Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction isn’t your typical vampire film, which fits his groove because I’ve always considered his work to be full of genre films that secretly dream of arthouse ambition and can’t really be caged into a one sentence log-line or classification. This has the look and feel of something akin to Jim Jarmusch’s work, a laidback, atmospheric New York City story shot in beautiful black and white tones by cinematographer Ken Kelsch, visual poetry that looks magnificent on the Arrow Blu Ray transfer which can be viewed streaming on Shudder. The film stars Lili Taylor as a philosophy major learning all about the monstrosities that humans are capable of, when she runs into a monster herself in the form of deadly vampire Casanova (the great Annabella Sciorra), who drags her into a dark alleyway one night and bites her in the neck. From there she must come to terms with the changes happening in her body and soul, the need to feed on other humans and what it means to transition from one being into a different creature of the night. The film shirks usual vampire lore and motifs for something denser, more philosophical and intellectually prickly in terms of theme, which sometimes went a bit above my head but it’s obvious that Ferrara is fascinated by the ideas of guilt, penance and absolution rooted in catholic faith, and it’s fascinating to see him explore these things through the stark prism of a vampire story. He always surrounds himself with fascinating and wonderful actors too, like Taylor has spent her career doing curious work that’s hard to pin her down by in any one arena, much like Abel himself, and she’s terrific here, with an arc of existential curiosity that is slowly metamorphosing into deep fear of the inner machinations of nature and the soul. The cast here is terrific, with Sciorra doing a dark, vicious turn and other excellent work from Paul Calderon, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Kathryn Erbe and a spectral Christopher Walken as another vampire she runs into by chance, who briefly and cryptically mentors her on the ways of the night. It won’t be for everyone because it contains none of the sweeping grandeur and baroque romanticism that many are used to and expect from their vampire films, but the thick, cerebrally frictional themes, moody visual palette full of shadows, smoke and concrete and the offbeat, dangerous style were very impressive to me. Streaming now on Shudder.
What’s something you can find on a nazi warship that’s worse than nazis themselves? Well a group of allied castaways find out exactly what when they drift into the path of a deserted one in Blood Vessel (amazing title) a super fun, super old school, kinda low budget but enthusiastic B horror flick that I really enjoyed. As a stranded life raft from a torpedoed sub approaches a giant derelict boat, the survivors are seemingly saved until they board the craft, find it curiously deserted and discover what is lurking deep below deck, waiting to hunt them. It seems the nazis were transporting several caskets from Romania containing immortal creatures known as Strigoi, which are basically vampires with a lot more snazzy magic powers backed up by a lot more specific backstory lore. The minute these things wake up it’s game on as they discover these new people in their vicinity and begin to viciously take them out. The allied group is a surprisingly varied bunch including a cowardly Brit, an enthusiast Aussie, an American battle surgeon and an Eastern European badass who has survived all kinds of gnarly stuff and has the scars to prove it. They are all very well acted, written and have distinct, unique anthropological personas and angles which isn’t something you find in every horror flick about a bunch of folks who are essentially cannon fodder for vampires. The creatures themselves are very cool, designed with practical prosthetic effects, all exaggerated ears, accentuated fangs and acted with snarling vivacity by those under all that awesome makeup. What’s more is they aren’t just an animalistic horde either, they’re an ancient, evil aristocratic family complete with a young daughter Strigoi who is just as deadly as mom and dad, it’s a cool family dynamic. There’s gory showdowns, subtle sociopolitical banter amongst the human characters, well drawn arcs and loads of spooky, smoky, eerie abandoned boat atmosphere full of beautifully saturated Argento-esque lighting and gorgeous frames filled with gothic eye candy. A solid horror, streaming now on Shudder.
