By JESSICA DWYER
When you think of westerns you don’t typically think about vampires. First of allm the western is synonymous with desert landscapes under brightly lit skies. Showdowns at noon with big expansive landscapes with sun drenched mountains. But the vampire western isn’t as farfetched as you’d think, and in fact it has happened more times than you know.
This subgenre is peppered with films that actually fit into it quite well. NEAR DARK is probably one of the most well-known of these movies. Then there’s BILLY THE KID VS DRACULA. Another is the lost classic CURSE OF THE UNDEAD. But another film that seems to slip under people’s radar is the Anthony Hickox directed SUNDOWN: THE VAMPIRE IN RETREAT.
SUNDOWN is a hybrid on many fronts. It’s a vampire horror film, it’s a western, and it’s an unapologetic comedy who revels in its absurd plot. But it’s also an homage to the classic vampire and the western films that inspired it. So even though SUNDOWN laughs at itself, it also salutes the genres it is borrowing from.
SUNDOWN was released on VHS in 1991, sadly not getting a theatrical release (which is a shame because the movie is very pretty.) Hickox gathers together some great actors whose roots are firmly entrenched in the genres he’s referencing. David Carradine, whose father played Dracula in classic universal films as well as the aforementioned BILLY THE KID VS DRACULA, is cast here as the mysterious Jozek Mardulak. John Ireland, who was in numerous westerns from the mid-40s on, is the blood thirsty Quaker Ethan Jefferson. Bruce Campbell, the patron saint of horror comedy, is Robert Van Helsing, a descendant of the famous vampire killer.
The film focuses on the Harrison family who are going to the desert town of Purgatory. David Harrison (Jim Metzler), his beautiful wife Sarah (Morgan Brittany) and their two precocious daughters Juliet and Gwendolyn are visiting Purgatory to inspect a synthetic blood factory that has begun to malfunction.
Hoping the trip will be a vacation and easy fix, they head off, unaware that the town is populated by vampires hoping the blood substitute will allow them to life without relying on violence. Funnily enough, Juliet has a love for vampire toys which seem to be all she wants her mom to buy her.
Before they arrive we see some of the townsfolk cross paths with a group of young campers who witness their friend get his head knocked off by Mort (the great M. Emmet Walsh). He and his brothers live and work at the only gas station in town. Mort is taken into custody by the local sheriff (also a vampire) because of his crime. The witnesses are also taken in because the vampires can’t have them babbling the truth.
With the arrival of the Harrisons we are introduced to more of the strange townsfolk who are comprised of all walks of life and nationalities. We’re also introduced to Shane (Maxwell Caulfield) who knew David and Sarah before he was turned into a vampire, and was the one who came up with the idea of having him come and fix the plant. Shane’s reasons for this are personal ... he wants Sarah back and wants to make David pay for taking her away from him. Shane has joined forces with Ethan, who thinks Mardulak’s plans are a bad idea: Vampires shouldn’t try to live with humans, they should feed on them. Strong ideas from a Quaker.
As the story progresses Robert Van Helsing arrives. He’s a bumbling vampire hunter, but still a Van Helsing. He meets Mardulak’s protégé, Sandy (the lovely Deborah Foreman), who takes him on a tour and falls in love with him in the process. A vampire in love with a human — a Van Helsing of all things — is unheard of. Eventually tensions boil over and the vampires pick sides, those who want to learn to live at peace with humanity and those on the side of Ethan and Shane who want to devour it.
The Harrisons find help in the form of Mardulak and the good vampires, and we see Van Helsing turned by Sandy (in a hilarious scene) who he stands by during the battle. We discover (as does Ethan, much to his dismay) that Mardulak is actually Count Dracula, who has tired of the bloody old ways. The good vampires triumph with the help of the Harrison family.
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There’s also the interesting subplot of Shane and Sarah and the fact that Juliet is most likely his child from an affair. There’s a scene where Shane shows up to basically rape Sarah, and the little girls barge in on the attack. Where everyone would be seeing a giant bat, Juliet sees Shane himself. That’s an interesting take on the mythos that’s lost sometimes in viewing.
While there is a lot of camp, comedy, and crazy in SUNDOWN, there is also a beautiful point that is made at the end. The Harrison’s raise a large wooden cross which wards off and stops the evil vampires, but at first it also harms the good ones. Then suddenly, the pain ends. Mardulak/Dracula turns with tears in his eyes and states “We have been forgiven.” It’s a beautiful scene and shows that SUNDOWN has a lot more going on than you think at first blush.
Fangirl Radio and editor/writer of the website Fangirl Magazine. She has written for various sites over the years and is a staff writer for HorrorHound Magazine for which her work has been nominated for the Rondo Hatton Awards. Her short fiction has been published by Post Mortem Press. She is currently working on producing and writing various projects for film and television as well as an upcoming book.