***½ out of *****
When movies are rooted in a sense of place that pulsates from their opening frames, deepening to a point where the story is inextricably linked to a regional atmosphere, thus becoming as much a character as the picture’s on-screen personages, then you know that you’re in a world of total immersion. When said films feel like they’re coming from a place that feels familiar and lived-in from the perspective of the filmmaker, the work takes on an added transcendence that can only come from the heart, as well as a good eye for detail and local colour.
In genre films, some of the strongest examples of this can be found in all of George A. Romero‘s early Pittsburgh films (Dawn of the Dead, The Crazies, Martin); Alfred Sole’s astonishing New Jersey-rooted Alice, Sweet Alice; Paul Maslansky’s Houston-based voodoo thriller Sugar Hill; and amongst many others, the latest foray into regional horror, Bret Wood’s The Unwanted.
From the beginning, writer-director Wood plunges us into a contemporary milieu, a kind of antebellum-ish New Millennium Gothic, as a mysterious young woman (Christin Orr), attired in fashionable grunge duds and bearing a countenance of toughness and determination, gets off a Greyhound bus in an alternately seedy and retro-cool South Carolina burgh.
She makes her way on foot to a leafy post-war neighbourhood to the house she’s targeted. Here she inquires into the whereabouts of one Millarca Karnstein (Kylie Brown). The door is answered by the handsome, but alternately seedy-looking owner Troy (William Katt of Carrie fame, here adorned in a grubby ball-cap with long curly locks of head-banger-hockey-hair), and Laura (Hannah Fierman, ‘Lily’ in the ‘Amateur Night’ segment in V/H/S), his insanely gorgeous wide-eyed daughter who hovers silently behind him.
He claims not to know whom she’s looking for. The woman is insistent, though: he must know, since Troy’s house was the exotically named Millarca’s last-known address. Troy amusedly points out that he’d have heard of someone in the town with a name like Millarca Karnstein, never mind someone of that monicker residing in his home.
By this point, ‘Karnstein’ is ringing a bell with us (at least those of the geek persuasion). For horror aficionados, the mere mention of the name Karnstein immediately signals that we’re about to plunge into an adaptation of ‘Carmilla’, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s immortal 1871 classic novella of vampirism, which predates even Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), making it one of the earliest major works in the (relatively) modern genre of vampire fiction.
Some of the best movies adapted from the Le Fanu include Vampyr (1932), Carl Dreyer’s liberal cinematic borrowing from the material, as well as several faithful renderings including Roger Vadim’s 1960 Blood and Roses , with its highly charged erotic qualities; Camilo Mastrocinque’s creepy 1964 Terror in the Crypt, starring Christopher Lee and Adriana Ambesi; the exceptional 1974 Roy Ward Baker-directed Hammer Horror version The Vampire Lovers, with Ingrid Pitt and Peter Cushing in the first film of Hammer’s Karnstein Trilogy; and now, of course, The Unwanted, one of the most effectively oddball attempts to wrestle with Le Fanu’s work.
When our heroine (bearing the name, Carmilla Karnstein, of course) leaves Troy’s home dejectedly, but also with skepticism, she inquires at the local cop-shop for information about the missing Karnstein, and is told the report she’s requested will take two full business days.
Damn! She’s now going to be in this low-down Hicksville conurbation longer than anticipated. Carmilla sallies over to the local greasy spoon for some coffee where her waitress is none other than Laura, Troy’s daughter, the drool-inspiring beauty with the jet-black hair and come-hither saucer-like dark eyes.
Laura reveals to Carmilla that Daddy Troy didn’t tell the truth. Millarca Karnstein did indeed use their home as a mailing address, living in the family trailer on the outskirts of town near Daddy’s hunting grounds. Carmilla, in turn, reveals that Millarca was her mother, and even though Laura’s mommy Karen (Lynn Talley) died when she was a tyke, she has vague recollections of both women.
And now we plunge into the Le Fanu tale proper, the two women eventually embarking upon a passionate lesbian relationship with the added touch of bloodsucking.
Here Wood takes us into strange territory involving dreams, nightmares, flashbacks and lingering questions all needing answers. While there are vampire-like qualities to the eroticism, Wood sublimates the supernatural elements in favour of a compelling mutual lust amongst the two women for both flesh and blood.