You’ve heard of Snakes On A Plane now get ready for Vampires on a plane! Real talk though the new Netflix horror hybrid Blood Red Sky is a lot better, more vicious and effectively made than most gimmicky, chimera-like efforts of its kind. A sort of German American Scottish coproduction that seamlessly blends actors/accents from all three countries, it tells of a young German mother (Peri Baumeister, a dead ringer for Noomi Rapace) who finds herself and her son on a transatlantic flight that has been hijacked by multinational terrorists hellbent on crashing the plane in London and killing everyone onboard. There’s just one slight variable these assholes didn’t figure on: this girl is in fact a vampire, and not a slow, dramatic Dracula vampire either, she’s one of those sleek, terrifying, hyper-vigilant, high strung 30 Days Of Night Vampires, which when you consider the finite, constrained area of a plane interior, is just a nightmare waiting to happen. The big cheese terrorist is a sociopathic mercenary played excellently by Dominic Purcell but the real villain is a German maniac (Alexander Scheer) from his ranks that goes rogue, starts maliciously murdering hostages and is just downright nasty, if there was a German production of Batman he would land the Joker role for sure. The fights, chases, gore and intensity here are so well staged you barely get a moment to breathe and there’s genuine high-level suspense that had me on edge. What helps achieve that is that even amidst all the snarling, throat ripping, bloodletting and pandemonium and even under all that slick vampire makeup, actress Baumeister manages to give her performance a genuine maternal instinct and palpable pathos in caring for her son and protecting him from danger, she basically gives a multilayered, deeply effective performance as both a human being and a pissed off vampire. The film is built around a totally ridiculous premise and they could have made this just the cheesiest thing, but instead they’ve played the situation dead straight and approached this script with the very serious notion of “what IF a vampire found herself on a plane at the same time as a gang of evil terrorists,” and the result is something immersive, beautifully made, spectacularly violent and, in some scenes, surprisingly poignant. Highly recommended, streaming on Netflix now.
It’s rare to have your favourite entry in a franchise be the fifth sequel, but here we are. Underworld: Blood Wars is most likely the most imaginative effort in the franchise and does a few key things that the others don’t, which I’ll get to in a minute. As expected, the tireless war between vampires rages ever on, as aristocratic vamp elder Thomas (Charles Dance) waffles about on a proper battle plan while mutinous underlings grow restless in his ranks. On the Lycan side of things, new and more organized warlord Marius (Tobias Menzies) rallies the Wolf clans for an attack that poses real threat. Meanwhile Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is perpetually exiled from both races, existing on the fringes where she searches for the daughter she never new she had until Thomas begrudgingly asks for her help in the impending wars. It’s strictly politics and expository setup until the story really kicks off, which is when it becomes one for the books. The action, gore and choreography is wonderful as ever here but what really makes it stand out and what might be my favourite sequence of the whole franchise is Selenes breathtaking journey to the Arctic to request shelter with a mysterious coven of Nordic snow vampires. How cool is that??!! The whole franchise we have this his buttoned down, black leather bureaucrat baroque vampire aesthetic with muted colours and droll performances and suddenly theres this blast of inspiration in the mythology and we are treated to new facets of lore we feel Ike we already know so well. The Nordic clan have an ethereal elvish aura to them with very elemental costumes and an ice castle hideout that has an airy, artsy look to it, there’s just nothing else like them anywhere else in the franchise and I *loved* the creative choices made here. Additionally, Selene goes through quite an intense hurdle here battling Marius and at one point, without spoiling too much, she undergoes a sort of Gandalf The White visual transformation and character arc here complete with a fur adorned outfit, wintery white hair highlights and an epic Deus Ex Machina third act mix drop moment that had me cheering. There’s also genuine pathos in her quest to find her daughter, an emotional resonance that isn’t often found in this film, so often full of sound, fury, blood, bullets and fur. Breathtaking film.
