Showing posts with label vampires. Show all posts
Showing posts with label vampires. Show all posts

Mar 28, 2020

FRIGHT NIGHT (1985)


Cult titles are funny things. Though some film aficionados will tell you they are a genre unto themselves, instead this label reaches across the entire genre spectrum, plucking titles here and there for the requisite amount of devotion, or sometimes obsession, from its fan base. 

Think Hard Boiled, The Big Lebowski, pretty much anything John Waters has ever made, or when it comes to the horror genre, Fright Night - films that don't do extraordinarily well either with critics or audiences during their initial release, but over time begin to accumulate more and more exuberant film fans ready to quote and analyze or just cherish ad nauseam.


Despite receiving a sequel in 1988 - courtesy of Halloween III's Tommy Lee Wallace - Fright Night took kind of a while to catch on, but once it did, and outside of your more established franchises like Halloween or Friday the 13th, there has never been more devotion to a clunky, kind of silly film from the 1980s - the time in which all cinema was seemingly clunky and silly. 

By now, Fright Night has become legendary for all manner of legitimate and accidental reasons, and there are very few horror fans out there unaware, at the very least, of its plot: that of Charley Brewster (Justified's William Ragsdale) and his new neighbor, Jerry Dandridge (Dog Day Afternoon's Chris Sarandon), who wastes no time in letting slip that he's a vampire by biting a chick in front of the open window that directly faces Charley's bedroom. Since his girlfriend, Amy, and best bud, "Evil" Ed (Amanda Bearse and Stephen Geoffreys, respectively) don't believe him, Charley only has one option: to seek help from Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), former horror thespian and host of a late-night spook-show called "Fright Night" to fight this blood-fanged evil that has moved in right next door.


Fright Night is the definition of 1980s horror, and that's okay. The clothes were big, the hair was bigger, but there was also a non-pretentious charm worming its way through the entire proceeding. Writer/director Tom Holland, no stranger to the horror genre with both Child's Play and Stephen King's Thinner under his belt, shows a bit of flare in what was still the early part of his career.

For the uninitiated, Fright Night is a tough sell, as having a love for 1980s "light" horror is nearly a prerequisite, but the reliance on physical and in-camera effects was a refreshing callback to a less exacting era of cinema (that sounds like a slight, but it's not) where the mindset seemed more to be "let's make a film" rather than "I wonder how far we can push the visual effects." As someone who was always more ambivalent about this title, I was curious to see what a many-years-later viewing of the film would hold for me; while my initial misgivings about the film's uneven tone and (to me) too-long dull stretches remained unchanged, it was refreshing to find myself appreciating certain aspects that I missed the first time for whatever reason: Roddy McDowall as Peter Vincent gives the performance of the film, straddling that line between playing a total forgotten failure, to playing someone genuinely fearful, to then playing someone destined for heroism. He and Ragsdale have fine chemistry and their final fight with Dandridge and his mutant familiar, Billy, is an enjoyably slimy special effects light show. That, and the earlier mentioned charm of physical effects, left me feeling less dismissive and more disappointed that I don't share the kind of love that many, many other individuals share for this film.


Much has been said (and maybe too much) about the gay undertones present in the film: the subtle homo-eroticism between vampire Jerry and the curious Charley, who seems more interested in peering through the window at his new neighbor rather than pouncing on his girlfriend who's waiting in his bed and saying, basically, "Okay, we can sex now." Added to that would be Stephen Geoffrey's surprising foray into gay pornography in his later years, as well as Amanda Bearse's eventual coming out as a lesbian. All of this added together has painted Fright Night as "the gay vampire movie," which may or may not be accurate, depending on with whom you speak that were involved with the making of the film. (The gay theory is a common one for not-at-all-gay cinema.) While it's sincerely doubtful any of this significantly bolstered the film's infamy beyond trivial talking points, it certainly does add another layer to this film's otherwise harmless and enduring legacy.

I guess I'm a curmudgeon, but I don't see the big deal in this beloved cult title. Still, it 35 years later, it continues to climb to the top of most other genre titles released on a yearly basis that come, take a dump, and leave, and no one even remembers they were there. But Fright Night manages to live on, and as I've said before, especially about flicks that aren't my bag, remaining in the discussion this many years later is a triumph. 


Mar 22, 2020

THE MONSTER MOVIES OF LARRY FESSENDEN


Larry Fessenden is kind of the crazy uncle of the horror genre, and it's likely you may have come to know him from his dozens of on-screen cameos in which he's probably killed. He's like the Sean Bean of the low-budget horror world: if Larry Fessenden pops up on-screen, chances are he'll be dead soon. And he'll love every minute of it. But to credit only his "Where's Waldo?" like appearances in the last twenty years of horror films would do the man a severe injustice. Because Larry, when he's not bleeding out on the ground for his fellow horror filmmaker colleagues, is not only producing some of the best independent horror out in the world right now (The Innkeepers, Stake Land, House of the Devil, I Sell the Dead), but also directing his own.

Fessenden's unique and recognizable style adheres to the slow-burn approach. It's making your audience wait, agonizingly, for the alluded horror to manifest into an undeniable foe. But even when other filmmakers, for instance Ti West (a frequent collaborator), finally let loose in the third act, Fessenden, while doing the same, still finds a subtly eerie way to go about it. You'll find no dripping-eyed specters in the dark or satanists in the basement. No, in fact, it's something a lot more deadly and a lot more...important.

Fessenden's pro-environmental agenda may slip by unnoticed if looking at his work in separate chunks, examining each film only as its own entity and not a part of something bigger. It's not until undertaking the grand slam marathon of his films that it starts to become noticeably thematic. And for the three out of four total titles included, that pro-environmental stance cannot be ignored. Film after film shows people from all walks of life disrespecting the very thing that's given them sustenance and shelter and and a sustainable world in which to live, and it all comes back to bite them in the proverbial ass in one way or another.


Even though Fessenden is known as a horror filmmaker, his films aren't terribly horrific - at least not in an obvious way. As he says in his commentary track for The Last Winter, he admits that his films would probably be considered "slow and dull" by general film fans, and that's probably true. His films are less about the horror our characters are experiencing, and more about how these characters are affected by the before mentioned horror. For instance, in No Telling, there's nothing supernatural at all. And except for mild sci-fi aspects, there's nothing presented that couldn't necessarily happen. No Telling isn't about some Frankensteinian creation brought to life by a mad scientist which then runs rampant through the countryside slaughtering the innocent. Instead, it's about the bastardization of man, and how someone can change and go to such grisly lengths for what he believes to be the betterment of society. Same goes for The Last Winter, which, though made in 2007, is more relevant right now given the "debates" on whether or not we should get off our ass and maybe try to save the planet. Are there monsters in The Last Winter? Sure, there are. But are they real? Or are they figments of the isolated driller crew's imaginations? And if they're not real, then what's left to think? Is it collective guilt in knowing the repercussions of their presence on the icy tundra creating their own monsters?

To reiterate, Fessenden's films are not for everyone. They are, in fact, surprisingly low-key, philosophical, and thoughtful, which doesn't jive with Fessenden's on-screen persona as a hammy joker with a frat-boy demeanor. The uninitiated should know this before tackling his filmography.


Warning: not for dog lovers. 

