Weird Western Films: Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1989)
An enjoyably New Wave Weird Western, featuring a Western town full of vampires trying to survive on artificial blood, and not doing a very good job of it.
By Max Sparber
I sometimes think about creating a blog called Cult Film That Never Found Their Cult, made up of films that should have found a devoted following, but for some reason never did. "Meet the Hollowheads," as an example, a 1989 film set in an alternative universe made up entirely of tubes. Or "Crimewave," a 1986 Sam Raimi film scripted by the Coen Brothers that I am increasingly convinced nobody else has ever seen.
Add to the this 1989 film "Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat," which got lost as the result of its studio closing. It was produced by Vestron Pictures, a delightfully eccentric outfit whose catalogue could be the starting point for my cultless cult film blog. "Street Trash," a 1987 film about an alcoholic beverage that makes hobos melt? "The Lair of the White Worm," Ken Russell's bonkers adaptation of a Bram Stoker story featuring Hugh Grant menaced by a demonic snake? "Hider in the House," scripted by the superb Lem Dobbs and featuring a perfect idea for a thriller: Gary Busey has secretly moved into your house and sneaks out at night to steal your food and watch you sleep.
"Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat" is an overstuffed, slight new wave vampire comedy set in Moab, Utah, so its features Monument Valley-style bluffs and canyons towering over the action of the film. This unavoidably makes the movie feel like it is supposed to be a cowboy film, and director Anthony Hickox doesn't really resist this at first, and gives into it completely by the film's end.
But, properly, this is a vampire film, telling of a small community of bloodsuckers who have retreated to a town that is on no map and are trying to develop synthetic blood rather than continue to murder people. The community is marvelously represented: All wear sunscreen to protect against the sun, all wear big hats and walk under umbrellas at all times. It's a magnificently weird-looking world in this film, especially as many of the locals wear Victorian costumes with Western embellishments.
There are too many stories in this film for any one to really get the time it deserves. The main story is essentially a remake of a classic western theme, in which cowboys want their herd to graze freely while townsfolk want to bring civilization, with its plots of land and fences, to the west. In this case, though, the some cowboys want to preserve their own rights to graze freely, and they want to graze on humans.
John Ireland leads this group of cowboys. Ireland was a genuine western movie star, but here he seems enfeebled and vaguely embarrassed -- he just can't seem to manage the vampire physicality demanded of him, and so the melodramatic flourished demanded by the role come off more as shrugs. He is planning a revolution against the town leader, played by David Carradine, who acts as though the whole movie were a bit of a lark. By the end of the film, the have raised armies against each other, all dressed in proper cowboy gear, and the spend a lot of time shooting at each other with wooden bullets.
At the same time, the film tells of a the scientist who invented synthetic blood and the bullying vampire who is very jealous of him, of a child who might have either the scientist or the vampire as her father, of two sets of punkish couples roped into the battle (including Twin Peaks' Dana Ashbrook, barely present in this film.) At some point, a Van Helsing show up, played as a loudmouth bungler by Bruce Campbell, and a local vampire immediately falls in love with him; she is played by the superb Deborah Foreman, making the most of a minuscule role.
If the film is overstuffed, it benefits from an entertaining cast, mixing eccentric character actors (including the always enjoyable M. Emmet Walsh) with unknowns who largely seem like they should be headed to a Flock of Seagulls concert after filming, and all give the film an appealingly anarchic quality. There's a deep well of weirdness in this film, playing itself out under Moab's towering western landscape, and it feels right.
It feels like the sort of place anyone might go, buy a town, and go quietly mad in it.