Any movie looking to join the Sci Fi Originals stable has the following legacy to live up to:
Frankenfish — genetically modified fish, mean enough to devour gators in the bayou, go on the rampage against a team of investigators.
SS Doomtrooper — during World War II, a genetically modified Nazi soldier goes on a rampage against Allied troops sent in to destroy him.
Grendel — an adaptation of Beowulf in which a poorly CGI-rendered Grendel (think a rough draft of Mr. Hyde from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) goes on his epic rampage against Hrothgar’s Danes. The Danes, it turns out, are even armed with a crossbow firing explosive bolts (that must have been mistranslated in the version I read back in school, ’cause I’d sure remember it), but to no avail.
The Pumpkinhead series of films — in which Sci Fi Pictures and a handful of directors go on an artistic rampage against the surprisingly decent first film of this series about a demon who can be summoned for vengeful rampages.
Mansquito — oh, you get the idea.
Indeed, channel surfing at 3am can be a dangerous thing when you come across the Sci Fi Channel playing something like Boa vs. Python, Sasquatch Mountain, or Dungeons and Dragons II (like the first one didn’t suck enough to send all of us vintage D&D geeks scurrying back to the shameless shelter of our basements). You’re rarely proud of the time you spend with a Sci Fi Original, even if you’re a firm believer of the so-bad-it’s-good theory. Some of the Sci Fi Pictures releases are simply unwatchable.
But then again, they were apparently involved with Dog Soldiers in some way, and that movie, with its good old-fashioned-non-genetically-modified-werewolves-against-commandos-in-a-small-farmhouse plot, totally rocked. So there’s always hope, you tell yourself as you settle in with Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy (in which genetically modified human/shark hybrids go on a rampage … Jesus, was someone at the Sci Fi Channel scared in utero by Attack of the Killer Tomatoes or something?)
All of which brings us to Slayer, written, directed and produced by Kevin VanHook (Voodoo Moon, The Fallen Ones), which strives to throw a few new wrinkles into the vampire genre.
A US commando team led by Hawk (Casper Van Dien) comes across the scene of a vampire massacre deep in the South American jungle. While investigating the scene, the soldiers are attacked by a grungy, feral group of vampires. It doesn’t take long for the commandos to realize that daylight and bullets don’t kill the vampires, but the old reliable stake through the heart still does the trick.
Fast forward to six months later when Hawk’s superior officer, Colonel Weaver (Lynda Carter) has sent members of his unit back down to the area. Weaver doesn’t believe the vampire stories for a minute, but acknowledges that the region’s dangerous; it also turns out that her goddaughter (and Hawk’s ex-wife) Laurie is down there on a scientific expedition. Weaver orders Hawk to meet with the other unit, led by his best friend, Grieves. If Hawk finds a way to extract Laurie from the jungle, all the better.
Only problem is, Grieves is captured by the vampires and turned into one of them, so that his knowledge of military strategy can raise their tactics above those of mere pack predators. The vampires (including a surreal and slightly annoying pair of Russian acrobat twins) begin to lay traps for villagers, the better to maximize their kills.
Naturally, the storylines converge, with Hawk, Laurie, Grieves, a host of bloodsuckers, and a head vampire with a mixture of pragmatic and messianic tendencies, converging for a violent finale.
There are some interesting ideas at work in Slayer, although they’re really given only passing nods in favor of the various scenes of slaughter. Crosses don’t work on the vampires because they’re not supernatural beings, but actually a longstanding part of the ecosystem (the destruction of the rain forests has wiped out their natural prey, so they’ve begun encroaching into human villages). There are also passing references to overlaps with chupacabra legends and the Fountain of Youth.
The Fountain of Youth and ecosystem ideas are intriguing, and place Slayer in a camp of recent vampire movies that offer alternate origin stories for the breed (Bram Stoker’s Dracula finds Vlad Tepes turning against God because of his beloved’s death, while Dracula 2000 theorizes that Dracula was actually Judas Iscariot, cursed to an undead existence for his crime against Christ). Often, in much the same ways that zombie films from Night of the Living Dead to 28 Days Later (while not technically a zombie film) illustrate societal unease, vampire films of this school also attempt to give voice to modern fears. It’s a shame that Slayer doesn’t do more with these ideas than throw them in as part of the head vampire’s obligatory “let me tell you my master plan” exposition at the end.
Even though it’s not a movie that makes you forget the ticking of the clock, Slayer feels increasingly rushed as it goes on. Hawk’s battle with Grieves’ pack of vampires comes out of nowhere, as if the film skipped some crucial scene linking Hawk’s discussion with a blasé but well-informed sugar cane plantation owner, to the actual battle. Likewise, the revelation of the head vampire’s identity isn’t terribly clear. You’re just suddenly in the cave with the other characters, and you eventually piece it together.
Slayer isn’t great, and it isn’t a hopeless failure (even if it’s not compared to its bar-lowering Sci Fi Originals brethren), but it’s not especially noteworthy, either. A few good ideas here and there aren’t enough to counter choppy pacing, lame fight scenes, a tacked-on environmental message, and acting that won’t be cluttering up any lists of Oscar nominations.