Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat

Sundown: Vampire in Retreat (technically 1989, released on video in 1991)
Dir. Anthony Hickox
Written by John Burgess and Anthony Hickox
Starring Morgan Brittany, Jim Metzler, David Carradine, Bruce Campbell, M. Emmet Walsh, John Ireland, Dana Ashbrook, Deborah Foreman, Maxwell “Texas Holden” Caulfield, George Buck Flowers

Despite the awkward title, SUNDOWN: A VAMPIRE IN RETREAT is pretty good, a fun, silly vampire-western-action-comedy romp. Since it’s pretty much the only movie in history to fit that particular description, I’ll even be bold and can call it one of the best vampire-western-action-comedies ever made. To quote Abraham Lincoln, “Whatever you are, be a good one.” Actually now that I think about it Lincoln himself recently starred in a vampire-western-action-(comedy?) which was pretty good itself, so he definitely knew what he was talking about there.

Sittin' pretty.

S:aViR has kind of a hard plot to describe, because it’s sort of an ensemble piece, there’s a ton of different characters each with their own agendas and conflicts, they kind of overlap loosely as they run around the isolated desert town of Purgatory, which is entirely run by vampires hoping to live a more peaceful existence. It’s kinda like NASHVILLE, but with vampires, and also not in Nashville. And worse music, but more karate. The vampiric town is run by the ridiculously named Count Mardulak* (David Carradine, DEATH RACE 2000, and also every other movie from 1966-2012) as a kind of refuge for vampires who are tired of the whole being a vampire thing and want to settle down for a quiet, less murderous life. They’ve combated their vulnerability to the sun with heavy sunscreen and dark glasses, and are developing synthetic blood to make sure everyone stays fed without needing a constant supply of victims. But their dickish head chemist Shane (Maxwell Caulfied, Rex Manning in EMPIRE RECORDS) is having problems with the formula, and requires the help of David Harrison (Jim Metzler, minor roles in 967-EVIL and ONE FALSE MOVE, even more minor ones in LA CONFIDENTIAL and UNITED STATES OF LELAND), a clueless human who bumbles into town incorrectly assuming that the worst of his problems is that years ago, Shane happened to have an affair with his wife (Morgan Brittany, Love Boat, Dallas, The Dukes of Hazzard, Fantasy Island…pretty much every cheesy TV show the 80’s could produce, plus now she’s obviously qualified to appear regularly on Sean Hannity’s show too). Also, there’s a Robert Van Helsing (Bruce Campbell**, MANIAC COP 2) suspiciously snooping around and worrying everyone, but it turns out Purgatory’s biggest problems may come from within.

This is just screaming to be turned into a meme.

Like I said, that’s a ton of plot and characters, and there are a bunch more I didn’t even mention (M. Emmett Walsh and Dana Ashbrook and John Ireland and Deborah Foreman are all in there too!). But the strength of S:aViR isn’t in narrative, it’s in the tone and performances. It’s not an out-and-out comedy but it has a nicely light-hearted adventurous tone, the sort of thing you used to get back in the days when it seems like every movie didn’t need to target a niche as directly as they do now. It's offbeat and sometimes vaguely flirting with surrealism, perhaps trying to evoke Twin Peaks (which peaked in popularity as SUNDOWN was being produced) but maybe a little too silly and schlocky and cheerful to bother with the darker undercurrents of that series.

