Time hasn’t been particularly kind to the vampire subgenre. From their auspicious beginnings as Nosferatu and Dracula, vampires in film nowadays have two choices: Go the Goth route ala Interview with the Vampire and its bastardized sister Queen of the Dammed, or become an action figure and forego biting for fighting as seen in the Blade series and most recently in Underworld. I’d just about given up hope of my beloved vamps returning to their nasty, bloodsucking ways in film – save for a few choice shorts that have crossed my path like Blood Shot and An Evening with Ivan Gorsky – until I watched Strange Things Happen at Sundown, an Insane-O-Rama production directed by Marc Fratto in his feature film debut.
Fratto co-wrote Strange Things with Steve Gonzalez, and the two of them served as co-producers along with Frank Garfi and Brandi Metaxas. I can’t remember when I’ve been more entertained by a low-budget indie film, and I give a lot of credit to this quartet of filmmakers for assembling such an impressive team of crew members and actors, most of whom are making their first onscreen appearances. The most obvious description of Strange Things is that it’s a bit like The Sopranos meets From Dusk Till Dawn, but that would be selling it short. Sure, there are mob guys aplenty with names like Jimmy Fangs, Joey the Butcher, and Nicky the Tooth; but the story is much more complex than that. Although I have to admit that the discussion between Joey and Nicky about Nicky’s “disability” (he’s only able to lower one of his fangs) is one of the funniest things I’ve seen. That’s only one example of the world Fratto and Gonzalez have created for their vamps: Not only do they have to learn how to use their fangs, but they are also able to walk in daylight and are just about the sloppiest eaters I’ve ever seen. No exciting, sexual swoon awaits their victims either; they writhe in pain and agony for days before turning into vampires themselves unless their maker takes pity on them and kills them before the transformation. And I won’t even get into some of the fun things you can do with Holy Water. Even though we are presented with a lot of ideas and characters in a short time frame, they are all developed extremely well and are easily distinguishable.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. What exactly is Strange Things Happen at Sundown about? Well, a lot of things. It opens by introducing us to the aforementioned mobsters, who are pissed off because the band Jimmy (Joseph DeVito) Fangs manages has just fired him. But that’s quickly forgotten when Micky Balls’ crew comes by for a meeting, and Jimmy informs them that he’s taking over Micky’s drug business. Of course, Micky’s none too happy about that, so Jimmy and his crew begin chowing down on him and his boys, and we’re off to the races with plenty of red stuff flowing. Shortly thereafter, Jimmy begins to suspect that Marcel, one for his errand boys, has stolen about $100,000 from him. Not only is Jimmy worried about finding Marcel, but it’s starting to look like someone has it in for him as one by one his crew members are getting whacked. The first victim is Paulie Hands, whose nickname is quite appropriate considering masturbation appears to be his favorite activity. Paulie is killed by a mysterious female vampire (Masha Sapron, who also narrates the film) after she shows him a picture of someone and he refuses to tell her where that person is.
Just as we’re getting acquainted with Jimmy’s milieu, Fratto switches gears and shows us what’s up with Marcel (J. Scott Green). As an aside, if anyone decides to make another Crow film, they should definitely give Green a call; no one since Brandon Lee himself has been so well suited for the part. Anyway, Marcel and his girl friend Amy (Jocasta Bryan) are on the run and in need of a new getaway car. They come upon an ordinary couple, quickly kill and eat the husband, and keep the wife, Annabelle (Shannon Moore), as a hostage to snack on later. They all hit the road, and then it’s back to Jimmy Fangs for an update.
Jimmy’s getting worried. He decides to call in outside help to track down Marcel. Enter the Reaper, one of the oldest vamps in existence. He supplements his income by doing odd jobs for the mob – the kind of jobs that are too unpleasant for your typical vampire, so you can imagine how unpleasant they must be! As it turns out, The Reaper (Gonzalez himself in a black hooded robe) is one of the most henpecked husbands in cinematic history. Livia Llewellyn, as his controlling, neat-freak wife June, gives an over-the-top, ridiculously shrill performance; but in a movie like this, anything goes. The Reaper sets out after Marcel and Amy while our Narrator next goes after Nicky the Tooth to find out where her intended prey might be. Meanwhile, Annabelle, a born-again Christian, is trying to “save” poor Amy. Amy is another vamp who hasn’t yet learned how to use her fangs, and her efforts provide a running gag throughout the film. As you have probably surmised, there is a lot going on in Strange Things Happen at Sundown.
These interlocking plots might seem a bit cumbersome, but to their credit Fratto and Gonzalez have crafted a totally believable story with some unforgettable dialogue. When I first put in the DVD and realized Strange Things was over two hours long, I was a little worried; but after the first hour flew by, I knew I was watching something quite special. Don’t get me wrong; the film does have its flaws – there are way too many scenes of bloody half-naked women (and a few men) screaming and writhing on the floor – but for a first-time effort and considering their obvious budgetary constraints, it doesn’t get much better than this. It’s quite an accomplishment when, well after the mid-point of a film, the filmmakers are able to introduce two completely new yet integral characters. In this case, they are Cynthia and Christopher, whom Jimmy hires to protect himself from whoever is going around killing his men. Although their onscreen time is brief, these two characters are indeed memorable. There’s also a subplot involving Jimmy lacing marijuana with his blood in order to create an army of zombie-like slaves that could possibly have been eliminated in order to reduce the running time, but it fits so well with the overall theme of the film that I’m glad it was left in.
No review of Strange Things would be complete without a nod to the editor and cinematographer, both of whom just happen to be Marc Fratto. He also co-wrote the original music used in the film. I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb when I say this guy has a bright future ahead. There is one scene in particular at the end of the film when the Narrator finally corners her quarry that is nothing short of spectacular. The atmosphere and lighting are far superior to many big budget Hollywood type movies that I’ve seen. In a lot of ways, this scene – and the film as a whole – has no business being as good as it is.
The DVD is loaded with extras including some amusing outtakes and four deleted scenes. I especially enjoyed the “Babysitter and Friends” deleted scene with Ethan and am glad it was included on the DVD so he can show off his performance to his friends. I listened to some of the commentary and can’t wait to revisit it when I have a bit more time. Fratto and his cohorts seem to have personalities that match their talents, so I’m sure I’m in for a treat.
If I’ve given the impression that Strange Things Happen at Sundown is in any way a comedy, let me correct that right now. Yes, it has some funny characters and moments, but it is as grim and gory as a film about vampires should be. The characters are brutal and uncaring. Marcel’s visit to his friend Smooth’s house contains scenes of depravity as crazed as anything found in House of 1000 Corpses, if not more so. Some of the acting, especially by the females for some reason, isn’t as sharp as it could be, but it’s so obvious that the filmmakers’ hearts are in the right place that it’s easily forgiven. My only real beef with the film is that the “ending after the ending” kills the mood of the true ending. I would have placed it after the credits in order to give the audience some time to digest and reflect on what has gone before. But that’s hardly enough to negate the impact of Strange Things Happen at Sundown. I recommend it wholeheartedly – not just to vampire lovers like myself but to lovers of film as a whole. It’s one of the few times I’ve seen the ambitions of a filmmaker surpassed by his end result. Hat’s off to Mr. Fratto!
Strange Things Happen at Sundown (2003)
(Brain Damage Films)
Directed by Marc Fratto
Starring J. Scott Green, Masha Sapron, Jocasta Bryan, Joseph DeVito, Joshua Nelson
Trailers for all Brain Damage films
4 out of 5