Something often forgotten by modern horror filmmakers is that the genre functions at best when it is about something more than just jump-scares and blood spilling. Indeed, the elements of horror offer a kind of coded language that can be used to explore many different types of social and psychological themes. Too many filmmakers today ignore these possibilities, simply exploiting the genre for its commercial potential or using it as set dressing for another multiplex romance or action potboiler.
Chastity Bites offers a scrappy, likeably ambitious alternative to this status quo. The plot is a riff on the true-life “Countess Bathory” tale that has inspired so many vampire films. The teen heroines are snarky would-be journalist Leah (Allison Scagliotti) and her neo-hippie pal Katharine (Francia Raisa), a pair of misfits who are constantly sneered at by the school’s resident mean-girl clique, the “Hiltons.” Leah is determined to get back at them but Katharine secretly wishes she could fit in.
Things get interesting when new teacher Liz Batho (Louise Griffiths) comes to the school to start a virginity preservation society with the school’s young ladies. The Hiltons eagerly join up and, much to Leah’s dismay, Katharine falls under the spell of the charismatic, distinctly European Liz. Leah soon discovers that Liz has a sinister history that suggests she has something vampiric in store for Katharine and the other would-be victims. When no one believes Leah, her only hope is the assistance of Paul (Eddy Rioseco), a handsome nerd who carries a torch for her.
Horror comedies are a risky proposition but Chastity Bites beats the odds most of the time because it uses humor to interpret the horror genre instead of diluting it. Indeed, the film has got a lot on its mind: the film’s plot allows it to tackle such ideas as how a conspicuous display of “good morals” often conceals evil deeds, the ludicrous way virginity is fetishized by the repressive elements of society and how the pressure to conform can breed hypocrisy and distort one’s view of the world.
That said, Chastity Bites isn’t some heavy-handed treatise. Lotti Phariss Knowles’ screenplay shows a flair for snappy dialogue that fits the film’s stylized high school milieu nicely and gives the piece a certain screwball comedy energy. The kitschy vibe of the plot and its villains (both social and vampire) is effectively offset by the sweet, convincingly rendered nature of Leah and Katharine’s friendship, which gives the audience a human grace note amidst the knowing campiness. The plotting is simple and sticks to a familiar narrative progression but that’s forgivable because the story’s more interested in using the genre to explore its ideas about society, high school and sisterhood rather than rewriting the genre playbook.
The story isn’t big on shocks or scares but isn’t afraid of throwing around a little red stuff, either: giallo fans will be amused by scenes where peripheral characters are killed and milked for blood by a black-clad, dagger-toting killer. The direction from John Knowles does well with what was obviously a low budget, backing up the storyline with the energetic, colorful touch it needs. He doesn’t go in for a lot of flashy flourishes, instead concentrating on a getting a look that blends the candy-colored high school movie elements with some shadowy, gothic touches for the more horrific moments.
Chastity Bites also benefits from some strong lead performances. Scagliotti delivers an impressively confident performance as Leah, showing strong deadpan-humor chops as she deftly navigates her oft-twisty dialogue, and Raisa blends warmth and vulnerability as the sidekick who longs to rise above her social station. Griffiths is both eerie and elegant as the vampiress villain and Rioseco makes an excellent romantic foil for Scagliotti, smartly underplaying the role to compliment her more up-front style of comedy acting.
The one noticeable flaw of Chastity Bites is that both script and direction get a little rushed during the finale: confrontations that could been crafted into setpieces whip by in a hastily-choreographed blur while other clashes are left off-screen entirely – and the whole thing ends too quickly in a way that shortchanges the horrific fun that could have been had. It doesn’t help that the shocks we do see often favor cheap CGI effects over traditional latex-slinging.
However, Chastity Bites remains impressive for what it achieves. It takes familiar horror elements and successfully infuses them with satire, creating something that is socially conscious without forgetting to be fun. Even when the comedy gets a little too broad or the ambition exceeds the resources, this film has a brainy charm and a love for its misfit heroes that keeps it on track.
DVD Notes: this film was recently released on DVD by Grand Entertainment. It presents the film with a crisp, colorful anamorphic transfer and includes both 2.0 and 5.1 stereo options. The 5.1 track was listened to for this review: it doesn’t go wild with directional speaker effects but layers the rock score around the soundscape nicely. Extras consist of a theatrical trailer and a 13 minute EPK-style “behind the scenes” piece that includes the cast and filmmakers. It’s promotional in nature but does a nice job of showing the fun the film’s creators had and the passion they share for its themes.