David G. Hughes on Joe Begos’ ‘VFW’ (2020)
How does one review a film so knowingly and proudly derivative? That’s the challenge when it comes to VFW, the latest motion picture release from the resurrected Fangoria horror brand. Given a leg-up by Cinestate, the Texas-based production studio behind incendiary films like Dragged Across Concrete (2019) and Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017), it’s not surprising that VFW is retrograde to the maximum — vulgar, nostalgic, extremely gory, and expressive of a conservative social conscience.
Wearing its John Carpenter influence very much on its sleeve, VFW is a siege movie in the style of Assault on Precinct 13 (1974). It also doesn’t forget, à la Carpenter, a “socially relevant” undercurrent — in this case, an open attack on the US opioid epidemic. The film is unambiguous in name-checking the crisis in an opening legend that reads: “As America’s opioid crisis worsens, addicts turn to a new drug.” In the kernel of such a scandal you find the basic breakdown of the “social contract”, a dismissed populace, overly-medicated. It’s the sort of “left behind” zeitgeist that the Cinestate brand is keen on forefronting through its roguish genre exploits, and it makes for the appropriate backdrop to a story about a malignant outside force threatening an interior threadbare balance, made even more prescient in a time of Covid-19 and political debates over borders.
Such as it is, the siege movie has an inherently conservative disposition. It expresses the belief that there is a demarcation between “us” and “them”, and that there is a thing worth defending in the first place, contrasted to the liberal, globalised viewpoint that sees borders as a manifestation of undue power. It’s no surprise, then, that D.W. Griffith set the precedent for siege motifs in his early silent work, including Fighting Blood (1911), The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913), and, most infamously, The Birth of a Nation (1915).
In the case of VFW, the interior utopia is a haggard one, a dingy outpost bar for VFW’s (Veterans of Foreign Wars). It’s run by grizzled vet Fred Parras (Stephen Lang, also producing) and frequented by a cohort of Rabelsian friends — the boys. Across the road is the degenerate base of operations for a gang of “punk” rabble-rouser addicts and dealers, but Fred’s fine about it “As long as they keep over there”. Each of the veterans has been through hell and back, but find strength in shared dysfunction and camaraderie. We know they’re out-of-time when Fred inserts a VHS tape of a fitness video for his licentious clientele’s visual pleasure, all seemingly unaware of the internet as ne plus ultra for instant gratification. The out-of-time-ness of the group is regarded as charming in its good-humoured collectivism, a single positive support unit contrasted to an atomised, crumbling society surrounding this jus’ fine, rot island paradise.
As the setup goes, America has spiralled into an essentially lawless, debris-infested wasteland after the circulation of a new, hyper-addictive drug called “Hylophedrine”, or “Hype” on the street. The dealers are running things, creating drug-addled “Hypes” that are so craven on getting a hit that they become a mindless, amoral horde. When the VFW watering hole inadvertently ends up with the local drug kingpin’s (Travis Hammer in attenuated creep mode) valuable stolen stash, they’re forced to defend their outpost against the onslaught of a horde invasion.
The predominately millennial constitution of the ravaging horde is salient, and it’s likely that the film is poking fun at what it sees as contemporary groupthink amongst the youth, in the stripe of Bret Easton Ellis. But it doesn’t take long to realise that the raison d’etre of VFW is excessive violence, comedic and brutal. As the bar is besieged, craniums are routinely obliterated and the human form becomes play doh for violent creativity. As the vets work with what’s around to arm themselves, it taps into the DIY blood ‘n’ gore, beat em’ up mode of the Dead Rising video game franchise.
Horror director Joe Begos is well-equipped to take on the grunge aesthetic, drenching the mise-en-scène in red and blue neon hue and working with an ultra-retro synth score performed by Steve Moore. Almost certainly VFW is too knowing, too beholden to its 70s / 80s fetishism, but there’s also some fine performances here, particularly from Lang, who is relishing the chance to play the heroic gruff, and William Sadler who brings something extra to his type — the dishevelled, sex-obsessed provocateur of the group. It’s good work from a sundry of ‘B’ stalwarts who make good of stunt casting; Sadler’s presence evokes the similarly themed siege movie by Walter Hill, Trespass (1992), and David Patrick Kelly has made a career of bit-part roles in old action flicks, such as Commando (1985). Fred Williamson is an icon of Blaxploitation films like Black Caesar (1973) and Martin Kove is most known for his work in The Karate Kid (1984) and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985).
VFW is pure cultural revanchism, but it’s a fun and unthreatening fantasy of reclamation that performs itself with gleeful schadenfreude and gross gusto. As grindhouse cinema, it’s solid and pleasing, but it is also saying something about the value of human connection and communitarian solidarity as the best treatment to collective malady, contra the fracturing pharmaceuticalisation of everyday life. In this way it shares an unlikely connection with the liberal consciousness of Mark Ruffalo’s protest against the negligent corporatisation of society in Dark Waters (2020); when the powers at be let you down and you’re forced to ask “Who defends us?” In a howl of collective resistance, you answer: “We do!”.
VFW is available for UK digital download 9th March 2020.