It has some delightfully funny moments; every time a strange human comes around, the vamps have to pretend to be a normal American town and some of them don't have a whole lot of experience at this. You gotta laugh at their confusion over how to portray ordinary diner customers (many haven't eaten human food in hundreds of years, so they're a bit out of practice as to what this would look like). That's pretty clever, how have I never seen that idea in a vampire movie before? The movie doesn't even have to go blue to get laughs. In fact, save for a couple of not-very-graphic beheadings and one inexplicable flash of full-frontal male nudity this could have been a perfect one for youngsters just starting to get into horror, with its broad characters, colorful cast and cheerful but action-packed story. Along the lines of NIGHT OF THE CREEPS, or GREMLINS or something. Horror movies which take their plots and characters seriously, but are more interested in having fun with their clever concepts than they are in proving how hardcore they are. Director Anthony Hickox (son of famed British B-movie director Douglas Hickox) also managed to capture that feeling pretty well with his slightly better-known WAXWORKS and WAXWORKS II: LOST IN TIME, though unfortunately it seems like his career went downhill after this, stagnating in HELLRAISER III (better than it’s rep, but still problematic) and nosediving into the unwatchable with SUBMERGED (one of Steven Seagal’s worst films, and that’s really saying something) and a DTV crime film starring Eddie Griffin and Breckin Meyer, why not. Oh well, at least we’ll always have the late 80’s.

Big hug!

There’s some pacing issues here, and the fact that the various characters and plotlines don’t always overlap very much makes the whole thing (especially the climax) feel a little looser than it should. But it’s a fun ride, completely charming all the way through. My only gripe (SPOILERS) is the way the conflict between Shane, David, and his wife is resolved. Wifey had an affair with Shane previously (which she greatly regrets), and now the guy has designs on her again. It would be nice if the conflict was about giving her a chance to definitively reject the jerk and take back some control of her life, but instead the movie sees the conflict as being between the two men. It’s David who has the defeat the guy and claim the prize (his wife), while she remains a somewhat passive victim. Kind of sexist in my opinion (not to mention less satisfying), but hey, the 90’s were a less enlightened time. (END SPOILER). But don’t be turned off by that minor complaint; mostly this is a fun, breezy ride featuring great characters and some clever twists and remixes of an old formula. Sadly American audiences never got to fall in love with it because it never made it to theaters and languished unreleased til it unceremoniously hit video a few years later. Too bad, because this is exactly the sort of cheerful romp which we sorely need a dozen or so DTV sequels for. Like I said, there ain’t too many vampire-western-horror-comedy-action joints out there, so America, I call upon you to posthumously give some love to this movie, one of the bold, the few.

*I hypothesized that his name is a phonetic rendering of traditional Romanian boogieman the v├órcolac, but I can’t be sure. Could be a Marmaduke reference too, I guess.

**Campbell, only a year or two off EVIL DEAD 2, hams it up so tenaciously that I’d advise Jews, Muslims and vegetarians to avoid watching him, just to be safe. He’s fun, but seems a little out of place here amongst a plethora of veteran character actors who all get as much or more mileage out of playing it straight than Campbell does going way over the top. For the inevitable remake, I hope they get him back --now a veteran character actor himself-- for another go-round, maybe as one of M. Emmett Walsh's brothers? See below:


The Hunt For Dread October
  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: No, there is a reference to Dracula, though.
  • SEQUEL: None, tragically
  • REMAKE: None, they should totally do one though.
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: None, but tons of veteran character actors. John Ireland was once nominated for an Academy award, but by this point in his career was probably not "A" list
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: David Carradine, M. Emmet Walsh, Bruce Campbell
  • BOOBIES: No, full frontal male nudity, though
  • THE UNDEAD: Vampires!
  • POSSESSION: Seems like I remember the vampires using their Vampire-y hypnotism.
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): Yeah
  • EVIL CULT: Not exactly
  • TRANSMOGRIFICATION: Man becomes vampire, vampire becomes adorable stop-motion bat.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: High. Never hit theaters, snuck onto video 2 years after its "premier."
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: Never take a mysterious job in an isolated town named after a realm of the undead to help your wife's ex-lover use science to create synthetic blood. You would think that would be obvious, but some guys just gotta learn the hard way.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: Clunky as it is, I suppose it's basically accurate. The town is a "retreat" for vampires to escape the modern world, and sundown is an important time of day for them.
A little too loose to earn a five-thumb medal, but a strong B+.

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