Underworld: Awakening picks up the relative slack of Revolution and rejoins Selene’s story once again after the rousing medieval diversion of Rise Of The Lycans and is one of the strongest, most action packed and exciting entries so far. This one is cool because it goes for a shocking and ambitious premise: the human population on earth have somehow found out about the vampire and Lycan races and it’s caused all kinds of chaos. A human CDC kingpin (Stephen Rea) concocts a shady plan full of tainted vaccines, inter species psuedo genetic modification and various hidden agendas that poses a real threat to both sides while Kate Beckinsale’s Selene, who never seems to get a moments rest, wakes up from some kind of cryo-sleep in Rea’s spooky lab and must fight her way out, figure out his sinister plan and protect the daughter (India Eisley) she never knew she had from all these nefarious forces. There is a fucking tremendous amount of action in this one, nearly wall to wall and it just might have some of the most impressive set pieces, or at least the most satisfying for me as a fan. Rea is no stranger to the vampire/werewolf genres, he’s done vicious turns for Neil Jordan in both Interview With The Vampire and The Company Of Wolves. He makes a formidable enemy for Selene here and gets to chew scenes in that kind of super low key, almost laidback but still menacing way he’s perfected as an actor. Also in his employ is a strange Lycan super-breed who becomes the size of a literal tank when he transforms, so there are numerous incredibly badass sequences of her fighting this gigantic tank-sized werewolf that are so much brutal fun. She also finds herself at the bottom of an elevator shaft at one point with the speeding elevator in free fall headed right for her. Being the franchise that this is, she simply empties countless rounds from her guns into its incoming floor until it’s perforated with bullet holes and she can literally punch right through it. So. Fucken. Cool. Once again this franchise is not gonna be everyone’s thing and even for those who liked the first, these might get a bit repetitive but this world, action, effects, atmosphere and overall aesthetic is just so up my dark alley I could literally never get tired of them, and this was one of my favourites so far.
Kate Beckinsale roars back into action with Underworld: Evolution, a sequel that, like many follow ups, isn’t as structured or fresh as the first but still manages to be every inch as stylish, baroque and gorgeous looking as the other few in the series I’ve seen (I am making my way through a Blu Ray box set of all five films in their extended cut glory). The action takes up right where it left off; outcast warrior Selene (Beckinsale) has killed vamp elder Viktor (Bill Nighy) and ran off into the night with her halfbreed lover Michael (Scott Speedman) with monstrous final boss Marcus in hot pursuit. This provides one of the entire franchise’s most jaw dropping, visually dynamic action sequences as they careen down Vancouver’s Sea To Sky highway against a muted overcast sky in a big rig semi truck. Now Marcus (Tony Curran under a metric ton of makeup) is one of those snazzy Spawn-esque vamps who can fly and has extra razor sharp limbs and cool bodily accessories to help him fight, so basically he’s flying alongside them at a crazy speed attacking the truck while Selene empties clip after clip into his face from her semiautomatics before ploughing right into the Britannia Mine tunnels, it’s just an exhilarating, incredibly well shot action sequence and the highlight of the film. Also I’m a bit tired of American studios filming here and then trying to pass off my beautiful home province as some place in the states or wherever so from now on I’m just going to refer to any film shot in Vancouver as being set here as well. Anyways, this is a solid entry that benefits from Marcus as a formidable, physically ruthless villain and continues the ongoing trend of seasoned British stage actors cast as vampire elders, Derek Jacobi stepping in here for a mostly absent Bill Nighy. Not my favourite of the series that I’ve seen so far, but a solid entry with memorable set pieces including a snowy medieval prologue that sets the tone for Rise Of The Lycans, an impressive climax set atop a ruined mountain castle complete with hovering helicopters and that Sea To Sky truck chase is just one for the ages.
I think that seeing Daniel Baldwin yank vampires out of a boarded up hideout into the sunlight with a steel cable pulley winch mounted to his truck to get torched to death is one of the most satisfying scenarios in John Carpenter’s Vampires, and maybe the vampire genre overall. This is an amazingly fun, super imaginative, down n’ dirty vampire western in the tradition of stuff like From Dusk Till Dawn where the vamps are fearsome beasts, those who hunt and kill them are profane, volatile outsiders and the overall tone is the opposite of what you’d call subtle, an aesthetic I love. James Woods is Jack Crow, a vampire slaying guru who works as freelance mercenary for the Vatican along with his second in command Montoya (Baldwin) and a host of other badasses who all hilariously get killed off in the opening scenes of the film as nasty vamp kingpin Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith) raids their motel party and leaves everyone dead save for Jack, Montoya and ill fated hooker Katrina (Sheryl Lee) who has been bit and shares a handy psychic link with Valek but is also a time bomb now that she’ll turn soon. It’s basically the big opening shootout and then a series of dusty, bloody extended chase sequences across the southwest with Jack and Montoya shouting at each other, Katrina looking progressively more sinister and Valek flying around like a literal bat out of hell trying to bite them, and I loved spending time with these characters. The Vatican’s cantankerous top dog (Maximillian Schell) dispatches a twitchy rookie priest (Tim Guinee) to assist Jack but he mostly gets in the way and serves as cannon fodder for his offbeat sense of humour and strikingly unchecked rage issues. Carpenter’s score is a departure from his synthy super sonic work and has this twangy, grinding western vibe that I really liked as well. The film is loud, gory and pretty hectic but it somehow also manages to feel laid back and easygoing, with Lee stealing the show, Woods doing his blustery asshole shtick to a tee and Baldwin being pretty badass for a Baldwin that isn’t, ya know, Alec. Good times.
