Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat/Sundown (1989) ***
I was not really expecting to enjoy Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat. To begin with, horror comedies generally don’t do much for me, and there are almost too many ways to count in which a comedy about redneck vampires could go wrong. Secondly, the turn of the 1990’s witnessed the creation of a great many small, independently produced horror films that reflected much more effort devoted to bargain-priced special effects magic than to things like a well-crafted story, believable acting, or competent direction, and something about Sundown’s presentation had me thinking it was going to be part of that tradition. Consequently, I was very pleased to discover that Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat is not at all the movie that I had imagined. Despite the glowering undead cowboys on the cover, facile country-boy humor takes a backseat to a much more clever style of comedy, and even when the hayseed jokes do show up, they are confidently underplayed. And while this film does have its share of attention-getting gore and monster effects, it is never overwhelmed by them. It also gives Bruce Campbell one of his all-too-infrequent opportunities to be funny without relying heavily upon slapstick.
In fact, the one big slapstick set-piece doesn’t involve Campbell at all. Somewhere out in the vast desert of the American Southwest, there’s a tiny town called Purgatory, clumped around a long-extinct copper mine. For some reason which writer John Burgess should have spent at least a couple of seconds going into, obnoxious ponytailed douchebag Tom Pryor (Philip Esposito) is in the area, and he pulls up to the gas station on the outskirts of town looking to fill up his tank. The station is owned by the Bisby brothers— Mort (M. Emmet Walsh, from Critters and Blade Runner), Merle (Sunshine Parker, of Tremors), and Milt (Bert Remson, from TerrorVision and the “Roger Corman Presents” version of Humanoids from the Deep)— a trio of stereotypical, porch-dwelling old men who seem actively to resent the intrusion of a paying customer. Upon hearing Pryor’s call for service, Mort sullenly gets up out of his well-shaded chair to do something very curious. Rather than just walking out front and turning on the pumps, Mort detours into the station, where he dons a pair of heavy gloves and slathers himself with thick, greasy sunblock. This is even stranger than it sounds, because Mort and his brothers are already wearing heavy, opaque sunglasses and enormous, sombrero-like straw hats. The delay gets Tom’s panties in a major bunch, and he begins ragging on Mort as soon as the old man emerges from the front door: “How about that— old fart can’t handle the sun, and he lives in the goddamn desert.” Eventually, Mort’s temper gets the best of him, and he punches Tom square in the face— causing the man’s head to pop clear off of his shoulders! You see, the Bisby brothers— like everybody else in Purgatory— are vampires who have come to the desert under the leadership of one Count Mardulak (David Carradine, of Deathsport and The Warrior and the Sorceress) in search of a sanctuary where they might overcome their predatory nature. Consequently, it’s going to be more than a little inconvenient for the townspeople that Tom Pryor was traveling with friends, and that Jack (Dana Ashbrook, from Return of the Living Dead, Part II and Waxwork) and Alice (Elizabeth Gracen) observed Tom’s death from the hill where they had been relaxing.
Count Mardulak takes a hard line against blood-drinking, but he is more lenient in the case of a simple murder. Second-in-command and disciplinary overseer Ethan Jefferson (John Ireland, of The Incubus and Salon Kitty) turns Mort over to Sheriff Quinton Canada (John Hancock) for a stay in the town jail, and assumes at first that the situation has been resolved. But when Jack and Alice come to town to report the murder, Canada sees no choice but to lock them up, too. After all, the vampires of Purgatory can’t afford discovery, and now that the two outsiders have seen unanswerable evidence that something strange is going on in the little town (I mean, even burly old guys like Mort Bisby aren’t normally capable of punching a man’s head off), the undead have few options other than to kill or convert them. And on top of that, the humans’ mere presence in town is going to stand as a powerful temptation to those of Purgatory’s citizens who are getting sick of subsisting on the synthetic blood produced at Count Mardulak’s factory.
