When is a bizarre vampire story not exactly a vampire story? Or is it? Welcome to the world of Dead & Beautiful, from Dutch filmmaker David Verbeek (Full Contact, R U There), which concerns five attractive, affluent, Asian, 20-something friends. Their families are so ridiculously wealthy (all billionaires) that these spoiled offspring (played by Gijs Blom, Aviis Zhong, Yen Tsao, Philip Juan, Anechka Marchenko) are bored to the point where they each take turns creating a unique, extravagant experience for their group, known as The Circle. The challenge is to create an experience that could potentially change their lives, or at least come close enough to moving them in some way that they finally feel something in their otherwise numbed brains. They perform these rituals once a month, so the rest of the time, they just party, living their lives as influencers complete with general, unfulfilling debauchery.
Set in and around Taipei (stunningly shot by cinematographer Jasper Wolf), the film takes a turn when one of the young women arranges a night that she thought would result in a spiritual awakening by calling in a local shaman, who gives them all a mysterious drug that knocks them out. When they awake, the privileged brats all have fangs, an overwhelming craving for blood and even more adventure. At first, they are terrified, but some of them start to take into consideration what it would be like to live the vampire lifestyle with their closest friends in a city where they already like to stay up all night. The world and their families already expect so little of them that this seems like the perfect way to continue existing, draining the vital essence from whatever they see fit—the metaphors write themselves.
Naturally, the name of the game eventually is escalation. They could survive by feasting on the blood of animals, but once they get a small taste for human blood, Dead & Beautiful becomes a morality tale. Some look for the perfect first victim, while others refuse to ever kill another person, and this group once so dedicated to new adventures becomes fractured. But not everything is what it seems, and lines are crossed that can never be uncrossed. As much as the film’s set-up sounds like a possible dark comedy about hip one-percenters doing whatever they want with no consequences, it actually begins to take a serious look at these lives, which will now be flooded with consequences if they begin to kill people. I wish the film had gone on a bit longer, if only to give these characters time to really sweat these decisions out and let the weight of these choices truly begin to crush them.
Filmmaker Verbeek opens up some interesting Pandora’s Boxes in Dead & Beautiful but he slams them shut before allowing anything genuinely nasty to escape. Still, the performances and the characters’ struggles are convincing, the film is hauntingly lensed, and this is a fairly unique approach to a vampire story. I’m not sure the movie qualifies as horror, strictly speaking, but some of these rich fools are horrible people, and most viewers will likely enjoy watching them suffer as their old lives vanish before their eyes. It’s a mixed bag, but I’ll give the film points for trying something different, even if the climax and its ultimate messages are somewhat lackluster.
The film is now streaming on Shudder.
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