GORE IN THE STORE
SUNDOWN: THE VAMPIRE IN RETREAT ***
Directed by Anthony Hickox.
Starring David Carradine, Maxwell Caulfield, Bruce Campbell, Morgan Brittany, M. Emmet Walsh, Deborah Foreman, Jim Metzler, John Ireland.
Horror/Comedy/Western, USA, 104 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on Blu-ray via Lionsgate on their Vestron label on Monday 15th November 2021.
The late 1980s was a very weird time for horror cinema. The slashers of the previous decade had run their course, the OTT splatter comedies had stopped being funny and nobody quite knew what to expect going into the ‘90s, and what we ended up with was this strange couple of years where quirky, off-kilter genre movies with a streak of black humour running through them came to the fore. At the time, Vestron Pictures was a distributor who put out these odd titles and movies such as PARENTS, THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM, BLOOD DINER and WAXWORK have all received Blu-ray releases on the revived Vestron label over recent years, with 1989s SUNDOWN: THE VAMPIRE IN RETREAT being the latest curiosity to get the HD treatment.
A curiosity because as far as mainstream exposure goes this movie went so far under the radar it was practically underground, and given that the cast features such names as Bruce Campbell (THE EVIL DEAD), David Carradine (DEATH RACE 2000), M. EMMET WALSH (RED SCORPION) and Maxwell Caulfield (GREASE 2, but don’t let that put you off – he was well known for his soap opera work and he did go on to appear in WAXWORK II), along with director Anthony Hickox’s pedigree – his father was filmmaker Douglas Hickox (THREATRE OF BLOOD) – the pieces were in place for a fun vampire romp. However, SUNDOWN: THE VAMPIRE IN RETREAT followed in the wake of THE LOST BOYS and AFTER DARK and was neither as polished or sexy as the former, or as edgy or exciting as the latter, resulting in a mixed bag of a movie that is not as clever as its high-concept-weak-execution plot seems to think it is.
The central idea behind the movie is that the small desert town of Purgatory is populated by vampires (see what they did there?) but these undead ghouls have found a way to survive by wearing sunblock and manufacturing artificial blood, so they don’t have to kill humans. However, the facility that makes the fake nutrition is not working and so the human designer of the facility David (Jim Metzler – CHILDREN OF THE CORN III: URBAN HARVEST), his wife and two daughters arrive in town to try and make it work. The thing is, there is a civil war brewing between the town’s vampires, led by head vampire Jozek Mardulak (Carradine), who wishes to lead a peaceful existence without killing, and a splinter group of renegade vampires led by the traditionalist Jefferson (John Ireland - SPARTACUS) and the sinister Shane (Caulfield), who is also a love rival to David, whose youngest daughter looks uncannily like the smooth bloodsucker. Add to all this the arrival of Robert Van Helsing (Campbell) in town and the stage is set for several plot threads to play out as everyone hams it up as if this movie were one last hurrah for the 1980s, which it sort of is.
Mixing horror, comedy and the western genres, SUNDOWN: THE VAMPIRE IN RETREAT does feel like it would have benefitted from dropping at least one of those tropes to streamline the overly complicated but ultimately bland main plot in order to add a little extra pep to proceedings. Let’s be honest, the idea of peak Bruce Campbell playing Van Helsing to David Carradine’s Dracula (for all intents and purposes) is, on paper at least, a very tasty idea; Campbell is excellent at playing the twitchy vampire hunter and Carradine, as well as looking a bit like Christopher Lee’s version of the Count, does have the charisma and the gravitas to pull off playing the head vampire (much like his father did in the 1940s), and both of them have the comic timing to pull of the more cheesy humour in the dialogue but neither actor is given much room to breathe thanks to the packed script, and Campbell is completely wasted as he barely appears in the final act, which is when he should have been at his pompy best.
Nevertheless, once the movie hits its stride and the excess plot material has thinned out a bit it does get a bit more enjoyable, as long as you don’t take things too seriously. The family plot stuff with David and Shane (as in the classic western – do you see?) is a little bit pointless and convoluted but Maxwell Caulfield is fun as the maverick vampire (although a moustache for him to twirl would have been more fitting) and Morgan Brittany as David’s wife Sarah adds some much-needed energy whenever she is on the screen.
Whether the vampire teeth are a deliberate nod back to the glory days of Hammer or are just not that great looking is up for debate – as are the stop-motion bats that pop up every so often – and the naffness does add to the charm but as previously stated, coming on the coattails of two vampire game-changers doesn’t do the movie any favours. These details aside, the overall look of the film is decent and makes it look a bit more authentic than the budget would probably allow in lesser hands, and the score adds a lot when it comes to setting the atmosphere and highlighting the action set pieces, which look a bit stagey now but are tonally appropriate.
Coming backed with several cast and crew interviews, of which Bruce Campbell’s is the most intriguing as he implies that David Carradine may not have been completely squeaky clean and well behaved at the time, and an audio commentary from Anthony Hickox and DOP Levie Isaacks, SUNDOWN: THE VAMPIRE IN RETREAT will continue to keep its cult status as it will still be too bizarre for most audiences to fully engage with but it is a neat little snapshot of how horror movies of the time were trying something different from the run-of-the-mill stories we were all too familiar with. It’s not a classic, it’s not as subversive as it thinks it is and not all the jokes hit like they should but there is something enjoyable about the cast trying to make it all work despite it feeling like it could all fall apart at any given moment. Whether it will become a regular rewatch is up to your own tastes and tolerances but if you are collecting these Vestron releases on Blu-ray then this is another solid package for your collection, and nothing more than that.