Horror is often called the most malleable of the cinematic styles, as it is easily skewed to fit almost any kind of genre offering, from comedy to drama, action to fantasy. However, not all filmic categories are a natural marriage with the ghastly. The western has yet to provide the perfect setting for fear factors, while romance usually loses when set up against the scary. But perhaps none of these ill-fitting formulations can compare to politics. Unless your name is George Romero and you are somehow turning your living dead corpses into direct commentaries on racism (Night), consumerism (Dawn) or continuing class divisions (Day), your advocacy is probably not helping your heebie jeebies. Science fiction seems more fitted to those with an agenda to advance, be it the corrosion of conformity (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) or corporations run amok (Rollerball, of many).
So when South African director Kenneth Kaplan decided to meld a dark comedy with elements both horrific and topical, it seemed like a mismatch made in the most dire depths of Hades. While humor has often saved the shivers from being overly serious, blatant cinematic activism is never very scary. After all, Apartheid and its horrid history were frightening enough. Adding a supplemental storyline about a race of white people looking to preserve their purity of essence sounds like something out of a crack pipe version of Dr. Strangelove. But Kaplan believed he had a substantial point to make about the root of racism and how the majority will do anything – even the killing of humans for their life giving fluids – to preserve their power.
The result was Pure Blood, a weird conglomeration of vampirism, surreality and staunch anti-white rule sentiment wrapped in a rather ill fitting blanket of splatter. Now Troma gives us a chance to judge for ourselves. Is Pure Blood as relevant as the evening news? Or do the current event elements override the most important factor – the macabre?
Fanus wants to be a policeman. His father was a cop, as was his grandfather. Dad was indeed an influential figure in the region – a brutish thug who used the racist laws of South Africa to his own demented ends. Believing that he could live forever, The "General" as he is known, devised a plan to keep his bloodline pure. He found himself a virgin teenager and raped her, thus guaranteeing their offspring would be untainted. The rest of the plan was simple. The General held a ritual that allowed his essence, upon death, to be stored in the sacrificial blood of the rite. When Fanus came of age, a simple injection would transfer the tyrant's spirit into his unsuspecting son.
But when Eugene, a much older sibling, turns up years later with intentions toward Fanus's mom Gertrude, things grow dark and disturbing. Gene wants to help The General fulfill his goal, but soon learns the power of immortality can be his. All he needs is an injection of Pure Blood – and occasional refills along the way. Soon, many of the townsfolk are under the spell of the sanguine solution, and they need claret to keep going as well. With the help of a security cadet named Becky, Fanus must stop his murderous family before they drain the entire countryside – or worse, contaminate the entire population's bloodline.
The South African "political" horror film Pure Blood is a rather perplexing motion picture. It lifts ideas wholesale from other, more menacing bits of morbidity (say, Katherine Bigelow's classic Near Dark) while trying its hand at a little social commentary on the side. It is filled with arresting, sometime very effective imagery in the vein of Ken Russell or Nicholas Roeg, but it doesn't have either filmmaker's knack for weaving their varying visuals into a sharply realized narrative. It contains some winning performances, and some woefully inept excuses for acting. And just when you think it is going to deliver the fright flick death blow it has been promising all plot, it turns confusing and trippy. It's as if the filmmaker himself got drunk off the delirium he was draping across the screen and fell under its hypnotic, half-baked spell.
It is hard to deny Kenneth Kaplan's determination. Pure Blood comes across as the decidedly personal vision of a man made sick by the homeland he has come to hate. There is a lot of vitriol in his portrayal of the minority position, one supported and strapped to the backs of millions of native sons and daughters. Made in 1999, at a time when the former home of Apartheid was going through its second set of democratic elections ever, the schism between blacks and whites was more prominent than ever, even with Nelson Mandela's previous role as unifying leader of the nation. In many ways, it was the colonialists last stand, a chance to salvage some small victory in light of their loss of prejudicial power. Kaplan managed to get the government to fund his film, and he was determined to address the concepts of segregation and eugenics he saw simmering under the seeming social peace.
Indeed, Pure Blood may be the first horror movie ever to associate vampirism with racism. The bright red liquid of life plays a key role in the movie, both contextually and subtextually. Kaplan wants to argue that all the violence and hate that has plagued South Africa has come from direct connections to blood – either in ethnic lineage, right of power, or the horrifying result of generations of cruelty. Kaplan bathes the movie in his mannerism, filing the lens with as much juicy redness as possible. Oddly enough, however, the blood never seems to be the direct result of typical horror conventions. Oh sure, we have a stabbing here and a garroting there, but Pure Blood is a movie that wants to use its gore in a completely abstract, serio-comic method. After all, any master plan that involves spiking traditional cakes with icing colored with actual claret can't be taken too seriously.
