Indie genre film director and co-conspirator at Mad Science Films, James Plumb, talks about the horror/western/comedy Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat, the sad decline of true low-budget horror, and his latest film, Little Monster, in this 25YL guest article.
After many years of hearing about it, I finally watched Anthony Hickox’s Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat. I’d first heard of it at “Abertoir”, Wales’ first horror film festival, when a producer of a forgettable psychological thriller mentioned it in a dismissive manner as a “weird horror western with David Carradine” that he had worked on early in his career. My interest was piqued, but somewhere along the way, I had managed to get it mixed up with The Forsaken, a ’00s vampire film with western overtones.
So, when I saw it dropped unceremoniously on Prime Video with terrible artwork, I thought it was about time to check out this weird little gem. Boy, they really don’t make them like this anymore, do they?
Sundown is not a horror film.
Sure, it has vampires and some blood and gore, but it’s structured like a western and shot like a comedy.
Briefly, the plot has vampires deciding to give up their predatory ways and retreating to an abandoned town to develop a blood substitute so that they can live in peace. It features subplots of warring factions of vampires with differing ideologies, marital infidelities, a third act siege standoff, and a bat attempting to rape a woman only to be interrupted by the woman’s kids.
Sharing a number of actors from Twin Peaks, it also has that weird TV Lynch vibe to a number of its dialogue scenes. It features Bruce Campbell, when he was still trying to get cast in comedic roles, gurning away as a descendant of Van Helsing; David Carradine, back when he appeared to at least give half a damn what film he was in, stars as Count Mardulak; and M. Emmet Walsh appears to be having the time of his life as Mort, a gas station attendant in a wide-brimmed sombrero and futuristic ’80s sunglasses.
Sundown is a film made by horror fans, for horror fans, but it’s not a horror film. It’s a film that assumes that the audience already knows all the vampire tropes and decides to take those tropes, apply it to a western setting, and have some fun with the result. It doesn’t talk down to its audience—it assumes you know the score and you’d better keep up. The audience (horror fans) will have already devoured the classics of the horror genre and will be hungry for something new. This film wasn’t for casual film viewers or those people who only go to the cinema to catch the latest blockbuster.
Like I said, they don’t make these films anymore. Nowadays, each new horror film that isn’t a sequel or a prequel is after that casual audience member, because financially they need those numbers. So, these new horror films assume that the audience isn’t aware of the classics of the genre. They want to be the classics of the genre, “the best horror film in years”, “the scariest horror film since…” The economic model of moviemaking demands these wide audience demographics. This even extends to making horror films that distance themselves from the very genre. When distributors want to sell a horror film to a wider audience, we start hearing terms like “post-horror”, “elevated genre”, “prestige horror” and the wonderfully absurd “deathwave.”
And maybe they’re right. Vestron, the outfit that put out Sundown and Earth Girls Are Easy (which, by the way, the comments to Sundown could apply just as well to this sci-fi musical), went bust after releasing these films. Perhaps there just weren’t enough hardcore horror fans who were after something new to justify the budgets for these films (Earth Girls was released theatrically!) But what an amazing world it would have been if these non-horror films for horror fans had done well. I’m not here to bash the recent horror releases, as I’ve enjoyed most of Blumhouse’s recent output, but I’m also getting tired of the narrative clock always being reset to zero. I have a similar frustration with Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III after the wacky TCM2, which took the characters of the first and applied it to an OTT Grand Guignol tone for the second, and each subsequent entry of the franchise just returned the film to the farmhouse with a fresh set of victims.
The director of Sundown, Anthony Hickox, attempted this trick time and time again. Worth tracking down is his Mario Van Peebles vehicle Full Eclipse, an action film about an L.A. super-SWAT team, made up of werewolves. It’s effectively Training Day before Training Day but with more body hair. But, by this point, Hickox was firmly rooted in the realm of TV movies and direct-to-video flicks and unlikely to trouble cinemagoers with films that look like horror films, but which go in strange and unpredictable places.
Rather than learning from Sundown’s alleged “mistakes,” we decided to duplicate them when we were developing our fourth feature film, Little Monster. Although on the surface you could call it a horror film (after all, it has vampire zombies in it!), Little Monster is closer to a drama, where a young family falls apart under the pressure when the 7-year-old daughter gets bitten by a zombie. Eventually, the parents are forced to choose: do they enable their daughter by feeding her, or do they decide to kill her? Our film assumes that you already know your zombie and vampire mythology so we can get to the meat of the story; in this situation, would you become a Renfield or a Van Helsing? And what psychological toll does it take to become those characters?
And perhaps that’s where these types of film belong, in the low-budget realm. I imagine Little Monster’s budget was a fraction of the catering on Sundown, but at this level, filmmakers can afford to take risks on the weird little genre experiments. Do I hope the days of Sundown and Earth Girls will come again? Of course! And seeing how these things come in cycles, I’m sure we’ll see weird-not-quite-horror in the cinema again. But in the meantime, there’s a whole host of interesting genre dalliances being made in the indie film world.
Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat is available on Region 1 DVD and on Amazon’s Prime Video service.
Little Monster can be pre-ordered on Region Free DVD on Indiegogo and you can keep track of Mad Science Films on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and over on YouTube, where they have a video podcast, The British Journal of Mad Science Films, which covers everything to do with indie moviemaking.