Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Forest of the Vampire – review

Director: John R. Hand

Release date: 2016

Contains spoilers

There is something to be said for indie productions being ambitious. If you are going to do it, why not reach further and grasp for a point that should be unobtainable. There is also something to be said for understanding limitations.

Forest of the Vampire certainly did stretch and, in some ways, succeeded but it also, in other ways, failed by overextending. It was interesting that the press kit for the film suggests “Forest of the Vampire weds the classic gothic horror of Hammer’s Dracula films with the survivalist terror of films like The Evil Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre” because I saw definite influences but not necessarily these.

Paul Camp as Baal
The film begins with shots of a cloaked figure, Baal (Paul Camp), and others of a woman, Neptis (Starla Snowdon), in a gossamer nightdress. She flashes fangs during this prologue, he doesn’t need to as the cloak he wears screams vampire. Let us touch on those influences right now. If the press kit said Hammer I would disagree as my thoughts went to 1950s/60s Mexican vampire cinema. Now, whilst Hammer arguably influenced that, the combination of landscape and the cloak screamed out Germán Robles to me.

Starla Snowdon as Neptis
Anyway, a girl, Jessica (Caitlyn Moore), is in an abandoned mill, putting her clothes back on. She calls out to her boyfriend but gets no response. Again, I want to touch on influences. The filming is filtered, adding a yellowish tint to the affair, and there are some very nicely done close up portraits of characters both of which felt very Euro-horror. If anything I was leaning towards a Jess Franco feel. Jessica finds her guy’s bloodied jeans outside, her name is whispered and the shot cuts into a graphic red filter.

Joe De Luca as Jim
A bar; and interestingly we know this through an establishing shot of an “open sign” and beer bottles. The two actors in the scene are alone in a sea of black and it was an interesting way to get around lack of set (rather than use a room that is clearly not a bar). The two characters are Rex (Ian Pala) and Jim (Joe De Luca). Jim wants to call it a night as they are going hiking the next day, Rex is complaining about the trip, the country music in bars and the idea of a hike. Jim suggests Rex tell Tina (Destiny Baldwin, From Dusk till Dawn: the Series) that, which shuts him up. They head back to their motel.

Rex and Tina
Lisa (Stevie Marceaux), Jim’s girlfriend, runs. There is a medallion and Baal, she sees a young man with fangs and awakens terrified (her dreams pepper the film). Jim just gets back from the bar and her attitude towards him was nothing more or less than a nag, to be honest. In the morning we meet Tina and see more of the groups' interactions. The trip is Tina’s idea, they are going to see Enchanted Rock – a place on a hiking trail, which locals avoid (the Rock, forest and trail). If I’m honest none of the characters elicited any sympathy and so it was difficult to care what happened to them but let’s talk those quoted influences. The road trip is the nearest this gets to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, to be honest, and this contains none of the terror of that nor the frenetic gore of the Evil Dead. This did veer more towards Euro-horror (as mentioned).

roadkill armadillo
So, they get to the trail (where a pair of picnicking moms have just been eaten by vampires – one off screen and assumed, the other on screen and actually a great unspoken rendition of vampire eye mojo being used – leaving the young daughter wandering the woods (and possibly in thrall to the vampires)). The use of the filter on the filming is all about moving into a borderland of two worlds, the vampires are quite comfortable wandering around in daylight and the guys are soon being hunted down… Except that the hunt was over rapidly and actually languid, with none of the pace one might think useful in such scenes. One of the four was also lured there as there is a task for them to complete. I need to also mention a “roadkill” armadillo, given the genre’s connection with the critter via Dracula (1931).

the other world
I won’t spoil the task but I do have to spoil the “other world” – or the other side of the looking glass, as was mentioned in dialogue after the phrase came to mind as the viewer. The forest stands as a borderland and we do see characters within that starry world. But it was a step too far ambition wise, it just looked a bit cheap (whereas the hidden bar set was clever). That borderland is also timeless, exemplified by a shot of a nail through a watch – which might have been a bit heavy handed as there wasn’t more of such imagery and certainly negated the need for a character to tell us that their watch wasn’t working.

Stevie Marceaux as Lisa
The sound wasn’t perfect, there was a use of effects on voices that perhaps might have been avoided and some of Tina’s dialogue seemed re-recorded (perhaps) but certainly distorted. So, negatively, we saw a stretch (in ambition) too far (the starry world) but also perhaps the film didn't stretch far enough as the director did keep the slasher aspect in mind and we could, perhaps, have eschewed that even more for the more arthouse direction. The characters were unsympathetic but the vampires looked the part and the character portraits in close-up worked nicely. Some of the practical effects were good – a pair of hands in the meadow looked better than they should have.

Baal - portrait
Score-wise I’m torn. I don’t believe that the filmmakers made what they set out to make. Partly because the budget indie nature kept some of it out of reach and partly because I don’t think it worked as a slasher horror. The more otherworldly aspect struggled both because of the starry world visuals but also because the nature and relationship of Baal and Neptis were under-explored and the exposition rushed (and vocally distorted). That said I was taken by a lot of the Euro-horror aspects and some of the photography; I really liked the filtering and the portraits. Even if a cloak might sound cliched, in the context of the film Baal looked right and carried that Mexican horror vibe I mentioned.

I don’t want to slate this (primarily because it really doesn't deserve it) but know it struggled to get where it wanted to. 4 out of 10 seems fair with a caveat that, despite not being perfect, it should be of interest to vampire fans – especially fans of the influences I mentioned. There are plans (according to the credits) for a sequel and I hope the filmmakers build on the positives in there, continue to reach but don’t overstretch.

The imdb page is here.

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