Umbrage: The First Vampire (UK DVD)
Directed by Drew Cullingham
Distributed by Left Films
First-time director Drew Cullingham gets off to an ambitious start with low-budget Brit flick Umbrage: The First Vampire, an eclectic mix of family melodrama, vampire action, supernatural horror and Western styling. Unfortunately, the heady dose of various different elements also proves its downfall, leaving a wildly inconsistent yet occasionally promising piece of work.
Umbrage follows bereaved patriarch Jacob (Bradley), an antiques dealer who sets off with his new young trophy wife, Lauren (who is also pregnant with his child), and his sullen, rebellious stepdaughter, Rachel (Ramnani), to a wooded homestead in an attempt to heal bonds between the constantly feuding family members. There he also holds a mysterious ancient mirror, recently smuggled for him, which he plans to sell off for a rather extreme amount of money.
Meanwhile, a couple of friends out camping in the woods find their fireside jollies interrupted by a birdwatcher by the name of Lilith (Celino). When one of the campers disappears with the sultry female and is promptly discovered half-dead and mutilated, she explains that the shadows are alive and attacked them. Searching for help, Lilith and the surviving camper, Stanley (James Fisher), unsurprisingly end up at the cabin. From here the group find themselves under sustained assault from vicious supernatural forces as the darkness itself attacks, and Rachel discovers a mysterious cowboy hanging around in the barn. Turns out that said cowboy is Irishman Phelan (Hurn), who also happens to be a vampire. He explains that the real danger is inside the cabin – Lilith, the mother of all vampires, is behind the horrific events. Harbouring a personal grudge with his maker, Phelan has tracked her for centuries, and now finally armed with the only relic that will kill her once and for all, he intends to make this night her last.
As you can tell, the plot of Umbrage is certainly not lacking in its fair share of individual elements, from the fractured family dynamic of the protagonists to the somewhat convoluted history between Phelan and Lilith. Even Lilith’s own origins are explored and laid out, including some interesting yet underdeveloped theological machinations (the only weapon that can serve to kill her is one of Adam’s ribs that Phelan has successfully stolen from the Vatican). The major problem is that director Cullingham’s attempts to successfully juggle and deliver all of these various elements are cack-handed at best, and laughable at worst. With each new piece of back story, flashbacks and extended exposition, we see the film operate in fits and starts, repeatedly losing any grip it has on its own pacing time and time again, and Cullingham also has difficulty reining in the tonality of some scenes: Lilith’s origin scene in particular may be one of the most unintentionally hilarious rape scenes to grace the screen in quite some time. It feels quite strange even writing that. Visually, however, Cullingham certainly has an eye for cinema with Umbrage looking like it cost a figure far higher than the meagre budget would afford.
The cast, for the most part, also perform admirably. Genre legend Doug Bradley seems to be having a lot of fun in a “normal” role as family man Jacob and carries the film along with aplomb. Co-star Rita Ramnani is effectively annoying and self-centred as Rachel, let down on occasion only by the screenplay and not her own talents. On top of the pile is Jonnie Hurn as the elusive, mercenary vampire Phelan. The Irish accent and feeling of genuine gravitas make him the most interesting character here, both on page and screen. A suitably impressive anti-hero, Phelan is well nuanced -- one minute placid, another savage; amiable yet menacing and, ultimately, solely out with his own interests in mind. Only a few poorly directed moments see Hurn’s leash dropped as, in common with much of Umbrage, unintentional hilarity rears its head amidst literal minutes of breathy, lip-licking line delivery straight out of a porno flick. As Lilith, Natalie Celino fares worst of all with constantly off-kilter, disinterested line delivery and a Scottish accent so thick it proves almost impenetrable. Obviously intended to offer a sense of foreboding and underlying malevolence, Celino’s line delivery is more likely, yet again, to raise nothing more than a belly laugh. Still, many may find it easy to forgive in the face of her particularly ample charms once the film reaches a climactic nude snake wrangling scene.
Featuring a fight scene that, again, is so clumsily staged and physically unimaginative it almost becomes parody, and an unhealthy obsession with musical interludes (the final shot, in particular, goes on for far too long only for the sake of finishing the currently-playing song), Umbrage is just far too disjointed, unfocused and clumsy to be entirely worthwhile. Whilst it plainly crumbles under the weight of its own aspiration, it’s at least a decent attempt and does offer glimpses at a promising future for Cullingham as a director; if he can only learn to keep his ambitions in check and focus on narrative delivery, then we’re likely to be seeing some pretty big things from him in future.
Left Films’ DVD release of Umbrage is nicely presented in terms of both audio and video with no major issues. The review copy did, however, refuse to play the final 15 minutes of the film on two different players. A more recent model player had no trouble with it, but I doubt this will reflect the final retail product. In terms of special features we have the trailer for the film, a music video for the main theme song, a behind-the-scenes featurette that offers far more insight than expected for a low budget indie flick such as this, and an extended interview with Doug Bradley, who remains as delightfully personable as ever. Running almost an hour long all-in, it’s a pretty respectable package.
2 out of 5
3 out of 5