No Telling, one of the three environmentally conscious films in Fessenden's filmography (so far), might be the preachiest, but it's never done in a way in which you feel you're being preached to. The discussions of the evolution of the farming industry, and how it changed once large corporations got involved, is shared by our characters more than once. And, though one of those involved in this conversation is ultimately proven to have gone sick with power, every argument supporting his or her side doesn't come across as stacked in one's favor and against another. Everyone presents solid arguments on why he or she feels the way he or she does, and this is done purposely to show that while we like to think maintaining a pro-environment mindset by default is the way to go, we may not be considering all possible ramifications from not making those harder choices for the greater good.

Performances in the film are excellent, with special mention of Miriam Healy-Louie as Lillian, caught between the two opposing viewpoints of pro-nature vs. pro-progression, personified by the two men for whom she either maintains feelings of devotion, or for whom she's beginning to feel devotion.


Probably the most well-known of Fessenden's filmography, Habit temporarily hangs up the environmental bent in favor of presenting a more straightforward vampire film in the vein (no pun!) of Nadja and Abel Ferarra's The Addiction

Mostly a vampiric take on Taxi Driver, the idea behind Habit is to express the isolation many people feel even when stacked on top of and next to each other in stretching miles of apartment buildings. This somewhat sexually explicit film filled with subtle bloodletting explores human relationships and how they can change disconcertingly quick. Fessenden deserves tons of credit for playing the on-screen role of the victimized Sam, who seems intent on drinking himself to death at the same time that the mysterious Anna seems intent on drinking him to death.


Fessenden returns to his pro-environment tale, though in a far more subdued way, with his take on the Native American mythology of the wendigo, a shadowy figure presented as an intangible force resurrected to restore the natural balance. 

A sort of Straw Dogs meets The Shining, underrated actors Jake Webber (Dawn of the Dead) and Patricia Clarkson (Six Feet Under) play parents to their young son, Miles (Erik Per Sullivan, the youngest "Malcolm in the Middle" brother), who find themselves being victimized by a local hunter while vacationing at a winter getaway in upstate New York. Though based on a supernatural myth, Wendigo avoids being overtly supernatural, with the horrific images of a stick-assembled monster tromping through the woods a heavily implied figment of Miles' imagination. Its ambiguous ending is going to bother the hell out of some viewers, but it falls in line with Fessenden's aesthetic of leaving the horror as a matter of discussion rather than of obvious force which needs to be defeated.


A tremendous cast of actors brings the frigid events of their collective haunting to life as they confront The Last Winter. The most technically achieved film of Fessenden's career (and one finally shot in 35 mm), much like his other films, at first presents a straightforward concept before it transforms into something else. 

Sort of a spiritual sequel to Wendigo, oil drillers for a company called North Shore find themselves dealing with unexplained events following the disappearance of one of their own, followed by the subsequent discovery of his frozen eyeless corpse. One by one, the crew begin to exhibit strange and even dangerous behavior, all which seem to follow on the heels of a conflict spurred by the on-site foreman, Ed Pollak (Ron Perlman, Sons of Anarchy) and James Hoffman (James Legros, Zodiac). Hoffman, an environmental specialist brought to determine the site's stability, announces he's going to recommend that North Shore shut down the site's operations, which doesn't sit will with Pollak's alpha male. Soon the men and women of the base begin to see phantom images of transparent animals tearing across the icy tundra, or discorporated visions of their own departed appearing to them in their bunks. Another ambiguous ending - one of Fessenden's most haunting - is in store for those who dare to see if they can survive The Last Winter.


Larry Fessenden, the on-screen kill guy, might be a recognizable name in horror-loving households, but Larry Fessenden, the director, may not. He may never be as celebrated as John Carpenter or George Romero, but his devotion to and knowledge of the genre - and of filmmaking in general - cannot be denied. In Wendigo, a father tells his son about Robert Frost, the poet who took the road less traveled and it's made all the difference. That, right there, perfectly sums up the career of Larry Fessenden. (Plus he has really cool hair!) 

Mar 13, 2020

INNOCENT BLOOD (1992)


I don’t think John Landis is capable of making an out-and-out horror film free of black humor or whimsy. And that’s not to disparage the filmmaker at all, but when you look back over his career, it’s amusing to see he’s first known as a horror director, even though he’s only made a handful in the genre, and all of them are horror/comedy hybrids. Considering he’s the mastermind behind comedy classics like National Lampoon’s Animal House and The Blues Brothers (a top-five title for me), it’s not surprising to see Landis can’t help himself but look for the absurdity in the concepts behind his horror titles and magnify them to stand head and shoulders with the terror.

Even though it has its “official” and incredibly shitty sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris, Innocent Blood feels more like the real spiritual sequel to Landis’ trademark An American Werewolf in London. Playing out like A French Vampire in Pittsburgh, Landis’ vampire romp hits similar beats: a lead character in a strange land dealing with supernatural powers and unexpectedly falling in love. (And along the way, people are viciously killed.) Gender is swapped this time out and vampire Marie is played as just a tad more villainous (she only eats bad guys, you see), but otherwise An American Werewolf in London and Innocent Blood are kismet.  


Despite Anne Parillaud’s shaky performance as Marie (the actor struggles to convey the right emotional beats through her heavy accent), she’s well cast as the vampire seductress because of how unassuming and atypically beautiful she is. Anthony LaPaglia as Joe does a serviceable job as the half-cop/half-mobster, but really, Innocent Blood is all about the bad guys, boasting mafia-film fans’ wet dream of a cast. Lead baddie Sal “The Shark” Macelli is played by none other than Robert Loggia (Psycho 2), who appears to be having more fun playing a bastard vampire than he did dancing with Tom Hanks on a giant keyboard. Joining him is the inimitable Chazz Palminteri and pretty much half the character actor cast of The Sopranos.

Innocent Blood is violent as hell — the scene with a recently-vampirized Don Rickles in his hospital room is still impressive all these years later, rivaling the infamous transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London. But despite the bloodletting and violence, Innocent Blood is often very funny — from the vaudevillian reactions to the ironic soundtrack to the most terrorized wife in all of cinema (played by Elaine Hagan). And of course it’s very funny…it’s a John Landis film.

Innocent Blood is one of Landis’ least heralded films, but it doesn’t deserve that whatsoever. Far better than some of the director’s other works (Beverly Hills Cop 3: yeesh…), it’s worthy of a reevaluation by horror fans and Landis fans alike. 



Nov 22, 2019

VAMPIRE'S KISS (1988)


Any reasonable reaction to watching Vampire’s Kiss for the first time inevitably hovers around “What the fuck is this?” Part horror, part comedy, part insanity, the film hails from 1988, the wondrous year of military helicopter collisions, the first communist McDonalds, and the comic strip FoxTrot. Take that, add Nicolas Cage, and well, what the fuck is this? We're not just talking whole horses of different colors--we're talking fang-bearing, shrieking, bleeding, bug-eating Nicolas Cage. And regardless of whatever color strikes your fancy, well, hold on to your hat, you weirdo, because shit's about to get quirky. Stat.

Forget all the Nic Cage crazy acting compilations on Youtube. Forget all his weird, eccentric turns in the early part of his career. The utter bizarreness of his role of Peter Loew in Vampire’s Kiss would’ve been more than enough to solidify Cage’s reputation as the quirkiest actor this side of Peter Sellers during a psychological breakdown. Also known as "Nicolas Cage: The Meme: The Movie," Vampire’s Kiss makes very little sense and its tone changes with the tide as it sees fit. Sometimes it wants to be horrific, sometimes comedic, sometimes mean-spirited, and sometimes I don’t even know—god damn weird—but what it creates is an experience that never quite gels, but which you can’t help but enjoy in a “How weird is this going to get?” kind of way.


