[31 Days of Horror Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan] Day 17 – Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1989)

Director: Anthony Hickox
Cast: David Carradine, Morgan Brittany, Bruce Campbell, Jim Metzler, Deborah Foreman
Screenplay: John Burgess, Anthony Hickox
104 mins. Rated R.

Fun fact: I buy a lot of movies. Oftentimes, I’ll buy movies I haven’t even seen. Cheap multipacks can be the bane of my existence. While hunting down a copy of Ghoulies III (yeah, that’s right), I finally found it in a 6-pack of movies on DVD. In the same pile, I found another 6-pack and recognized Blood Diner, so I nabbed that 6-pack (I mean, c’mon, it was five bucks), and I just recently opened it to investigate and watch them. I knew nothing about Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat, but the little poster on the front cover of the movie pack looked awful. I expected to like this movie the least, so now that I’ve seen it, is it the worst?

There’s a little town called Purgatory that you won’t find on a map. In fact, many do not even know it exists, and that’s just the way the residents want it. The town is packed to the brim with vampires. These creatures of the night have worked very hard to avoid the need for blood to the point that they’ve synthesized a blood alternative, and they utilize other tactics like heavy sunblock and large sombreros to keep out of the sun’s harmful rays. Under the direction of their leader, Count Mardulak (David Carradine, Kill Bill vol. 2, Death Race 2000), the town seems, on the surface, rather peaceful and sleepy, but there’s trouble brewing in Purgatory, and some of the residents don’t want a blood substitute. As tensions rise in town, the descendant of a legendary vampire hunter has arrived, stake in hand.

The concept for Sundown is rather awesome. It may not be the most original idea, but turning a classic vampire tale on its head with elements of science fiction (before that was popular) and the modern western seems to work to its benefit. I love the wide cast of characters, which make a town like Purgatory feel lived in. Director Anthony Hickox (Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, Knife Edge) infuses his town and characters with enough style and flair to make them stand on their own and be entertaining in the soap-opera-y narrative, and his storytelling has a bit of a bite (pun not intended, but do as you will) to create a unique vampire tale in the time of so many others like The Lost Boys and Near Dark, and while the finished film won’t hold a candle to either, enough of it works.

The cast holds a lot of this together, led by the consitently scenery-chewing David Carradine. For being the lead actor in the film, we don’t get a lot of Carradine in this, but when he’s onscreen, he’s a delight to watch. Bruce Campbell (Bubba Ho-tep, TV’s Ash vs Evil Dead) matches his intensity quite well as the latest in a long line of Van Helsings. Campbell has a way about him that he works in just about every film he’s in by essentially playing a variation of the same character, and yet, directors that hire him know what they’re getting. Campbell even plays very nicely with Deborah Foreman (Real Genius, Grizzly II: Revenge) as Sandy, a local server in Purgatory who takes nicely to Campbell’s Van Helsing.

The film’s biggest problem is not the insane amount of subplots bouncing around, nor is it the hammy dialogue and acting (in fact, these elements work well in this specific film). No, the biggest problem is that it seems like, as the film finds itself working to the finale, it loses some steam, as if Hickox and co-screenwriter John Burgess ran out of ideas as the vampire portion of the film almost completely disappears in favor of the western elements. The story and climax that we get at the end felt like a production that ran out of money, and that could very well be the case, as this was the last film produced by Vestron Video as the company struggled in the landscape of late 80s cinema. The ending we get isn’t bad, but it’s an obvious loss of steam in an otherwise very entertaining and odd movie.

Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat is goofy and glorious fun. Anthony Hickox understood his vision and put it forth rather than giving viewers something they’d seen before, and even though the narrative sputters a bit as it comes to a close, there’s something rather special here, and a self-awareness that drives most of the thrills. Like a more satirical precursor to True Blood, Sundown is a vampire movie working toward the future of the subgenre, and we’re all the better for it. Seek this out if you can find it.

-Kyle A. Goethe

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