Five bored young billionaires become vampires in “Dead & Beautiful,” a middling horror-thriller and social satire that opens with an intriguing premise but never probes its cashed-up characters deeply enough to create gripping drama from the heightened hedonism or existential crises they experience after acquiring new powers. Slickly photographed in a neon-drenched Taipei and featuring an attractive young cast, this riff on the eternal tale by Dutch filmmaker David Verbeek (“R U There,” “Full Contact”) scores early points by drawing parallels between mythological vampirism and the modern metaphorical vampirism of rich elites before losing its sting and meandering toward an unsurprising “surprise” conclusion. After notching appearances at festivals including Rotterdam, Sitges and Fantastic Fest, “Dead & Beautiful” releases Nov. 4 in North America and the U.K. on genre streaming platform Shudder.
These rich young things deal with the burden of being unbelievably wealthy and incredibly bored by taking turns to arrange pranks and experiences that will at least temporarily interrupt the ennui of extreme privilege and entitlement. The lively opening lark is a fake funeral staged by Bin-Ray (Philip Juan), who interrupts his own wake at a fancy restaurant. His way of celebrating with friends Lulu (Aviis Zhong, “I WeirDO”), Alex (Yen Tsao), Anastasia (Anechka Marchenko) and Mason (Gijs Blom, “The Forgotten Battle”) is to viciously assault innocent diners he doesn’t like the look of. At this point, text information with the friends’ names and net worth appear on screen, but there’s little more we learn about them beyond this.
The billionaires become bloodsuckers on an overnight camping trip arranged by Anastasia. In a lonely forest they’re met by a shaman (Tsai Ming-shoiu) with some kind of connection to indigenous people robbed of their land by 17th-century Dutch colonialists. After taking part in a ritual and passing out, the members of the group wake up to discover the shaman is dead and they’re all sporting brand-new sets of vampire fangs. Luckily, Alex’s family has a skyscraper in the middle of refurbishment, allowing the quintet to hole up in its half-finished penthouse suites and figure things out.
There’s initial amusement and excitement as they test things out by seeking both willing and unwilling victims, drinking blood, checking for reflections in mirrors and monitoring the effects of sunlight. The screenplay is found wanting when members start thinking about what the changes mean to them. For Alex and Bin-Ray, it’s an opportunity to unleash even more of their vicious contempt for those less fortunate, such as a convenience store worker Bin-Ray manipulates with mind control. Their actions lead to conflict with Lulu, who’s much less excited about the prospect of immortality and undreamt-of power.
What’s required here is gripping group dynamics and penetrating dialogue that gets beneath everyone’s cool facade and exposes who they are, where they’re coming from and where they want to go. There are some small hints about a family tragedy involving Lulu, Mason’s interest in Buddhism and Anastasia’s needy reliance on social media for her sense of identity — “I have decided to become a vampire, I hope you can accept my new identity” she posts on her vlog — but too many discussions fizzle out just as they start to become interesting and revealing. We never get inside the heads of these characters in a way that makes us care about their fates.
“Dead & Beautiful” lacks narrative bite but never lacks visual appeal. Verbeek, who has made several films in Taiwan, and cinematographer Jasper Wolf (“Monos”) bring all the sheen and gloss of a high-end fashion commercial to depictions of the protagonist’s luxurious lifestyle in glitzy nightclubs and expensive restaurants. Wolf’s framing of the vampire clique prowling through eerily deserted streets and in later scenes in a seaside location bring a hypnotic other-worldliness to the tale. Monica Petit’s eye-catching costumes and a sleek electronic score by Rutger Reinders round out the film’s top-notch packaging.