Welcome to The Prime Sublime, a weekly column dedicated to the underseen and underloved films buried beneath page after page of far more popular fare on Amazon’s Prime Video collection. We’re not just cherry-picking obscure titles, though, as these are movies that we find beautiful in their own, often unique ways. You might even say we think they’re sublime… and this week we’re heading west for a horror/comedy/western hybrid called Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat!
“Sublime /səˈblīm/: of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe”
The horror/western subgenre should really be considerably bigger than it is. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely some great ones, but I’m saying there should be more. More! Monsters vs cowboys/cowgals against an unforgiving landscape populated with epic scenery, gun play, and western tropes? Yes please. Of the ones we do have, a surprising number of them have embraced a comedic style along with the western terror. Of those, one stands out as being severely under-appreciated. Its name? Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1989).
What is ‘Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat’ about?
The desert town of Purgatory is a quiet little place with an odd little population, and it’s rarely disturbed by outsiders. That’s probably for the best as the citizens — every last one of them — are vampires. Settled a century prior by a mysterious benefactor named Jozek Mardulak (David Carradine, whose turn as Dracula here comes twenty-three years after his father John played the character in Billy the Kid Versus Dracula), the town is a vampiric experiment that he hopes will lead to the eventual co-habitation between his bloodsuckers and everyday humans. He teaches bloody abstinence, and with the aid of a new synthetic blood he’s been weening his fellow vamps off of the red stuff all together.
It’s a tenuous victory, though, as a rebellion is forming in their midst of vampires who miss the taste of the real stuff. They see no reason to spare human lives, and soon the ideological battle will spill into the dusty streets with violence.
What makes ‘Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat’ sublime?
If you were a fan of fun but bloody horror in the late 80s and early 90s, then odds are you were a fan of director Anthony Hickox. He burst onto the genre scene in 1988 with the still-glorious Waxwork, a horror/comedy that pits a maniacal David Warner against some rowdy young adults looking for a good time in his wax museum. It’s a funny, stylish, and bloody romp that earned a sequel from Hickox before seeing him move on to other franchise follow-ups including Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992) and Warlock: The Armageddon (1993). Before those sequels and his eventual shift into direct-to-video action films, though, he blended genres with the goofy blast that is Sundown: Vampire in Retreat.
Hickox’s script is clearly having fun with vampire mythology, and while the standards are all there they often come with some twists. The sun, for example, isn’t that big of a deal anymore thanks to modern day advances like SPF 100 sunscreen. The vamps cover up with sunglasses and big hats, but they stay safe through the liberal use of the lotion. Similarly, while old-fashioned stakes through the heart still work, Hickox modifies things a bit by having his mischievous rebels load up their revolvers with wood-tipped bullets. He even finds some fresh angles on the vampires turning into bats as they talk and come to life via stop-motion animation.
While set in modern day, Sundown keeps its feet fully entrenched in the world of westerns with everything from its iconography to its score. Revolvers, horseback riding, dudes in dusters, and an old school town jail add to the atmosphere, and Richard Stone‘s score brings big action beats to life with rousing instrumentals that sound straight out of classic westerns. It’s old-school fun as dueling bands of vampires collide on main street and heroes emerge from the fray.
Hickox pulled together a terrifically charismatic cast for the film too. While Carradine chews some scenery as the lead vampire, Bruce Campbell brings the funny as a descendant of the famed Professor Van Helsing. A platinum blonde Deborah Foreman is doing her best Veronica Lake as a vamp, and Campbell’s visible ecstasy while she bites him is a laugh out loud moment. Maxwell Caulfield plays a slick-haired “young” punk of a vamp who not only wants to return to killing humans but also wants to take a man’s wife for his own — they canoodled previously, before he became a member of the undead, and he’s an absolute dick to the woman’s husband who he keeps reminding of the fact. The ensemble is rounded out with some welcome and friendly faces including M. Emmet Walsh, Dana Ashbrook, George “Buck” Flower, Bert Remsen, and more.
And in conclusion…
Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat is a fun little movie that hits some creative genre beats along the way. The action is well-crafted, the production design takes full advantage of the landscape and small town atmosphere, and enough of the humor/fun lands to keep things moving and entertaining. And not for nothing, but between the vampire in-fighting and synthetic blood, the film also deserves a nod for being what feels like a minor blueprint for 2009’s excellent Daybreakers. Totally different films, obviously, but come on…