Most of the plot is spent with Cage's Peter Loew gradually beginning to believe that he's been inflicted with the vampire disease, which as you might imagine makes him quite irritable. He spends most of the film willfully forcing this vampire transition, such as sleeping in a coffin or eating bugs (for real), all while harassing Alva, his poor poor secretary.

Referring to Vampire’s Kiss as “so bad it’s good” would be a miscalculation, because every oddity on display—from Cage’s completely made-up aristocratic accent to him running down the street bellowing, “I’m a vampire, I’m a vampire!” while wearing Halloween store vampire teeth—is 100% intended. Nothing about Vampire’s Kiss is accidentally entertaining. It just…is.

And it’s lovely.


Alva, there is no one else in this entire office that I could possibly ask to share such a horrible job. You're the lowest on the totem pole here, Alva. The lowest. Do you realize that? Every other secretary here has been here longer than you, Alva. Every one. And even if there was someone here who was here even one day longer than you, I still wouldn't ask that person to partake in such a miserable job as long as you were around. That's right, Alva. It's a horrible, horrible job: sifting through old contract after old contract. I couldn't think of a more horrible job if I wanted to. And you have to do it! You have to or I'll fire you. You understand? Do you? Good.

Oct 7, 2019

TALES FROM THE CRYPT PRESENTS: BORDELLO OF BLOOD (1996)



Bordello of Blood is bad bad bad. There's no getting around it.

The anthological nature of HBO's Tales from the Crypt series allowed a rare leg-up over its television show colleagues: besides maintaining a basic skeleton design for the show (and I don't mean the Cryptkeeper! heeee haaaa haaa haaa haaa haaa!!), every episode was allowed to start from the ground up, building a brand new story with a brand new cast every week, while also inviting different writers and directors with different sensibilities to make the show as varied as possible. Looking to EC Comics' 1950s run for inspiration, the stories were either faithfully or loosely adapted, but all maintained the tongue-in-cheek nature, the macabre set-pieces, and the ironic but predictable twist. Because of this, some episodes of the show turned out much, much better than others. 


And that's okay! The show was designed to appeal to as wide of a horror-loving audience as possible, and just like any other audience types, they all have their preferences. Some prefer an approach of the horrific, others more cheeky and campy, while sometimes it's a combination of both. Tying it together, always, was a touch of seedy erotica and a nasty/funny conclusion that usually saw the main hero/heroine (aka the villain) receive their just desserts, either poetically or literally. Much like the comic books that preceded it, the television series were morality tales. Sometimes the heroes escaped unscathed and sometimes they didn't; meanwhile, the villainous almost always suffered, and that was part of the joy. If someone were flat-out unlikable, it was only a matter of time before they were taxidermied and mounted on a wall, or cut exactly in half with a chainsaw.

Which brings us to the abysmal failure that is Bordello of Blood - one of those "bad episodes" of Tales from the Crypt - and not because the story's design wasn't fully in line with the Tales from the Crypt aesthetic. It did, after all, feature unscrupulous characters, sexiness, bodily explosions, monsters, and cheeky humor. No, it fails because there are very few likable people in the cast. Let's start with Dennis Miller, who apparently rewrote all of his dialogue (which made several scenes incomprehensible, considering that the other actors against whom he was acting were forced to recite their dialogue as originally written), and who tries to make every single thing that spews out of his mouth funny or sarcastic in some way. And not just in-general, every-day funny, but Dennis-Miller funny, which equates to overbearing, exhausting, and not at all funny. 


In Miller's defense, so little about Bordello of Blood works that he's just one more body adding to the huge pile of not-working. Corey Feldman is on screen long enough for you to dislike his human version, and then flat-out abhor his vampire version, which is so over the top and stupid that I'm mystified he's mystified he couldn't find work for five years following Bordello of Blood's release. Erika Eleniak gets by with a marginally acceptable performance, but at times her disdain for the material definitely shows through. Angie Everhart, who gave what's become a legendarily terrible performance in her first acting role, does seem to be trying, but ooh boy, so little of what she does actually translates well to the screen. Tales from the Crypt often relied on hot and handsome actors and Bordello of Blood is no different, but sometimes those hot and handsome actors could act. Everhart could not, and maybe she still can't. (Apparently she was really, really nice on set, and that's all that matters.) 

The only one in the cast doing anything worth watching is Chris Sarandon, slumming in what would be one of his final theatrical film appearances. The enthusiasm and energy he injects into his Reverend Current is utterly wasted, and deserving of a much better film. The sequence during which he kills a room full of vampire prostitutes with a holy water super-soaker, causing them to explode into guts, bones, and fire, also deserves to be in something far more deserving. The fact that it's Chris Sarandon doing it makes it ten times as awesome.


Likely due to the production's necessary reshoots, the editing of Bordello of Blood is extremely awkward at times, suggesting the film were being stapled together rather than fluidly designed. Not helping this theory is the unsubtle distinction between Eleniak's real hair and the obvious wig she's forced to use during certain sequences. For a film born out of mistreatment of the Tales from the Crypt brand (story writer Robert Zemeckis basically blackmailed Universal into buying this script), it's no surprise that the final product is a chore to sit through.

Universal Studios had originally intended on creating a Tales from the Crypt-based film trilogy, beginning with the very successful Demon Knight (almost continuing with the Tarantino/Rodriguez collaboration From Dusk Till Dawn before Tarantino asked for too much money), and ultimately concluding one film early with Bordello of Blood, a film that even its star, Dennis Miller, ordered his audience to avoid while it was in theaters. That it was a box office bomb assured further tales spun by the Cryptkeeper would be relegated back to television screens, which is a shame, because the brand has carried a lot of weight since the comic book's introduction back in the 1950s and has been sitting dormant way too long.

And it's all your fault, Bordello of Blood. Thanks for nothing.

Bordello of Blood is atrocious. Even those who like the film have to admit it ain't at all that good. Fun and gory violence and a story that really does smack of that ol' EC Comics aesthetic aside, so little of it works that it's almost amazing it ever saw the light of day - and from a major studio, no less.   


Sep 18, 2019

VAMPIRES (1998)


  
John Carpenter grew up watching westerns. 

One of his very first short films, The Resurrection of Billy Bronco, was inspired by them. And although known as a horror director, he’s really been making westerns since the very beginning: Assault on Precinct 13, They Live, Escape from New York/L.A., Ghosts of Mars and there are even more. But when it comes to the weary and embattled few taking on many in the dusty, sandy landscapes of the Midwest, complemented by the appropriate acoustic-guitar-driven musical score, it’s Vampires that claims the top spot as the western Carpenter always wanted to make. Sure, the enemy might be sunlight-avoiding bloodsuckers, but they spring up from everywhere – from behind buildings, or elevator shafts – and it’s up to Woods’ Malcolm Crow and his desperadoes to mow them down with a glorious collection of weaponry. The only thing scarier than facing your certain death in the OK Corral at sundown is being out there in the New Mexico desert at all once the sun begins to set, allowing the legion of vampires beneath the sandy surface to rise, looking for necks to suck on.


