In the wake of digital animation, the art of stop-motion (or stop-frame) animation has been relegated to the furthest reaches of the animation spectrum, despite the fact that its handmade quality gives the entire production a warmth and tangible quality that is nearly impossible to capture in a computer-born creation. And while animation houses like Aardman and Laika Entertainment are still kicking and putting out a feature every few years (in addition to commercial work and the occasional short films), but even they use digital assistance to smooth out action and erase lines where they aren’t meant to be.
So imagine the sheer delight at seeing a film like Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires (courtesy of the newly created British house Animortal Studio) on the big screen using old-school stop-motion techniques that combine the feel of the artist’s fingerprints on the creation with high production value that you’d expect to get from much more established studios.
Writer/director Michael Mort spent many years working for places like Aardman (he’s credited with directing several episodes of the Shaun the Sheep television series, among other things) and learning his crafted before he created the 2013 Chuck Steel short Raging Balls of Steel Justice, which served as something of a test run for the Trampires feature. Like the short, the feature is an unapologetic tribute to ’80s-era action and horror films. The references—both subtle and not so much—tap everything from Lethal Weapon and Die Hard to Evil Dead and The Thing, complete with dated, exceedingly non-PC opinions/jokes about everything from male/female relationships to excessive police violence. While Chuck Steel (voiced by the director) is the star of the film, he’s certainly not meant to be looked at as anything but an ill-tempered, misogynistic blowhard.
Set in 1986, the story revolves around Steel during changing times. Many of his fellow officers have been seeing the department psychiatrist, the beautiful but chilly Dr. Alex Cular (Jennifer Saunders), who has turned the L.A. police force soft, in Steel’s opinion (one gag involves an officer changing the name of the squad’s Most Wanted poster to Most Misunderstood). And this shift in attitude couldn’t have come at a worst time, when the city is on alert after a series of strange disappearances of some of its high-profile citizens. The crime scenes are soaked in blood but no bodies are ever found, and usually the disappearances occur right after the victim has left a party.
When Steel goes to interview a woman who survived one of these attacks, he’s met by a seemingly insane old man, Abraham Van Rental (also voiced by Mort), who warns him that a growing army of Trampires (that’s “tramp” as in homeless people) are grabbing up these drunken partiers because they feed on the blood alcohol content of their victims, which results in a fresh crop of new Trampires, threatening to overrun the city under the control of their mysterious leader.
As an action movie, Night of the Trampires features some impressive visual moments, including deliriously paced action sequences, explosions galore, shootouts, and even a perpetually angry police captain, Jack Schitt (voiced by Mort once again), who is always threatening to fire Steel but never does because he considers him “the best goddamn cop on the force.” On the horror side of things, the movie is loaded with blood and guts and melting faces that feature a level of detail that makes it impossible not to wonder how the animators accomplished it and how long it took them. A great number of sequences will make you wonder such things, since Mort and his team don’t shy away from larger set pieces featuring crowd shots with dozens of characters in a single frame, each with unique looks and movements.
The film’s crowning achievement is a massive-scale climactic battle set at a circus, during which the Trampires disguise themselves as clowns, poised to attack revelers and take out the governor, nicknamed The Puritan (Dan Russell), who doesn’t believe in drinking and wants to reduce the hours of bars and clubs, which of course would threaten the livelihood of the bloodsuckers. Paying homage to everything from the films of Ray Harryhausen to Killer Klowns from Outer Space, the epic final sequence of Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires is pure, barely controlled mayhem, throwing in giant, unspeakably gross monsters in the mix just to add to the fun. Mort and the folks at Animortal spent nearly four years working on this, and every bit of their their blood, sweat and fingertips is on the screen.
The film’s comedic elements leave something to be desired at times, but that’s only because they seem somewhat juvenile compared to the much deeper understanding Mort gives to the action and horror aspects of the film. Even still, the humor isn’t any less mature than something like the South Park movie or Sausage Party. Night of the Trampires would slot in nicely on the midnight-movie circuit. And while I’m sure aesthetic of the film (matched perfectly by a killer synth soundtrack by Joris de Man and a handful of deep-cut heavy metal songs) would suit home viewing, ideally, this is something you’d see with a couple hundred of your nearest and dearest, like-minded cult movie fanatics in an actual theater.
The film is audacious, unashamed, sleazy and has no issues taking shots at everyone, most especially Chuck Steel himself. In a cinematic world where we’re about to get our first R-rated muppet movie, one can hope there’s a place for more than one bit of tasteless fun.
/Film Rating: 7 out of 10
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