2020, R, 92 min. Directed by Joe Begos. Starring Stephen Lang, Sierra McCormick, Travis Hammer, David Patrick Kelly, Fred Williamson, Martin Kove, William Sadler, Tom Williamson, Dora Madison, George Wendt, Graham Skipper.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Feb. 14, 2020
Splatter. Some are imitate it, mimicking the gritty, gory glories of 1980s exploitation cinema. Yet some are clearly born to it, relishing the way that blood and brains spread over a ring-marked sticky bar top. Count Joe Begos among the latter and VFW is his VHStastic nightmare, an unrelenting throwback to a gleefully caustic view of America's capacity for untrammeled nastiness.
In his 2014 debut, Almost Human, Begos showed both art house horror and splatterpunk sensibilities. His recent vampire explosion, Bliss, leaned hard into the former: now VFW goes full Street Trash as a cadre of of Vietnam War aging veterans taking on wave after wave of zombified addicts, hooked on a new drug called Hype. Yeah, it may say in the brief intro card that the background is the opioid epidemic, but between the grizzled old war dogs and a vision of addiction and street gangs that fell straight out of some unpublished D.A.R.E./Chick Tract crossover, this is pure mid-80s hyperviolence set to a soundtrack by Steve Moore that evokes the best of the era's synthscore masters without ever sounding derivative, pulling as much from deep cuts by Carl Zittrer and Klaus Schulze as it does from headliners like Fabio Frizzi and John Carpenter.
"An army of brain-dead animals is still an army," leather-jacketed and shirtless drug lord Boz (Hammer) – an evil genius McPoyle, looking like he stinks of meth and rancid sweat– tells his ice cold killer lieutenant Gutter (Bliss star Madison, probably best known in Austin as Becky Sproles from Friday Night Lights). He's unleashes a mob of hyped-up addicts to bring back runaway Lizard (McCormick). She's taken off with half a million dollars' worth of his stash and has decided to hide out in the first available space – the local veterans bar. That's bad news for the denizens, but even worse for the hype-heads. VFW Post 2494 is run by hard-as-hell Parnas (Lang) and what's left of his buddies: Reed (Sadler), lost in old stories; Clayton (Kove) who went legit but still like to hang; Zabriski (Wendt, perfectly cast as the aging barfly); and Hawkins (Fred Williamson, the goddam hammer himself), the Korea vet who still hangs with these youngster. Assisted by a freshly-returned sharpshooter (Tom Williamson), they're set to prove to Boz that having an army isn't the same as being army.
At first look, it's all about the creativity of the kills. Shotguns, axes, chains, saws (chain and masonry), keys in the throat, hockey sticks, a table leg with a few six inch nails in it, good ol' fashioned stomping. Drenched in neon blues and reds, it's never about subtlety. But then there's Lang, who can't help but layer emotion into his performance. Everyone else gets their moment, provided courtesy of the surprisingly slick and lean script from Max Brallier and Matthew McArdle, larded with some smart lines about aging (who wouldn't want a Tempur-Pedic casket?). Yet Lang finds some real aging warrior sensitivity and sensibilities, giving the gore a little more dramatic tension than some more ironic or campy riffs on the form would go for. When the bodies hit the floor – and they do, constantly and bloodily – you'll at least have a twinge of loss. Fortunately, the flying limbs will distract you before you can get too sentimental.
Read our interview with Begos at austinchronicle.com/screens.