The eponymous protagonist of Rufus is a bloodsucker, and so is the movie. Canadian writer-director Dave Schultz’s Saskatchewan-set spin on vampire mythos feeds on any number of previous horror flicks for inspiration, most notably the hit Swedish import Let the Right One In, which it imitates both in its snowy colour palette and anguished, melancholic atmosphere.
The other obvious touchstone is George A. Romero’s 1976 classic Martin, a seriocomic fable about a troubled young man who believes that he’s a vampire. Schultz’s Rufus (Rory J. Saper) isn’t comparably confused about his identity: He knows for a fact that he’s been walking the Earth for more than 100 years in the slender frame of a teenaged boy. But, like Romero’s hero, he’s unsure about his place in the world and similarly finds himself stranded in a small town, agonizing over whether or not to slake his bloodlust. Discovered wandering by the side of the highway by the local sheriff (David James Elliot) in the wake of a traffic accident, Rufus gets quite a welcome to his new adopted home. No sooner has he gotten his bearings than a comely 17-year-old neighbour (Merritt Patterson) has invited him to participate in a mutual striptease.
Puppy love stories where one partner is a member of the walking dead are of course a big thing these days. Rufus at least deserves credit for not going the trendy Twilight route. Despite the magazine-shoot prettiness of his two leads, He is trying for something more serious than a teen soap opera. The scenes where Rufus first attacks and then bonds with town bully Clay (Richard Harmon) are fairly bursting with homoerotic subtext: a different kind of outsider status in a place where billboards proudly proclaim “Support Our Troops.” Rufus’s new guardians are nursing grief over the death of their son, which lends his adoption a tragic tinge. And, for an extra frisson of grimness, the nominal villain, a self-styled vampire hunter, Van Dusen (Kim Coates), is allied with a sinister pharmaceutical company – a very modern sort of bogeyman.
Coates is by now an old hand at lending menace to homegrown productions, and he’s the only member of the cast who really seems to be having any fun: The supporting performances are otherwise stolid and stoic in the best homegrown Canadian tradition. Saper is suitably shy and withdrawn in an underwritten role, but he doesn’t really suggest an old soul; his supposed world-weariness is indistinguishable from basic teenaged mopiness.
It doesn’t help that Schultz seems tentative about whether or not his audience will accept a genuinely predatory figure in a starring role. Rufus only bares his fangs when he’s cornered, which doesn’t reflect his reluctance to let loose and do harm so much as the screenwriter’s. Let the Right One In didn’t hedge its bets and it worked up some solid scares to boot. Rufus doesn’t have any comparably frightening moments, and so ends up feeling drab as well as looking it. Schultz relies very heavily on the soundtrack for emotional effect, but the musical selections feel pushy and they don’t connect to the characters or their milieu as in the recent zombie-romantic-comedy Warm Bodies (a film that made no bones about ripping off Twilight, while sideswiping William Shakespeare in the bargain).
Schultz has a few poetic ideas that don’t feel borrowed from older, better movies: We learn early on that Rufus’s heart is on the wrong side of his body – a condition known as situs invertus. It’s a nice metaphor for biological oddity, but it’s also glumly ironic, as the only thing that this earnest but forgettable little supernatural drama really has going for it is that its heart is in the right place.