MTI // 2012 // 96 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // December 27th, 2012
Surviving isn't always winning.
Though I haven't always been a fan of the products, the fact that shows like True Blood and The Walking Dead have helped move horror monsters firmly into the mainstream has had one salutary consequence: many filmmakers now feel like they don't need to tell a "monster story" just because they want to put a vampire or a zombie into their narrative. That means we've gotten more horror-comedy (especially satire) and other genre blends out of the deal. Now, out of Australia comes The Caretaker, a vampire film that straddles the line between a white-knuckle thriller and gory horror flick. Such line-straddling earns the film high marks for trying, though not all viewers will appreciate the film's lofty genre aims.
It's the middle of nowhere Australia, and a wave of vampirism has swept the countryside. As the film opens, a doctor (Mark White) arrives at a lonely farmhouse, ostensibly to tend a sick woman. However, he's really a vampire seeking shelter. At the farmhouse is also a group of people afraid of the rampant vampirism that's spreading through their environment. The doctor agrees to protect the group from nocturnal predators if they'll protect him during the day. This uneasy alliance is tested as the vampirism spreads.
Like many genre films, The Caretaker relies on a set of common tropes to drive its story. This is not a wholly original film; we've seen this kind of semi-siege film before, usually with robbery or ransom-driven storylines. The inclusion of the vampire, though, gives the film a kick that similar genre films lack. The fact that proverbial lambs must guard the wolf to live another day heightens the tension throughout the entire film, and grounding the vampirism in virus-like behavior gives the film a reality that similarly helps its tense mood.
The film does a fantastic job of bucking every trend in low-budget horror. Where many films with no money would go for quick-'n'-dirty tactics, The Caretaker spends as much time making a beautiful film as it does making a scary one. The cinematography is positively gorgeous, the kind of imagery that ends up in tourist bureau videos. The beauty that the film strives for helps make the horror all the more difficult. This is helped by a score that relies on more classical elements like strings and piano. These give the film a melancholy weight that builds atmosphere in ways that crunchy industrial or metal simply can't match. The film is, of course, willing to go deeply into the genre pool when it needs to, though. There are some solid gore effects, vampire transformations, and other scary stuff when it's called for; they just don't play out quite like the usual low-budget feature.
The Caretaker is aided by a solid DVD release as well. The film's 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer is excellent. Though obviously not up to the standards of multi-million dollar productions, this film still looks great. Colors are well-saturated, blacks are deep and consistent, and detail remains strong throughout. Digital artifacts aren't a problem, either. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track keeps dialogue audible and well-balanced, while the surrounds seem used mainly for cues from the score. It's a fine mix for a mostly dialogue movie.
Extras start with a commentary featuring writer/director Mark Conyers and actor/producer Mark White. The pair of chatty about the trials and tribulations of low-budget filmmaking, splitting their time between technical discussion and production stories. A making-of featurette is also included, running 20 minutes, that mixes on-set footage with interviews. There's also a weird music video that combines scenes from the film, outtakes, and dialogue with a techno beat, all with a goofy sense of fun. The film's teaser and theatrical trailers are included as well.
The film might be a bit too moody, a bit too atmospheric for some. The swerves away from genre expectations will no doubt be read by some viewers as stabs at pretensions well beyond the scope of a low-budget vampire flick. Others will no doubt hold the film's low budget against it: the acting isn't perfect, the script not entirely polished, the effects a bit suspect. They all come with the genre/budget territory, but that's not to everyone's liking.
The Caretaker is an amazing debut feature from writer/director Tom Conyers. It plays fast and loose with genre expectations and crafts a gorgeous-looking film out of a dark plot. Though it won't be to all genre fans' taste, it's worth a rental for fans of low-budget flicks, offbeat vampire films, and those who appreciate independent film.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.76:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Music Video