The reunion of Alicia Silverstone, Wallace Shawn and writer-helmer Amy Heckerling in the slightly wobbly-on-its-high-heels “Vamps” can’t help but summon “Clueless” out of the mists of memory, but the connections are more than coincidences of casting. Heckerling always manages to get her finger firmly on the pulse of the contemporary moment, and while her club-hopping heroines may be undead, they serve as adorable metaphors for what the filmmaker sees as a zombified moment in cultural history. A blue-blood cast, up-to-the-minute humor and an irresistible poignancy could give “Vamps” a healthy transfusion of audience interest in limited theatrical and VOD play.
In a current-day Manhattan where the culture seems to ebb and flow across various eras, Goody (Silverstone) and Stacy (Krysten Ritter) share a bachelorette pad with side-by-side caskets, which they occupy after tasting the nightlife: They partake of sex, but not of human blood (one of the film’s several disgusting moments finds Stacy drinking rat blood through a straw). Goody regularly attends Sanguinists Anonymous meetings, where various 12-steppers testify to the virtues of subsisting on animal blood and serve as a support group for each other, especially when the city starts notifying them about jury duty (in the daytime?!). It’s not easy being immortal and thirsty, but it’s easy watching Silverstone and Ritter, who inject Heckerling’s characters with charm and, yes, heart, even if the comedy itself takes a few minutes to find its proper rhythms.
The supporting characters help: Shawn is his usual quasi-dyspeptic self as Van Helsing, a descendant of Bram Stoker’s vampire hunter, who blanches when his son Joey (Dan Stevens) brings Stacy home for dinner. “Are you going to suck the lifeblood out of him?” Van Helsing asks. “No more than any other girlfriend,” she chirps.
The mixed match of mortal and Stacy provides the conflict here, but it’s really Goody’s story: “Awakened,” as they call it, in 1841, she’s seen a lot, and she’s far from enchanted by the digital era. So, too, Heckerling, who makes fairly subtle comparisons between those addicted to blood and those addicted to cell phones. The undead prove to have far more soul, as “Vamps” occasionally uses a heavily nostalgic past tense to swat a fairly defenseless present.
Cisserus, played by a very funny Sigourney Weaver (who hasn’t been this supernatural since “Ghostbusters”) is the “stem” vampire who controls the girls; in order for Stacy to escape immortality and marry Joey, she and Goody will have to find Cisserus’ resting place and destroy her, which gives Heckerling an opportunity to play with some deliberately comic CGI effects. It also means that both Stacy and Goody will revert to their real ages. For Stacy, this means only about 20 years. For Goody, it’s not so goody.
In addition to Silverstone and Shawn, Heckerling uses a number of actors who recall her previous movies: Taylor Negron, who delivered Sean Penn’s pizza in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” delivers one to Cisserus, although the tip isn’t what he expects. Zak Orth, who appeared in “Loser,” plays Stacy and Goody’s friend Renfield. And as Goody’s old boyfriend, who’s gone from Vietnam protester to ACLU lawyer, Richard Lewis brings his natural, and in this case appropriate, bemusement; Malcolm McDowell, affecting a Transylvanian accent, is close to hilarious as Vlad the Impaler, now attending SA meetings and knitting.
In an era transfixed by zombies and assorted other ghouls, “Vamps” is a refreshing change of pace, with an irresistible cast and, for all its past-focused asides (including clips from “Metropolis,” “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Nosferatu”), a rather pointed message about living in a culture that seems unlikely to inspire much nostalgia any time in the future.
Tech credit are terrific, even though a few of the effects — Stacy crawling bug-like down the side of an apartment building, for instance — seem intended to elicit laughs rather than awe. The music, as usual for a Heckerling movie, is always just right.