17-year-old transgender writer/director Alice Maio Mackay’s low-budget horror film, “So Vam,” premiering August 23 on Shudder, provides a nifty queer twist on the vampire genre. Kurt (Xai) is a bullied gay high school student in Australia, who wants to be a drag queen. When he is “changed” by Landon (Chris Asimos), who feeds on outcasts, Kurt becomes a vampire. He is guided by April (Grace Highland) who teaches him how to use his powers to fight evil and homophobia by “taking blood from those who don’t deserve it” — such as two men running a conversion therapy camp. He also finds love with Andy (Tumelo Nthupi).
Mackay chatted with PGN about the film and how Kurt is empowered as both a vampire and a drag queen.
What is the appeal of horror films for queer audiences?
Horror has always been a genre that I really love. There is something about horror that makes it easy to connect to queer things — not even undertones. It is a very queer genre, historically; look at “Nightmare on Elm Street 2,” with Mark Patton. I’ve done horror short films. For a first feature, there was no other option than to do a queer horror film. You could just do a drama, but it doesn’t have that same campiness to it that a horror does.
What about the idea of what hate does to people? Hate is why the bullies bully, but also why the vampires kill.
I didn’t want the vampires, and Kurt, our protagonist, to start killing and feeding on innocent people. That can be obvious if it is used as a metaphor for coming of age, and vampires can be seen as a queer found family. I wanted to use how brutally Kurt has been bullied from early on and use that. Kurt is only hurting the ones who have hurt him earlier on and more as revenge, rather than killing random people, which would make him not a villain, but wouldn’t make it easy to get the audience on his side.
Can you talk about how you filmed the drag/musical scenes, and the ideas of fantasy that drag offers which is different from the supernatural fantasy of the vampires?
With the drag sequences, I want that to be their dream and their end goal, to make that stage a special place for them — this elevated thing.
What can you say about the film’s tone, which is camp and earnest at the same time? What was your approach to the material?
I think Gregg Araki was a big inspiration and someone I’ve looked up to. His films come from that campy and absurd place with alien and sci-fi stuff, but this is also an earnest queer film. I knew I wanted to make it very camp at times. But at the end of the day, I wanted to make my first film that had everything I wanted to see in a film reflected in that.
Can you talk about being a teenage filmmaker?
I was 16 when I shot it. I worked on sets when I was younger, and I made some short films. I had just dropped out of school that year. I had the time, I made a few shorts and got a distribution deal for one of them — “Tooth 4 Tooth,” which was also about drag queens and vampires — but I wanted to do that but better and bigger, so the next step for me was to make a feature. That was something I was passionate about.
“So Vam” is a little bit gory but not gratuitously violent. Can you talk about the bloodletting — how much blood to show and how much to spill?
I just wanted — especially in the conversion camp — that had to be a big show of blood and gore because it is a traumatic thing and I wanted the revenge aspect to really take over because it’s such a brutal concept, I wanted the murder to be equally as brutal. But I wanted the violence to be campy and fun rather than horrific and scary. The character is a drag queen, so it’s very camp in general. The head-melting was supposed to provide 80’s retro kind of vibes.
You play with some of the conventions of vampire legends. They are not turned to dust in sunlight, and they can erase memories. What decisions did you make about the vampire characters?
Originally, when Ben [Paul Robinson, Mackay’s cowriter] and I were writing the first draft of the script, these vampires are going to take on eating all these people for revenge, where do the bodies go? They can’t hide them, so that’s how we came up with the bodies melting. The whole memory wipe was how vampires have different superpowers in the past. This can benefit the story well, so we went with that.
I love the idea, posited by April in the film, that Bram Stoker was queer and wrote “Dracula” as a way of penning a gay romance. Is this idea common knowledge?
I don’t think it was that common knowledge. Ben my cowriter said it would be interesting to embed this history. I did some research, but I had no idea, and I was a big “Dracula”/horror reader.
Do you think it’s true?
We’ll never know for sure, but I guess “Dracula” is very homoerotic in some ways, so it could be…
How do you think you would you fare as a vampire? And why do you think they are so popular in our culture?
I think I’d be a really bad vampire. I get scared of blood. As for why they are popular, I think there was a resurgence with “Twilight” in the 2000s. Slasher films have a structure with a killer, but vampires there are so many different [paths] the story can take. There is paranormal romance, teen “Vampire Academy,” you have “True Blood” which is ultra-gory, and ultra-sexy. It has an appeal to different audiences, ages and demographics. With vampires you can do anything in any subgenre you want.
Will you make more vampire movies?
I’m done with them for now unless someone gives me money to make a vampire film, in which case I’d love to!