James Clay // Film Critic
For horror fans and aficionados, the ghost of John Carpenter’s directorial career hangs above us all. Whether you are obsessed over his slow-burn plots and world-building or detest his penchant for making nasty pieces of cinema to celebrate horror in the modern age, you must reference the man who helped define 1980s cinema.
In comes budding filmmaker Joe Begos’ (BLISS), who has created an obvious homage to Carpenter’s ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13.
His project, VFW, features a group of hard-nosed geriatric Vietnam veterans (a slaughterhouse of names and faces that have graced many prints of grindhouse cinema over the past 40 years). These gents are drinking their weight in whiskey at the titular deteriorating hangout. That’s until their night is interrupted by a group of punks. (I guess this is becoming the default villain for thrillers these days). The punks are in search of recouping their stash after a teen unexpectedly uses the VFW as a place to lay low.
We begin with Stephen Lang (DON’T BREATHE) as the head honcho and bartender of the VFW, and he’s rocking a rather becoming black beanie. Fred Williamson (BLACK CAESAR), who plays a man who won’t back down. Martin Kove (FIRST BLOOD: PART 2) is a soldier-turned-used-car-salesman. William Sadler (THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION) brings some levity to the situation. And lastly, David Patrick Kelly (THE WARRIORS), whose iconic voice hasn’t changed over all these years.
Begos uses his core cast quite well as they reminiscence about the past and dread what the future might hold. But what the actor-director alchemy does best is create an opportunity for spontaneity for the impending violence. Each of these guys is playing with a particular archetype, and Begos’ direction creates enough swerves to keep things from getting stagnant while still using a few locations. The problem is the feeling of the highly-stylized violence being disposable.
The air of desperation for VFW to become a midnight classic is apparent. With a plugin play version of genre tropes, it spins a wheel of more celebrated films with the novelty of it throwing up some devil horns and exclaiming: “Old guys rule!” The neon-drenched color palettes overwhelm the frame and make the action shots tough to see. There’s a heavy metal score by Steve Moore (who did a fantastic job with the music in THE GUEST) that’s so assaulting it loses all sight of creating a digestible aesthetic. It’s just too much to handle, and that could have been Begos’ stylistic aim. The style and references come at breakneck speed –– So much so that it begins to feel like the film was made by a fan rather than a filmmaker.
All these elements promote a longing for the past. (Bless the folks at Fangoria for giving edgy films a life.) It seems like some creative leash tightening is in order. Begos is a filmmaker with a vision for world-building to create these gritty what-if scenarios that play to the cheap seats of ’80s iconography. An adequately managed cast and a few well-timed broken skulls save VFW from very early retirement.
VFW is available on Blu-ray and VOD now, and it will be available to stream on Shudder in the coming months.