Lavelle) start turning up disturbing repercussions for her current assignment. When Platinum is kidnapped by Blake, the time comes for Silver to kit up, tool up, and raise the body count, as well as put her past to rest.
Jake West's "Razor Blade Smile" is one of those little genre efforts that many English horror buffs should be largely proud of, instead of wholly embarrassed by as is fairly common with the response to modern British horror output. Shot for GBP20,000 on largely donated, discounted, and unused off cuts of 16mm film, it's surprising that the United Kingdom has anything remaining at all of its (once) grand cinematic horror tradition. Lest anyone forget, Hammer Films were an independent studio who infused a healthy cash flow into the economy with their product of the fifties and sixties! The strongest compliment I can pay West's film these days, is that it largely invokes that independent spirit of old, as well as conjures up notions of where Hammer may have headed were they still around today (I know they say they are, but any of us are yet to see an actual film project go into production!). Since I first encountered "Smile" in '99, its memory has stuck with me.
Revisiting it a few years later has largely left my opinion of it unswayed, but there are a couple of minor irritating points that do hamper its ultimate longevity as a cult article. West's script is witty, clever, and relatively unique in both its structure, and ideas. Sure, the vampire assassin motif was previously explored in John Landis' "Innocent Blood" (1992), but in comparing the two I couldn't think of two more diametrically opposite films. And thankfully, West's film wears its independent origins, and British-ness, on its sleeve with aplomb. Visually, it's a slick, colourful treat for the eye, thanks largely to Director of Photography James Solan's "anything goes" attitude, as well as the wonderful costume design (a fetishists dream) provided by Murray & Vern, Velda Lauder and Ectomorph. Additionally, Richard Wells' lively score keeps things pumping along at an energetic pace (although the umpteenth use of Bauhaus' "Bela Lugosi Is Dead" is a trifle obvious), keeping the atmosphere perfectly "gothic" (as in the sub-culture) in tone.
The only element than pains me, in retrospect, is lead actress Eileen Daly's performance as Lilith Silver, which is essentially crucial in carrying the film as a whole. Admittedly, this was one of Daly's first major film roles, and she largely shows promise throughout, but the majority of her delivery is awfully flat (most particularly the pre-credits monologue). Although I am loathe to knock an icon of a sub-culture, much of Daly's performance is fairly wooden; and baring fangs and hissing into the camera may have worked wonders for Amanda Donohue in "Lair Of The White Worm" (1988), but here it is simply embarrassing, especially by the dozenth occurrence. Daly has her moments, but it's largely a mixed bag overall. Thankfully, Chris Adamson pops up on enough occasions to chew scenery and inject enough much needed presence into the film to divert the viewer's attention away from the limitations of its debuting leading lady.
Per the usual modern cinematic vampire outings, West's script plays fast and loose with vampire mythology, but I suspect traditional motifs would barely wash with modern audiences, so who am I to complain? But at the end of the day, "Razor Blade Smile" is a definite guilty pleasure for this old boy and, notwithstanding its minor flaws, a good indicator that the independent British horror scene could definitely flourish if investors saw fit to throw a bit more money its way. If you ever venture a sequel, guys, please give Daly a better set of gnashers than she was handed herein, as they look terribly impractical by comparison to all the other vamps onscreen
And on to the new Region 2 disc from Palm Pictures which, thankfully, now puts the need to import copies of the R1 disc from A-Pix Entertainment to bed. Not only have Palm afforded the film a dual layer disc (with the layer change kicking in around the 80 minute mark), allowing for improved resolution, they've also been good enough to offer a new 5.1 remix of the original Dolby digital theatrical track. The only small downside is that, although letterboxed, the film has not been given an anamorphic transfer (but I think this may have a lot to do with the film's 16mm origins). Generally, the image is exceptionally good, with only one instance of the compression having a bit of a struggle coping with a healthy dose of onscreen smoke. Otherwise the image remains largely stable enough, and represents the rich colour scheme quite positively. And the 5.1 mix sounds great, offering quite a degree of directionality when required.
On the extras front, a short 6 minute featurette on the making of the film (lifted from the Sci Fi Channel) pops up, and Daly's revelation of having forgotten her lines enough to be nicknamed on-set "What's my line Daly" is none too unexpected in retrospect. Also included is the theatrical trailer, which is what sold people like me on the film initially. Overall, although sorely missing an audio commentary, Palm have cranked out a good little disc that will serve the fans well, and keep British vampire movie buffs like myself exceedingly happy. Good one!
With exceedingly gracious thanks to Palm Pictures (and to Jake West for soldiering on to the bitter end in the first place!)
Review by Mike Thomason
|Released by Manga Live/Palm Pictures|
|Region - 2|
|Rated - 18|
|Ratio - widescreen|
|Theatrical trailer, Cast/crew interviews|