I feel like the Underworld films don’t get proper credit for just how visually magnificent and stylistically sumptuous they are. I mean sure the stories are often a muddle of faux Shakespearean shifting alliances and paranormal melodrama that are impossible to decipher but if you just approach them overall as the story of an ongoing war between vampires and werewolves with lots of preening politics, an abundance of beautifully gory, darkly balletic action sequences and the occasional splash of forbidden romance then you’re good, and don’t need to engage the brain much further. Take Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans, for example, which best I could figure is some kind of prequel to the first film where we see what went down between the two species hundreds of years before. Bill Nighy gives the word overacting new meaning here but is a lot of fun as Viktor, king of the vampire nation who has effectively enslaved all the werewolves for his own work/war effort and forces them to hunt down their own kind who rebel. His daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra) does some rebelling of her own by constantly defying daddy’s orders and carrying out a secret romance with Lycan leader Lucian (Michael Sheen). This overall unrest leads to the werewolf uprising and eventual incursion that will start a centuries long war. That’s all you need for story, trust me. What works best about this film is the resplendently beautiful production design and what makes it stand out in the initial trilogy is that it’s set far in the past so the uproarious gunfights become ruthless swordplay, the nocturnal urban atmosphere becomes a moonlit medieval castle aesthetic and never before has the franchise felt this gothic. Mitra is a beauty and then some, and while she’s not quite as lithe or physically distinctive as Beckinsale and her leather trench coat, she suits the ancient warrior aesthetic and does the Underworld name proud. Nighy is so far over the top I wanted him to calm down a bit before he had a stroke or something, he’s about as arch and theatrical as it gets but it suits the role and tone of the film nicely. Much of the film is sound, fury, blood and metal under inky black moonlight and some may have trouble deciphering the specifics of choreography under such a dim cloak of a visual palette but trust me it’s all there and it’s all *very* well done. This franchise has some of the most gorgeous, anatomically and aesthetically satisfying werewolves I’ve personally seen in horror, just great big bastards that look like they could rip a cow in half and are deadly in their speed, physicality and agility despite their hefty size. The Vamps have this eerie aristocracy to them and always seem calmly observant and deviously in charge, with help from the iridescent, creepy contact lenses the actors get to wear. The fight scenes are brutal and relentless, packed with gore and stylish weaponry and staged against spatially striking castle, river, forest and mountain vistas. There’s a shamelessly lurid sex scene between Sonja and Lucian where they’re literally writhing in slow motion on the edge of an impossibly baroque cliffside that is quite possibly one of the most arousing, breathtaking sex scenes I’ve ever seen on film. Say what you want about these movies man, and maybe I’m just a whore for visually stimulating horror films and am too generous on the ones that rely on the style over substance play, which is quite possibly the case, and I own that. However, I’m sitting there watching all of this play out and I’m in raptures about it, totally and completely entertained and pleased in my experience, and if that be the case, well I’m more than okay with all style and little substance, provided the style is as bounteous and well crafted as is the case here. *Great* looking film, if not a great one overall.
The zombie genre is so saturated these days that most new entries just try and stir up the pot by default and do something innovative with the scenario, but it’s refreshing when a filmmaker goes for a simple, honest to goodness zombie film with little to no frills and we’re reminded of why we fell in love with the genre in the first place. William Kaufman’s Daylight’s End is an earnest, brutal and rousing undead post apocalyptic piece that benefits from a strong ensemble cast, wicked sharp tactical direction and a script that adds just the right amount of character work in between the gunplay and gore. Johnny Strong plays a lone gunslinger who bands together with a tight knit tribe of survivors protected by gruff leader Lance Henriksen, while undead forces gather against them and they try to fight their way out of a severely destroyed Dallas to somewhere safer. The only real deviation from classic zombie lore here is that these creatures can’t stand daylight and only come out when it’s dark, leaving the daytime scenes to have this eerie, desolate feel while most of the heavy action takes place atmospherically after dusk for a nice Vampirish flourish. Kaufman is a real master at staging tactical, realistic feeling action and as such blocks his actors, chooses his weapons and makes his kills feel exciting, propulsive and immediate. Strong is every inch action hero material, Henriksen makes a stoic and sage pack leader and surprisingly emotional work is provided by the usually cavalier Louis Mandylor as his son and top lieutenant. This is obviously a low budget film and one can see that but the story they’ve told and the world they’ve built using what they had is really impressive, and stands with some of the best zombie shoot-em-up’s out there. Check out Kaufman’s New Orleans set cop flick Sinners & Saints too, which also stars Strong as a relentless badass and also features flawlessly directed action scenes, they make a cool genre double feature together.
Queen Of The Damned is not a great movie, but hot damn if it ain’t a sexy good lookin’ one. I’m not sure how long the Anne Rice Book is that it’s based on or what she thinks of this film, I haven’t read a single piece of her written work, and the only thing I have to compare to is Neil Jordan’s Interview With The Vampire, one of my favourite horror films. If that one used pacing to evoke passage of time and made you feel how inexorably taxing immortality must be, this one flies by in what feels like less than feature length, doesn’t take its time whatsoever and feels like something slight, stylish and B level that SyFy would put out, which isn’t a bad thing in itself but maybe not quite up to Rice’s pedigree. In Interview, Lestat was played by lanky, genuinely menacing Tom Cruise and here they went with Stuart Townsend, who I’ve never heard of before this but seems off in the role, like Brandon Lee lite with fangs. After awakening from a 200 year slumber he decides to start a rock band, and his songs wake someone else up in the form of ancient vampire Queen Akasha, played by the late Aaliyah in a captivating, potentially star making turn. There’s also a London based historical society who sends one of their own (Marguerite Moreau, whatever happened to her?) to investigate him, she instead falls under his spell. The vampire hierarchy led by a beautiful, stately but underwritten Lena Olin are vaguely pissed off at Lestat and Akasha and vaguely intervene with the help of a vamp who once turned Lestat from mortal (Vincent Perez). The problem here is the story isn’t well told enough, I guess from writing, editing or both standpoints. This is an exercise in style and everything else gets tossed aside like a drained corpse. But what style it is. The costume and production design are breathtaking, inspired by the past but still kind of futuristic and otherworldly. The slick nocturnal palette is reminiscent of other visually splendid early 2000’s vampire keystones like Underworld or 30 Days Of Night. There are absolutely gorgeous set pieces including a Death Valley outdoor rock concert and a super kinky rose petal filled bathtub make-out scene between Lestat and Akasha that is a delirious turn on. Aaliyah tears into the role and makes it her own with vicious command over dialogue, aching sex appeal and lithe, animalistic physicality that takes over every frame. It’s really, really sad she died so soon because I feel like she would have had an unbelievable run in Hollywood with that level of talent. There’s a lot here that works but a ton of it doesn’t, starting with smirking pretty boy Townsend as Lestat. He’s good looking, sure, and physically fits the bill but I just didn’t buy his presence as such an inherently intense creature. The eventual showdowns feel abrupt and are littered with silly VFX that could have been done way better. The story feels clipped, rushed, garbled and devoid of fluidity or connective tissue, like the editors went to lunch halfway through. But fuck man, will this thing ever give your eyeballs orgasms, it’s a rich visual jewel of artistry, costume innovation and stylistic splendour. Just tell your story better next time.