“I don’t want to look back on my life and wish I had done something bigger or better.”
Nine Better Movies Afflicted Could Have Been
1 – The “Ghost Ship” moment
The “Ghost Ship” moment of any film is, of course, the moment at which the characters in the film realize that their ship is full of ghosts–when the dramatic irony ceases and the audience’s knowledge of the shape of the story becomes shared by the people living that story. Today’s Killtoberfest 3 movie and the 2nd in my found footage sounder, Afflicted, delays its Ghost Ship moment to an obnoxious extent. Some initial set-up is fine, and Afflicted‘s opening sequence works quite well to establish the two main characters, obsessive documentarian Clif and his adventuresome best friend Derek, and their situation–after receiving an open-ended death sentence diagnosis, Derek decides to quit his job and travel around the world for a full year, recording his journey with Clif as part of a new travel blog. Despite playing slightly fast and loose with the realism of the cinematography, this section is well-paced, engaging stuff, happy times before the horror movie we know is coming. Barely a week into their trip, however, Derek is attacked by a strange woman in Paris, and soon after begins exhibiting odd symptoms–pain in sunlight, an inability to keep normal food down, abnormal strength and speed. It takes far too long for the film to let one of its characters utter the v-word, nearly halfway through an 85-minute movie. Imagine how much deeper the film could have explored its unique documentary perspective on Derek’s vampirism if they’d only had their Ghost Ship moment much earlier on.
2 – The Fly says hi
The irony of Derek’s transformation is that, if he’d only to stop think about it, he’d realize that all his problems are solved. He begins the film worried that he’ll die having never done anything extraordinary, but no chance of that now–it’s pretty hard to kill a vampire, and he’ll have an eternity to travel the world if he wants it, or to do many other extraordinary things. Instead the movie tries fitfully to present Derek’s new changes as a metaphor for progressive disease, always fertile ground for body horror. Cronenberg’s The Fly does this well, presenting an AIDS or cancer metaphor in the way that Seth Brundle’s body continually deteriorates and falls away and rots into something new and horrible. Afflicted fails to follow through on the metaphor; it gets stuck on traditional vampire mythology (amusingly, one scene has Clif going through what must be a Wikipedia article reading off all the things Derek might be able to do now, like turn into a mist) and that breaks the metaphor. Derek’s problem is not that he’s getting worse, but that if he goes too long without feeding he becomes a monstrous killing machine. That’s not a disease metaphor, it’s a metaphor for sexual or violent predation. And it’s not long before we stop feeling sorry for Derek as a result. It’s a shame Afflicted passed up the chance to tap into a fear of disease, rot, and death in favor of trying to tap into fear of a fictional monster.
3 – Do you even feed, bro?
There’s no better explanation of the male mentality than a sequence about halfway into this film. Clif expresses loyal concern that Derek might need to go to a hospital (an idea Derek resists out of fear of what acknowledging the illness might mean), only to discover that Derek’s condition also includes some kind of enhanced strength. The very next scene has Clif and Derek filming a “strength test” out in the street in the middle of the night, a half-assed science experiment caught on camera. That’s guys for you–the drive to understand a thing is far more powerful than the drive to help. Afflicted could easily have doubled-down on this sort of thing, presenting a game of mutual curiosity between two best male friends exploring the limits of what it is physically to be a vampire. As it is, this is just another idea the movie raises briefly before discarding in favor of something newer and shinier to peck at.
4 – something something ice skating uphill
Case in point, after proving he can lift a car and sprint at more than 60 kilometers per hour, Derek jokes that he should go out and use his powers to be a superhero. I guess it would be hard to be Blade without the ability to daywalk, but that’s what intrepid human sidekicks are for (Clif’s superpower: he can go out in the sun without his flesh melting). It’s a quick moment, a couple of tossed off lines, but it’s enough to suggest a completely different second half of the movie. The thing about a premise as broad and simplistic as this one is that you can really take the narrative in any direction you want. A vigilante story might have been much more interesting than the story we got.
5 – Extreme homosocial bonding
Our protagonists quickly realize that the problem they face isn’t what Derek is or what he can do, but what he needs: blood in steady supply. A couple of unnecessarily drawn-out experiments prove that he needs human blood, and in a moment of true friendship and sacrifice, faithful Clif actually cuts his wrist open in order to gather the blood Derek could subsist on. The closeness between the two young men and the concern Clif shows for Derek suggests, if not actual homosexuality, a strong homosocial friendship that could easily turn into a kind of twisted codependence. Imagine Clif willingly bleeding himself night after night for Derek out of platonic love for his long-time best friend, Derek consuming his companion one glass at a time. Now that would have been creepy. The film feints briefly in this direction, the sexual undertones climaxing when Derek finally straddles Clif in order to feed, but once the movie goes from being a two-hander to a soliloquy the theme is simply dropped.