Vampires is a hell of a lot of fun – the type of fun of which only Carpenter is capable – the type of fun that is completely without pretension, and which only wants to entertain, emboldened by that “to hell with mainstream audiences” mentality that Carpenter has been rocking since The Fog. It’s never spoken of fondly among cinephiles, but for the ardent Carpenter fan, it’s generally regarded as the last great feature from the filmmaker. It opened # 1 at the box office its debut weekend and enjoyed a laudable collection of favorable reviews – again, and sadly, it may be the last time of Carpenter’s career. To follow would be the box-office and critical bomb Ghosts of Mars, followed by the little-seen The Ward, and then endless speculation of just what projects Carpenter might tackle next, should the necessary funding come together (which seems more and more like a red herring as time goes on).

Carpenter films contain a certain energy and swagger that’s not commonly seen in other films of the genre. There’s something about the way he crafts the story and develops the lead that feels different – that establish their own identity. His siege-like tales always center around that one strong lead fighting back against adversity; heroes either anti or reluctant leading a small squad of people against the threat coming down hard upon them; heroes taking on the establishment with little hope for success.


Malcolm Crow is among them, and he is brought to boisterous, cigar-chomping, scenery-chewing life by James Woods, not only enjoying a rare lead performance, but enjoying one in which he gets to play the hero. And man is he shooting for the rafters. Woods’ performance exudes a kind of energy rarely seen in a genre project within the confines of a major studio release. (Watching him stake vampires while screaming, “Motherfucker, die! Die!” over and over is the stuff of dreams.) This wasn’t just a relatively unknown Kurt Russell taking on Snake Plissken, free of the constraints of having achieved mainstream success and straddling that line between risk-taking and reputation-maintaining. This was James Woods, a twice Oscar-nominated actor (the second nomination having been the year prior for Ghosts of Mississippi); who had, in the few years leading up to Vampires‘ release, worked with Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, and Robert Zemeckis; who, in the following year, would work with Clint Eastwood. Not to belabor the point, but this was an actor who had a lot to lose, creatively, by taking on a project of such potential embarrassment. But he threw caution to the wind, likely so he could let back his proverbial hair and just have fun.

And man, that’s what Vampires is. It’s fun.

As for the supporting cast, Daniel Baldwin (the most underrated Baldwin, for serious) as Montoya doesn’t get enough credit for his abilities as an actor. His contributions to the film are to offer a believable and somewhat restrained counterpart to Crow’s eccentric and bigger-than-life persona. That he begins to slowly fall for Katrina (Sheryl Lee), a prostitute bitten by the film’s main baddie, only adds to his likability. He’s written as the loyal and dependable partner – the ideal person to have in your corner when you’re up against it – and you completely buy the rapport he shares with his fellow vamp-killer. 


Thomas Ian Griffith also does a fine job retreading very old and established ground with his take on Valek, likely the fifth hundred vampire to hit the screen since the film medium began. With one foot each in the sexual-being and the monstrous-killer camps, his Valek is an interesting addition to the vampire sub-genre, which, by now, is in desperate need of rejuvenation following too many years of so many pretty bloodsucking boys. (Also look for brief appearances by Mark Boone Junior of Sons of Anarchy and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, a.k.a. Shang Tsung of Mortal Kombat.)

To suggest that Vampires is within throwing distance of Carpenter’s top films wouldn’t be accurate, but it’s deserving of so much more respect than it receives – not just from the genre community, but audiences in general. Allegedly, Carpenter, at this point in his career, had become burned out by the filmmaking process; however, it would be his experience making Vampires that would cause him to reassess his feelings and decided to stick with it. Only when Ghosts of Mars came along three years later would the director lapse into a half-retirement/hiatus for nine years before returning to feature filmmaking with The Ward.

Spoiler.
With each passing day, as Carpenter prefers to focus on graphic novels, video games, and his beloved Lakers, it seems more and more to be the case that he could very well be done with the film business for good. While it would be terrible for The Ward to serve as his swan song, perhaps it would offer the opportunity for the ’90s portion of his career – one not nearly as celebrated as his two previous decades – to enjoy the same kind of rightful adoration. Second only to In the Mouth of Madness in terms of ’90s era-Carpenter, Vampires is deserving of that kind of adoration.

If, for whatever reason, you may have dismissed Vampires after a one-time viewing, or perhaps none at all, it's time for you to consider a reevaluation. A manic performance from James Woods, a healthy dose of violence and blood-covered grue, and a full-on embracing of western aesthetics makes Vampires an underrated addition to Carpenter’s filmography and one of the more unique contributions to the vampire genre.


Dec 11, 2013

TWO GUYS, ONE QUIP: ROBO VAMPIRE

A joint effort between The End of Summer and Exploitation Movie Review, “Two Guys, One Quip” is a venture to honor the cheesiest, oddest, and most unheralded crop of films we can stand. Some films can be tackled solo and some cannot. Some films are so excruciatingly unusual that multiple parties are needed to catch every single solitary weirdity. "Two Guys, One Quip" is a free-for-all, back-and-forth, "I'm-just-gonna-say-whatever" approach to double-teaming an easy target in the unsexiest way possible. You will find nothing close to actual, legitimate film discussion, but instead sarcasm and douche-bag superiority flying fast and furious. Profanity will be immense, constant, and unyielding. No on-screen target is safe. No incompetence will pass by unmocked. And no punches will be at all pulled. Some films are asking for it. These are some of them.



 

The End of Summer (TEOS): Legend has it that the feature film Robo Vampire was created when two unfinished films were face-smashed together with all the finesse and caring of a Philadelphia sports fan. Hearing that, one might think Unfinished Movie # 1 was a Robocop rip-off while Unfinished Movie # 2 was a vampire flick. But you'd be wrong. That's actually all part of that first unfinished flick. Edited into that mess with little-to-no technique is a random and quite boringly normal film about good guys trying to take down some drug dealers.

Though the final film is credited to Joe Livingstone, the film in actuality was _____ed by Godfrey Ho, mastermind behind the wonderful garbage that is Undefeatable. So, the question remains: Did Ho direct and abandon the robot/vampire film, or the boring drug dealers film, or was he responsible for neither until some dude showed up with a trunk of negatives and said "make something from this garbage"?

Quite honestly I have no idea – hence my ambiguous blank space – but it doesn't really matter, now does it? Robo Vampire exists. It's a thing. Just like Honey Boo Boo or Obamacare.

Exploitation Movie Review (EMR): The first thing that is apparent about this movie is that the production value is, as you would probably expect, pretty poor and looks like it was made on a budget of “money I managed to find in the change tray of a vending machine.”

TEOS: It shows, although it tries to start off with immense excitement. Robo Vampire begins in Unfinished Movie # 1, where a bunch of soldiers are forcing some drug dealers at gunpoint to march. They come upon coffins filled with snakes and immediately become terrified. I would be too, if an unseen film crew-member were hidden inside those coffins and obviously throwing snakes at me.

EMR: When the soldiers get spooked by the snakes in the coffins, they react in a pretty unreasonable way that betrays their undoubtedly high standard of training: by shooting the shit out of the snakes, which explode in a way that makes me think they were packed with TNT or something, so that’s pretty weird.

TEOS: Before someone can make a "watch out for snakes!" joke, turns out snakes aren't the only scary thing in those coffins, but also vampires. Chinese vampires.

