Film Corner: Sundown, the Vampire in Retreat

Sometimes I ask myself, "Self, why do you keep watching terrible movies on Amazon Prime?" and the answer is that sometimes I stumble onto a cult-classic gem like SUNDOWN: THE VAMPIRE IN RETREAT. It has David Carradine (star of many @/RiffTrax stinkers) and BRUCE CAMPBELL.

Here's the description and I'll note that it manages to already misspell a major character's name (Mardulak): "Count Margulak, the leader of the vampires, has ended their tradition of human bloodletting and has placed his followers on a diet of synthetic, bottled blood. But when a new [editor's note: HUMAN] family moves into the [editor's note: VAMPIRE] town, the [editor's note: LOCALS] natives start to crave the real thing." Yes, I am having to copy-edit their film description.

There's an opening scroll ("More reading than Star Wars," Kissmate notes.) in which we learn that "The Powerful and Righteous Count Mardulak" has led the last remaining vampires into hiding so they can no longer be hunted. Hoping to evolve and coexist in harmony with humans, these vampires are "armed with sunblock, UVA/B protected glass, and nourished with fake blood from a synthesizing plant." That's plant-as-in-factory, not a TREE-plant, which confused me for a while. Slight problem: the factory plant has developed a problem and only one human can save them all from losing their synthesized fake blood.

There's a title drop, and here's where we knew we were in for a good time: WESTERN MOVIE MUSIC, triumphal and familiar and utterly out of place for a *vampire* movie. We start with a middle class family composed of one Man-Doctor, one Woman-Mom, and two young daughters. They are readying for a road trip to somewhere called Purgatory.

Smash cut to three elderly men in overalls, sunglasses, and sun hats sitting in a rocking chair together under a sun-roof. They're watching a man in a jeep speed towards their gas station while DOING COCAINE as he drives. As one does. One of the old men, Emmet-fucking-Walsh who you probably know without recognizing the name, grumpily agrees that it's his turn to service today's customer with gasoline, just as soon as he gets his sunblock. While inside the decrepit gas station, he sets off a secret alarm. We cut to various scenes of people--folks in a science lab, people in a diner, an elderly couple in rocking chairs--seeing and hearing the alarm go off and looking alarmed and unsettled.

Mort (Emmet Walsh) heads out with sunblock and a hat to pour gas for the stranger. The stranger verbally abuses him for awhile before Mort loses his temper and decapitates him with a wave of his hand--after carefully checking whether his name is "Dave Harrison" (it's not). Two nearby human campers, and apparently friends of our cocaine-using deceased, witnessed the decapitation from afar while looking through their camping binoculars. Oops.

One of Mort's brothers drives into town to report the killing and beg for mercy from the powers that be. We see people walking in a small desert town with umbrellas. "False alarm! False alarm!" he calls to everyone as he drives by. People wave to him and go back inside, putting their umbrellas away. He pulls into a factory ("Hemotechnics") where some scientists with delightful French accents and fancy clothes from a variety of eras struggle with malfunctioning equipment. "Merde!" one of them says, looking distraught. "Relax boys," says a nearby slicked-back jackass. "Dave Harrison is on his way."

Our human family drives through the desert towards Purgatory. We get the detail that Mom-Wife's ex-lover works at the factory and she's not looking forward to seeing him again because he was violent and possessive. Back in town, Mort's Brother fiddles with his tie before seeing "Jefferson", the man in charge of all "disciplinary problems". Mort Brother's first sheepish words: "The good news is, it WASN'T Dave Harrison." (My heart. This feels very me.)

CAN I JUST SAY, as a student of narrative pacing, that this is all surprisingly well done? It's WEIRD to have a whole town of people repeating "Dave Harrison" like he's the second coming of Jesus. Tension and intrigue are building. I love it.

