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Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat

Director: Anthony Hickox
Cast: Bruce Campbell, David Carradine, M. Emmit Walsh, Brittany Morgan

(US DVD: 23 Sep 2008; UK DVD: Available as import)

This film is bad. As in: late night, half-in-the-bag, lights out, bowl of microwave popcorn, and it’s still bad. I don’t mean to imply that it’s so bad it’s good, or that it revels in glorious, campy fun. It’s simply a poorly executed, cheesily acted, startlingly insipid, and altogether boring affair. I am groping around for the right way to put this, and keep circling back to this: Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat would have made for an excellent Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode.


I know that I will get “comments” for this below – in fact, I almost never get comments, so I am kind of hoping that I do – because an inexplicably sizable number of cult-cinephiles have taken to this sloppy little concern as if it were Evil Dead II or Big Trouble in Little China. They watched it over and over again on pan-and-scan VHS throughout the 1990s, and waited impatiently for this new anamorphic widescreen DVD treatment. As though this waste of everyone’s time and talent were worth watching twice.


Now, perhaps I am about to fall victim to the oldest pratfall in criticism, that of describing why a joke is or is not funny. Inevitably – for whichever side of the joke’s relative success or failure (as joke) you reside – you end up looking like a colossal, humourless, prat when you try to explain the reasons for this. So, sorry in advance for that. But, here is a comedy film that tries also to inhabit the disparate, but tangentially related, genres of the Western and the Vampire Horror film.


So, a pseudo-horror movie that follows the general contours of a Western, featuring two factions battling over control of a dusty town in the American desert, a pure(ish) blonde damsel torn over allegiances, and a family recently arrived from back East who get caught in the crossfire. Except that in this Western, everyone on both sides (aside from the family from back east) are vampires who have chosen to live in the middle of the hot, always-sunny desert for some reason, which reason is supposedly the advent of sunblock, but I mean come on. And the battle isn’t just over territory, but also ideology and morality: one faction has invented a form of synthetic blood, and is trying to convince the other that they should now retire from their predatory bloodsucking ways, which they steadfastly refuse to do.


You know, as I write this, the film sounds like it could have, and maybe should have worked. I love the idea – subverting genre clichés and playing with audience expectations, and offering a conflict between two factions of vampires as a metaphor for conservatism versus progressivism. But, you have to have a script that can bring these broad ideas to life, injecting the kind of intelligence and charm that is required to make such a preposterous scenerio seem, if not real, then at least interesting. Instead, everyone from the top on down here seems to have arrived on set fresh out of ideas.


The direction is amateurish and the editing is often crude. The camera is great at wide shots of the Arizona desert but generally fails to make interiors look like anything other than “interiors” – is there any set design going on in this film at all? For a movie that relies on the deepest kind of suspension of disbelief, there is a marked lack of attention given to detail. Blood (which is pretty central to the whole vampire mythology thing) looks goofily fake; beards are clearly affixed with glue; bats are hideously cartoony cartoons; foreign accents are distractingly dubious.


Moreover, there is a lazy approach to sexual-violence-as-comedy throughout the film that renders it generally offensive for no good reason. To take the most egregious example, a persistent trope throughout the movie is the decidedly un-hilarious motif of rape. At one point, a four-year old child watches a man try to rape her mother. Not long after, a woman complains to her husband that she “almost got raped by a bat.” (By bat, she means the flying thing, but there is always the yucky double entendre here.) As a bonus, this same would-be rapist engages the victim’s husband in a bunch of spirited back-and-forths over, for example, the way his wife “moans when she comes”. Gross.


Largely wasted is a twitching and dorky Bruce Campbell, a charmingly Draculesque David Caradine, and an over-the-top M. Emmet Walsh as a cranky, homicidal, village elder. Inexplicably, each of these generally fine actors offers his own 15-minute Bonus Feature for this DVD edition, looking back on this generally forgettable flop as if it were some great lost masterpiece of low-budget filmmaking.

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Stuart Henderson is a culture critic and historian. He is the author of Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s (University of Toronto Press, 2011). All of this is fun, but he'd rather be camping. Twitter: @henderstu


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