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Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (Vestron Video Collector's Series)
I continue to enjoy stumbling across films that are new to me as a DVD Talk reviewer. Despite a cast that includes David Carradine and Bruce Campbell, I had not even heard of Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat before seeing that Lionsgate was going to release it on Blu-ray as part of its "Vestron Video Collector's Series." In case you are not familiar, the line seeks to honor the 1980s home-video distributor by, according to the studio's Facebook page, releasing "a line of classic films across all genres just the way you remember them, but better;" with an emphasis on original artwork, restored transfers and newly produced extras. Anthony Hickox's (Waxwork) horror-comedy concerns a group of vampires that have moved to the desert and begun subsisting on synthetic blood instead of killing humans. When their blood-making factory fails, leader Count Jozek Mardulak (Carradine) calls in the plant's designer, David Harrison (Jim Metzler), who comes to the desolate town of Purgatory with his wife Sarah (Morgan Brittany) and daughters Gwendolyn (Vanessa Pierson) and Juliet (Erin Gourlay). Meanwhile, vampire Ethan Jefferson (John Ireland) starts a civil war after recruiting townsfolk to return to their bloodsucking roots.
An opening text scrawl explains why a colony of vampires has laid down roots in the desert, and their survival there requires plenty of artificial blood, sunscreen, sunglasses, hats, and skin-covering clothing. David is called to town to help fix the factory he designed, unaware that it has been retrofitted to create the faux blood. The family bunks at a large home in town, and the youngest Harrisons quickly discover the hidden passage that connects their home to Mardulak's crypt. After catching the vampire in a coffin, the girls return to their mother but are soon joined by the Count, who explains away the strange behavior. Jefferson and younger cohort Shane Dennis (Maxwell Caulfield), who had a dalliance with Sarah years earlier, begin biting humans for blood. Once bitten, a human can be turned or die, and the Count is furious when he learns of the coup. Campbell's bumbling traveler Robert turns out to be a member of the Van Helsing family, and he arrives in Purgatory hoping to wipe out the entire colony of vampires.
Although the film could have cut a few minutes from its 104-minute running time, Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat is an amusing hybrid that offers elements of horror, comedy, Westerns and action films. The film sets itself apart from others with its desolate setting, and the film is impressively shot by Hickox and cinematographer Levie Isaacks on a scant budget. An amusing anecdote in one of the disc's featurettes reveals that one landscape shot captured high above a canyon was possible only because the filmmakers stopped a crane being returned to Los Angeles from an Indiana Jones film shoot and paid the driver to let them use it for a few hours. The filmmakers built the gas station featured prominently in early scenes where grouchy vampire Mort (M. Emmet Walsh) decapitates a coke-nosed jerk who stops for gas; and real travelers apparently continued to stop seeking fuel and refreshment during the shoot. This opening kill is witnessed by Jack (Dana Ashbrook) and Alice (Elizabeth Gracen), who try to report the death to the sheriff (John Hancock), but are taken to jail along with Mort and drive much of the film's action.
The comedic elements do not always completely stick the landing, but there is plenty of tongue-in-cheek, B-movie camp to appreciate. Carradine was apparently drunk through the entire shoot, and his line delivery is often over-the-top comical. Campbell is amusing in his supporting role, too, and the film throws in some smart quips, like labeling the synthetic blood "Necktarine." I also enjoyed the stop-motion animation during several vampire attacks, and the primitive effects here add to the film's throwback appeal. There is some decent action when the vampires start warring, and the movie does a fairly good job jumping back and forth between character storylines. Shot nearly twenty years before a show that depicts vampires in much the same way, True Blood, this is a film genre fans will appreciate. The new Vestron Video release is reasonably priced, too, and Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat was an enjoyable surprise to this reviewer.
The 2.35:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image is apparently restored, though the disc does not include any kind of explanation of what work may have been done. Nevertheless, this is a largely appealing transfer that offers good fine-object detail and texture; bold, well-saturated colors; impressive black levels; and appropriate highlights. The Moab, Utah, setting is absolutely gorgeous, and the film offers viewers some impressive landscape shots. Even in brightly lit, outdoor scenes, the transfer handles skin tones and highlights well, and I only noticed minimal black crush. There are minor grain fluctuations, a few specks, and some occasional softness, but this is overall a pleasing image that is free of digital manipulation.
The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mix offers appropriate element separation, and I did not notice any distortion, crowding or feedback. Richard Stone's score is appropriately weighty, and is layered nicely amid the dialogue and effects. Ambient and action effects are noticeable across the sound field, and the LFE responds when necessary. English SDH and Spanish subtitles are included.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This single-disc release is packed in an eco-case that is wrapped in a glossy slipcover. A digital copy code is included. Extras include an Audio Commentary by Director Anthony Hickox, Director of Photography Levie Isaacks and Moderator Michael Felsher that is quite lively and information-packed. The disc also includes Isolated Score Selections with Commentary by Music Historian Randall Larson, Moderator Michael Felsher and Producer Jefferson Richardson. Wild Weird West with Anthony Hickox (16:03/HD) is a newly shot interview with the director; Bloodsuckers from Purgatory with Tony Gardner (14:28/HD), concerns the effects; Memories of Moab (12:43/HD) offers remarks from Campbell, who laughs about working with a drunken Carradine; A Vampire Reformed (13:08/HD) is an older but interesting chat with Carradine; and A True Character (11:02/HD) is a chat with character actor Walsh. You also get the Theatrical Trailer (1:03/HD) and a Stills Gallery (14:58/HD).
Greenlit by Vestron Pictures in the 1980s but never given a proper theatrical release, Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat finds redemption as part of Lionsgate Film's "Vestron Video Collector's Series" line, and this previously unknown-to-me film is an amusing blend of horror, comedy and Western elements. The 1989 film looks and sounds quite good here, and there are a slew of nice features to boot. Happily Recommended.
William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.