The human campers watch Mort and his other elderly brother clean up the corpse Mort created. The girl stresses that "no one will believe us! *I* don't believe this!" but they figure the best thing to do is hike to the nearby town and find a police officer. In the cafeteria, the lab scientists drink from two-prong straws (like drinking from a human's neck!) and complain about the taste of the synthetic blood. Only the Englishman doesn't mind the taste, and the French scorn him for it. I LOVE their various "era" clothes. The short version is that they can produce the fake blood in small quantities, but any time they attempt mass production the machines shut down.

The human family (Mom, Dad, and two girls) pull up to the gas station and ask for directions to Purgatory. "Would YOU be Dave Harrison?" one of the men ask while he hides a decapitated head behind his back. Dave is surprised but affirms he is. "Purgatory is that way." Dave-and-family pull into Purgatory and meet the sheriff and only law enforcement in this Western movie: a Rastafarian Black man. "Ah, you must be the Harrisons!" Dave-and-family are puzzled. "Did, uh, we leave our nametags on?" he jokes.

The Sheriff has a smooth answer for why he knows who they are: it's a small town, everyone knows everyone, and the plant (which Dave is here to fix) is critical to the town economy. Well done! The Harrisons walk into the nearby General Store, where an elderly German couple cover their eyes at the opening door. They fawn over the children and I love them; they mention they have outlived their own children. (BECAUSE THEY ARE VAMPIRES.)

"Juliet and Gwendolyn! Such names! Your parents must be very romantic!"
"They're very horny!" (The kids are, for once, written like actual kids because they will absolutely pull this shit on you.)

Otto, who seems to struggle a little with staying in the present, explains that the town used to be a copper mine until the veins dried up and everyone left. "Jozek Mardulak" moved in and bought the whole town as an industry investment.

Otto: "Now it's a whole town for-"
Anna, warningly: "Otto."
Otto: "Blood-makers, Anna."
(Kissmate notes that their names are both palindromes.)

Dave agrees that blood-making is a noble task much needed in the world of medicine, and Mom breaks in to ask if they carry garlic. "Garlic!? Where!?" Otto panics. As the Harrisons drive merrily away, the store keepers notice the two human campers walking into town. Otto gripes that the gas station attendants are *supposed* to sound the alarm when this happens, but they didn't. Anna says she'll call the cafe to warn them that humans are coming.

In the town cafe, customers quietly stare at undercooked hamburgers and moldy fries. "I can't look at that food any longer!" one complains. "Oh boo-hoo," snaps the chef. "I have to COOK it." A pretty blond named Sandy picks up the phone and reports (from Anna) that more people just came into town and everyone needs to sit back down and behave. They grudgingly sit back down and stare balefully out the windows at the humans walking by.

The two human campers see a police cruiser taking Mort to jail (as a "time-out" for killing) and flag the Sheriff to stop. The humans identify themselves as witnesses and notice that the Sheriff and Mort seem a little too friendly. When Sheriff asks whether anyone knows the two campers are in this area, the humans *immediately* wisen up (BLESS THEM) and offer to leave since their testimony isn't needed anymore, haha, bye! The Sheriff locks them up until they decide what to do with the humans.

I KNOW THIS SOUNDS LIKE A LOT OF PLOT THREADS, BUT I SWEAR THEY ALL COME TOGETHER SOMEHOW. In the desert, late at night, BRUCE CAMPBELL drives a car in a plaid jacket and bow tie. His car breaks down and he starts walking.

[TW: Sexual Assault Situation] Jackass from the factory, who we will later learn is Mom's possessive ex-lover, flies into her room as a bat. We briefly see him naked with a cock-sock, then he turns into a bat again. With VERY BAD CLAYMATION the bat chases Mom into bed and crawls menacingly around on her covers. The daughters interrupt and the youngest--who is psychic in confusing ways--sees the bat's true Man-Form. The bat flies away. [/TW]

In another seemingly random scene, Jefferson--second in command of the town after Mardulak--recruits two rave-goers to become vampires in his secret army. He teaches them vampire rules: how to fly as bats, what their powers are now, and what their weaknesses are. The narrative establishes that this is a "crosses hurt" setting, both to touch and to look at: "[As for crosses], I don't recommend joining the church."

