Blood Vessel (2019) Directed by Justin Dix. In the waning days of the Second World War, a group of shipwreck escapees take refuge in a German U-boat filled with ancient vampires.
Minor spoilers follow.
We open on the stormy North Atlantic, as a life raft carries a weary and diverse band of survivors through the darkness. Here, we meet our protagonists: there’s American cook and mechanic Lydell Jackson, compassionate English nurse Jane Prescott, Aussie tough guy Nathan Sinclair, taciturn Russian sniper Alexander Teplov, cowardly English code breaker Gerard Faraday, greedy American con artist Jimmy Bigelow, and Aussie Captain Malone. The group were crew, medical staff or patients on board a hospital ship sunk by a German attack.
In short order, a flash of lightning over the waves reveals a ship headed straight for the raft. At first, the dehydrated and injured group is thrilled, until the wind unfurls Nazi flags on deck. A decision is ultimately made to board the ship anyway, and hope to be taken prisoner. The other option is to starve to death on the open sea. During the perilous transfer between raft and ship, one of the crew falls into water and is sucked into the propellers and eviscerated. Once the rest of the survivors are safely onboard the Nazi craft, they find the upper decks completely deserted. Teplov and Sinclair head to the bridge, where they discover an ancient book of obvious evil and the charred corpse of the U-boat’s captain. The man apparently set himself on fire after receiving multiple bite wounds. Jackson and Bigelow descend to the engine room, where they find that the boiler is close to exploding. To prevent this, the men power the engines down.
When the group reconvenes, they discover a young Italian girl named Mya hidden on the bridge. She doesn’t speak English and in her panic to escape, the child bites Jane on the hand. Eventually, she calms down enough for the group to ponder the mystery of how Mya came to be on a Nazi ship. Mya is able to communicate that she is searching for her parents. The group search the ship, leading to the discovery of a terrified German sailor in a locked cargo hold. At the sight of Mya, he wildly opens fire and shoots Teplov in the leg before being stopped. Jane takes the bleeding Russian and Mya to sick bay.
As the survivors disperse throughout the craft to look for food, Bigelow uncovers Nazi gold in the hold, along with a series of vampire-killing tools and two large crates. Overcome by greed, he pries open one of the crates to reveal an elaborately carved marble sarcophagus. Inside lies a dormant vampire with a large bat-like head. It opens glowing orange eyes and turns Bigelow into a punctured Capri Sun. It is implied that the vampire has been asleep for centuries upon centuries, and has very little idea what exactly is going on or what year it is. The creature, who is known as The Patriarch, rips open the second crate and frees his mate. With The Matriarch awakened, the two ghouls reach out psychically to their offspring.
In sick bay, Mya watches curiously as Jane removes a bullet from Teplov’s thigh. Suddenly, her blue eyes light up orange as campfires and the terror begins.
Before we get into what works and what doesn’t, lets discuss the characteristics and rules of these particular bloodsuckers. Many pieces of vampire fiction tweak the generally accepted mythology in some way, and Blood Vessel is no exception. A single bite from one of the vampires, even for a second and without blood drinking, results in a progressive infection that mentally enslaves the victim to the creatures. Like a puppet, the victim is forced to carry out various tasks. The vampires can cast glamours, appearing as the loved ones of a potential victim. They don’t seem to be as superhumanly strong as they are psychic, preferring mind control and illusions over all out brawling. There isn’t a great emphasis on physicality-no superhuman speed, no ripping humans in half, etc. Each of the three vampires are psychically linked and experience each other’s sensations. They are vulnerable to fire, decapitation and holy water.
The monsters, particularly The Patriarch, are impressively done with practical makeup effects. It would’ve been cheaper to have the creatures just look like pale humans, so I appreciate the work that went into making them into actual hideous creatures. The effects work throughout the film is very well realized, as is the U-boat setting itself. The claustrophobia of the tight corridors, the dimness and shadows, the historical realism.
I oddly enjoyed the fact that the vampires are Italian and speak the language throughout with subtitles. We really don’t get enough Italian bloodsuckers in horror cinema.
There are no weak links in terms of performance or Russian accents.
Blood Vessel is almost entirely devoid of the first word in its title. It needn’t be a gore fest, but this is what vampires feed on. We have to see some tasty crimson. The two major scenes of the creatures feeding on humans are cut away from swiftly. Why? Give us what we want in a vampire film, which is helpless victims being drained like ice cold beer on a hot summer night. Take a look at John Badham’s underrated 1979 Dracula film. During the ill fated voyage of The Demeter, the title vampire annihilates the ship’s crew in a frenzy of violence. This liveliness and frenetic action is exactly what Blood Vessel is lacking. It’s not enough to mash vampires and World War II tropes together. You have to then actually invest that concept with energy and gusto.
The monsters, while aesthetically compelling, seem hobbled by the script. With their extraordinary powers and invulnerability to firearms and other traditional weapons of the era, they should easily overwhelm the clueless humans. Instead, they kind of stand around a lot and gesture menacingly without doing much. They are also amazingly easy to both deceive, trap and kill. It leeches the drama out of the situation and makes the villains seem ineffectual. I assumed the film would end with a lone surviving human like Jane fighting the bloodsuckers in a hopeless last stand, but that’s not at all what happens. I wanted creeping, bleak dread on the high seas. There’s a moment in which Teplov and Sinclair trade jokey banter just before taking on dozens of vampire Nazis, and it felt at odds with the grim and oppressive tone that dominates the earlier acts of the film. I’m all for breaking up the tension with a laugh, but not in a way that feels dismissive of the actual danger the characters are facing. This shouldn’t feel like the Brendan Fraser Mummy flicks.
Blood Vessel is a missed opportunity. It begins with an appealing sense of hopeless dread, only to fritter that dark sensibility away in favor of something weaker and formulaic. There’s still hope for future efforts of the vampires on the ocean niche, but this ship has failed.