Joe Begos continues to showcase his talent for untamed and unapologetic cinema nurtured by the grit of uninhibited cult gems in his latest feature, VFW (from Fangoria Films), which has already gained quite the reputation before its official theatrical and VOD release this month (14th February) by tearing its way through the genre film festival circuit like the film’s own psychopathic punk rock villains.
Stephen Lang leads an all-star cast of action and genre stalwarts as Fred, the owner of a dingy, local VFW hall in a not-so-distant future where America has devolved into a warzone ruled over by drugged-out mutants. Fred and his friends keep to themselves in the bar, causing no trouble as they share old war stories and copious shots of whiskey. That is, until a young woman named Lizard (Sierra McCormick) comes crashing through their door with drugs she stole from mutant gang leader, Boz (Travis Hammer) as retribution for the death of her sister. When the gang comes looking for Lizard and their stolen property, laying siege to the VFW in their wake, Fred and his group of friends band together for the fight of their lives.
VFW is a perfect companion piece to Begos’ masterful 2019 vampire film, Bliss. Both films are loud, adrenaline pumping cinematic experiences that exude a retro grindhouse charm. This film in particular views as a love letter to siege films of the 70s, disreputable action films of the 80s like Class of 1984, and the works of William Lustig, but while Begos undoubtedly honors these inspirations with marvelous reverence, the director also builds on their legacies to give audiences something more to sink their teeth into other than a pastiche of nostalgia.
The plot is not so much simple as it is beautiful in its subtlety, which is possibly unexpected praise for a film that sometimes resembles a human demolition derby or slaughterhouse. However, Max Brallier and Matthew McArdle’s script certainly helps achieve this by bringing the heart of the story and its characters into focus. The strength of Fred and his friends is firmly established early on and they are positioned as uniquely capable of confronting the oncoming violence head-on because of their experience. These veterans have seen it all on the battlefields of America’s most unpopular conflicts. They know the brutality of humanity and our never ending cycle of war. The punk rock mutants of this dystopian America are not new threats but an evolution of, unfortunately, familiar poisons of society. The script side steps any overt political stance on war itself, perhaps wisely so, in favor of telling a story about people in the trenches, keeping each other alive in the face of a relentless enemy. That is the heart of war, and the heart of VFW.
Also at play in the film is a driving dramatic force that one rarely sees in modern horror, or even in modern film period, and that is unity. Not to get too technical, but there are three unities of drama according to Aristotle: action, place, and time. VFW leans on these unities almost perfectly by having the single action of surviving the mutant punks, containing almost all of said action to the workable location of the bar, and having the conflict occur over a single, nightmarish night. Of course, this is film and not the stage, so modern viewers must see some deviation from this formula to keep their attention, such scenes that take place in Boz’s Mega-City One-esque tower of a filthy, fiery lair, adhering to these unities as closely as possible does give the film a brisk pace, fluid movement of story beats, and satisfying character development, much like other horror flicks that also seem to work of off these unities such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Aristotle and chainsaws…who knew?!?
The nuances of the script are finely balanced with and enhanced by the wild aesthetics of Begos’ direction and the savage brutality of the world he breathes life into. Begos evokes the his influences of the 70s and 80s by layering the film with fuzz typically found on aging 16mm prints of exploitation classics and makes use of a (likely) tight budget in the VFW hall by keeping it dimly lit with shadowy blues and the neon reds of bar signs. With the action largely kept in and around the VFW hall, Begos utilizes the location to his advantage by building the tension and bottlenecking the pressure as the conflict of the siege escalates, and, when the invaders inevitably break their way inside, Begos displays his eye for action and, quite literally, executes the ensuing sequences to heart-pounding effects. The walls are painted red and run black underneath the retro lighting in a synth soundtrack spectacle that is sure to put a smile on the faces of genre fans.
I had the pleasure of catching VFW back in October for its New York City premiere at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival to a packed audience. I felt it then, sitting dead center in the second row as the lights went down and the madness began, that the only way to truly appreciate this film is to see it in theaters, on the biggest screen you can, and as loud as the speakers will go. It is a ferocious experience with just the right amount of nostalgia and fun. Kinda like shots of whiskey with old friends.
In cinemas and on VOD February 14, 2020 (USA)
Jesse Berberich | Twitter: @JesseBerberich