I don’t know what made the few people who saw “BloodRayne” trash it so much, but I for one won’t hesitate to defend the latest offering from German filmmaker Uwe Boll, whose movies must have established some sort of record for lowest average rating on Metacritic. Here’s a film that was badly mishandled by its distribution and marketing people and severely butchered by most critics, but it deserved much better on both counts. Reading some reviews, you’d think this movie was a new plague on humanity rather than a very decent film that falls a little short of its ambitions.

The film’s U.S. distribution was an unmitigated disaster. Dumped into a paltry 985 American screens on January 6, the same weekend as the powerful and highly lucrative Hostel (which had 2300+ screens), “BloodRayne” only made 2,4 M $ before it vanished from the earth. Now it’s making a meek comeback with a 20-screen Canadian run, including the AMC in our fine city. As far as I can tell, there’s a total absence of ads for it, so I was surprised to see eight people at the afternoon showing I went to. Seriously folks, this must be one of the least-promoted movies of all time. Even a film that might be a new addition to my yearly Worst 5, The Benchwarmers, gets a few print ads even if it wasn’t shown to critics. It’s a shame you won’t hear about “BloodRayne” other than in this review, really, because save for a weak ending and a couple of bad performances, Boll’s latest is an enjoyable, sexy and polished near-epic with a very attractive lead in Kristanna Loken.

The good Dr. Boll is synonymous with mindless movies like House of the Dead and Alone in the Dark, but here he delivers a potent revenge story of vampires, swords and mysticism written by Guinevere Turner. The premise of “BloodRayne” looks like the kind of stuff going straight to DVD, but it has a good budget and a recognizable cast with people like Loken (T-X in T3), Michael Madsen, Michelle Rodriguez and Ben Kingsley. The star is the beautiful Loken, who by the way is far from a bad actress, but let’s also mention the stunning Romanian mountains, countryside and castle where the film was shot, the orchestral score and the ominous chorus chants that all contribute to a few epic flourishes.

As always with Boll, “BloodRayne” is an adaptation of a video game, but frankly I don’t think it matters what’s similar or not to the game because Turner’s story stands on its own. Here’s how it goes. We are in medieval times and the balance of the universe is threatened by a vampire lord by the name of Kagan (Kingsley). A secret organization called the Brimstone Society has been fighting evil generally, and Kagan specifically, since the dawn of time. It is led by Vladimir (Madsen), with help from Sebastian (Matt Davis) and Katarin (Rodriguez). Meanwhile, lead character Rayne (Loken) has escaped the carnival where she was paraded as a freak (she can heal her wounds by drinking blood; she’s a dhampir, part human and part vampire). Rayne’s dad is none other than Kagan, and she embarks on a quest for vengeance after a nightmare about how her mother was killed, an attempted rape, a violent escape from the carnival and a visit to a fortune-teller. Along the way, Rayne teams up with the Brimstone people to retrieve three talismans (an eye, a rib and a heart) that grant unlimited power to whoever assembles them.

The 5’11” Loken, who spends the whole movie in a revealing bustier-style tank top, displays a lot of athleticism in well-done fight scenes and looks really hot with her semi-short hair dyed a fiery red. But that’s not where the beauty ends: there are several impressive vistas of the Carpathian Mountains, long shots of characters on horseback and inspired glimpses of Kagan’s castle, which would be worthy of a more menacing figure than Kagan, who mostly sits on his throne ordering people around. From an acting standpoint, kudos go to Loken and Will Sanderson as Kagan henchman Domastir, while Madsen is nowhere near as lethargic as a lot of critics made him out to be. The reports that he spent parts or all of the movie under the influence of the bottle may or may not be true, but for me it’s a simple issue of evaluating within context, and that seems to evade a lot of people: wouldn’t you look and sound a little weary if you had been fighting vampires for decades?

The few blemishes, and they are noticeable, are the stilted expression of Kingsley and the hammy turn by Billy Zane, who plays an underwritten vampire dissident in hiding. “BloodRayne” is not to be taken as especially profound, but Zane reads his lines in a way that would be better suited to Muppets in Transylvania, while Kingsley has a priceless monologue about keeping promises, scouring the land and slaughtering the populace that makes me think a thought bubble would show Kingsley shaking his head and muttering “what is this?” It’s a mildly amusing monologue, actually, but spoken so quickly you might miss the comical extent of non-peaceful endeavours it entails. What doesn’t help is that both actors look like they got the shortest straws on Wig Distribution Day, especially in Zane’s case.

But overall I enjoyed “BloodRayne” a good deal, and it’s certainly not as atrocious as many people would like you to believe. I think Loken had it right in the current issue of Starlog magazine: “It’s very difficult”, she said about the poor reception of the film. “Of course you want to put your work out there to be accepted and appreciated, but in this case I don’t think it was the film’s fault as much as it was the distribution company behind it, who were ill-equipped to sell a movie of this magnitude.” I would tend to agree. This is a movie that with good advertising could have made a healthy amount of money. It’s an above-average story of good vs. evil in fantasy parameters, with one striking heroine and a lot going for it. Boll has rounded up an intriguing cast for his next film, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, which threads much of the same ground as “BloodRayne”. Loken, Leelee Sobieski, Jason Statham, Burt Reynolds, Ray Liotta and Ron Perlman are in it. Hopefully a) it gets a theatrical release and b) a worthy promotional effort.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay