The Cult Classic: Near Dark – talk about the cinematic equivalent of a half-inflated balloon: a limp production with so much visual potential that you feel a little crestfallen when it slips out of your hand and weakly farts itself out. I was astonished to witness how niftily wrapped up into a tiny little bow this vampire flick was at the 90-minute mark. Kathryn Bigelow and Eric Red didn’t write the most complex screenplay, but true to Bigelow’s other directing work, its success lies in the telling. Refreshing for a vampire movie there’s little time wasted on exposition. Even for a conventional drama it whisks through the basics without cloying sentimentality. Thanks to some solid acting by Adrian Pasdar, there’s no reason to oversell the fact that hero Caleb’s ardency for the ladies has led to his doom and that he’s desperate to protect his family from his mistake. Everything is in the moment, aided tremendously by the expansive, wistful Tangerine Dream score. Early on the going seems great. Beginning with the hand-wringing bar scene, a languid pace is set that transcends Caleb’s inner turmoil and perfectly encapsulates the tawdry, consequence-free decadence of his Old West vampire counterparts. All of a sudden the contrivances catch up with the gang and their previous patience with immortality is shot out the window. Why the undead misanthropes have any concern for the authorities is beyond us at that point, and the lone child vampire’s distasteful desire for Caleb’s little sister is hysterically unlikely. When once they inhabited a life of subtle depravity, the vampires now freak out for the sake of self-preservation, something that obviously hasn’t been a problem for them in decades. Had Bigelow been given approval for a 150-minute epic, I don’t doubt she could have strung this odyssey out in beautiful fashion. Instead she is forced to settle for a clichéd action ending that ends way too happily for everyone involved. I imagine much of its cult success stems from the cast reunion of Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, and Jenette Goldstein from Aliens, though only Paxton is really allowed to show off his charisma. In retrospect it’s baffling to believe his present stony-faced persona emerging from the whiny punk roles he played for Bigelow and James Cameron in the 80’s. Between this, Aliens, and True Lies, I’d say we have reason enough to request a Bill Paxton Criterion box set. The low-key special effects are admittedly pretty memorable and Bigelow creates a stylish aura, so it’s unfortunate to see that in the end someone chickened out and placed an order for that most quintessential piece of the pre-millennial action flick: an exploding tanker truck. How very subtle indeed.
The Mumblegore: You’re Next – following its unnerving promotional campaign one would be shocked to find that the looming fairytale-masked slashers of You’re Next don’t contribute to its most exhilarating parts. That honor belongs to newcomer Sharni Vinson, whose Australian English major Erin skitters instinctually from room to room of a besieged country manse, concocting defenses with unforeseen resourcefulness. Most click-baiting critics are quick to call her empowerment groundbreaking, but male or female her controlled response to fight or flight is rare as it is in a genre largely driven by the idiocy of its protagonists. Possibly the greatest thrill comes early on when she takes a knife to an assailant as he struggles to break through a window, taking advantage of his clumsiness to gain the upper hand without second guessing herself or freezing in fear. Writer Simon Barrett can’t be credited for reinventing the genre, but he quite dexterously mixes in a clutch of uncommon tropes to reinvigorate the basic slasher plot. With Adam Wingard, one of the foremost horror-inclined mumblecore proponents (who funny enough kills off his counterpart Ti West first thing in an inside-jokey glorified cameo role ), at the reigns, the story is tightly controlled and tensely woven. Unfortunately, once an explanation for the home invasion is offered there is little to be scared of. The assailants are no longer mysterious, and Wingard struggles to keep them ominous once their motives are known. There is little more innovation in any technical respect, which leaves most of the heavy lifting to the actors; Vinson of course being the MVP. Here’s where it helps to be a fan of the creators’ prior work. The cast is a who’s who of mumblecore members, and while I can’t say I’m an expert beyond Ti West’s output or the V/H/S series, the present actors imbue the embattled well-to-do family with a universally American combination of post-college ennui and barely restrained resentment that make their predicament all the more devastating. Joe Swanberg is hilarious as the eldest brother, offering up an egomaniacal barrage of entitled ignorance, backhanded compliments, and calculated frankness, ridiculously keeping up his dinnertime sparring with his brother after being skewered in the shoulder with a crossbow bolt. Vinson’s foreignness to both the central family’s conflict and the genre as a whole may be signaled too blatantly by her Australian heritage and outback survival training, but really, the presentation of her character is a defiant stand against conformity – in horror movies and beyond – scaring the scarers and proving that exciting things can come from the most unlikely of places.
The Guilty Pleasure: Underworld: Awakening – the Underworld series has gone the full Resident Evil with this latest extension likely spurred on by some late night liquid courage. Discounting flashbacks this installment clocks in at just over 70 minutes and bears all the marks of the prototypical undead franchise, its hourglass of goodwill having just about run its course. Like all failed franchises it makes the mistake of relying on the broad interest stirred by its central conceit – expanded in this case to the all out genocide of vampires and lycans – to lure in viewers, despite the fact it doesn’t even have the budget to match its previous scope. This episodic addition features a stereotypical hackneyed conspiracy plot, newer mutations, helmeted henchmen, shadowy corporations, crummy CGI action, and a predictable cliffhanger ending that sadly generates no excitement for the four sequels yet to come. Ignoring its oft-cited Matrix-plagiarism, the first Underworld thrives on the pervasive gloominess it achieved at the height of gothic rock’s mainstream success, and Evolution upped the ante with nonstop gore. Rise of the Lycans was the first misstep, a boring melodrama that redundantly covered the constantly referenced tragedy at the center of the franchise’s mythology, but Awakening is the first true descent into shameless monetization. It lives up to the vagueness of its subtitle, mixing familiar characters into a familiar formula without any nuance or emotion. A downscaled character-driven story could have resulted in a redeemable guilty pleasure worthy of word-of-mouth success, but the creators already know the road to cultdom and are obviously greedy for first weekend returns. While it eagerly returns to an action-heavy premise and features an insanely loaded supporting cast (Stephen Rea! Charles Dance! Up-and-coming Theo James! A wasted Wes Bentley! A wimpy Michael Ealy!), it coldly plods from scene to scene like its amoral, hungry characters, feeding on innocents like us just to stave off its own death.