6 – Suicide Quest
Despondent, Derek turns to suicide, and in one of the movie’s most striking scenes, shoots himself in the head with a shotgun–only to find himself regenerating moments later. Derek concludes that his only option is to try to find the woman who infected him and ask her for a cure–but I maintain he didn’t try hard enough to kill himself. At least run down the list of vampire removal methods, you know? Stake yourself in the heart. Stand in the sunlight until you actually burn (although this is probably too painful to be viable). See if you can drown in holy water or choke on garlic. Even Bill Murray in Groundhog Day put more effort into exploring the limits of immortality than this kid does. The struggle to end one’s life is a very fascinating and counter-intuitive character goal, and one with more than a little horror built right in. Had the rest of the film focused on that story, it could have been truly compelling. How would I do it, if I were truly convinced that no conventional means of execution would suffice? Simple: I’d use my vampire powers to sneak my way onto a rocket ship and blast myself into the sun. Now that’s a caper I’d pay to see at the cinema.
7 – Hunted
In many ways Afflicted plays more like a tech demo than a coherent story, a demonstration of the proper way to visually portray vampiric powers on a relatively low budget (thanks to a small cast and clever direction, Afflicted seems a lot more expensive than it actually was, with a budget of around $350,000). The best tech demo sequences are therefore the best parts of the movie. Once Derek decides he needs to return to Paris to find the woman who turned him in order to demand some kind of cure or guidance from her, a new obstacle appears to stop him–after all the vampiric mayhem and death, he’s attracted the attention of Interpol. There are three bravura action set-pieces in a row, mostly shot in the first-person (Derek is wearing a camera on a chest rig), as Derek bounds through cities, races in and out of burning sunlight, and gets shot at by an endless supply of police and agents (often while yelling “Stop shooting me!”). These sequences feel real and exhilarating in a way nothing else in the movie does, and it makes me wish the film had had more of them, and supported them better in the story. A first-person vampire version of The Fugitive? Hell yes. But instead the cops just kind of show up as an excuse for the action, as opposed to a meaningful part of the story.
8 – Sharing is caring
The reason they catch onto Derek and Clif, by the way, is that Clif uploads a video of Derek and himself committing multiple felonies to the internet, a decision so moronic it boggles the mind and kind of destroys what little sense Clif’s character had made. Clif just hurts the movie overall, especially the first half, when the constant use of his perspective means the movie is about the experience of watching your friend get sick and turn monstrous, instead of the experience being sick and turning monstrous. That one-step-removed distance from the more interesting material would be fine if Clif was compelling in his own right, but he’s almost totally undeveloped. Derek’s motivations for going on a trip around the world are complex, and we learn what his decision means in terms of his job, his family, and his life goals. Clif’s motivation to join him is to get some “great footage,” and his only character trait throughout is a desire to film what’s happening–one that, amusingly, the film must transfer over to Derek later on. The movie would have done better to eliminate Clif altogether and simply give Derek the trait of obsessive self-documentation. But if it has to have Clif, why not use him? One of the most exciting moments in the movie is when Derek’s sense of isolation is broken when his brother shows up in Paris to try and get him to stop running, and it’s exciting because the movie has far more action than reaction. Why not have Clif and Derek liveblog the vampiric transformation and the fugitive hunt for the truth, while their friends and the world watch in shock and horror? At first it seems as though Afflicted is going to incorporate relevant ideas about recording and sharing your experiences, but the friends take their blog off-line early on, torpedoing that entirely. The whole narrative framing gets shaky at that point–why are they still filming (and presumably editing) this? Why would two guys so enthused about expressing themselves decide to keep this exciting new development a secret? Adding that extra layer to Afflicted‘s second and third acts would have made the film far more interesting.
9 – AMA With the Vampire
Derek finally catches up with Audrey, the woman who bit him in Paris, as well as her human familiar, a lovestruck and scar-ridden man from whom she presumably feeds non-fatally whenever she needs to. There’s a really dumb vampire fight, but Derek also gets some clues and info about what it is to be a vampire in this world. Unfortunately the worldbuilding is too beholden to classical vampire mythology to connect thematically to the rest of the film (Audrey explicitly rejects the disease metaphor, for instance). And after a short conversation the two characters go their separate ways, with Derek intent on finding a way to cope with his new life. But this scene suggested one final alternate Afflicted to me by reminding me of the enclave of Parisian vampires in Anne Rice’s seminal Interview with the Vampire. It’s perhaps the most important work of vampire literature since Dracula, because it changed the idea of the vampire from an old country, aristocratic monster into a modern American protagonist, one whose ennui and search for purpose and meaning resonated with readers. But that book was published in 1976, pre-Information Age. Afflicted had a perfect opportunity to explore what a vampire’s search for meaning might look like today among today’s youth in a globally connected, always online world. It was a chance to hold up a warped mirror to our culture and break new ground in terms of what vampire stories can do. But like every other entry on this list, Afflicted brings up the possibility and then throws it away. The movie jumps from concept to concept, set-up to set-up, without ever really paying off much of anything, and despite the surface-level entertainment inherent in the film’s excellent special effects and action sequences, I can’t help but be dissatisfied, still hungry for what could have been.
Killtoberfest 3 continues! Click here for more horror (but not horrible) reviews, including Killtoberfests 1 and 2.