M.L. Miller here and welcome to my tenth anniversary Best in Horror Countdown! I have also compiled a list of horror films that worth noting to tack on to my Best of Countdown. Some of these films just barely missed the main Best of list and some are just films released through the year I thought stood out in one way or another. Do not forget to like and share my picks with your pals across the web on your own personal social media. And please chime in down in the comments and let me know what you think of the film, how on the nose or mind-numbingly wrong I am, or you can counter with your own darn list! Enjoy this Best of Horror Extra!
Released on February 14, 2020. Available On Demand and digital download from Voltage Pictures!
Directed by Joe Begos
Written by Max Brallier, Matthew McArdle
Starring Stephen Lang, William Sadler, Fred Williamson, Martin Kove, David Patrick Kelly, George Wendt, Tom Williamson, Sierra McCormick, Travis Hammer, Dora Madison, Josh Ethier, Graham Skipper, Linnea Wilson
It’s clear that horror filmmaker Joe Begos has talent, but I believe his love of the past gets in the way of him truly making a standout film. BLISS was close. It definitely offered up a grungy look at the seediest of underbellies of both LA and the art world. But still, it felt as if Begos was emulating the lifestyle rather than highlighting the horror that was occurring on screen. It’s the same problem filmmakers as Rob Zombie and even Quentin Tarantino have. Zombie loves his hillbilly grunge and is too close to it to do anything else, making his films feel repetitious and kind of gross—especially after he’s been given the chance to evolve over a few films and seems deadest against that. Tarantino has managed to elevate his style to the point where his films feel like homages but still having an essence that has become truly his own genuine style. Begos really loves John Carpenter films. Most of his films reflect this. But while this love shines through all of his movies, I have yet to see Begos’ own personality shine through and thus his films feel like really good remakes that look, sound, and feel like a Carpenter movie. Take VFW, for example.
VFW is a standoff film not unlike ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, a film, of course, by John Carpenter. A group of old soldiers who belly up to a bar at the VFW hall every night end up in a skirmish with a rabid group of opioid addicts from a neighboring building. The title cards explain that the opioid crisis has intensified when a new drug called Hype has been introduced that basically makes the users into rabid animals. When a kid named Lizard (Sierra McCormick) steals a giant load of drugs from the head dealer Boz (Travis Hammer), she takes refuge in the VFW hall with an army of addicts behind her. This forces these old barstool warriors to stand up against these hippie-whippersnappers who dare desecrate their sacred hall. It just so happens to be the birthday of bartender Fred (Stephen Lang) and he’ll be damned if some lousy punks ruin it.
There’s a lot VFW has going for it. First and foremost, Begos has assembled one hell of an awesome cast here. While they may have seen better years, it’s fantastic to see Lang team up with tough as nails actors like THE Fred Williamson, THE KARATE KID’s Martin Kove, and the always awesome William Sadler from DEMON KNIGHT. Bringing back THE WARRIORS’s David Patrick Kelly and CHEERS’ George Wendt is a fantastic touch as well. Seeing these guys razz each other and talk shit about the good old days is a real treat. Seeing them get a chance to take part in some of the ultra-violence is equally fun. Each of them have had countless of memorable moments in film and TV and Begos makes sure to give each of them their moment to shine here. Lang is solid as the lead. Sure, he’s can act the hell out of a villainous role, but here, we get to see him fight for the good guys and it’s great to see him offer up a gruff, but soulful take on the protagonist for a change. Whatever else criticism I am about to lob at VFW, seeing this cast dive into the fray one last time makes this film worth a watch.
Cast and charm aside, VFW is a frustrating movie on many technical levels. Mostly every scene is filmed inside of a dimly lit bar. The only other scenes are filmed on a dimply lit street and inside a dimly lit tenement house where the gang and druggies live. This is a dark movie and I’m not talking about the subject matter. There are entire scenes that are filmed in almost utter darkness. So much that it is difficult to know simple layouts of the area being filmed and who is doing what to whom. I understand Begos might want to pay homage to Carpenter’s equally dimly lit ASSAULT ON PRECINT 13, but that film looked that way because, at the time, that’s the best Carpenter could do with the equipment he had. Modern cameras and equipment, no matter how low budget, can light an area realistically, so as to still convey a dark atmosphere, but still make figures and actions seeable. For some reason, Begos didn’t get that memo. From start to finish, as soon as the sun goes down, this film is aggravatingly dark and almost indecipherable at times.
I feel a lot of the banter between the cast in this film might have been made up as they went along. I say that because I feel that Begos is constantly trying to catch up to the action in the scene rather than capture it. Action scenes are going on all at once, and we only see snips of dimly lit carnage. Quips and jabs are tossed about rapid fire, but sometimes, if you’re not listening, you won’t know who’s saying what. It just feels that these scenes, even though they might have been told to ad lib, weren’t set up to capture a lot of what was going down. Just on a basic level of establishing faces is difficult as scenes show a group shot with no closeup, not knowing who is talking, who is the focus of the action, and who is differentiated from who. It wasn’t until late in the first act that I realized the guy at the end of the bar was Norm from CHEERS (Wendt). Rudimentary establishing shots are ignored. Maybe this is because Begos only had one camera. Maybe it is just that he might have been in over his head with so many screen heroes in front of him that he didn’t have it in him to make them do reshoots or maybe the cast was really taking the shots and getting tipsy and not really complying to the game plan. Either way, there’s a chaos in even the quiet scenes that make it tough to decipher.
There is some good carnage. The rampaging opioid heads attacks are fierce as is the retaliation from our swarthy crew of heroes. Heads are explodified. Limbs are hacked off. Even through the dim lighting, you can get a sense of some quality horror effects going on. Begos never lets the pace come to a lull, even when action movie clichés are being used such as the old chestnut of the hero losing hope and the kid coming in to give him a pep talk resulting in the hero finding his footings to give it a go one. Last. TIME! Begos delivers a likable movie, but man, did I really want to LOVE this film and I can’t say I did.
Begos has a great film in him. BLISS was close. I really liked ALMOST HUMAN, which was his Carpenter-eqsue body horror debut. Even THE MIND’S EYE was fun. But just like those films, I feel Begos has yet to find his groove and while I think VFW is an entertaining film, the potential was there for something genuinely great and it just didn’t live up to that potential.
THE 2019-2020 EXTRA!
M. L. Miller is a wordslinger/writer of wrongs/reviewer/interviewer/editor of MLMILLERWRITES.COM. Follow @Mark_L_Miller.
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