Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Wendigo Meets RISE:BLOOD HUNTER (2007)

Apart from debating the merits and flaws of The New World, I spent my time with Wendigo last weekend resuming our vampire-viewing after a few demoralized weeks in the wake of Mama Dracula. It was now time to take one from his pile, and on top was Sebastian Gutierrez's film, which saw a limited theatrical release in the U.S. before hitting DVD. I had low expectations going in, which the film easily exceeded.

Gutierrez (a past co-author of Gothika and Snakes on a Plane) breaks his story down in trendy-edgy non-linear fashion, starting us somewhere in mid-story and then cutting back and forth from the present narrative to a flashback narrative until the streams converge. Add that to the film's revenge plot and you have a slight resemblance to Kill Bill. Then add the former O-Ren Ishii, Lucy Liu, as the anti-heroine and the resemblance is somewhat less slight. But the jigsaw narrative has no justification like Tarantino's genre homages. It just seems like the conventional thing to do these days.

Liu is Sadie Blake, whom we first see outbidding Robert Forster for the services of a prostitute. After taking her home and having her strip, Sadie orders her to the bathroom to wash. The shower tub is a trap, and Sadie isn't necessarily a lesbian, but a procuress for a creepy crippled man who intends to "eat" the hooker. Sadie's payment is an address, but her exit is temporary. She returns to kill the creep with a crossbow bolt and free the girl.

This was just one stop on a vengeance trail that began when Sadie, a reporter for the L.A. Weekly, wandered into a nasty part of Koreatown to investigate the disappearance of a computer hacker pal who'd been investigating a "Feeding" that would commence at a certain residence. She's captured by a cohort of villains including James D'Arcy, Carla Gugino, and the mighty Mako in his final film appearance. D'Arcy and Gugino are vampires, and while they usually kill their victims, something about Sadie compels Gugino to let her survive to become a vampire in her own right. Curiously, this was the second film in a row we've seen in which the vampire's only traditional attribute is a failure to cast reflections in mirrors -- though Gutierrez botches this by catching Liu's reflection in a hospital window. Otherwise, vampires heal quicker than people and are a little bit stronger than normal, but not so much so that people can't do serious damage to them. One thing I really liked about Rise was its refusal to go overboard with the vampires' powers. It kept things at a gritty level appropriate to the noirish story.

Rise is a kind of sad exit for Mako, one of my favorite character actors and a clearly unwell man in his Renfield scenes here. But as Wendigo says, "At least he was still working."

After Sadie kicks her way out of a morgue slab, she discovers her new nature in gruesome fashion at a homeless shelter. She has no fangs and no weapons, so when the hunger hits her she has to gnaw desperately at some rummy's wrist until the skin comes loose. It's more horrific, I thought, than a present-time scene where she seduces and kills a hitchhiker, but that one's just as grim because it sells the point that Sadie isn't a noble vampire. She wants revenge, but has no illusions about her future beyond that. When she finally hooks up with Michael Chiklis's high-functioning alcoholic cop (whose daughter was killed by the vampires), her main stake (sorry) in the relationship is her hope that Chiklis will kill her after she kills her enemies....

It's a tough life for a vampire in Rise; above, Lucy Liu struggles with some tough meat, while she squirms through Michael Chiklis's meatball surgery below.

Wendigo has come to appreciate the more low-key vampire films like this one and Vampire Diary that do without wirework, CGI grr-faces and the like. The main special effect in Rise is gore, and it has plenty of that in the right places. He liked the low-power vampires and the mystery of why and how they're killed by the special crossbows created by the more mysterious Arturo. While I thought that the D'Arcy as the film's villain was too low-key, too bland or generic (Brit accent included), Wendigo finds that an advantage. D'Arcy is no Prince or Count but a small-timer who has apparently pushed Arturo out of power in their little group. It's suggested that Arturo helps Sadie as part of a play to regain power, but it's never clear whether we should take this at face value, and the truth may have been saved for a sequel that'll never be made. In any event, Wendigo fits this into a subgenre of "white trash vampire" or "modern gypsy" stories that downplay the fantastic elements in favor of a noirish lowlife milieu.

Sex is an important element in Rise, but also an ambiguous one. Sadie's sexuality is left a mystery. We see her seducing both a woman and a man, but in each case it's a means to a more sinister end, and we notice that the female vampire who turns her seems to have a fatal-attraction crush on her. We can't tell how Sadie swung in life, but it almost seems irrelevant to the vampire's hunting habits. We were looking at the "Unrated Undead" edition of the film, which is nearly a half-hour longer than the theatrical cut, with much of the extra footage featuring a topless or nude Liu. That gives Rise a little of the look of "urban fantasy" fiction but dispenses almost entirely with the literature's toolkit of supernatural races and hierarchies. It may have evolved more along urban-fantasy lines if it had actually launched a series, especially if they kept Chiklis as Liu's partner. He grounds the story in the noir tradition by playing an archetypal flawed and obsessed lawman. Chiklis is good in the role, and helps maintain the low-key tone by not freaking out at discovering the supernatural, but you can't help feeling that the film doesn't get its actor's worth. You can't help but wonder how Vic Mackey might have dealt with the undead, but the thought probably didn't occur to Gutierrez.

Wendigo labels Rise a solid, effective modern B movie. Gutierrez resists most of the temptations that his story offers him, telling a disciplined story without that overproduced look you get so often these days. In other hands, this could have been Charlie's Angels with vampires (or Underworld 2), but this time out the director made a virtue of his budget. But those same virtues probably doomed the film before it even had a chance to fail at most box offices. While Wendigo likes the film, he doubts that it would have caught on with the typical multiplex horror/action/fantasy fan, as it lacks a lot of what they seem to like. It deserved better.

Here's a trailer, uploaded to YouTube by nicolemc233:

1 comment:

Richard of DM said...

Interesting review. I would have never given this movie the time of day. I'm not exactly the biggest Lucy Liu fan in the world. The chick just bothers me for some reason. Anyway, I'll have to give Rise a look.