It’s hardly a new idea to call vampirism a virus. Nor is it original to portray it as a spiritual scourge, a youthful disorder, or even a politically charged plague. Such metaphors are obvious and easily worked into the basic mythology: love, sex, blood, rock and roll, religious and moral orders, the fear and making of pariahs—these elements are all of a piece, and show up in various vampiric sagas. Recently, vampire movies have become more action-oriented, appealing to the lucrative 15-25 male demographic, juicing up the requisite sexual themes with plenty of not-very-sublimated violence. Best examples might be Stephen Norrington’s Blade and John Carpenter’s Vampires (both 1998), which take Aliens as a model for their assaults on figurative corporate corruption as well as for their heavy-artilleried bug-hunt plot structures—or rather, their bloodsucker-hunt plot structures—with guts and gore and exploding vampire flesh flying every which-way.
Let’s say upfront that J. S. Cardone’s new movie, The Forsaken, doesn’t win points for innovation: the vampires are ignoble and exist beyond the constraints of physics, the guns are large. Here the virus of vampirism (also called a blood disorder) is “telegenic,” which means that its carriers become Borg-like, communicating by fast-cut, swish-panny images and thought transference. This idea may be derived from William S. Burroughs’ famous assertion that “Language is a virus,” or perhaps it just came to writer-director Cardone after a few too many hits of something. In either case, it serves as the rationale for the condition of the film’s most bizarre (non)character, Megan (Izabella Miko), a little-girl-lost who’s been bitten by a really bad vampire, Kit (Johnathon Schaech), and as a result, is unconscious through most of the film (literally, she says not a word for the first 90 minutes).
Megan is picked up early during this road-trip movie, by Sean (Kerr Smith, Dawson Creek‘s lonely gay boy) and his hitchhiker Nick (Brendan Fehr, who plays a teen alien on the WB series Roswell). They decide to use her as bait—a “homing device,” they call her—for Kit, who tracks her to the place where he’ll be best disposed of, a sacred ground, but of course. And so it is that the vampires in The Forsaken are on the road—again—like most vampires, seeking respite from their angry undeadness by ravaging folks they meet out on the highway. And I mean ravaging. They don’t just bite their victims, acting all sexy and sucky. No, they tear into them, slicing their throats, gurgling and thrashing about in the bloody carcases. It’s nasty stuff, underlining that vampires are at base mean and selfish creatures, no matter how passionate their yearnings or sad their origin stories: they really resent being who they are. The vampires in The Forsaken are something else too—afraid. Naturally, they displace their fear onto random-seeming violence, infighting, and general abusiveness, but it’s visible in their faces, just as it is in the faces of their human prey.
This particular crew—Kit, his girl Cym (Phina Oruche), their sycophantish “day-driver” Pen (MTV boy Simon Rex), and another girl who’s killed off almost immediately—comes on Sean when he’s on his own road trip. He’s traveling from LA (where he’s an aspiring filmmaker cutting trailers for some low-rent, fast-break company) to Miami, where his sister is getting married, driving some rich lady’s Mercedes convertible across country. Early during the drive, he hallucinates a couple of pretty girls who drive by, flashing their breasts and inviting him to some great party—you never learn whether these are vampire-bait girlies, but it hardly matters. The point appears to be that Sean, when tired, is vulnerable to titty-visions, which in turn, is supposed to assure you that he is not attracted to the hitchhiker he picks up—the grungily charismatic Nick.
As usually happens when you pick up a hitchhiker in a movie like this (especially one who wears sunglasses at all hours and who tells you, oh so enigmatically, that you “made the right decision” when you pick him up), it turns out that Nick has a terrible secret, but not the one you might expect. He’s a “hunter,” having been bitten by a vampire some months ago and now hot on its trail, because, as this film’s version of vampire lore goes, if you kill the “source” vampire, everyone who’s been bitten by that one and has not yet “turned,” is off the hook. This is a dream solution, and somehow, bizarrely, trickles down to the virus’s telegenic aspects: it creates a community of victims. Add to this the fact that Nick is keeping his own inevitable “turn” at bay by taking a drug “cocktail,” which he attributes to a discovery by an AIDS researcher (the film is not subtle).
Bothered by Nick’s deceptions, self-importance, and stereotypically junkie behavior, Sean demands an explanation, but only gets one when Megan, in her delirium, bites him. Now he’s also at risk of being “turned,” so Nick blabs the whole sordid tale, including some claptrap about the origins of the virus. It’s not a monkey in Africa or even an airline steward, but rather, a small group of French soldiers who, at the end of the First Crusade in the eleventh century, survived a slaughter by Turks, then cut a deal with a demon: they’d suck blood forever if they didn’t die. Being one of those original eight, Kit knows his way around by now. And that makes him awfully hard to kill.
While Nick and Sean buddy up (and Sean looks a lot like a younger version of Kit, for what that’s worth), the pale and pretty victim Megan serves as walking (when she is walking) cautionary tale, looking like a stereotypically stoned-out raver (or like Michael Douglas’s crack-ho daughter in Traffic). Her counterpart is the film’s most ravenous and lascivious vampire, Cym. Where the black girl exhibits limitless appetites and aggression, the white girl is passive to the point of parody: her would-be rescuers treat her unceremoniously, knocking her out repeatedly with morphine shots or punches in the face, dumping her body in the back seat of their car, stripping her, tossing her in an ice bath, and poking her to find where she’s been bitten, that is, near her groin, so said poking does produce minimal, fairly predictable titillation.
Or rather, it produces such titillation to a point. The Forsaken is self-conscious and even occasionally clever in its use of such tired tropes (sex is penetrative, violence is sexual, vampires are seductive, girls are ideal victims, etc., etc.), but they are tired tropes all the same. But that’s okay too: the film isn’t shy about its borrowing, with allusions to Coppola’s AIDS-referencing Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), in which microscopic views of surging blood corpuscles clearly refer to AIDS; Joel Schumacher’s Peter Pan parable, The Lost Boys (1987); Kathryn Bigelow’s gorgeous-wasteland vampire flick, Near Dark (1987); and Gregg Araki’s fuck-the-USA road pictures, The Living End (1992) and The Doom Generation (1995), among other films.
Such quotations are requisite for a generic film, of course. Where The Forsaken is most potentially adventurous is in its insinuations of a threeway: Kit’s cynical and sinuous hyper-aggression makes him simultaneously repulsive and seductive (much like Schaech’s character, X, in Doom Generation), the way that vampires tend to be for the men who hunt them—he’s clearly the means to Nick and Sean’s bonding (penetrating him makes them more manly and more able to understand one another). This particular trope is used, like most others, to extreme in The Forsaken, and emphasizes a fierce interplay of vampire and human desires. If the women are opposites, the men slip and slide into one another, more alike than even they seem to know.