By William J. Wright | February 14, 2008

A brief, but nonetheless, annoying note from the reviewer: In order to avoid the inevitable cries of conflict of interest, yellow journalism, bribery and all manner of chicanery, malfeasance and (worst of all) nepotism, the editors of Film Threat have asked me to include a caveat in regard to the following review of “A Feast of Flesh.” The film’s director, Mike Watt, whose name is undoubtedly well-known to Film Threat readers, is a frequent, long-time contributor to these hallowed pages. Mike’s connection to Film Threat, as well as my connection to Mike, is well known within the entertainment journalism community (such as it is) and I assure you that I would never stoop to sully our collective good reputations. Simply, Mike Watt has made a film, love it or hate it, worthy of coverage here. I’m not on the take and Film Threat is nobody’s witting or unwitting PR machine. Honest. On with the review…

When I first got word that Mike Watt and his cohorts at Happy Cloud Pictures were planning to “sell out” after a decade of producing some of the most fiercely original independent genre films (or “outsider cinema,” as Mike and company like to say) of the last decade, my initial reaction was “say it ain’t so.” It was unthinkable. I’ve known the Happy Cloud gang for a long time and, although I can’t say that I’ve been an ardent fan of all of their output, I have admired the fact that they have always railed against clichés and trends. At best, they have risen above miniscule budgets, largely non-professional casts and the other seemingly insurmountable obstacles that face indie filmmakers to produce some very innovative and, more often than not, pointedly satirical genre fare; at worst, they at least never fail to entertain. Beginning with their first feature, the amazingly still undistributed film noir meets zombies satire “The Resurrection Game,” Happy Cloud has made a point of lampooning the conventions of straight-to-DVD horror by doing things their way with crackling dialogue, solid character development and expert storytelling.

The tragedy of the indie genre is that sticking by your ethics will keep you poor. Tits and gore move units. So, obviously, when I heard that Happy Cloud was going to undertake a vampires in a whorehouse (excuse me, brothel) picture in a last ditch attempt to rake in some much deserved cash, I was a little disappointed. I thought, “Well, good for them if they get a solid deal, but come on guys, you’re better than this worn-out material.” I now go on record with this review which will serve as a public apology for my lack of faith.

“A Feast of Flesh” may be Happy Cloud’s finest film to date. Writer/director Mike Watt has pulled off the minor miracle of making cinematic vampires interesting again. With a plot centering on a group of friends who unwittingly stumble upon an uneasy truce between a vampire coven and a band of mercenaries led by an ex-IRA soldier (portrayed by a convincingly Irish Watt), “A Feast of Flesh” is one of the most ambitious and original interpretations of the vampire mythos ever committed to the screen. It is also a grandly tragic love story. Transcending and subverting its familiar subject matter, “Feast” provides the requisite sex and violence while challenging the audience with a serious exploration of the themes of good and evil and the nature of faith and redemption — pretty heavy stuff for what was intended to be a “sell out” film.

Since Anne Rice’s groundbreaking 1976 novel “Interview With a Vampire,” writers and filmmakers have struggled to reinvent the vampire tale, so much so that the concept of “re-inventing the vampire” became a subgenre unto itself. The traditional mythology had been altered so much by the end of the last century that it became nearly impossible to even categorize vampire fiction and film as horror–thus giving rise to the dubious term “dark fantasy.” “A Feast of Flesh” is a surprising departure from a subgenre that has lapsed into a twenty-year cycle of homogenization disguised as revolution. Although the film does its share of toying with the vampire myth, it does so with a conscious respect for tradition. Serious fans of vampire lore will no doubt pick up on many subtle allusions to the genre’s past — notably several nods to Sheridan LeFanu’s classic tale “Carmilla” which seems to have inspired much of the film’s tone. Purists will find little fault in “A Feast of Flesh’s” interpretation of the vampire archetype despite the total lack of coffins, wooden stakes and non-specific Eastern European accents. Particularly intriguing is Watt’s treatment of the role of faith and religious symbolism as a vampire deterrent. All notions of Good and Evil within the context of religion are supplanted by simple belief — even belief in pure materialism as evidenced by one character’s pragmatic choice of a dollar bill as a “holy symbol” to effectively ward off the undead in a sequence that is initially played as an ironic sight gag, but has far deeper significance by the film’s climax.

Watt has assembled an effective and surprisingly large ensemble cast for a film of this size and does and admirable job of managing them effectively, balancing exposition and character development. Standouts include Aaron Bernard as Seth, the spurned, lovesick boyfriend of female lead Terri (Stacy Bartlebaugh-Gmys), the always interesting and charismatic Bill Homan as mercenary/vampire hunter Tom Reagan and writer/director Mike Watt as mercenary leader Sheridan. In a rare, purely dramatic turn, actress Amy Lynn Best, perhaps best known in the Happy Cloud oeuvre’ for her role as the marriage counselor/dominatrix/professional zombie-stomper-for-hire Sister Bliss in “The Resurrection Game,” sheds the light comedic style that has characterized the greater part of her career (and the bulk of Happy Cloud’s previous output) for sheer intensity as the Bathory House’s cruel Madame Elizabet. Best, who also serves as the film’s producer, imbues her role with a kinetic blend of unearthly coldness and deeply human compassion. Especially effective is Best’s interaction with Watt’s Sheridan. Although it is not in Happy Cloud’s character to revisit old material, the dynamic between Elizabet and Sheridan coupled with their intentionally cloudy backstory demands a “Feast of Flesh” prequel.

“A Feast of Flesh” is first and foremost a horror film, and serious horror rarely deals with absolutes. As with life, nothing in the film is black and white. “A Feast of Flesh” is filled “monsters” who are not wholly evil and “heroes” who are not wholly good embroiled in a centuries-old war in which all victories on both sides are ultimately pyrrhic. If there is a lesson to be learned here (and honestly, who needs or wants an overtly pedantic vampire flick?) it is that often the best course in both love and war is simply letting go. Through the blood and bare breasts, “A Feast of Flesh” is thematically complex, richly textured and probably too well-written for the audience it will reach considering the types of movies it will share shelf-space with as a low-budget, independent horror film. Nevertheless, serious horrorphiles will get the complexity and the heavy message and casual fans will enjoy it for the intriguing, bloody good vampire flick that it is. Other underground and indie horror filmmakers would do well to take note of “A Feast of Flesh” as benchmark for what the low-budget end of the genre can be.

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