Troy, creepy from frame one, slowly edges into complete psychopathic bunyip territory, especially as the film reveals one new horrific revelation after another. With his clearly incestuous desires for his own daughter (and the possibility that he’s acted upon them), he’s as much a danger to the women as they are to each other.
What’s delightfully perverse is the identical lesbian vampire relationship twixt the mothers of Laura and Carmilla. For genre fans, it’s like getting dreamy, healthy dollops of ‘double-double’. Karen and Millarca slurp, suck and wildly caress away in dreams and flashbacks while their daughters in the present are also engaged in identical gymnastics.
The movie has a few strange pacing problems, due on one hand to the screenplay being a touch ambitious for its own good, and, once we take time to peruse a number of cut and/or alternate takes in the Kino Lorber Blu-ray extras, we discover why there are a few lapses in logic, motivation and tone, most of which inspire us to think, ‘Uh, why the hell were these sequences cut and/or not worked into the overall narrative?’ There might have been concerns, rightly so, about pacing, but I suspect the film feels longer and a bit more disjointed than it needed to be, because these scenes fell to the cutting room floor.
Another irksome touch that affects pacing and tone is one of the most jarringly annoying song-scores I’ve heard, which wends its way through the picture. The opening song is terrific and well utilized, as are the orchestral elements of the score proper, but a lot of the others seem shoehorned into the proceedings.
Happily, the aforementioned fumbles don’t detract from the overall visual dexterity, which the picture has in spades, as well as the performances by all four leading and supporting ladies engaged in vampiristic Sapphic pleasure.
The revelation here is William Katt. It’s almost impossible to separate him from his post-Carrie work as the sweet, handsome young lad who finally takes Sissy Spacek to the prom in Brian De Palma’s masterpiece, but in The Unwanted, we drop all notions of that much earlier role from our minds and marvel at his initially subtle and eventually mounting, crazed viciousness.
It’s such a great performance that one feels a certain degree of regret that such mainstream industry awards as the Oscars all but ignore low-budget independent horror, since the work Katt does here is Academy Award-worthy, at least in terms of even a nomination in the Supporting Actor category.
Also, pacing problems aside, the final third of the film is utterly chilling and plunges us into one terrific jolt after another. The movie features, hands down, the best on-screen use of a hunting arrow and where/how it plunges since Burt Reynolds’s fine aim delighted us in John Boorman’s Deliverance.
Bret Wood’s previous feature-length work has been in documentaries. He’s highly regarded as one of the finest producers of added-feature extras in the world of home-entertainment for the Kino Lorber company. His recent commentary track for the Blu-ray release of Lewis Milestone’s The Front Page is phenomenal. Incidentally, the extras on The Unwanted include Wood’s first-rate short dramatic effort The Other Half, a grimly funny, scary and perverse bite-sized treat involving a double amputee, his wife and a prostitute.
Wood’s first feature film was the funny, revelatory and, frankly, vomit-inducing Hell’s Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films and his sophomore feature effort, Psychopathia Sexualis (2006), was a dream come true for me personally, as it focused upon the classic encyclopaedia of sexual deviance by Richard Fridolin Joseph Freiherr Krafft von Festenberg auf Frohnberg, genannt von Ebing (known more popularly as simply Krafft-Ebing, though I’m a big fan of his full name).
As a seemingly unrelated aside, the Krafft-Ebing Psychopathia Sexualis was a favourite tome amongst director Guy Maddin, screenwriter George Toles and myself as young gents in the early flowering stages of our lives, a book that we’d read aloud to each other round campfires in Gimli, Manitoba throughout the 80s, along with our coterie of similarly enchanted colleagues.
The feature film Archangel (which I produced, Guy directed and George wrote) includes a Krafft-Ebing phrase for our favourite sexual delight, one which means very little to anyone not acquainted with arcane terms in Psychopathia Sexualis, but never fails to give us insider-chuckles to this very day. I refuse to tell you what it is. You must acquaint yourself with Krafft-Ebing and then see Archangel again. It will put Maddin’s entire film in a whole new context for you (if you hadn’t sensed it already, that is).
That a contemporary filmmaker has created a documentary portrait of Krafft-Ebing seems an extra-special treat for those who partake of The Unwanted, Wood’s first fictional feature: one which features so many delightful dollops of bloodsucking, lesbo action, incest, chilling suspense and glorious bits of mad violence.
At the end of the night, what’s not to like?
Watch the trailer: