A group of war veterans must defend their VFW and an innocent teenager against a deranged drug dealer and his army of punk mutants.
It’s been quite a year for indie director Joe Begos. After taking his audience on a drug-fuelled vampire voyage with Bliss (2019), he returns with his fourth film, VFW. Since exploding onto the scene with his debut Almost Human (2013), the filmmaker has affectionately paid homage to 180s horror. Produced by Fangoria, VFW feels like it crawled out of a blood-soaked gutter… in the best possible way.
Over the last decade or two, the 1970s grindhouse aesthetic has made a resurgence on the big screen. Since Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez unleashed their double-bill of Death Proof and Planet Terror (2007), many other directors have attempted to capture the glory days of the ’70s drive-in experience. Here, Begos teams up with first-time writers Max Brallier and Mathew McArdle, together with an all-star cast, to deliver a balls-to-the-wall symphony of blood n’ guts.
In the near future, the opioid crisis has evolved, while an unspecified city has crumbled and its citizens have become addicted to an alternative drug named “Hype”. After a desperate teen named Lizard (Sierra McCormick) runs into Fred’s (Stephen Lang) ‘Veterans of Foreign War’ (VFW) bar holding a bag full with drugs, a typical night for the veterans turns in to an all-out battle for survival. As Boz (Travis Hammer) sends his gang of violent punks looking for her, the vets use every weapon at their disposal to protect the girl and themselves from an unrelenting attack.
After years of supporting roles, Stephen Lang finally gets the chance as the leading man. Since returning to form with Fede Alvarez’s thriller Don’t Breathe (2016), he continues to maintain a strong and commanding presence. As bar owner Fred, Lang gives a surprising amount of depth and heart to his character, whose grumpy exterior hides a broken man willing to do what’s needed to save his business and friends. William Sadler (Die Hard 2) also delivers a memorable performance as the group’s comic relief Walter, evoking laughs throughout, especially as he wildly swings a circular saw at invading gang members.
Rounding off the cast of expendables of exploitation cinema is The Warriors (1979) star David Patrick Kelly as Doug and Fred Williamson (Hell Up in Harlem) as Abe. But the standout is Martin Kove (The Karate Kid) playing slippery car salesman Lou. After his career was resurrected by the surprise success of the Cobra Kai YouTube series, Kove reminds us that he’s still capable of throwing punches when required. One scene in particular when he attempts to negotiate with the villainous clan is genuinely tense and easily one of the highlights. Of all the war veterans, there isn’t a single disappointing performance.
It’s apparent that scriptwriters Max Brallier and Mathew McArdle know exactly how to make these geriatrics both relatable and humorous. The cast’s chemistry bursts off the screen. With extensive credits under their belt and many of them having worked together previously, there’s a camaraderie that translates well. For a good 20-minutes, we’re treated to the characters tossing verbal garbage at one another; reminiscing about their glory days fighting for their country. The script does a great job distinguishing each of their personalities early on, while the actors understand the tone of this material.
That’s not to say all the actors are heavy-hitters. Travis Hammer (Godless) plays the murderous gang leader Boz and I couldn’t help but think he was physically unimposing and lacked the level of insanity the role required. He needed more menace to become a truly memorable antagonist. However, a special mention goes to Dora Madison playing Gutter. After delivering an emotionally charged performance in Begos’ Bliss, here she steals every scene she’s. Drenched in black leather lined with metal studs, the actress looks like a punk from the Return of the Living Dead (1985). Unfortunately, she’s underutilised and reduced to one of Boz’s henchmen.
Joe Begos has a stylish approach to filmmaking. Picasso once said “good artists borrow, great artists steal” and it’s never more relevant in the filmmaker’s latest movie. Borrowing ideas and concepts from genre-bending sci-fi and action features of the 1970s and ’80s. It’s clear the director adores the trash-cinema of a bygone era, wearing his influences proudly on his sleeve. VFW pays homage to the likes of Mark Lester’s Class of 1984 (1982) and James M. Muro’s Street Trash (1987). There’s a punk-rock sensibility that rumbles at the core of all his work. It’s an acquired taste, that understandably isn’t for everybody. However, fans of ’80s B Movies will relish every moment.
Enhanced with the graininess of 16mm film, Mike Testin’s (Dementia) moody cinematography encapsulates the film’s mood in haunting blues and blood-red neons. The dark yet colourful lighting enhances the grittiness in an almost beautiful way. And the phenomenal Steve Moore (The Guest) delivers an ominous synth score that could easily have been lifted from a John Carpenter (Escape From New York) movie. A standout sequence sees the protagonists creating artillery of homemade weapons: grenades out of tennis balls, chair legs into maces, and sharpened pool cues. Moore’s doom-laden synth score works perfectly in these moments, complimenting the dark and hopeless landscape and the dangers ahead.
Like every siege flick made since the mid-1970s, it’s difficult not to compare Brallier and McArdle’s script to Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). However, one can’t help but compare the structural narrative to From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and Feast (2005). After the opening crawl explaining the new drug on the market called “Hype”, Begos dynamically sets the tone whilst our protagonists slowly come together. Once Lizard enters Fred’s bar with a mob of Hype fiends on her heels, VFW hits the accelerator. Longtime collaborator Josh Either’s (Almost Human) editing is relentlessly fast-paced, too. And while budget limitations are apparent in certain scenes, such as Boz’s sparsely dressed lair and the occasional decapitation, those moments barely have time to register.
After Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (2018) and Satanic Panic (2019), VFW is the third feature from the newly rebranded Fangoria studios. Similar to a classic magazine cover coming to life, the action scenes are gruesomely violent. An early scene of a body exploding like a balloon after falling to the ground sets up the carnage to come. The deliciously gory practical VFX by John and Sierra Russell (Halloween II) harken back to the grindhouse era’s OTT nature. A mutant punk doesn’t just get shot, their head explodes like a watermelon. Begos has an eye for chaos and it’s clear the director’ in his element when he’s conducting violent scenes that reach a Tom Savini (Two Evil Eyes) level of bloodshed.
As a fan of low-budget cinema, VFW succeeds as a love letter to the exploitation flicks. Understandably, many would argue that Begos is only replicating Carpenter’s classics. However, the director is simply using them the way The Master Of Horror homaged Howard Hawks. VFW is a gloriously gory and a gleefully simple horror that’s one memorable antagonist away from modern-day cult status. Begos proves he’s one of the most interesting directors working the indie scene right now. I’m eager to see what he has in store for us next.
director: Joe Begos.
writers: Max Brallier & Matthew McArdle.
starring: Stephen Lang, Martin Kove, Fred Williamson, William Sadler, Travis Hammer, Sierra McCormick & David Patrick Kelly.