Actually, this accents one of the most disconcerting problems with Pure Blood. Tone is very tenuous here, with Kaplan unable to resist tweaking the terror ideals with a mischievous amount of misplaced iconography. While Fanus and his family look realistic enough, the police station where the youth works is like a Nazi stronghold – complete with blond, blue-eyed sadistic cops. The doctor and his naughty nurse wife seem dragged out of a completely different movie, and all the scenes with the imaginary/ghost General lack a real ethereal or enigmatic quality. Just like the black African house servant Hope, who always seems to be lurking in the background, mixing her potions and plying her voodoo mojo like a combination of Calpurnia and Titchuba, Pure Blood wants to rely on recognizable gimmicks with a desire that they eventually translate into bigger, bolder statements. Unfortunately, we get more confusion than propaganda as the narrative reaches its incredibly confusing climax.
The cast gives it a damn good try, however, working hard to balance between fear and farce. As Fanus' mother and his older "brother" respectively, Aletta Bezuidenhout and Danny Keogh are believable as a couple living between the realm of the supernatural and the succinct. Bezuidenhout in particular has an unsettling, ghoulish quality that makes her persona that much more potent. And cinematic mainstay Marius Weyers sure looks the part of a pissed off racist South African cop. But as for the rest of the actors, their freshness and lack of center really comes across on screen. The young man playing Fanus – Carl Beukes - has to rely on his continuous eyebrow to do most of his emoting, while the ingénue, Becky (Emily McArthur), is just a female form for the hero to hump against. But thanks to Kaplan's command of the cinematic language, even the slipshod elements don't totally overwhelm his intentions. Indeed, Pure Blood works more often than it fails, mostly because of the clarity that the director possessed when putting his story on celluloid.
Still, Pure Blood isn't a complete success. In reality, it's more a myriad of missed opportunities than a wholly realized shocker. Even with its blackly comic conventions, the sparse splatter and the explicit overtones of injustice, what we have here is still just the roughest outline of what could have been a quirky classic. The filmmaker has all the proper pieces in place – the idea, the undercurrent, the ability to professionally execute (always important in the low budget arena). Yet Kaplan leaves more optical blanks than he ever fills in, and some very compelling parts of the story are shuttled aside for others that seem out of place or unnecessary (like the whole post-transformation drunken celebration, complete with booze and sunlamps???). Perhaps to those who've lived through Apartheid and its incredibly deadly sphere of influence, some of the things in Pure Blood will resonate like unwelcome gunshots in the night. But Kaplan's creation may be a tad too insular for an outside audience, something that keeps it from fulfilling its missive destiny.
Shot on film and given a nice, new transfer by Troma, Pure Blood looks very good in this DVD presentation. The 1.85:1 letterboxed image is presented non-anamorphic (Boo! Hiss!) but still looks amazingly crisp and clean with perfect color correction and lots of detail-defining contrasts. Kaplan makes the most of his arresting vistas and urban industrial wasteland settings, giving us a very surreal, almost futuristic feel to his film.
As has been the case with several of Troma's recent releases, there seems to be some mixing issues with the DVD soundtrack. The dialogue is crystal clear and easy to understand. But for some reason, the Dolby Digital Stereo seems to favor the music, and whenever the score or a random rock song comes on in the background, the conversations are enveloped and just disappear. While it doesn't happen often, the tunes do tend to be turned up to "11", while the rest of the sonics seem situated somewhere around "6".
In place of that annoying "fill in the blank" intro featuring Troma titan Lloyd Kaufman and Debbie "Va-Va-Va Voom" Rochon, we get the actual director himself, Ken Kaplan, walking us through a Pure Blood preview. As for the rest of the bonus features, they are interesting – however, they are not exactly the same as what is listed on the DVD cover. The Troma version of Pure Blood promises a "Behind the Scenes Documentary". What you get instead are four interviews, featuring Kaplan (8 mins), director of photography Jonathan Kovel (1 min), nurse "Susan" actress Jennifer Steyn (90 secs) and security guard "Becky" Emily McArthur (2 mins). None of the Q&As are that insightful (Kaplan does do a good job of explaining his mad modus operandi) and, along with a trailer, this is all the Pure Blood context there is. Not quite the Making-Of promised on the box.
The Tromatic material is just more of the same, with those incredibly nasty PETA ads making another appearance on DVD. Along with an ad at the beginning for the Make Your Own Damn Movie Box Set which you CAN'T skip or fast forward through, the added features facet of this release are more than a little suspect.
Occasionally feeling like Peter Jackson's Dead Alive transported and mutated to fit a South African mentality, but with decidedly less invention and carnage, Pure Blood is still an interesting take on an intensely controversial subject. While director Kaplan's messages might not always make sense, and his eye for style occasionally stifles his narrative drive, there is still a great deal to enjoy about this cryptic political commentary. While horror and social causes can often make the most misguided of cinematic bedfellows, Kaplan seems to be onto something with his blood-based diatribe against Apartheid and prejudice. It's just too bad that the way he made his point wasn't more powerful. Pure Blood does provide enough of the boo basics to keep horror fans intrigued. But it probably won't give its audience the frightening food for thought its creator imagined...or hoped for.
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