The vampire remains a perennial monster within the horror genre. No matter how many times you douse it with holy water or thrust a stake in its heart, it just won’t stay dead. This makes sense. The vampire has long been a metaphor for many things, including Otherness, the plague, anti-immigrant fears, predatory masculinity, and even queerness. Long after Bram Stoker’s pioneering late 19th Century novel, the fanged killer remains a horror staple.
Blood Relatives, Noah Segan’s directorial debut, offers a refreshing take on the bloodsucker. Here, the vampire serves as a metaphor for a nomadic lifestyle, for lack of connection and family. Segan’s film is very much a road trip movie with an unlikely father and daughter. But it’s also much more than that, an endearing piece of filmmaking that’s very human, despite the monsters at its core. We haven’t quite seen a road trip or father/daughter film like this before. Blood Relatives is a strong debut and one of Shudder’s best releases this year.
Francis Isn’t Your Typical Vamp
Not only did Segan direct the movie, but he also stars in it. He plays Francis, who oozes a sort of black leather jacket cool. But he’s not quite as hip or deadly as Bill Paxton’s Severen in Kathryn Bigelow’s brilliant vampire western Near Dark. In fact, Francis doesn’t get off on killing. He’s not sadistic like Severen and his vampire clan. He only does it to survive and to get from one rural town to the next.
When the film opens, we meet Francis hiding out in his muscle car in Texas. He sleeps there with bed sheets over the window or pays for one grimy hotel after the other. In fact, he doesn’t seem to want trouble. He’ll kill to survive, yes, but he’s not out to murder just for the sport of it. If he could manage just by eating road kill, he’d likely do it. This is a man who doesn’t want to be found.
For at least the first quarter of the film, we know little to nothing about Francis. We get a sense that he’s running from something. When we see the tattoo on his forearm, it all makes a little more sense. Francis’ Jewish heritage made him a nomad. He has nowhere else to go and nowhere to turn to; his sense of family died long ago. The vampire can certainly stand in as a metaphor for the nomadic lifestyle, and here, it works brilliantly. Francis is rudderless, with no sense of home, just trying to sleep through daylight and make it through one night after the next. Time means nothing to him.
Jane Isn’t Your Typical Daughter
If Francis isn’t a typical vampire, he certainly isn’t a typical father, either. However, he’s thrust into that role when his daughter, Jane, played by Victoria Moroles, locates him at a cheap motel, where he watches cable TV and cradles a bottle of liquor. She, however, isn’t a typical teen. She has fangs, for one. But she’s also not a whiny kid, either.
Like Segan, Moroles gives an earnest and heartfelt performance. This movie works so well because of these leads. They spar and trade barbs back and forth. At one point, she calls him the Fonz dressed up on Halloween night. She also warns him against growing a “dad bod.” It’s endearing! More importantly, she forces him to open up. As unlikely a pair as the two initially seem to be, they have more in common than they think. This is where Blood Relatives hits the perfect emotional notes. Yes, this is a horror-comedy, but more than that, it’s a film about finding a connection and questioning what exactly it means to have a family.
When Jane tries to unbury her father’s past and thus understand where she came from, he tells her, “A person will do anything to stay alive.” He adds that when he came to the states, he didn’t have anything. And while some “nice folks” took him in, they weren’t “family.” This is the reason Francis insists Jane meet her mortal relatives in Nebraska. “If they’re your family, they’re all you’ve got.” He believes this because of what happened to his family and his Jewish heritage.
Yet her remaining mortal family turns out to be a bunch of Jesus freaks that want nothing to do with her. So this questions the very idea of family and the notion that blood relatives are all that matter. As the film unfolds and as Francis peels back more of his layers, the two realize they’re really the only family that they’ve got. It’s a beautiful journey watching the two grow closer, even if they make fun of each other. She has to teach him what a hashtag is, for instance, and insists he finally gets a new leather jacket. Sometimes, we find family in the unlikeliest of places.
Blood Relatives’ Nods to Vampire Lore
Blood Relatives works well as its own thing. That said, there are some cool nods to vampire lore and previous films. As already mentioned, Francis’s style feels like he watched Near Dark one too many times. He also has to be invited inside to visit anyone. Josh Ruben, meanwhile, plays a Renfield-like character who calls Francis his “king in leather.” Ruben’s screen time is short, but boy, does he make the most of it, acting just as batty as the character in Stoker’s novel and the countless film adaptations.
That said, Blood Relatives is so effective because it focuses on a very human story, a tale about finding someone who gets you. Jane and Francis seem like polar opposites at first until they realize that they’re all they’ve got in the world. She even knows every single detail about his muscle car, and because of her, he learns to use social media, get a job, and even a birth certificate. It’s a start at attempting to live in the 21st Century.
After being cast in supporting roles for so long, Segan has quite a debut feature on his hands here. The father and daughter dynamic in Blood Relatives makes for a rousing road trip. These well-written characters grow increasingly likable as the layers are peeled back. This is an engaging and entertaining feature that again shows why the vampire endures. It can work as a metaphor for so much, in this case, a nomadic lifestyle and complicated personal history.
Blood Relatives comes to Shudder on November 22. Keep updated on the streaming service’s latest content by following my Shudder Secrets column.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.