He Never Died (2015)

So, this one’s a throwback. And an interesting one at that. He Never Died doesn’t concern itself as much with the plot (though there is one) as it does with following its brooding, strange lead character around as he ambles through his seemingly meaningless life. Exactly who is Jack? Who knows. He spends his days sleeping, playing bingo, and haunting the local diner – but he can’t seem to avoid getting involved, however accidentally and much to his annoyance, with other people’s lives. He’s got a trunk full of money and knives, a strange hearing problem, and can shrug off a gunshot like a mosquito bite. Which comes in handy now that the local mafia happens to be gunning for him. Why? Jack can’t remember and doesn’t especially care. Things only get more complicated with the introduction of a daughter from a long-past fling. It’s a return to the 90s anti-hero with updated one-liners and an appreciation for history’s many and varied boogeyman legends.

He Never Died is a fun experiment of what happens when you drop the archetypal 90s anti hero into a more realistic 2015, a place where Jack’s casual acquaintances try vainly to empathize with him and incorporate him into their lives, and the line between sociopath and boogeyman becomes increasingly thin. Jack doesn’t belong in this era. No one knows it better than he does. Though he calls himself Cain (“I’m in the bible, if that means anything“), Jack’s backstory and powers almost fit better with Beowulf’s monster – better known as Grendel. A lot of the film’s power comes from this ambiguity – Jack doesn’t know what he is and neither does the audience – and how the other characters react to him. He’s accused of being a lot of things, including a sociopath and a vampire, and it’s never made clear exactly where he stands.

Two things are clear. First, Jack is a murderer. And second, the plot desperately wants him to be a hero.

Jack disagrees with the hero bit. The best pieces in the film come from the divide between his cynical worldview and the film’s stubborn insistence on trying to redeem him. There’s a hilarious couple of scenes where Jack staggers around in the middle of the night trying to provoke the local thugs into attacking him, only to discover that none of them are in the mood to fight with an old man. His indignation and shock when he’s treated politely by the people he’s trying – not at all subtlety – to provoke is a testament to Henry Rollins’s wonderful acting skills. Jack would love the world of He Never Died to be as cynical and mean as he is. The fact that it’s filled with characters who – though deeply flawed – are essentially kind, empathetic people proves the film’s best moments.

On the technical end of things, He Never Died is well made, though I’m not fond of the choices made with the sound design. Jack seems to go through life with the soundtrack to an old battle playing in his head at all hours, which might have been interesting if it had some narrative weight backing it up. Instead it’s just…there. The story does falter in a few areas and takes a bit to really figure out what sort of tone it’s going for. But the acting is excellent (Booboo Stewart stole more than a few scenes) and the story goes in interesting, unexpected places. Give it a watch.

From The Dark (2014)

The story is simple. A young couple on vacation on Ireland get their car stuck in the mud, and find themselves stranded in a remote stretch of countryside – and beset by vampires on all sides. It’s a throwback to the glory days of the genre, back when vampires were represented as pure evil – monsters in all senses of the word. They might look human, but make no mistake – they’re animalistic in their urges and the only human elements that remain is the knowledge used to hunt their prey.

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From The Dark is well shot and looks very nice. I especially appreciated the opening scene where the first vampire is discovered. However, the film makes a crucial mistake in the first third once the couple is introduced, spending too much time focused on their conversation inside the car. While the banter flows well, it leaves too many questions about the nature of their relationship and doesn’t give us a good sense of who these people are. The inside of the car isn’t interesting to look at, and nothing of note really occurs during the conversation. It had the feel of one of those small human interactions that people often have in real life – but not one that really adds anything to the plot.

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I’m torn over whether or not the vampires were revealed too early or not. The nature of the beast, so to speak, is obvious at the first scene. However, there is a purpose to this, as it allows the film to get started with establishing their own visual code. How their vampires appear and act is not how vampires have acted in other films; From The Dark has its own rules, and wastes no time in establishing them. However, a lot of the mystery is gone from the story once the vampires are established. Since the audience knows the rules of the genre, even though the characters don’t, there is an element of frustration as we wait for the cast to play catch-up to what the audience already knows. This is a delicate balance. I’m inclined to say that From The Dark revealed and identified the monster a little too quickly, though.

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Visually, From The Dark does a whole lot with a very sparse set design. For a film that’s shot almost completely at night, I was surprised at how well the scenes of darkness turned out. There is an art to filming scenes at night, with keeping enough light for the audience to understand what’s happening, and yet keep it dark enough for the scene to flow realistically. From The Dark is one of those rare films that manages to do both throughout the entire story. I don’t think there was a single scene where I got lost or confused.

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No matter how nice this film looks visually, the story has its set of problems. I never got a clear sense of who these characters were, what they wanted, and why I should care about them. The dialog flows nicely enough, but feels more like filler than anything with substance. From The Dark is a great technical achievement, but doesn’t tell much of a story. See it for the visuals, but don’t expect to care about what happens to the characters.