Last year, Joe Begos impressed with his trippy indie horror-thriller, Bliss. In fact, Bliss was a solid enough effort to make my list of 10 best movies of 2019. Now Begos is following up his modern take on the vampire with an ‘urban siege’ movie in the tradition of Assault on Precinct 13. Though it’s hardly an original premise, Begos’ VFW promises a neon-coloured, ‘Midnight Movie’ splatterfest for Grindhouse fans.
In a decaying urban wasteland, ‘Hype’ has become the street drug of choice among addicts. However, Boz – a ruthless gang leader – has a stranglehold on Hype’s supply, thus commanding an army of mindless junkies. When a street girl steals Boz’s suppply for revenge, she runs to the nearest refuge – a local VFW pub. As Boz unleashes his personal army on the run-down bar, a band of aging war veterans bands together for one last bloody war.
VFW a Lean, Bloody Action Thriller
If Bliss was a dreamy, hallucinogenic experience, Begos’ VFW is a lean punch to the gut. Exhibiting continued growth as a filmmaker, Begos efficiently sets up his story ensuring all the pieces are in place. Once things let loose, Begos expertly revs and slows the mayhem down, giving viewers a brief chance to catch their breath. Despite the movie’s modest budget, VFW boasts some relentless action set pieces. Occasionally, VFW’s limitations do creep up in some of the closer-shot fighting scenes. But by and large, Begos shows a steady hand and ability to innovate. As a result, VFW elicits a compelling amount of adrenaline and tension.
…the practical gore effects far outpace the movie’s budget.
And where VFW clearly impresses is with the intensity accompanying its action. Gorehounds and fans of hard R-rated action will find plenty to enjoy. There’s enough head-exploding, bone-crunching, and bloodletting to firmly place VFW among an impressive roster of ‘Midnight Movie’ cult classics. Like Begos’ handling of the action scenes, the practical gore effects far outpace the movie’s budget. When one of the veterans impales someone through the throat with a flagpole, you know you’re watching something special. Similar to Bliss, Begos captures all his Grindhouse mayhem with a mix of neon lighting, washed out colours, and grimy camera shots.
VFW Homages Assault on Precinct 13 with Enough of Its Own Ideas
It’s a fine line between homage and ripping off source material. Most seasoned horror and cult movie fans will recognize VFW’s basic story template. In both story and spirit, VFW references John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, which itself was homage to Rio Bravo. Other 80’s ‘urban decay’ movies are imprinted into this movie’s DNA. Charles Bronson’s Death Wish III, for instance, comes to mind. But Begos does more than just recycle old ideas. Specifically, Begos’ use of forgotten war veterans gives the brutal thriller relevancy and, perhaps, a bit of subtext. Some decent dialogue and a feeling of genuine camaraderie among the main characters further elevates this B-movie thriller.
Veteran Cast Not Too Old For This Shit
Let’s face, you’re not watching ‘Midnight Movies’ for the acting. Nevertheless, Begos assembles a strong cast of veteran character actors and rising stars. Leading the ‘hey, I know that guy’ cast, Stephen Lang (Don’t Breathe, Avatar) excels as a tired, gritty, but loyal veteran. Even amidst waves of blood and gore, Lang ‘feels’ like a real person, bringing a needed human element to the story. Martin Kove (The Karate Kid, Cobra Kai), William Sadler (Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey), and Fred Williamson (From Dusk Till Dawn) round out what feels like genuine camaraderie. In particular, Williamson always brings a fun, intense B-movie quality to his work.
…Dora Madison once again proves she’s a rising genre star.
On the other side of Begos’ siege thriller, Dora Madison (Bliss) once again proves she’s a rising genre star. She has a both a look and an intensity to her performances that begs for more screen time. If there’s a problem in VFW it’s simply that Madison’s ‘enforcer’ outshines the movie’s central villain. Travis Hammer’s Boz isn’t nearly as compelling as Madison. Other familiar faces pop up including David Patrick Kelly (The Crow) and, yes, even George Wendt (Cheers).
VFW Reinforces Joe Begos as a Rising Genre Star
And just like that, 2020 has its first genuinely good indie horror-thriller. Begos’ VFW impressively walks that fine tightrope between homage and retread. While VFW clearly references Assault on Precinct 13, it also distinguishes itself, ultimately standing on its own. Much of its success lies with Begos’ unique visual style, the no-holds-barred violence, and attention to character and relationships. Overall, VFW perfectly taps into its ‘Midnight Movie’ origins, setting Begos apart as a rising genre filmmaker.