In the heat of morning, Bruce Campbell drags himself tiredly into the gas station. He's told firmly that there is no tow truck, no phone he can use, and the town of Purgatory doesn't exist. Oh, he has an old map with Purgatory listed on it? The town must've gone down in "the earthquake". Ignoring their directions, Bruce walks into town and visits the Purgatory diner where his eyes meet Sandy's. Sparks fly, tiny cupids shoot their bows. (Not on-screen, mind you.) Sandy shyly runs to get him coffee. Everyone else in the diner just *stares* balefully at him. Stealthily, Bruce asks Sandy if she's seen a man in an ancient pocket-portrait he keeps. Sandy gasps, "Count Mardulak!" before writing a note on his check to meet her outside of town at noon. She can't tell him here in front of the others.

Dave goes to the plant and he and Mom's ex-lover (Shane) snipe at each other. Dave finds that the mass production is breaking down because Shane fucked up the machine assembly. Shane tries to blame the engineers, but Dave points out that the problematic assembly was specified in Shane's own notes. Panicking under the gazes of the others, Shane picks a distracting fistfight with Dave. Meanwhile, Sandy brings cheeseburgers and "protein drink" to the jail where Mort and the two human campers are locked up. Mort spills the vampire beans to the campers, seeing that there's no point in hiding things anymore: "All we can do is kill them or convert them."

The two human girls go exploring through a secret passage and waken a sleepy Count Mardulak from his coffin. It's DAVID CARRADINE. He introduces himself and has a reasonable explanation for what the girls "think they saw" and everyone is happy and satisfied. It's very cute. Outside of Purgatory, Sandy meets up with Bruce away from the cafe who introduces himself as "Robert Van Hel- Val Hel. That's all." *delighted screaming*

Sandy just wants to flirt with Bruce, who is clearly into her but really wants information on Mardulak. He's about to kiss her anyway when he sees she has no reflection in the car chassis. He has her on her back and a stake in position in SECONDS. He's dressed so nerdy but he's all action hero when it counts? and I love him? Sandy swears she wasn't going to bite him, she's just really into him, and she'll take him to Mardulak. He restrains her and takes her to go investigate a sheriff siren nearby.

The Sheriff has caught Jackass Shane smuggling weird crates into (or possibly out of) Purgatory. We establish that older vampires are stronger and that Shane--a new addition to Purgatory--has no chance in a fair fight against the Sheriff. Until he pulls out a gun with wooden bullets and kills our only Black character. Shit. Jefferson (second in command) and Jackass Shane, it seems, are planning a revolution against Mardulak. They have an army of young vampires armed with new wooden bullets.

Outside the jail, hungry vampires gather and form a burgeoning mob ready to eat the two campers. The Harrison girls ride by on their kiddie bikes. "Hi!" they call. "Hi!!" calls the crowd back. It's utterly adorable. Mardulak drives up and stops the mob, reminding them of how miserable they were back when they were murdering farmers for food. I love that OF COURSE David Carradine signed up to be Vampire Jesus.

Sandy takes Bruce to Mardulak's mansion and tells him he's cute. He's clearly into her but mutters to himself that it would "never work" with a vampire. They wait until nightfall for Mardulak to return home so Bruce can ambush him. Bruce plans to jump down through the skylight to stake Mardulak. He preps with his crosses and Sandy wails until the cross is tucked under his shirt. She keeps trying to explain that Mardulak is a good man and not a human-eater, but Bruce doesn't believe her.

Mardulak and the Harrisons gather at his home (to hear the littlest girl's prophetic dreams, which influence nothing in the movie--kind of a strange writing choice). Bruce falls through the ceiling and reveals himself as VAN HELSING. Mardulak looks tired. "That sweet, misguided idiot was your great-grandfather?" Bruce threatens to stake Mardulak and Sandy drops through to disarm him and beg for his life. Mardulak is tickled to see she's in puppy love. "A vampire in love with a human! Better integration than I could possibly dream!"

