Aaron Pagniano makes his feature-length debut as writer and director with the horror-thriller Sunset On The River Styx. Starring Phillip Andre Botello as Will, the narrative tracks the hapless bus driver’s emergence out of his shell, albeit in a most unexpected way. The opening introduction to the character perfectly shows his tedious, daily routine, wherein the people on the bus harass him, and his co-workers ignore him entirely. Will feels more alone with every passing day.
Then, one day, Ashe (Jacqueline Jandrell) pays the fare to ride the bus Will is driving. For reasons he can’t entirely explain, Will is drawn to Ashe, and the two strike up a conversation all the way to her stop. Next thing he knows, Will meets her for a date, which goes swimmingly, despite his nervousness. But, when Ashe takes him to a party celebrating death, things go awry, and Will discovers he’s being indoctrinated into a cult of vampires. Can he save his soul and Ashe’s? Or is it too late, and he’s damned forever?
Will has nothing in life and seemingly is unable to connect to people in any meaningful way. His desperate search for a connection and finding it in Ashe forms the emotional core of Sunset On The River Styx. Michael Felker’s editing does a lot of the heavy lifting in setting all that up. Will stares blankly ahead no matter his current actions (i.e., driving the bus, buying groceries, etc.) as the background changes, day in, day out, same old humdrum. Then, when he meets Ashe, scenes go on for longer, mimicking how much more fulfilled and interesting the lead’s days are now.
“…Will discovers he’s being indoctrinated into a cult of vampires.”
Botello, who was so good in the stunning The Art Of Self-Defense, shines as Will. His resignation to have no driving passion in life is painfully realized in several small ways, such as his body language when talking to his fellow drivers or the way his head is always down when out shopping. Botello gets to show off his range during the death party when he becomes mad, feeling that Ashe used him.
Jandrell is just as good. She’s effortlessly charming. When her relationship with the vampire Wreck (Cory Vaughn) is revealed, audiences aren’t all that mad that she may have led Will on. This is crucial, as caring for her well-being forms the crux of the climax, as Will fights Wreck for both himself and Ashe. Vaughn is hypnotically unhinged as the menacing baddie. His larger-than-life mannerisms make the perfect foil to the more demure attitude of Will.
Sunset On The River Styx has a lot going for it, but the ending is a bit confusing. Without spoiling much, it remains unclear what the vampire’s powers are, whether or not Will died earlier or not, and exactly how everything goes down. Felker’s editing is just as seamless and energetic, but there’s so much to take in that inevitably, some of it gets lost. Admittedly, if one were to watch the film two or three times, then this issue would probably be a moot point. But, it is tough to follow everything being thrown at audiences during the intense conclusion upon a first viewing.
While the final ten minutes of Sunset On The River Styx are a bit confounding, the narrative as a whole is engrossing. This is due to the story’s originality and stunning editing, which adds tremendous energy and atmosphere. Add in the great acting from the entire cast, and one gets a title worth its 94-minute time investment.
"…engrossing...tremendous energy and atmosphere."