Now before you send me a meme of a black kid saying “That’s racist,” let me clarify that I specified the ethnicity of these vampires for one simple reason: In Chinese mythology, vampires hop. They do not run, walk, or sprint. And that's not just Robo Vampire mythology, but honest-to-gosh established Chinese mythology.

EMR: Yep. They totally hop.

TEOS: Fucking China.

EMR: Also, I’m not so sure these army guys are professionals, because there’s a quick, off-setting shot of one of them wearing hi-top Converse and I don’t think any army would be so quick to dispense with those cumbersome, regulation boots in favour of the comfort and style of some Chuck Taylor All-Stars.

TEOS: The vampire kills off the American soldiers and the remaining drug dealers flee in joy. And this is all pre-title sequence, baby.

EMR: The pre-credits sequence made me feel like I was having a stroke, but it completely sets up the tone of the movie, so I’ll give it a pass.

For his birthday, Billy’s father bought him
a fucking Chinese vampire.

TEOS: I really like this next sequence, because in one simple sentence, the entire film is summed up, and if you were out buying SnoCaps or something during this part, you’d have no fucking idea what was happening during the rest of the film. So, at an ominous drug dealers meeting, Head Drug Dealer is super pissed off at Head Anti-Drug Agent, who I think is named Tom, so he's going to be hiring a Taoist to "train the vampires to deal with him."

"Training vampires." And we're not even five minutes in. I mean…that’s fucking fantastic.

EMR: This head drug dealer guy asks his men to contact headquarters and get them to find a new way to smuggle in the heroin. As a solution to their problem, it’s such a nonchalant request, put to them in an overly casual way. I can’t help but think this is a logistics operation like UPS or DHL and there’s a customer services department set up that specifically deals with this kind of shit:

“What’s that? Border patrol stopped the boat and took the entire shipment? Ok, well have you thought about packing the drugs in your asshole...? Not a problem, thanks for calling Drug Shipment Solutions and have a nice day.”

It’s not the request that bothers me, it’s the way that logic apparently works in this guy’s mind, like a kid who thinks that you’d buy a new dog from ‘the dog store.’

Also, I’m pretty sure that these men thought the life of a drug dealer would be like the montage from Scarface and not this black magic crap. These poor bastards are probably wondering where their lives went so wrong and when “Push It To The Limit” is gonna kick in instead of the impending “yumma-yumma-yumma-yumma-yahmma” Vampire incantation bullshit.

TEOS: So, color me ignorant in the ways of Chinese culture, but, tell me if this makes sense: At the drug stash house, two guys with Chinese faces and non-Chinese names are doing stuff with the drugs, and Ken lights incense, bows, and says "Bless our drugs." Did we learn this in world history and just completely forget about it?

EMR: I hear that this totally works and nothing bad ever happens ever if you do this. Plus, in the setup for this scene, you get two racial stereotypes for the price of one, because Ken is clumsy and nervous and speaks like a black maid circa 1890.

TEOS: That’s true. Tony, likewise, bows to the dozen vampires that are there in some sort of comatose state and says, "Thank you, vampires," so, drug dealers or not, at least they’re genial.

EMR: While Tony is busying himself with a severely undercooked chicken, Ken is dicking about and treating this whole situation like it’s a Halloween lawn display. He starts to light some lamps and Tony warns him that if he starts a fire, the vampires will wake up, but Ken disregards this advice because this is a totally reasonable time not to believe in the mythology.

TEOS: And then, don’t you know it? Ken burns his cock with the cigarette that's sticking out of a vampire's mouth and screams, and all the vampires wake up. It’s not a fire exactly, but Ken’s balls would beg to differ, so…

EMR: Ok, fair enough. Perhaps he was right not to believe that the fire would wake them up, and Tony has been an irresponsible asshole for not warning his buddy that screaming cock burn can also disturb the vampires from their slumber, but these motherfuckers need better health and safety regulations in this work place.

"...Thomas!"

TEOS: But it’s all good, yo. The dusty vampires are punched around until the aforementioned Taoist enters and takes care of shit by reapplying the binding spells to the front of the vampires' faces and they go back into their slumber thing. Then he says, "Let me take a look of those drugs." He does the dip-n-lick and determines the drugs are actually rice powder, not heroin. So now they need to figure out at what point they got fucked. (This may or may not ever be resolved.)

EMR: I’m going to say it; I didn’t understand a single fucking thing that happened in that scene… Later, main drug dealer guy goes to a meeting at the harbour with some other undisclosed drug guys who seem to be just chilling out on a boat and tells them they’re not in the “drug smuggling business” anymore, but in the “body smuggling business” (along with their chain of pet stores called ‘The Dog Shop’). I don’t know if this drastic change of direction is going to fuck up their 401K, but they don’t seem too phased by this change and go back to just standing around the boat from before and looking suspicious.

In the next scene, it’s clear that Drug Solutions PLC have come up with a revolutionary idea for smuggling drugs, because this chick is cutting open a dead cow/pig/horse/whatever, stashing the drugs inside the body of the animal, and sewing it back up. This would have been the most ingenious scene of the entire film if it hadn’t done me the disservice of ruining The Empire Strikes Back for the rest of my life.

“And I thought these drugs smelled like rice…on the outside.”

TEOS: White guys show up and, for whatever reason, act as if they're not scared of vampires, even going so far as to laugh at this whole affair. (I mean, come on. I know white people are arrogant, but, be fucking scared of vampires. They will eat you.) For added protection (and hilarity), the white dudes wear garlic around their necks (and make them look like really nonplussed tourists fresh off a seventeen-hour plane ride).

EMR: One of these white guys seems to have had a seamstress knock together an adult size jumper that looks like the one he bought his 2-year-old son for Christmas. It’s fabulously inappropriate for a black magic meet-up and casts serious aspersions over this dude’s mental state. I’m hoping he’s not developmentally disabled or anything like in that movie Jack.

In addition to the snakes in the vampire’s coffin, someone’s thrown a gerbil in there as well. I did some research and I don’t think it’s for good luck or anything. Looks pretty cute, though. For the remainder of this scene, I was mostly worrying about the gerbil.

TEOS: As the main vampire is waking up, a ghost woman crashes the party and she begins a diatribe so long-winded and complicated that at one point the Taoist slowly turns away from her and looks right into the camera as if to say, "This is fucking brutal, isn't it?"

 “Does anyone have a mouth gun?”

EMR: I’m still really fuckin’ worried about that gerbil.

TEOS: He’s fine, dude. He was adopted by a rather famous Hollywood actor…

Oh, so, turns out this vampire the Taoist was about to awaken was this chick's once-husband, so she totes takes this all kinds of personal. Her monologue about it is so long that it's actually still happening long after you'll have peaced off to bed, gotten up, gone to work, repeated this for fifty more years, retired, caught a fish, lost a fish, and then died. Plus fifty more years.

The good thing about this unending ghost monologue is that her shirt is see-through, so enjoy those tits, boys.

EMR: Originally I thought the tits would throw me off and make me miss some of the key plot points in this movie, and that was the last thing I wanted to happen. However, I can happily report that the tits are subtly displayed so as to not detract from the intensity of the drama.

