Review: Transylmania (2009 movie)

A lonely, good-hearted college student named Rusty (Oren Skoog) has finally found a girlfriend on the Internet, a gorgeous young lady who lives in Romania, where her father heads a university. As the film begins, Rusty is emailing her good news: He’s convinced a bunch of his friends to join him in a semester abroad there. Predictably he and his friends end up encountering a mad scientist, some vampires, and the spirit of a long-dead witch, though they do appear to avoid the horror of attending any actual academic classes.

The production values are surprisingly high. Indeed, the film was actually shot on location in Romania, with excellent cinematography and interesting scenery, including a huge castle that in the film serves as the university campus. Transylmania is technically a sequel to the National Lampoon Presents Dorm Days series of direct-to-DVD college comedies directed by brothers Daniel and Scott Hillenbrand and written by “Worm” Miller and Patrick Casey (who also appear on a screen as college roommates). The people behind this sequel clearly had higher hopes for it, releasing it theatrically on over a thousand screens with no reference to the earlier films.

They were destined for disappointment. In fact, Transylmania set the record for the lowest box office of any widely released feature in recent years. Its Rotten Tomatoes rating is an impressive zero. Metacritic's score is 8 out of a hundred.

And yet, I thought the trailer showed enough potential that on some misguided impulse I decided to watch it anyway, and heaven help me, I’m not sorry I did.

Oh, for sure it is a bad, bad movie, but there’s bad and there’s bad. Most bad films are more or less uniformly awful, but this one, while definitely bad on average, contains flashes of pretty good material, which obviously means those bits are offset by things so godawful you want to wash your eyes. Apparently even the core frat-boy audience found a lot of it too stupid to put up with. But I kept thinking that with a better, tighter script -- and a massive transfusion of taste and judgment -- this could possibly, maybe, conceivably have been a fun movie.

Part of the problem is that there are just too dang many characters. I can sympathize with, maybe even to an extent admire, the filmmakers for their loyalty to the actors they’d worked with in the earlier movies. But the supersized cast was still a mistake. A smaller set of characters and fewer plot threads would have left room for a more coherent and entertaining story.

Incidentally, I should say that the actors are on the whole not bad at all. I think it was Variety’s reviewer who said that some of them seemed to treat the film as an opportunity to prove that they deserved better. I was particularly impressed by Jennifer Lyons, who has played a cute bimbo in a number of low-budget movies, including this one, and does such a convincing job of it that it’s easy to mistake the actor for the character.

But this film gives her the opportunity to play two roles, a dumb blonde and said blonde possessed by the spirit of a long-dead witch. She ends up switching back and forth between the two characters in the middle of scenes, instantly transforming her voice, her facial expressions, her mannerisms, and how she carries herself, and you can tell there’s a lot more talent there than you might have expected.

Oren Skoog also gets to play two characters, Rusty the college student and an ancient vampire named Radu who just happens to look like Rusty down to his haircut. Skoog handles this OK, but it’s interesting to see how good Jennifer Lyons is by comparison.

Another memorable character is an appealingly dangerous vampire hunter athletically played by Musetta Vander in tight black leather and a ludicrous accent. She teaches the only actual class we see the students take, one in self-defense. After learning a number of techniques involving pointy sticks, one of the students asks suspiciously, “Are you teaching us how to defend ourselves from vampires?” She scoffs, “No, off course not, don’t be silly! Now, suppose dat somevun attacks you from out off a coffin...”

The following trailer contains some of the best jokes in the film, such as they are, but since it also contains some of the worse (if not, thank heavens, the very worst) I hereby inform you that I am not recommending that you watch it, and if you do you're entirely on your own:

Incidentally, I gather the Hillenbrand brothers, the co-directors of Transylmania, have another project in the works, a series of made-for-cable movies based on the Deadtime Stories series of children's books (!), and if you're curious, you can find a (sparse) blog and a trailer here.

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