Vampires are nothing if not versatile. Unlike most of the standard horror-flick heavies – zombies, werewolves, machete-wielding maniacs, etc. – they can vary wildly in type and behavior, appearing on screen as anything from hyper-articulate aristocrats to animalistic predators to regular folks who just so happen to survive by drinking blood.
That capacity for constant reinvention has allowed for such fundamentally different films as Only Lovers Left Alive, 30 Days of Night, and even (lamentably) the Twilight franchise to fall under the mantle of “vampire movies”; as specific as the genre is, it still seems to attract storytellers who are determined to take it in new directions.
“…Night Kaleidoscope seems torn between pursuing the psychedelic abstraction conjured up by its title and telling a standard, if pulpy, good-versus-evil tale.”
That mentality is readily apparent in the style and atmosphere of Scottish filmmaker Grant McPhee’s ultra-low-budget Night Kaleidoscope, which takes an arty, at times almost abstract approach to its tale of urban vampires and the broken-down hero who’s out to slay them. The film’s off-kilter rhythms and its druggy ambiance are its way of (ugh) staking a claim on originality, but ultimately, its singular style neither fully serves nor effectively compensates for what turns out to be a fairly conventional and not always compelling variation on what’s come before.
That’s unfortunate, because for the most part, Night Kaleidoscope looks and sounds incredible – especially considering that it was reportedly shot in just a single week around a few city blocks in Edinburgh. McPhee, who also serves as cinematographer, lends the film an attractively moody color palette and a distinct flavor for its daytime and nighttime sequences: when the sun is up, the camerawork is still and the cutting mostly calm; at night, when the wild things come out to play, the shots become jittery and chaotic, the editing reminiscent of a late-period Tony Scott film with its rapid-fire jump cuts and changes in film stock. All of this is aurally propelled by Alec Cheer’s pulsating, synth-heavy score, which appealingly brings to mind the 80s New Wave-inspired soundtracks of recent films like Drive and It Follows.
The film, for sure, has style to burn, but its problems mostly arise in the story department. Too often, Night Kaleidoscope seems torn between pursuing the psychedelic abstraction conjured up by its title and telling a standard, if pulpy, good-versus-evil tale. The protagonist is Fion (Patrick O’Brien), a brooding private eye-type who’s inherited a gift for psychic visions; he’s called in by a police detective (Craig-James Moncur) to investigate a brutal murder than he soon discovers is the work of vampire duo (Kitty Colquhoun, Gareth Morrison) who slash their victims up with knives before feasting on them. Eventually, Fian is joined by Isobel (Mariel McAllan), a young woman who’s determined to avenge her lover’s death at the hands of the blood-consuming couple.
“…it’s entertaining enough to put together the pieces of a mostly hinted-at narrative in between trippy montages of vampire murders in back alleys and nightclub bathrooms.”
All of this plays out in a fractured, tantalizingly inscrutable fashion – we see fragmented visions of gruesome murders, Fian’s backstory is revealed in cryptic flashbacks, intimations are made that the vamps might have some powerful secret allies in city government, etc. For a while, it’s entertaining enough to put together the pieces of a mostly hinted-at narrative in between trippy montages of vampire murders in back alleys and nightclub bathrooms. By the film’s second half, though, it becomes increasingly apparent that there are few real kinks or wrinkles to its somewhat threadbare story, and the intensity flags rather than builds as McPhee exhausts his bag of stylistic tricks. What initially seems so original and mind-bending turns out to be adhering to a fairly familiar playbook, with the ending in particular feeling more like a shrug than a show-stopping shocker.
It might perhaps be tempting to blame some of Night Kaleidoscope‘s flaws on its microbudget, but to the film’s credit, it never looks or feels cheap, and it frequently puts its limited locations to terrifically atmospheric use. It also benefits from having two strongly sympathetic leads in O’Brien and McAllan, and the muted, low-key relationship that develops between their haunted characters is one of the film’s highlights. For a movie filled with so much visual kineticism, its most memorable moment might actually be a long take of Fion and Isobel spending their first night together.
With so much obvious talent both in front of and behind the camera, it’s a shame that Night Kaleidoscope doesn’t really work overall. It’s too dependent on a conventional narrative to be a darkly subversive art film, yet it’s also too arty and abstract to connect as a traditional horror movie. It certainly works in small doses and is maybe worth a look on its stylistic merits alone, but, on the whole, it doesn’t really take advantage of the seemingly endless possibilities that the vampire genre affords – even to smaller-scale projects like this one.
Night Kaleidoscope (2017). Directed by Grant McPhee. Starring Patrick O’Brien, Kitty Colquhoun, Mariel McAllan, Craig-James Moncur, Gareth Morrison, Robert Williamson
2 ½ stars out of 5
Night Kaleidoscope is currently available on popular streaming services. Visit the Night Kaleidoscope official website for more.