New VOD Releases: VFW (2020)-Reviewed

"Older but still runnin'. Just like us. Older but still runnin.'"

Less than a year after Bliss rocked the hell out of the horror universe, Joe Begos makes his triumphantly gory return with VFW. 

Set in a rundown town somewhere in a United States where the Opioid Crisis has hit critical mass, veterans at a VFW hall are forced to fend off zombie-like tweakers. Not content with the usual, the addicted (Hypers) have taken to a new drug called "Hype." The main supplier, Boz (Travis Hammer), operates out of an old theater across the street. After he cruelly causes one of the Hypers to kill herself, her sister Lizard (Sierra McCormick) runs off across the street with his stash, forcing the VFW vets into an ultra-violent stand-off with Boz and his Hypers. 

It's become commonplace and a bit tired to compare any horror flick with neon lighting and a synthy score to Carpenter. Carpenter, aside from those hallmarks, was a thoughtful filmmaker with a socio-political bent. VFW is dripping with a similar anger and frustration that Carpenter injected into his films. Our heroes, men forgotten by time and country, are grizzled veterans who were chewed up and spit out by the military machine. Our villain is a drug pushing psychopath, leader of men and a representative of a problem that's indiscriminately eating away at our country. Young, old, rich, poor, doesn't matter, it takes all. What's even more interesting is that veterans, especially ones of a certain age, are particularly prone to being devoured by this addiction. Whether it's to cover physical pain, mental or both, opioids are an easy way to disappear. Especially in a country that sends you off to die and failing that, ignores you when come home. Watching these men who gave everything, give everything one last time against an onslaught of Hypers is a thrill tinged with sadness when you realize Boz is just like the US Military, sending his men off to be slaughtered for his own gain. The end many of these Hypers meet is gloriously violent and your initial instinct is cheer but again, that sadness creeps in when you remember that these people are only doing this for the promise of another hit. 

The socio-commentary bubbling underneath would be enough to make VFW stand out among the countless horror flicks released to VOD every year. The fact that it's also a mean, viscous and joy of a horror film makes this Begos's best yet. His commitment to practicality is magnificent. Film buffs fetishize practical effects a bit too much but when done well, they add a tactile quality that makes the violence both exciting and devastating. And purely from the perspective of a horror fan, it's genuinely thrilling to see how inventive the effects and makeup department can be, especially on a tight budget. Some of the deaths are spellbinding because you just can't believe they pull it off.

Our empathy for a group of grizzled vets forced to murder people following orders can only get you as far as the cast allows. Fortunately, this is stacked with actors who can get that done. From genre vets to character acting legends, our heroes are a who's who of well, who. Stephen Lang, William Sadler, Martin Cove, David Patrick Kelly (giving the Warriors feel that permeates through this a big stamp of authenticity), George Wendt and Fred Williamson are who we're rooting for and goddamn do they make it easy. Yes, it would be enough to watch badass old men kick the shit out of people but these guys lend a pathos to these men that allow you to engage past "isn't this fuckin' awesome!?" Martin Cove, in particular, gives a beautiful performance in a negotiation scene that just breaks your heart. Covered in blood and holding back a tremble, he takes that shit-eating grin we all hated in The Karate Kid and gives it a whole new meaning. 

Heaps of kudos have to go to Elliott Gilbert (Art Direction), Jessica Schmidt (Costuming) and Emma Campbell & Nathan Dalton (Art Department) for the look of this film. There's a wild juxtaposition going on with how rundown the city and VFW hall look compared to the acid-washed, neon-soaked villain lair. Even more enthralling are the Hypers' costumes. Looking like extras from a Mad Max movie, decked out in leather and studs carrying everything from swords to power saws, these guys rule. There's really no other way to say it. One look at Gutter (played by Dora Madison, the lead in Bliss) and you see the whole world she inhabits. It's stunning work.

VFW is a terrific throwback with more on its mind than rip roaring violence. It succeeds at not only casting judgment on some of the things slowly taking society straight to hell but also at being a flat out great horror film. Begos continues to be a filmmaker that demands attention. Bliss made my "Best Of 2019" and with VFW being even better, I don't see any way Begos doesn't repeat. 

-Brandon Streussnig