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?
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 ingιnue, 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.
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.