It seems you can’t swing an axe around without hitting yet another grimy, gory, grindhouse throwback that’s springing up on streaming services everywhere. It’s a prime example of the saying “everything old is new again” as a new generation of filmmakers strive to recreate a type of film that’s less a genre and more of a state of mind. With gloomy visuals splashed with garish primary colours and extreme violence casually chucked around as nonchalant at reading material in a dentist’s waiting room, the influence of the genre films from the 70’s and 80’s is a bluntly stated as a shotgun blast to the face and movies as diverse as Mandy or The Void have pleased their rabid fanbase with their oppressive tone and minimalistic synth scores.
A recent entry, and one quite worthy of your time is VFW, a brutal, take-no-shit thriller that sees the aging patrons of a veterans bar taking on a gang of bestial drug addicts in order to survive the night.
Terminally grizzled Vietnam veteran Fred is on his way to the VFW post he runs (a bar for Veterans of Foreign Wars) with his equally rumpled buddies Walter and Abe for another night of reminiscing, banter and getting stinking drunk while complain how much of a shit hole the world has become. To be fair, they have a point; “Hype”, the brand new drug on the market, has turned the surrounding area into a crime ridden war zone with ground zero for the distribution being the abandoned theatre across the street which is positively crawling with so many scumbags of every description it would give Charles Bronson an erection. However, the old war horses pay it no mind as they and a few more friends have gathered to celebrate Fred’s birthday by closing early and heading off to a titty bar, however no one has accounted for “Lizard”, a young girl who has just witnessed her junkie sister be murdered by swaggering Hype dealer Boz. Stealing his stash he was counting on to ditch the city, she runs headlong into the VFW with a horde of drug addicted lunatics on her tail which sets a bloody seige into motion.
On the outside: countless, mindless, drugged-up freaks, all of whom are so smashed out of their gourd they are utterly without fear. On the inside: six world weary ex-soldier and one young army ranger who was only stopping by for a drink as it’s his first night home from his most recent tour. Booby traps are set and the group batten down the hatches for a gruelling night that may very well mean that none of them will see the dawn; but these are men who have faced death before and that means they’ll take as many of these fuckers down with them as they can.
The first thing you notice about VFW (apart from the truly stonking cast – who we’ll get to later) is how staggeringly derivative it is – a common feature in this new breed of “Midnight Movie” that seem to lean heavily into their influences like it’s a badge of honor. The obvious comparison here is with John Carpenter’s 1976 classic Assault On Precinct 13, an urban reworking of Howard Hawks Rio Bravo where a group of people in a newly decommissioned police precinct fight off waves of deranged gang members in order to protect a single civilian. Utilising this surrounded stagecoach style survival plot is similar enough but then adding an electronic soundtrack and casting a bunch of character actors to portray a rag tag group of anti-heroes often makes VFW feel more like Assault On Precinct 13 than Assault On Precinct 13 does…
As comparisons go, it’s not a bad one to have and the stripped down, single location works wonders for the budget but thankfully, where VFW stumbles when it comes to originality (director Joe Begos has out and out bragged about copying Carpenter’s homework), it hungrily tracks up points for the sheer energy it exudes.
Make no mistake, VFW could easily stand for Viscera Flies Wonderfully as this movie goes all out to be as fucking gruesome as it can. Heads aren’t so much as crushed than pulped underfoot, a homemade hand grenade causes a blizzard of limbs to fly across the screen and Fred proves to be quite the artist with a fire axe as he literally chops his enemies down to size – it may not be the height of sophistication, but screw it; it sure is fun.
But the real fun of VFW lays with it’s gnarly old leads, with the iron will of Avatar’s legitimately intimidating Stephen Lang taking point as bar owner Fred. Simply put, the man doesn’t seem to be acting so much as that you start to believe he may have actually done something like this for real (and probably for fun) and watching him hack through endless bad guys like a bunch of drug addicted redwoods is nothing less than exhilarating. In comparison, the imposing Fred Williamson (who’s an old hand at super bloody bar fights thanks to From Dusk Till Dawn) is more subdued but no less proficient at wiping maniacs off the face of the earth and fan fave William Sadler (it’s a toss up between the nude Tai-Chi from Die Hard 2 or Death from the Bill & Ted sequel) amuses as Fred’s permanently sozzled bestie but all manage to elevate the material substantially. Chuck in other familiar faces such as George Wendt (Norm from Cheers!), David Patrick Kelly (“Warriors… come out and plaaa-aaay!”) and Martin Kove (the guy who runs Cobra-Kai in the Karate Kid!) and it’s no surprise that anyone in the cast under the age of 40 fails to register at all.
This last part is a shame as a movie like this is usually prime real estate for a good, unhinged villain; but as actual characters, the bad guys are only memorable as hugely splattery deaths, be it an exploding head or having a flag pole shoved down their throat.
A gritty, enthusiastic, plasma soaked horror show, VFW manages to escape it’s shortcomings thanks to it’s parade of awesome gnarled leading men and it’s prossesion of high-five inducing gore effects to be a rousingly hard edged adventure that plays like William (Maniac) Lustig directed a smash-mouth mash up of The Expendables meets Night Of The Living Dead.
Fun, despite not having an original bone in it’s body, VFW here definitely stands for Violence Fucking Works.