I don’t know anyone who saw this movie. In fact, I don’t know anyone who even heard of this movie before I mentioned it to them. “The Little Vampire” quietly passed in and out of theaters in the fall of 2000, just before the seasonal onslaught of family-friendly films released between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Whatever kind of marketing campaign the movie’s producers tried to mount, they didn’t succeed in spreading the news of their work very far. That’s too bad, because “The Little Vampire” is one of the best children’s movies I’ve seen in a long while. This is a movie that asks its young viewers to believe vampires can be good guys and scary guys at the same time. Children’s movies rarely ask for that kind of cognitive sophistication from their audiences. Most kid movies (and, as father of three, I’ve seen a distressingly large number of them) prefer to keep their moral distinctions clear, unambiguous, and unthreatening. “The Little Vampire” directly challenges simplistic moral categories by portraying vampires as frightening, ghoulish, dangerous, and worthy of respect, sympathy, and friendship.
For many children, vampires stand at the very top of the bad guy hierarchy. Nothing is scarier than sharp-fanged bloodsuckers who live in coffins, come out only at night, and have the ability to turn into bats. To its great credit, “The Little Vampire” does not downplay these horrifying qualities (with the one exception of not showing any actual drinking of blood). The vampires do not become cuddly, Disney-fied dolls; they are truly the undead–fearsome creatures of the dark. The film maintains a strong sense of the weirdness of vampires, the creepy otherness of the world in which they live. And yet, the film goes on to suggest a connection between humans and vampires is still possible. Even though vampires are really, really, really scary, we who live in the light can still find a way to befriend to them.
The improbable agent of this potential for relationship is an eight-year old boy Tony, played by child actor Rollo Weeks with a mannered cuteness that almost, but not quite, ruins the movie. Tony’s unflagging good cheer enables him to take the initiative in making friends with a slightly older vampire boy named Rudolph, whose delicate features and pallid beauty evokes all the eerie romance of the vampire legend. The development of their friendship is the heart of the movie, and I enjoyed the simple words and gestures through which the two boys slowly come to know and like each other.
I naturally found it intriguing that the original impetus for Tony’s good-hearted and fearless determination to help Rudolph is series of strangely intense nightmares. In these dreams Tony learns of the centuries-old curse laid upon Rudolph’s family and their desperate quest to have the curse lifted. Because of these dreams Tony develops an unshakeable certainty that vampires are real—though of course his parents, teachers, and schoolmates laugh at him in scornful disbelief. Tony’s defiant certainty enables him to stay true to his new friend no matter what happens. In this regard “The Little Vampire” is a classic story of a child learning to trust his own budding intuition and have the courage to take the initiative in befriending those “creatures of darkness” the adult world fears and despises.
The ending of the movie is rather sappy, as is true in most children’s films. Tony’s heroic efforts succeed, the curse on Rudolph’s family is lifted, and all is well again. The happy narrative closure does not, however, dispel the truly haunting, reality-stretching possibilities this film suggests to its young viewers’ imaginations.