Sunday, 30 November 2014

Reign in Darkness

Directors: Kel Dolen, David Allen
Writers: Kel Dolen, David Allen
Producers: Kel Dolen, David Allen
Cast: Kel Dolen, David Allen, David No
Country: Australia
Year of release: 2002
Reviewed from: UK DVD (Screen Entertainment)

You may have heard the phrase 'Show, don’t tell.' If you have, you’re probably not David W Allen or Kel Dolen, the guys who made this dull Australian vampire film, set (for no apparent reason) in South Africa. That’s the bit of South Africa where everyone has a strong Aussie accent, apparently.

Kel Dolen himself stars as Michael Dorn (an homage to the Star Trek actor?) who is part of a “small team of molecular biologists” researching a possible cure for HIV. In fact there are only two biologists in this team: Dorn and Scottie (Scott Tyack), plus one bureaucrat, Alex (co-writer, co-director David Allen who has subsequently added his middle initial to his screen name, presumably to distinguish himself from the legendary special effects artist who directed Puppet Master II) and a gun-toting heavy called Lance (Chris Kerrison) who has a Southern United States accent and sometimes wears a Confederate flag bandana. Because, you know, molecular biology research programmes often require firepower.

Reign in Darkness has three big problems (well, four if you count the fact that it all takes place in bright sunshine). It’s boring, it’s packed with inconsistencies and stuff that just doesn’t fit together in any conceivable way - and it’s narrated to death. For most of the movie, wooden actor Dolen drones on in a flat, lifeless monotone, explaining what his character is feeling, what he’s thinking, what he has just done, what he plans to do next and occasionally what he is actually doing while we’re watching him doing it. This is not some sort of film noir-style narration that a (good) film might get away with, it’s just somebody reading out a (fairly rubbish) story while we see it acted.

Dorn and his three colleagues are studying a virus called K-17 (which an opening caption tells us is believed to genuinely exist...) only their version is called RVK-17 for some reason. They’re not sure who they’re working for and their test subjects are tramps and hobos, whom they inject with the latest batch of RVK-17 to see what happens.

Dorn and Lance drag a tramp out of his cardboard home and inject him, instantly turning the ‘gentleman of the road’ into a maniac who attacks Dorn. Meanwhile narrator-Dorn tells us that these people are “like lab rats”. Well, no, not really. Lab rats are usually found in the controlled environment of, you know, a lab. They’re not just wild rats picked up on the street and injected with stuff. As Dorn tries to fight off the tramp, Lance saves him by blasting several shots from his automatic pistol into the man - while he is lying on top of the struggling Dorn!

Now here’s a tricky one: which of these is dumber? The idea that you can shoot someone (at point blank range) and the bullets will not continue through their body into the poor sod lying directly underneath them. Or the experimental procedure of Dorn’s team which is to find a homeless person, inject them with a virus which causes them to turn into a maniac (this is already known, it’s no surprise), do so without any way of restraining the person and then shoot them before they can be studied, thus rendering the whole thing pointless. This scene is typical of the film in having ideas that might sound good, might even work in isolation, but simply don’t make anything approaching sense when put together.

Despite miraculously escaping Lance’s bullets, Dorn has been stabbed by his own hypodermic needle which apparently still contained some RVK-17 and this turns him into a vampire. For some reason and in some way. Not a maniacal vampire who wants to kill and eat the first person he sees, but a haemavore nonetheless. Why the virus should affect him differently to the tramp is never explained. But he runs off, uses his new vampire superstrength to kill some anonymous goons sent to catch him and resigns himself to life as a fugitive. Oh, and there’s some back story about how one of the earlier test subjects went renegade and killed Dorn’s wife, back at the start of the project.

Now, Lance has some unseen masters with whom he converses while standing in a fuzzy spotlight surrounded by darkness (they call him ‘bounty hunter’ although we have already established that he is no such thing). These masters (actually it’s just one voice which not only is even more flat and lifeless than the narration but which constantly fades in and out of audibility) tell Lance that he must track down Dorn, helped by someone called Gage.

This turns out to be a tall guy with short hair died a sort of greenish-yellow and it must be said that Korean-Australian David No stands out not so much by his distinctive barnet, more by virtue of being the only person in the cast who can act. Lance and Gage can’t stand each other but have to work together to hunt Dorn. Gage is called a ‘half-breed’ but this is never explained and makes no sense if this form of vampirism is caused by a virus (not that the film-makers seem to have much clue what a virus actually is...) No’s other work includes Subterano, The Matrix Reloaded and Mr Nice Guy, in which he fought one-on-one with Jackie Chan.