At one point during Ghost Tits’ monologue, the Taoist explains that she and the Vampire guy could never have been together, because he is from the East and she is from the West. This made me think that the only way they could ever reconcile their differences in the eyes of the stuffy, autocratic society was through the medium of modern street dance like in Footloose or Save The Last Dance. As much as you and I want that to happen, it isn’t to be. The closest you’ll get is a fight scene where the Taoist’s shoes create sparks, which I’m choosing to believe is an allegory for sexual tension.

TEOS: While that is a bummer, we DID get tits and shoe sparks, after all.

The Taoist finally awakens the vampire husband (human name Peter) and commands him to fight Ghost Tits. He does, and I'm pretty sure he's wearing a gorilla mask. Lots of hopping and kung-fu happens and I swear – no bullshit – the scene concludes with one of the white guys suggesting the ghost and the vampire get married.

Hey, this movie is kind of like Big Trouble in Little China, only it's fucking terrible.

EMR: I have to concur. Watching this movie is like rubbing your face in myxomotosis.


TEOS: While trying to smuggle out some drugs, the dealers run afoul of some soldiers, who actually do a good job of taking most of them out. The Taoist calls on his army of the loyal hopping undead to assist. The vampires use mouth smoke and sleeve sparks to dispatch these soldiers with ease – one of them being Tom, that main anti-drug agent the bad guys were way worried about. (RIP Tom!)

EMR: My favourite moment of this scene was when the Taoist visibly remembers that he’s some kind of wizard in charge of a shit load of vampires. Things could have gotten awkward back there if he’d been taken into custody and then realised that he’s a master of the dark arts.

TEOS: Yeah, it’s kind of like lying on your couch and being super hungry before remembering you have that leftover quesadilla from Applebee’s in the fridge and – bonus! – you love to eat that shit cold.

EMR: Also, the fact that the head vampire with the gorilla mask can shoot fireworks from the sleeves of his robe proves that this is the least racially sensitive movie since anything produced in Berlin between 1939 and 1945.

TEOS: I especially like this next sequence, too. Let’s just say I wish all aspects of life were this fucking cut-and-dry. At the hospital, other military personnel receive the news that Tom is dead. Without missing a beat, and with nary a look of mourning, one man turns to another and says, "Since Tom is dead, I want to make use of his body to make an android-like robot."

"All right."

EMR: One of these guys, who’s apparently this other guy’s commanding officer, despite the fact that he looks about 25 years his junior, tells this other army dude that the most important thing for him to remember is “that this project needs to be carried out in the strictest confidence, so don’t you worry about the moral and philosophical implications of your actions – just make sure no one knows what’s going on because, to be frank, this idea of yours to turn Tom into a robot is nothing short of fucking insane and I’m trying to bang Stephanie from Maintenance and if she finds out about this shit, she won’t even fucking look at me again without wanting to cry.”

Not all of that is verbatim.

TEOS: I’d hope not. Who’d want to willingly bang a chick who LOOKS like a chick that works in Maintenance?

So, literally that same day, the experiment is complete and Tom has become Robo-Tom. (Welcome back, Tom!)  Off he goes, without a single fucking word spoken to him about who he is, what he's become, or what his mission is. It just immediately cuts to the next scene and he's man-handling a bunch of dudes. Looks like this whole android-like robot idea is really paying off!

EMR: I can barely cope with this turn of events.  

"We have the technology. We can rebuild him.
But I want my retarded niece to supervise."

TEOS: At an attempted nearby drug smuggle, Robo-Tom shows up and begins pumping lead into a vampire, but the blood-sucker throws in the towel and vanishes into a puff of smoke. Robo-Tom continues to fire rounds at the empty ground anyway because he’s self-destructive and a little depressed.

Meanwhile, in Unfinished Movie # 2, an anti-drug agent has been kidnapped and the hero of THIS story, Bill, is tasked with rescuing her. You'll soon agree that Unfinished Movie # 2 is boring as sin, and frankly – when compared to the completely gonzo Unfinished Movie # 1 – isn't even worth analyzing.

EMR: I thought about delving a little bit more into the plot of Unfinished Movie # 2, but then I realised that I was transmogrifying into a Kafka-esque nightmare that my family and friends no longer recognise.

I can’t even make heads or tails of this bullshit, so I’ll just say what I see. These henchmen start shooting up a church (seriously, don’t even ask me how this came to be because it’s literally happening right now, as I’m writing. I’ve got the movie in front of me and it’s worse than a Motley Crue video) and there’s this nun who’s apparently a DEA agent in disguise or something. She’s immediately overpowered and threatened with unrequested drug dealer dick. Whilst being given a dose of exposition by the henchmen, this chick looks like she’s coping with the intensity of the situation by pretending to shower. Some other shit happens. It’s fucking stupid.

TEOS: Don’t worry, because we’re back in Unfinished Movie # 1, where Robo-Tom clomps his big stupid metal feet around a beach and then fights some vampires. Then the drug dealers blow him the fuck up with a rocket launcher. Seriously, if your eyes work, first you'll see a pile of metal eviscerated by an explosion, but then after a quick cut, he's merely on fire. And then after another quick cut, Robo-Tom is suddenly, befuddlingly, back in the lab being worked on by his scientist creators because he's pretty dead. (RIP Tom!) I'm not sure how he even got there, but the point is: Nothing can keep Robo-Tom down.

EMR: The fuck is this shit? Has he been built by the People’s Army Of Dumb Fuck Island? Is that even a place? I doubt that’s even a place. I don’t know. Look, basically he’s a shit cyborg. One of the scientists rebuilding Robo-Tom says that the damage isn’t that serious, but being on fire and exploding is pretty fucking serious. Imagine if your microwave oven did the same thing.

“Oh my fuck! The kitchen’s on fire!”

“Yeah, it’s cool. I just need to change the fuse.”


TEOS: Well, the good news is fixing Robo-Tom is just as easy as fixing a microwave. They tinker with him a bit and then he's good to go and back out in the field. (Welcome back, Tom!)

But then we end up back in Unfinished Movie # 2, and I gotta say, man, I just don't fucking care about anything going on here. The attempt to make something "serious" with this movie is so badly juxtaposed against the other completely insane story that these random diversions feel like hitting a brick wall. Knowing there are robot cops and hopping vampires in the other reel makes sitting through these portions feel like Chinese water torture, which, ironically, is actually a plot device utilized in Unfinished Movie # 2. It’s a pity it didn’t know it could have used itself as torture.

EMR: Yeah, the water torture scene is pretty brutal, if only because the henchman who’s in charge of administering the torture tells the woman being tortured that soon she’ll be begging them to finish her off, which, for an instant, made me think that maybe there was an unfinished soft-core porn movie being mashed in with these other two movies as well. Some of those DEA agents from a while ago are going to try and save her, but I really don’t give a fuck, because it’s like this shit’s happening on a different channel entirely.

TEOS: You might’ve been on the right track re: porn. We’re back to Unfinished Movie # 1/Robo-Tom, and I actually hear porn music…

EMR: Oh, ok! Maybe there IS another unfinished movie coming into play, here…

“Come in me, bro.”

TEOS: Ghost Tits seductively beckons to Peter, her gorilla-faced vampire husband, to come take her in the throes of passion. And he does.

EMR: Awwhhh shiiiiit…I say that, but this scene’s as sexually appealing to me as smashing bowling balls into buckets of medical waste.

TEOS: That is until Robo-Tom shows up to totally cock-block Peter.