Speaking of the factory, it has not been performing up to expectations, and Mardulak has decided to call in some assistance. The essential machinery had been developed by engineer David Harrison (Jim Metzler, from 976-EVIL and Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest) for medical purposes; it was supposed to address the problem of hospital blood shortages in the wake of AIDS. Mardulak put himself forward as a philanthropic investor, and arranged for a plant using Harrison’s designs to be built in Purgatory. Harrison himself was not available to oversee the project, however, and he handed the job over to a man named Shane (Maxwell Caulfield, of The Supernaturals and Oblivion II: Backlash), a former friend and present rival— both professional and romantic. Evidently Shane was not quite as good an engineer as either he or Harrison believed, however, because the daily output of Mardulak’s plant is just barely sufficient for the vampires’ own needs, let alone for the long-term plan to turn the synthetic blood into the first export industry Purgatory has had since the copper mine petered out. Therefore, Harrison is on his way to town at Mardulak’s summons, together with his wife, Sarah (The Initiation of Sarah’s Morgan Brittany), and daughters, Gwendoline (Vanessa Pierson) and Juliet (Erin Gourlay). They, of course, don’t know that the town is full of vampires. They also don’t know that Shane has been turned into a vampire as well, or that he’s planning on converting Sarah in order to make up for losing her to David back when they were both in grad school. Meanwhile, yet another potentially troublesome outsider is on his way to Purgatory, in the form of Robert Van Helsing (Bruce Campbell, from Mindwarp and Maniac Cop). As befits his name, Van Helsing is pursuing a vendetta against Count Mardulak, neither knowing nor caring that the count and his followers have changed their ways. In fact, he doesn’t know that Purgatory is an all-vampire settlement, either, leading to enormous complications when he falls for diner waitress Sandy White (Deborah Foreman, of April Fool’s Day and Destroyer), a recent convert to unlife who came to Purgatory some six months ago. And what nobody knows is that Ethan Jefferson is plotting a revolution to restore the people of Purgatory to the old ways, secretly raising an army by bringing in vampires he creates in the neighboring towns. Harrison and his family are about to find themselves in the middle of an all-out war.
Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat should never have been allowed to vanish from sight the way it has. While it is by no means a brilliant film, it is consistently funny, capably staged, generally well-acted, and occasionally even thought-provoking. Bruce Campbell gives one of his best performances as the out-of-his-depth successor to the world’s most famous hunter of the undead (watch his work here for an idea of how the “heroes” in Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers should have been handled), and M. Emmet Walsh steals absolutely every scene in which he appears. David Carradine is a little wobbly as the master vampire, but he gets in some good moments, particularly the scene in which Count Mardulak angrily reminds the citizens of Purgatory (whose stomachs are growling for the blood of Jack and Alice) why they followed him to the desert in the first place. The villains of the piece are somewhat disappointing, unfortunately, with John Ireland phoning it in and Maxwell Caulfield thudding his way through a role that desperately needed some finesse, but they’re the only major weak spots on the acting front. The monster effects are very nice for their price range, and I was especially impressed with the use of stop-motion bats to circumvent the age-old stumbling block of the Bat-on-a-String. The philosophical (indeed, theosophical) note on which the movie ends is perhaps a bit jarring, but once you get beyond the tonal reverse that it represents, it’s really the only logical way to give this story a truly happy ending. Certainly it works far better than the tone-deaf western-inspired climax that precedes it, which is further marred by hinging (in a completely nonsensical manner, I might add) upon a supposed surprise which any slightly observant viewer will have seen coming for nearly an hour. Between its token theatrical release, its limited circulation on home video by a company that was already walking the fiscal plank, and its apparent failure to find a new distributor for the DVD era, Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat has become all but impossible to find, and so expensive on those rare occasions when it does turn up as to price itself out of the market for any but the most obsessive Bruce Campbell fans. I believe the technical term for this state of affairs is “a crying shame.”