The Harrisons, believing none of this, decide to cheerfully leave town. Mardulak is happy to let them, certain that they aren't going to tell anyone since they think this is all an elaborate joke. Bruce is another matter and can't possibly be allowed to go, but Sandy pleads to turn him. Bruce appears to, umm, enthusiastically *enjoy* the experience. Cough.

Back at the gas station lookout, Jefferson's vampire army GALLOPS THROUGH ON HORSES to ominous Western music, shooting the remaining two elderly lookouts. My heart. (Mort is still in prison chilling his heels.) The Harrisons' exit from town is hampered by the fact that this WALL OF HORSES are blocking the town entrance / exit, each one ridden by a gun-toting vampire. Jackass Shane has announced that he wants Wife-Mom as his bounty.

Back in prison, Mort has changed the two campers into vampires because shit is going down and they'd die otherwise. ("What am I gonna tell my mother?" the woman wails.) They all go out to confront the Vampire Army. Back at Mardulak's, Bruce wakes up screaming because the cross under his clothes is burning him and he has to remove it. Sandy welcomes him to the other side while Mardulak and the others break out crossbows for the war happening outside.

A showdown at the factory ends with most of the supporting cast dead but at least the French scientists get some good moments in before their deaths. A moment of silence for their sacrifice, please.

Mardulak rides up in his car with reinforcements while the soundtrack bellows BIG SHERIFF IN WESTERN TOWN music. In the ensuing gunfight and associated chaos, the Harrisons get separated from Mardulak and his people. Wife ends up in their rental home with Jackass Shane hot on her heels.

[TW: Sexual Assault Situation] Shane corners Wife and explains how all this was his Plan: the factory tried to hire Dave but Dave was too busy so he passed the job to his old friend Shane. Shane ends up vampire'd when he figured out what was going on in town and threatened to tell people. Newly vampire'd Shane then sabotaged the blood-making plant on purpose to get Dave and Wife out here so he could kill Dave during Jefferson's "revolution" and turn Wife into his eternal vampire bride. Wife is NOT interested and screams for help. Dave arrives in time to save Wife with a combination of wooden bullets and holy water. Goodbye, Jackass Shane! [/TW]

The war in town is going very badly. Jefferson has taken Sandy hostage and Mardulak surrenders (it's been mentioned he's very fond of her). Mardulak then goads Jefferson into a one-on-one dual to see who is the strongest when they're supposedly "the same age". A Western movie quickdraw gun battle ensues and Mardulak calls his opponent "Pilgrim" because Jefferson was an *actual* pilgrim. Hahaha. Jefferson loses to Mardulak and asks how this can be. Mardulak reveals that he's actually older than he's been letting on.

Bruce has previously made references to Mardulak's "real name" and you may have noticed that "Mardulak" is a sorta-not-quite anagram for Dracula. If you add an M and change the K to a C. But anyway, yes, he is THE OLDEST AND MOST FAMOUS OF ALL VAMPIRES. "Dracula" had gotten a little too famous so he took on this newer, younger identity. Jefferson falters at this news but doesn't die--he was shot, but not through the heart. Things look grim again!

Yet all is not lost! Dave breaks up a LOT of furniture inside the mansion and manages to engineer a massive giant cross to erect on the roof. But what's this?? Mardulak and his followers are NOT burned by the cross! God has forgiven them, since they're trying not to eat humans now. Because OF COURSE David Carradine would play a Dracula who is so cool that God himself can't help but forgive him.

Now the happy ending: The Harrisons get to go home in a limo. Bruce is a happy vampire who laughs at "vein/vain" jokes. Sandy adores him while the others clearly consider him an acquired taste. (SEE WHAT I DID THERE? TASTE? BECAUSE THEY DRINK BLOOD?) And so ends "Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat" and the only vampire western I've ever seen. It was an amazing experience and I only wish for RiffTrax to be able to acquire it.


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