FilmQuest Review: Blood Vessel (2019)
by Jeremy Herbert
If you crashed your average war movie into John Carpenter’s The Thing, you'd get something like director and co-writer Justin Dix’s Blood Vessel. By any technical standard, it’s a hell of a cocktail. The movie’s floating centerpiece, the historic HMAS Castlemaine, is shrewdly shot to pieces. Every rusty pipe and nondescript dial has a moment to shine in Sky Davies’s two-tone cinematography, all seasick-teal and traditional sanguine-red. Whatever the budget might’ve been, Blood Vessel looks more expensive than that and using an actual battleship of the proper vintage has a little something to do with it. The monsters, when they finally arrive, also help. Before directing, Dix made a name for himself as the head of practical effects studio, Wicked of Oz. That blood-and-rubber pedigree shows in every loving close-up on the vampires. I hesitated to give away that surprise— the synopsis for its FilmQuest premiere said the v-word first — so instead I won’t shed too much light on their style. It’s impressive, original, and, most importantly, terrifying.
Trouble is, fresh look or not, we know vampires. So as our band of central casting brothers scrapes together enough clues and a convenient film reel to figure it out, the intrigue only holds until they open an obviously cursed book. You know it’s cursed because there’s an impeccably carved skull on the cover and the spine is a literal, human spine. The mystery is solved. The bloodshed should be starting any minute. It doesn’t, though. Plenty of plasma is spilled, to Blood Vessel’s credit, but it still plays coy past the point we’ve all caught up. This works in The Thing because even if we can point at an alien and know it’s an alien, we still have no idea what it’s capable of. Despite a somewhat underused twist to their abilities, Blood Vessel’s vampires act as you know they do. Whether budgetary or artistic, the choice to keep one foot on the brake, stopping just shy of unbridled blood-sucking chaos, leaves the last half hour dry. You can only watch vampires control so many bitten souls from the safe confines of the cargo hold before wondering why they don’t stretch their legs a little.
But such is the eternal struggle of submarine movies. Technically Vessel is a different, well, vessel, but nobody’s going to split those hairs when the cast ducks into yet another claustrophobic corridor echoing with an ambiguous drip. While it works airless wonders for the tension between survivors, the cramped location just gives the speedy, potentially warp-capable vampires something to trip over. Toward the end, a door marked DON’T OPEN is opened, revealing what I took for a different kind of undead entirely. It’s not, but it was enough to make me wonder what a difference a monster makes.
Blood Vessel does a whole lot right. It almost immediately checks off Joe Bob Briggs’s most criminally overlooked rule and lets us know anyone can die at any time. The vampires are horrifying in their own special way. There’s not a weak link in the cast, with especially strong running-jumping-slaying-vampire heroics from Nathan Phillips and Alex Cooke. The standout is Ruby Isobel Hall as the curiously young stowaway, Mya, who watches her new friends with surveillance camera eyes that never seem to blink. But there’s also not an actor in the bunch that wouldn’t have been better served with roles that transcended their archetypes. Alyssa Sutherland plays Jane Prescott, the only woman aboard the lifeboat, more than capably, but it’s disheartening to watch the character go through such familiar motions. She tells the boys to stop fighting. She tends to their wounds. She becomes a surrogate mother to the stowaway as a means to cope with the daughter she lost to war.
The pitch is irresistible and the execution is stunning, but the actual nuts and bolts of Blood Vessel are rusty. Like the failing engine keeping the ghost ship afloat, if Vessel had any less gas in the tank, the whole thing would probably blow itself to visually stunning smithereens.