EMR: That motherFUCKER! It’s inexcusable, cybernetic organism or not. However, it does add some credence to my theory that all cock blockers are designed and built in a government lab…but fuck this movie. How DARE it try and teach me things.

TEOS: At this point, there is absolutely nothing in Robo Vampire that makes any sense, because the ghost begs Robo-Tom to let their sex happen before he kills them so their love may be consummated. Robo-Tom, having a flashback to his pre-robot days (and good luck being able to see a single fucking thing during this too-dark sequence) when HE almost had sex but then didn't, declines that request.

EMR: This is…just…so bad.

TEOS: I know. And to make matters worse…we're back to Unfinished Movie # 2 again. (Fast-forward!)

EMR: Yeah, I’m not even going to try and pass comment on Unfinished Movie # 2. I honestly tried to make sense of this turd, but an error message flashed up on my monitor suggesting that a more profitable use of my time would be for me to kill my wife and cut off my own penis, so I thought it best not to continue watching it.

TEOS: I’d watch that if that were a movie. Is that weird?

Whoa, Unfinished Movie # 1 is getting pretty hardcore. The drug dealers are pleading to “get rid of that robo warrior!"

EMR: It’s a valiant effort to get this fucking thing back on track, I have to admit.

Terror.

TEOS: "Drop your weapons in fifteen seconds!" Robo-Tom, who is suddenly there, oddly demands to the drug dealers. He then begins counting down from fifteen (kind of a generous amount of time to allow them to comply). Thankfully no one complies and Robo-Tom shoots them all with his perpetually loaded shotgun. The vampires come out in full force, ready to smack him around and up to the tops of buildings, but Robo-Tom dispatches all of them and then chases down Peter into the heart of the city, where their final confrontation unfolds on the brightly lit streets of China City.

EMR: The lead-in to this scene starts with a tasteful close-up of Robo-Tom’s dick.

TEOS: Well, he needs that when nailing the maid from The Jetsons.

So, I think we’re coming to the end here. Robo-Tom chases Peter over a bridge; Peter hops awkwardly away from him as Robo-Tom follows slowly behind, his awful "loud metal" footsteps sounding more like Keds against a kickball. And in the confrontation no one was waiting for, the ghost woman and the Taoist end up duking it out. Tits happen, along with some blood, and then she claws his face, which kills him.

EMR: That’s actually the second time in this movie that a female character chooses to end a villain’s life by scratching his face. If it happens more than once, then it’s science, right?

TEOS: I’m pretty sure that’s the rule.

Robo-Tom and Peter end up back in a den of other vampires and Robo-Tom literally begins kicking them until they spit out chop suey and expire. Other vampires start hopping around him in circles and laughing in vampire glee, but then he just kills them all, because he's a robot and they're not. Then he sets Peter on fire and he totally wins.

EMR: Robo-Tom stands amidst the carnage for a moment, silently and awkwardly considering the full gravitas of the bullshit of which he has been a part. Then the title card kicks in and you immediately feel like you’ve wasted a thousand years of your life.

This movie is worse than your own mother telling you that she doesn’t love you anymore. There are Christian Aid workers who would kill themselves even if they were watching this movie from behind a protective shield, in another country, in the past. This film throws up more unanswered questions than the Kennedy assassination and makes as much sense as an eggplant with a dick. Basically, it kind of upset me.

TEOS: If it makes you feel any better, the gerbil sends his regards.

Nov 13, 2013

UNSUNG HORRORS: STAKE LAND

Every once in a while, a genuinely great horror movie—one that would rightfully be considered a classic, had it gotten more exposure and love at the box office—makes an appearance. It comes, no one notices, and it goes. But movies like this are important. They need to be treasured and remembered. If intelligent, original horror is supported, then that's what we'll begin to receive, in droves. We need to make these movies a part of the legendary genre we hold so dear. Because these are the unsung horrors. These are the movies that should have been successful, but were instead ignored. They should be rightfully praised for the freshness and intelligence and craft that they have contributed to our genre. 

 So, better late than never, we’re going to celebrate them now… one at a time.

Dir. Jim Mickle
2010
Dark Sky Films / Glass Eye Pix
United States


"Months passed in a blur of days and nights. We traveled east and west, but always north. Away from death. We avoided the cities. Mister said they were the worst, hit the hardest in the beginning. As people flocked together for safety, the plague marched through their locked gates and they became death traps. When Washington fell, it was over for America as we knew her. As government blew away, our great leaders ran for it. And hope was abandoned. We were on our own now."


Vampires!

No, don't run. Seriously. I know, I know – plagiarist Mormon authors and NBC have turned our vampires into dapper-dressed James Bond supervillains. These new vamps woo, smolder, sparkle, and play baseball. They go to their classes even though they're dead and are therefore (mostly) incapable of achieving the American dream. If you've got a brain in that there skull of yours, I don't have to tell you vampires were fucking scary once. They were ratlike skeletal albinos with ten-inch fingers. There are parts of the world that still believe in them – that still bury their dead beneath wrought-iron cages to prevent them from coming out of the ground for a midnight snack. Thankfully there are people out there who know this and make their fanged nemeses nasty, vicious, and hideous. These monsters don't imprint on babies – they suck the blood from them and toss them onto the ground before they're onto their next pulsing target.

Enter Stake Land, the second collaboration from film-making partners Nick Damici (actor/co-writer) and Jim Mickle (co-writer/director), following their second equally great and equally unheralded Mulberry Street. Theirs is a film that played the festival circuit for a year or so before being quietly released onto video in 2010. A cast of familiar faces and not-so-familiar faces works well alongside the assured, pensive, bloody, and melancholic direction. It is a pastiche of the post-apocalyptic wasteland made mainstream by the Mad Max trilogy, combined with sensibilities of the western's lone-rider. and lastly, the good, old fashioned vampire.


Martin (Connor Paolo, Mystic River), while his family packs to hit the road in hopes of avoiding this new strange outbreak plaguing the country (or world?), watches as all of them are suddenly and viciously attacked by vampires. His own number is nearly up before a stranger called only Mister (Nick Damici, World Trade Center) springs up out of nowhere and saves Martin's life. Now with no one to look out for him, Mister takes Martin out on the road with him, preparing him for a life of fending off not only vampires, but "The Brotherhood" – a group of nutty humans who believe that the vampires are God's way of bringing about end times, and therefore want the vamps to succeed. (You mean humans are worse than the monsters? Romero would be proud.) Along the way, Martin and Mister meet other lost souls looking to make sense of this new world they had no idea they were inheriting. Among them are Sister (Kelly McGillis, Top Gun), a nun attacked and possibly raped by the cannibals; Belle, (Danielle Harris, the Halloween series), a very pregnant bar maid who seems more lost than any of them; and Willie (Sean Nelson, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3), a former Marine. These five homeless and nearly hopeless individuals come together to form the closest idea of a family that can be formed here in this new world called Stake Land and attempt to forge ahead and make it the alleged last safe zone in the country called New Eden.


