Sunday, August 29, 2021

[Review] Glenn Danzig’s ‘Death Rider in the House of Vampires’ Has All the Charm…and Flaws of ‘Verotika’

I was fortunate enough to attend the world premiere of punk legend Glenn Danzig’s first feature film Verotika back in 2019 during Chicago’s Cinepocalypse Film Festival. At that time, no one knew what a movie written and directed by the Misfits frontman would look like, so hopes were high that Danzig’s voice would be as exciting for horror as it had been for music. This, of course, was not the case, and Verotika was a catastrophe the likes of which we rarely get to see in the age of focus groups and market testing. It was, I called it at the time, the horror equivalent of The Room – a new level of auteurist misfire. All of this is to say that his follow-up film, the excellently named Death Rider in the House of Vampires, is less of an unknown quantity. We know what to expect from a Danzig movie now, so the only question going into his sophomore effort was, would Death Rider be more of the same, or had Danzig learned some valuable lessons from Verotika?

The good news is that Death Rider in the House of Vampires is better than Verotika. The bad news is that it’s not by much. A better cast and a somewhat tighter focus makes Death Rider a more successful film, but all of Danzig’s flaws and indulgences as a filmmaker are still on full display. It may be a better movie, but it’s still a Danzig movie.

Devon Sawa plays the titular Death Rider, a mysterious cowboy who arrives at Vampire Sanctuary with a naked woman on horseback. (Like I said, there’s no question this is a Danzig movie.) After offering her up as a virgin sacrifice, Death Rider is granted Sanctuary by Count Holiday (Julian Sands), who runs what is essentially a saloon and brothel for vampires where the drinks are rotgut whiskey and the occasional virgin jugular. Though Death Rider’s backstory and motives are unknown, he captures the attention of vampire prostitutes Carmilla Joe (Kim Director) and Mina Belle (Ashley Wisdom, returning from Verotika and thankfully not asked to adopt a French accent here), as well as raises the eyebrows of Kid Vlad (Victor DiMattia), Drac Cassidy (Eli Roth), and Bad Bathory (Danzig himself), who don’t trust Death Rider any further than they can bite him.

Devon Sawa as ‘Death Rider’

There isn’t really a story to be found in Death Rider in the House of Vampires; just a setup that allows a bunch of characters to interact. Sometimes there’s a shootout; sometimes vampires are turned to dust. The movie comes most alive during these moments, despite the fact that Danzig still can’t get out of his own way as a filmmaker. Like with Verotika, Danzig serves not just as writer, producer, composer, and director, but as his own cinematographer and editor, too, (a credit he shares with Pedja Radenkovic and Garo Setian, respectively) and the decision cripples the film once again. Every angle, every framing choice, every cut feels like the wrong one. Everything plays out in real-time. The movie opens with Devon Sawa riding across the desert, a naked woman in tow, while Danzig’s terrific spaghetti western-inspired “Death Rider” theme plays. It’s promising!  But these shots are repeated over and over and over and over again. Then he (eventually) cuts to the credits, which play out in silence. There is no economy of storytelling here. Or ever. These opening ten minutes of screen time could easily be combined into three or four, and Death Rider would be better for it. It’s true throughout the film’s 90-minute runtime – there’s maybe an hour of material that’s been padded out — and it’s an unfortunate mistake of Verotika that’s been carried over here.

At least the performances have some energy to them. Sawa makes for a good lead, and Julian Sands sells the nonsensical dialogue he’s given like the Warlock he is. Eli Roth hams it up, clearly in on the joke. The cast is almost top to bottom full of familiar faces, all doing solid work. The mixture of spaghetti western and horror seems to suit Danzig as a filmmaker, meaning Death Rider is livelier and more fun than his turgid Bava-influenced previous effort. Working within the framework of the spaghetti western gives his camera energy (zoom after zoom) and excuses some of his technical sloppiness. Even the effects are a step up, though Danzig can’t resist zooming all the way in on the obvious prosthetics of a vampire-bitten neck or allowing shots of a burning vamp to repeat until it’s no longer effective. Danzig gotta Danzig.

Death Rider in the House of Vampires has all the charm of Verotika, and nearly all of its flaws, too. That’s probably damning praise, encouraging fans of the latter to seek out the former while scaring off those who found Danzig’s first film to be insufferable. I can’t fault either party for rushing out to see it or staying as far away from it as possible. It’s the kind of movie that’s not very good but still has me excited for whatever Danzig makes next.


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