August 19, 2008
Vampiro: Angel, Devil, Hero (2008)
Life in pro wrestling is tough, as even when the show has a heavy dose of melodrama and elements of performing arts, it's still a very demanding sport that can have several damaging (physically, mentally and emotionally) consequences for the wrestler, and not only because of the injuries the body receives during a match, but also because of the pressure of the business. And this is something that Ian Hodgkinson, better known as Vampiro, knows better than anyone. Hodgkinson, a young Canadian man with the dream of becoming a wrestler, decided to travel to Mexico in the late 80s to follow his dream, and suddenly he found himself being one of the country's biggest pro wrestling stars of all time thanks to his unusual style and looks. But after being a popular icon of Mexican wrestling, life would take "El Vampiro Canadiense" ("The Canadian Vampire") to experience more than one real life body-slam. And this is what Lee Demarbre's documentary, "Vampiro: Angel, Devil, Hero", attempts to capture.
In "Vampiro: Angel, Devil, Hero", Demarbre showcases the human being behind the Vampiro persona, following him in the European tour he made in preparation for the opening of his own company, "Revolution X"; and then remains close to him as Vampiro prepares the very first event his company is going to produce: a big match in Guadalajara, Mexico, the city he now calls home. At the same time, "Vampiro: Angel, Devil, Hero" explores Vampiro's past, including interviews with his family, friends and the people who has known him since his humble beginnings in Ontario, Canada. Revolving around this three main "storylines", the film uncovers the wrestler's atypical life, including the story of how a young Canadian man ended up being Mexico's biggest wrestling star in the early 90s. Finally, through the eyes of Ian Hodgkinson, "Vampiro: Angel, Devil, Hero" gives insight about the business and the life of pro wrestlers in general, which isn't always as fun as the show may lead one to believe.
An interesting feature of the film is that, while Demarbre's frequent collaborator Ian Driscoll worked as a writing consultant, there isn't any voice over to narrate what's going on other than Vampiro's musings as he leads the crew across his everyday life. Not even even when dealing with Vampiro's past Demarbre uses this resource, as he just lets Vampiro and his other interviewees narrate the story in their own words. This approach creates a more intimate look to the topic at hand, as through the stories one is able to discover Vampiro's different sides, offering a window to his mind without glamorizing him (although certain sentimentalism crawls into the picture at some points in the film). Demarbre makes a great job in bringing the real Ian Hodgkinson, the real Vampiro, to the screen, as even when he had not been able to avoid acting out a bit (as a natural performer like him would do), a real feeling of truth embodies the film most of the time, specially during the chronicle of "Revolution X"'s first event.
A consummated fan of Mexican wrestling (as one can notice in his wildly funny feature length debut, 2001's "Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter"), director Lee Demarbre manages to give the film that mystique that surrounds Mexican Lucha Libre; and while Vampiro isn't exactly the typical fighter of Mexican pro wrestling (his look and style are definitely different from the one of classic legends such as Santo or Blue Demon), the whole audiovisual style, including Michael Dubue's great score (mix of surf rock and Spaghetti Western music) and Petr Maur's art direction, is quite fitting. The leaps in chronology, while probably a tad confusing at first, are well handled, and serve to add variety and a sense of suspense to Vampiro's odyssey as an independent promoter. Demarbre's film-making has matured and grown a lot since his "Harry Knuckles" days, but this movie proves that he has kept that freshness and good humor that earned him a name in the independent film circuit.
Overall "Vampiro: Angel, Devil, Hero" is a remarkable documentary, but by no means is a perfect movie. Personally, I think that the film's biggest flaw is that despite consciously (and constantly) trying to avoid the romanticization or glamorization of Vampiro's life-story, at times it gets a bit too sentimental for its own sake. It could be that such thing it was unavoidable, given the hard times and difficulties Vampiro really has had (and still has) to overcome in his life, but still at times that bit of melodrama manages to creep into the film. Still, the way Demarbre keeps the most emotional elements for the last act really help to keep the balance of the film. Other than that, the movie is pretty much a very complete documentary about Ian Hodgkinson, "El Vampiro Canadiense", and the very unusual story of his life; as well as about the many difficulties wrestlers in general must face after their time at the top of their popularity has passed.
Gritty, hard, tough, but always with a good sense of humor (like Vampiro himself), Lee Demarbre's "Vampiro: Angel, Devil, Hero" is probably one of the best documentaries about pro wrestling ever done. While it offers a really inside look at the way matches are prepared and choreographed, it never loses the respect for the sport and the athletes that perform in it. Through the film, one ends up with the feeling of having met an old friend in Vampiro, which for a documentary about somebody's life is probably the main goal. So this angel, devil, hero really wins the match. Hopefully, future will be bright, not only for filmmaker Lee Demarbre, but for Vampiro as well.