Stake Land will feel very familiar if you have seen the 2009 film adaptation of The Road, but that's not to say Stake Land is unoriginal or disingenuous. No, tales of the apocalypse have been explored in every medium for as long as existence of the realization that our time here on earth is limited, and as such these tales are bound to share common themes and tropes. Stake Land presents you with dirty bands of people in ragged clothing foraging for food and consumables to help them on the road; two groups of people - the good and the bad, one trying to survive, and the other trying to make it so no one can; and most importantly, the underlying message that even the most hopeless should never give up hope. Though Stake Land shares this last bit with The Road strictly thematically, it also shares John Hillcoat's pretty and philosophical direction. Though Stake Land is an ugly story about living in an ugly world, director Jim Mickle never fails to make it picturesque. Sweeping shots of untouched naturescape and close-ups of wheat billowing in the breeze reinforces this idea that it's not the world which makes humanity ugly, but the human race – that we like to think we're merely an unfortunate byproduct of our environment, but that we're actually a product of our own deep-seated selfishness and evil. (More on that in a bit.)

Mickle and Co. have a assembled a hell of a cast here. Nick Damici's Mister is the true Clint Eastwood/Man-With-No-Name archetype (hence his "name" being Mister). His history is vague, almost non-existent; there is a darkness to him, but also a light when he thinks no one might be looking. I always like seeing the dark and brooding hero/heroine enjoy a private moment to surrender to human goodness and smile or laugh. Mister isn't a barrel of laughs, but there is a certain kindness to him somewhere underneath that filthy and silent hero. He's not optimistic about the future, but it's not in him to steal that optimism from anyone else.


Conor Paolo as Martin has the task of not only experiencing these strange events and reacting realistically to them, but because he is also the narrator, it's his job to catch up the audience on the past and present. It's not a personal diary so much as it is a relay of information. His thoughts are stripped of any kind of emotion, as that is saved strictly for the on-screen action.

Our supporting cast is wonderful. Kelly McGillis' career seems to be enjoying a second life, working with some pretty exciting names in the world of independent horror. Along with this, she has appeared in Ti West's excellent The Innkeepers, and appears in Mickle's upcoming remake of the Spanish film We Are What We Are. Her first appearance is as a frantic woman dressed in torn and bloody nun robes, fleeing from a group of maniacal men. After Mister saves her, she becomes mother to both him and Martin. Their relationship is enforced only by the audience's desire to see them all overcome the horrid shit going on around them and allow them to find each other, and for them to desire each other's love and comfort as much as we want them to obtain it. She's the glue that holds all this together and makes it possible.

With Danielle Harris' turn as the pregnant Belle, she holds her own against her counterparts, all with a prosthetic baby belly shoved inside her wardrobe. Her performance benefits from the fact that the horror community already loves her – we've been watching her run for her life since her debut as Jamie Lloyd in Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers – although she would have been just as fine without it. She's endearing and lovable, and the quasi puppy dog crush Martin has on her makes us care about both of them just a little bit more. (And c'mon...who wouldn't fall in love with Danielle Harris?)


This recent movement – this living painting approach to film-making – may not be new in its execution, but it perhaps has never been as beautiful. By this I mean the aforementioned The Road, or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, or pretty much all of Terrence Malick's filmography, who is thankfully back in a big way. Lesser known filmmakers with lower budgets are starting to take notice. Between John Geddes' Exit Humanity, Gareth Edwards' Monsters, and now Stake Land, I'm delighted to see this approach taking root in the horror genre. Because horror, despite all the dripping and the wounds and the blood, can be gorgeous. Your characters are allowed to be pensive, and to wonder or philosophize. They're allowed to be more than just the end result of their nightmarish world. These filmmakers allow their cameras to settle on some piece of oft ignored iconography, complemented by either their off-screen narrators or musical score.

Speaking of music, it was wise to bring aboard composer Jeff Grace, who takes after his fearless leader and fashions his score around those created by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis for the two films earlier mentioned. The Road and Assassination had many scenes of introspection where the silent images onscreen did the only talking, and so the music had to be more than just background. Likewise, in Stake Land, the music knows when to heighten the vampire carnage, or when to be the driving force and propel the imagery of mountains and sky into your head and heart.

While Stake Land contains some pretty heavy sociopolitical themes, it seems to be even less happy with religion – or at least what we as people have let religion become. As one character commits suicide before a crucified scarecrow (calling it Father) begging for forgiveness, or one particular mutant vampire discloses that it prayed for salvation but instead became a monster, Stake Land isn't so much as condemning religion as it is as warning you to use it to complement your life – not let it rule who you are. Religion as a whole has been bastardized. Once originally looked upon to unite communities, it instead has made us perfect strangers – foolish for believing in a higher power, or heartless and doomed for not. We have our beliefs and our faith – some of us hold onto it, and so it remains intimate – but some of us believe our beliefs and faith are right and definitive, and those who do not share those same are damned, and will bring damnation to others.


Stake Land doesn't want to just give you a cheap thrill with monstrous vampire faces and shooting blood. An exaggerated future, yes, but the whole humans-unable-to-coexist-with-other-humans thing? That's not exactly something out of the realm of possibility. We can't elect government officials without slinging death threats and constructing racial epithets on our lawns. We can't drive by a lawn adorned with the nativity at Christmas time without making a wry comment or joking about stealing the Jesus. Comedians ridicule certain religions while TV pundits sweepingly label others as evil. We have become ugly. We haven't yet sprouted fangs, but we drain the life from each other all the time. Fox News goes for jugular, as does MSNBC. The only hope for salvation we have are ourselves. Therefore, there is no hope.

Have a nice day!

Apr 6, 2013

REAL VAMPIRES

In Rhode Island in the late 1700s lived a 19-year-old girl named Sarah Tillinghast. Sarah was a dreamy girl, spending her days wandering small graveyards where Revolutionary soldiers lay. She was known to bring a book of poetry to these places and seat herself on a grave slab and read for hours on end. One day as she returned home from one of her visits she professed herself ill and took to her bed. Soon after she had a horrible fever and within weeks she was dead. 
The Tillinghast family was still grieving some weeks later when Sarah’s brother, James, came down to breakfast looking pale, shivering and complaining of a weight on his chest. He claimed that Sarah had come to him and sat on his bed. Sarah and James’ parents thought it was nothing but his grief playing tricks with his mind. 
The next day James was even paler and could barely breathe. Soon after, James was also dead. 
But Sarah and James were just the beginning - shortly after their deaths two more Tillinghast children died, both saying beforehand that Sarah had visited them. These claims were quite frightening for the Tillinghast parents, for it meant that Sarah was returning from the dead to draw the life from remaining family members. The rumors spread through the town, all saying one word - Vampire! 
Not before too long there were more deaths, and all of the victims claimed that it was Sarah that they saw right before the sickness took hold.  Then finally Honour Tillinghast, the mother of all the dead children, too became sick. Honour lay in her death bed swearing that her lost children were calling out to her. 
This was when Snuffy Tillinghast, the father, finally took a stand. With the help of his farmhand, Caleb, he went out early morning to the cemetery where Sarah was buried. He took with him a long hunting knife and a container of lamp oil. 
The two men reached Sarah’s grave and together dug up her casket and opened its creaking lid. Even though she had been put to rest 18 months ago Sarah looked as if she were asleep, there was no decomposition. Her eyes were open, according to one account, fixed in a stare, and fresh blood was found in her heart and veins.  After seeing his daughter’s face flushed as if with blood he took his knife and cut out her bleeding heart. It is said her body gushed with blood. Snuffy Tillinghast then set his daughter’s heart on fire and burned it to ashes.
After the heart was burned the deathly ill Honour Tillinghast recovered fully and there were no more strange deaths or Sarah sightings in the Rhode Island town again.