Much of the film then consists of these two tracking down Dorn who returns to his flat (which has a Metropolis poster on the wall - the sure sign of a film-maker using his own home) where everything has been turned over by someone searching for something. They didn’t find his gun because he cleverly hid it under his CD player but they have taken his sword. Dorn also retrieves a photo of himself and the late Mrs Dorn. He sets himself up in some shed or room or building or I don’t know, it’s never explained, where he makes himself some kevlar body armour and a long trench coat lined with kevlar. Again, we have a choice. Is the dumbest thing here the idea that one person, without any specialist knowledge or equipment, could run up state of the art bullet-proof clothing in a dingy room virtually overnight? Or is it that bullet-proof body armour is completely superfluous for a character who has already discovered that he has amazing healing powers. Make him able to survive being shot or give him bullet-proof clothes, but why do both?

While rarely bad enough to be entertaining (or even interesting), Reign in Darkness does occasionally provide some unintentional laughs, mostly in scenes where someone blasts away at someone else at point blank range while the other person simply runs away unscathed. There is also the world’s least exciting car-chase in which two expensive sports cars are driven at reasonable speeds because they must be returned unscratched to the dealer who lent them after filming wraps. Although credit where credit is due, the film-makers do make the red car look like it has crashed by tilting it to one side, popping the bonnet open and sticking a smoke machine under it.

There are good moments in this film - there is for example an almost Kubrickian shot of a guy blasted in the head while framed in a doorway - but they are few and far between and fail to compensate for the ludicrous plot, terrible dialogue, lousy acting and relentless bloody narration. It all ends with a confrontation between Dorn and a sort of master vampire called Raphael Ravenscroft, one of the people who were commanding Lance. Apparently there indeed are real vampires and the development of RVK-17 really was an attempt to cure AIDS but only to ensure a plentiful supply of uncontaminated blood for the vampires. Or something. This goes on forever. I mean, I didn’t time it but I would estimate 10-15 minutes of just two people talking. The whole structure of the film is out of whack with what seems like a climax about halfway through. It’s only 90 minutes but it drags and drags and drags. It took me three evenings to sit through it all because I kept falling asleep.

Anyway, Dorn despatches Ravenscroft and his shadowy, hooded cohorts with a gun that they initially scorn until he announces that it is loaded with silver bullets.

Silver bullets? Dude, that’s werewolves not vampires.

Dorn then blows up some building and drives off.

On their website, Dolen and Allen explain that they had no training or experience in film-making when they shot Reign in Darkness. They’re actually marketing executives who decided that the tricky part of film-making is selling the thing so they applied themselves to raising the money and then, it seems, made the film itself almost as an afterthought. It shows, it really does. Despite their claims to have read some books on the subject, this is what a film looks like when it’s made by people whose only knowledge of films comes from watching the things. I mean, all credit to them for creating something from nothing, for getting up off their backsides and actually making a feature-length film. But it didn’t have to be this poor.

At heart, Reign in Darkness is a very cheap Blade knock-off and its emphasis on ‘genetically created vampires’ puts it in the same sub-subgenre as The Witches Hammer but the Aussie film has none of the charm of the British one, none of the fun, none of the excitement. It’s just a heavy slog through illogical, over-narrated drama, devoid of anything that could reasonably be called thrills, horror or action. It doesn’t help that, aside from David No, pretty much nobody in the cast has any acting experience. In fact the only other person with any sort of credits to speak of is stunt co-ordinator George Novak whose career goes right back to Mad Max. He is credited as ‘Bum’ so he may be the guy who gets shot while lying on top of Dorn, but somebody else is credited as ‘Homeless man’ so who knows (or indeed, cares)?

Actually there is one funny thing in the credits (two if you include the misspelling of ‘criminal’ in the copyright notice). There are separate credits for the people who animated the thoroughly over-the-top ‘RapidFire Productions’ logo - even though this is only used on the trailer, not the film itself.

Also on the R2 Screen Entertainment DVD are original trailers for I Spit on Your Grave and Don’t Mess with My Sister, both more interesting than the main feature. There is also a trailer for Andreas Schnaas’ Demonium, a very short teaser trailer for Nutbag and a trailer for Bangkok Hell which is in Thai and unsubtitled!

According to the RapidFire website, Reign in Darkness was shot for A$49,000, sold to 27 territories and “won numerous awards.” Dolen and Allen have also made The Industry, a black comedy about the Australian film industry plus two short films, Snap and Time II Die. Their most recent work is a Star Wars fan film called Wrath of the Mandalorian (dear Lord...) and they have a feature called The Gates of Hell in post-production. Perhaps they have learned about film-making since they made Reign in Darkness. Hopefully, they have at least learned the principle of ‘Show, don’t tell.’

I know I’m being very down on this film and really it’s not terrible, I’ll admit that, but it is massively Not Very Good.

MJS rating: D+

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