Beyond the Mat (1999) may be the best-known and most-watched documentary on wrestling for non-fans, and it paints a pretty grim picture of the sport, the WWF, and the warped showmanship that grinds down wrestlers into pain addicts whose personal lives are often a complete disaster, but with Canadian Ian Hodgkinson (aka Vampiro) as an entry point, the theatrical sport, as practiced by indie wrestling companies (read: non-WWF), comes off as less nihilistic.
A major chunk of the charm in Lee Demarbre’s documentary stems from Hodgkinson himself, a combustible personality who cares deeply for the sport he embraced when his stature, his Billy Idol hair and love-me-or-screw-you attitude proved too much for hockey managers. Hodgkinson left his home town of Thunder Bay, Ontario and moved to Montreal, switching careers from goalie to wrestler, gradually making his way to Los Angeles, until he struck gold in Mexico, where he became Vampiro - a native star on par with Hulk Hogan in the U.S.
Wrestling may be an ancient sport, but it’s been transformed into a theatrical show where machismo and egos are slammed, flipped, and beaten to a pulp in a choreographed ballet by really big guys. It’s part carny show and ballet with mafia boots and makeup and capes, and like a travelling musician, it’s the international stops and the appreciative fans that keep the wrestlers invigorated.
Like a musician or stage actor or dancer, it’s the relationship with audiences and their energy that provides a rush, and Hodgkinson is one of many players whose life has been affected by years in the ring.
Demarbre doesn’t provide any running commentary because Hodgkinson’s personality and verbosity give more than enough material to keep us interested, and some sobering contrasts are provided by Hodgkinson’s old associates, friends, family, and ex-wife, and what’s surprising is that Vampiro isn’t a grim documentary; it’s a film about an indie player at a career juncture, and the rushes Hodgkinson has experienced between personal and professional ups and downs.
The film’s structure involves two interwoven narratives: the night before a major wrestling show produced by Hodgkinson in Mexico with his own company and financial backing by a bag of questionable sources, and a bio of the odd kid who went from Thunder Bay to Mexico and became a star.
Long past his glory days, Hodgkinson isn’t a sad figure; he’s a professional trying to reinvent himself using decades of experience, but he’s also a high-strung character known for stepping back and disappearing from friends and colleagues when not on the road.
The best sequence in the film has Hodgkinson arriving in Ireland for a show, and Demarbre intercuts the creative brainstorming that has the wrestlers mapping out the show’s dramatic high points, going through the choreography, performing the show, and Hodgkinson making sure everyone had a good time and is safe. For non-fans it’s an illuminating scene because no one’s an asshole, an egomaniac, or a reckless hulk locked into a self-destructive path – a major contrast from the sad, disintegrating characters in Beyond the Mat.
Hodgkinson has had some awful tragedies in his life, but he keeps on going, doing the best he can, and Vampiro has some extremely funny sequences (the Milli Vanilli segment’s hysterical) and some very fearsome characters with prior issues (namely Robert Martin, an old friend who tells some wild and scary stories of their early years as struggling wrestlers in Montreal, and of the mounting discord that snapped their friendship in half).
Demarbre clearly benefited from having a handful of important characters willing to share a lot of thoughts, and the film’s focus on people rather than an industry make Vampiro an accessible and illuminating portrait of a working indie showman.
Anchor Bay’s DVD sports a clean transfer with some minor visible compression between title card transitions. The Dolby mix is very punchy, and Michael Dubue’s bass-heavy score thunders quite nicely.
The DVD extras include multiple teasers, a stills gallery, and a lengthy deleted scenes gallery featuring extended sequences, and excised interviews. From a pacing standpoint, Vampiro is perfect, but the extra scenes provides some additional information on Hodgkinson’s family, a childhood friend, trainer, and Hodgkinson’s statement on wrestling’s working class fan base that’s probably the lone scene in the gallery that should’ve been retained in the film.
There’s also an alternate ending – more of a coda – that ties up the film’s opening scene where Hodgkinson is seen working as a Guardian Angel in New York City, training and learning the organization’s ways for a planned chapter in Mexico City. In Demarbre’s final edit, the inference is that Hodgkinson’s still actively wrestling, but the deleted coda reveals his latest effort to reinvent himself as a Guardian Angel.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising that amid all the colourful characters the director met during filming, an idea germinated to fashion a film exploiting the Vampiro/Hodgkinson charisma. The resulting film, The Dead Sleep Easy (2007), was released in tandem with Vampiro.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan