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Shudder Secrets: So Vam Explained

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The queer coding for vampires has always been there. Heck, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the count locks Jonathan Harker in his castle for days and feeds on him. The sexual undertones aren’t exactly subtle. The bloodsucker’s effects on Harker last long after he escapes the castle. Even in some of Universal’s earliest Dracula films, specifically Dracula’s Daughter (1936), the queer undertones were rather explicit. By the 1960s and 1970s, there was a slew of vampy films that played up this homoeroticism, including Daughters of Darkness (1971) and Castle of Blood (1964), among others.

Australian teenage trans director Alice Maio Mackay‘s So Vam addresses the history of the vampire through a queer lens. It’s a film that’s very much about being out and proud, featuring some lavish on-screen drag performances and a group of vamps that feed on white supremacists and homophobes. The Shudder exclusive is a solid addition to their increasing queer horror library, signifying a young talent to watch.

An Outcast in a Conservative Town

So Vam begins with a familiar premise, specifically an outcast in a small, conservative town. Kurt (Xai) dreams of becoming a drag artist and moving to a more progressive city. He’s bullied by nearly everyone at school, day in, day out. His dad (Brendan Cooney) is closer to Kurt’s bigoted brother and fails to understand his queer son, at least initially. Kurt’s only real friend is Katie (Erin Paterson), who works a dead-end job to help her family pay the bills.

One night, Kurt makes the mistake of venturing out alone. He’s attacked by the predatory, older vampire Landon (Chris Asimos). His bites make the victim rot from the inside out, which is a unique take on the vampire bite and immediately makes Landon one of the film’s key villains. Two younger vamps, April (Grace Hyland) and Harley (Ethan Mcerlean), save Kurt just in time and accept him into their group. They feed on the dregs of society, including conversion therapy camps and neo-Nazis. April tells Kurt early on that they basically only kill those who warrant it, true creeps undeserving of blood/lifeforce.

A vigilante vampire force of sorts that kills homophobes and white supremacists is one of the film’s most interesting aspects. Suddenly, Kurt the loner finds his tribe and gets to kill society’s bottomfeeders, too. His new pals ease his loneliness. Finally, he’s formed a real bond with others, similar to the friendship between Oskar and Eli in the contemporary vampire classic Let the Right One In. Eli and Oskar get each other, and Eli teaches him to stand up for himself, much like what April and Harley do for Kurt. They accept him, which, in turn, allows him to feel a greater sense of pride regarding his identity.

So Vam and Otherness

From the get-go, So Vam does a great job showing what it’s like to be othered. Kurt is physically attacked by bullies, yes, but even those who should know better don’t stick up for him. When his classmates harass him, tossing notes at him that say homo, the teacher yells at him instead of the culprits. It’s unsafe for him to even walk home from school alone. There are the bullies trailing his every move but also an ancient and predatory fiend. Further, when Kurt makes new friends, Katie gets a bit jealous. However, even if she’s initially the only friend he has, she can’t quite understand his position and identity as the queer vamps can.

The film, in not so subtle fashion, also details the history of the vampire and its various interpretations. When Kurt’s hanging out in a record/comic shop, one of his only places of solace, a conversation ensues when he spots the clerk reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There’s a whole lot of conversation in about five minutes about what the monster has historically represented, be it anti-immigrant fears, queerness, or general otherness. Even Bram Stoker’s sexuality is addressed. If you want to know more, read David J. Skal’s Stoker biography, Something in the Blood. Regardless, the film reminds viewers that the vampire has long been a metaphor for otherness, including in the initial 19th-century text.

At times the commentary is a bit clunky and heavy-handed. However, the film most certainly claims the monster for the queer community.

Queer Horror for the Queer Community

At a little more than 60 minutes, So Vam passes in a breeze. It’s very much a movie for the LGBT community made by people in that community. It celebrates otherness and queerness and includes some impressive drag sequences, too. Though the film has some stiff acting, Mackay certainly has a bold vision here that will only get better with time. The awareness of horror history is also impressive, especially the nods to previous vampire lore and even Frankenstein.

Take a bite out of So Vam when it drops on Shudder on August 23. And keep up to date on the streaming service’s latest content by following my weekly Shudder Secrets column.