When it comes to the new world of film production, the world has been seeing a lot of big name companies saying “screw it” and making their own films rather than sitting around while putting out other companies’ films on their behalf. Streamers like Amazon, Netflix, Shudder, and even YouTube are putting their hats in the ring to capitalize, as much as possible, on the streaming craze in producing and distributing their own content. One company that’s been on that train for years is Fangoria. The entertainment magazine almost synonymous with coverage of all things horror since 1979, has been producing and distributing its own content dating all the way back to 1990. While Fangoria’s road to where it is today has been anything but smooth, especially regarding its film label, their resilience has led them to a new relaunch of the Fangoria Films label, with new films distributed under the RLJE Films brand. VFW falls as one of the largest productions under this new relaunch (following Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich and Satanic Panic), and recontextualizes the concepts of how genre films survive in the new age of ultra-serious, artsy horror while looking to pay homage to it.
Fred Parras (Stephen Lang) is a Vietnam War veteran who runs the local post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) facility as a bartender. Situated in a rundown area of town, surrounded by vicious, murderous drug dealers straight out of The Road Warrior, Fred and his patrons find themselves preyed upon when a teenage girl (Sierra McCormick), having stolen property from the cartel, seeks refuge. Threatened with both the destruction of their bar and the loss of their own lives, the former soldiers must arm themselves to protect what’s theirs.
VFW has an exceedingly simple setup, one that wastes no time in letting you know that this is a Fangoria production through and through. From its opening moments, audiences are assaulted with skull-crushing, bone-cracking, eye-gouging gore that lets you know exactly the type of film VFW is going to be. It’s not cheap or lazy by any means, just extreme, and the work that director Joe Begos does on a seemingly low budget, both with effects and camerawork, is impressive to watch unfold. It’s not a film for the squeamish, but it’s also not a film made to traumatize or overwhelm casual viewers. Sure, it’s a film made by gore-hounds, for gore-hounds, but even for someone who wouldn’t consider themselves one, it’s still a morbid delight to behold while in the right headspace.
Performances in the film can be split into two categories: protagonists and antagonists. On the protagonists’ end of the story, we have a collection of surprisingly subtle and genuinely heartfelt performances that are all thanks to the effortless chemistry that the cast shares with each other. This ensemble, which includes the likes of George Wendt, Fred Williamson, William Sadler, and Martin Kove, actually feels like a group of grizzled old men seeking company in the comfort of old memories and good whiskey. Lang anchors the film with a really grounded and sympathetic performance that reminds me that, for as much as Hollywood likes to cram him solely into genre films, particularly that of a genre villain, Lang has the chops to compete with some of the greats of his age group, and he gets to show off his chops in both wheelhouses here.
Meanwhile, in the land of evil drug dealers, our antagonists show a different approach to the craft of acting that sometimes drives a wedge in the cohesiveness of VFW. On one hand, a good cheesy villain can sometimes be the thing that saves a film from complete obscurity (see: Supergirl, Jupiter Ascending, etc.), but with VFW, there’s such a massive gap in approaches between the protagonists and the antagonists, that it feels like two different films colliding with each other and not quite meshing the way it should. In their scenes separate from each other, they’re all lovely performances to behold for nearly opposite reasons, but when the film progresses and the confides become tighter and tighter, it becomes more and more apparent that VFW didn’t really have much of a plan in meshing its two vastly opposing tones.
As stated earlier, VFW also doesn’t waste any time in spilling blood on the concrete and turning the film into a pulpy, gory mess, which is an effective attention-grabber, to say the least. The problem comes about when the film does begin to enter into its second and third acts, where one might feel the film loses steam from its slam-bang opener and begins to slowly relent, never quite reaching that level of macabre fun again.
The Mad Max meets Platoon meets Cheers (extra points for actually snagging George Wendt for the film) approach generally still works for VFW, though, because even when the film lost me on a narrative standpoint, I still was genuinely invested in the characters’ fates thanks to the immediate chemistry built between the cast from the very start. This bond the film makes with the audience helps to make up for the film’s lack of progression in its storyline and the pulp that ensues with it, eventually pumping out just enough steam to get to the end of the concise runtime. Tonally, VFW is all over the place, but it’s still fun to see a film revel in its own excellence on one end, and to just go batshit crazy on the other. Sure, we know this train is going to crash eventually, but going so hard and fast is fun enough to make the journey worth it in the end.
In theaters, on VOD, and digital February 14th, 2020.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.