I imagine we’ve all done this. We see a DVD, and who happens to be on the cover but Christopher Lambert, star of such classics as “Highlander,” “Mortal Kombat” and that one Tarzan movie that was actually kind of like the books? Obviously Lambert, sporting a wide eyed and wide mouthed vampire scowl, is more than enough reason to watch a movie called “Metamorphosis.” We sense no danger here.
Before you ask, Franz Kafka did not contribute to the screenplay, but I’m sure that even the Prussian master of existentialist horror could not have saved this one from the bargain bin. Basically, “Metamorphosis” can’t decide if it wants to be the next Tony Scott’s “The Hunger” or start a new Underworld-esque franchise. The result is that the film, although not without its charms, is a hodgepodge of “what the hell?”
Why is it that movies that begin with a block of text feel the need to have a narrator as well? It boggles the mind. Look, either tell us or spell it out for us, but not both. Or, better yet, let the movie do the explaining itself. Either way, we are twice informed that back in 17th century Hungary, the Countess Bathory was flaying girls alive, drinking their blood and being an altogether bother to the local peasantry. So said peasants sneak in some mercenaries and slaughter her family. Seems fair.
Meanwhile, in the present, three Americans, a goofy one, a ditsy one and a sensitive one–three guesses as to who survives, and the first two don’t count–are vacationing in Hungary, looking for the old Castle Bathory. They get lost taking a “shortcut” through a graveyard–in which Lambert just dug up the corpse of his brother–and there they encounter Elizabeth (Irena Violette), an ethereal beauty in a corset who can guide them to their destination. Ain’t that convenient? There’s some other stuff–we get a pretty contrived theology lesson about purgatory, the sensitive tourist starts up a romance with Elizabeth, she later shows off her supernatural fighting abilities in a poorly choreographed pub brawl–but the fun doesn’t really start until the second act, when we wind up at Castle Bathory. Why? Because that’s where the whole reason I picked up the DVD reappears, only this time, he’s a vampire.
When it comes to “Metamorphosis,” the one thing that everyone agrees on is that Lambert is the film’s saving grace. He has the closest thing to gravitas out of anyone in the cast, and, whether he’s delivering lines of morbid humor or goofball weirdness, he’s giving it his gravel-voiced all. He delivers his lines of existentialist dialogue like they has something approaching meaning, and while I don’t quite buy it, I do enjoy it.
Which is great, because there’s not a lot else to stick around for. The script is bad on multiple levels. Everyone’s dialogue is awful. If you need a direct example, when one of the tourists encounters Elizabeth for the first time, he calls her “toots.” Because it’s still 1923, presumably. Oddly enough, although the film is Hungarian, it does not appear to be dubbed, so they can’t use that as an excuse.
The film at least looks OK. The photography is clean, and even pretty at certain points, although I still don’t understand the vogue for forgoing tripods. Are they really that expensive? Regardless, the cinematography, costumes and sets are good enough that this could pass for an acceptable TV movie. That script though…
The movie gets a little lazy at certain points. Whenever it needs a handy solution for why something works the way it works, the answer always appears to be “because vampires.” At the same time, the mythology is rather selective. Vampires still don’t appear in mirrors, but they’re unaffected sunlight. Occasionally, the film forgets its own mythology: Initially crosses shudder in the presence of vampires, like supernatural Geiger counters; later, vampires can laugh at them and set them on fire. Also, it is eventually revealed that vampires can time travel. No, I am not making this up. Writer-director Jeno Hodi did, along with screenwriters Tibor Fonyodi and Allan Katz.
That time travel thing plays out in the film’s final, most infuriating act. Once its had its Carpathian Mountain setup and its slasher-esque chase around Bathory Castle in the middle, the movies enters into the metaphysical by way of the bizarre, and it’s really bad at it (although it does finally explain why “Metamorphosis” has such a pretentious title; most vampiric imports are called things like “Blood Lovers II: Extra Blood, Hold the Lovers”). The film suddenly starts toying with lofty concepts like love, destiny and our place in the cosmos in the most confusing way possible…and then, it flashes back to humor with its stinger. Unless it was trying to set up a sequel. Who can say? In the end, you can’t blame “Metamorphosis” for not trying, but you can blame it for not making any sense whatsoever.