It's no exaggeration to say that World War II was a war of many horrors, but as the years have passed, storytellers have used the shocking, world-spanning conflict as the backdrop for many gruesome stories that go above and beyond the battlefield.
Justin Dix's 'Blood Vessel' takes place in late 1945, somewhere in the North Atlantic ocean. The survivors of a torpedoed hospital ship are crowded onto a single life raft with no supplies. Things are looking grim until an abandoned German minesweeper emerges from the mist, giving them one last chance at survival.
Dix has assembled a terrific cast to play these reluctant Allies, comprised of Russian spy Alexander Teplov (Alex Cooke), Aussie digger Nathan Sinclair (Nathan Phillips, 'These Final Hours'), two Brits, compassionate Jane Prescott (Alyssa Sutherland, 'Arbitrage') and slimy Gerard Faraday (John Lloyd Fillingham), and a trio of Americans, including heroic Captain Malone (Robert Taylor, 'Rogue'), African American cook Lydell Jackson (Christopher Kirby, 'Upgrade') and Bronx loudmouth Jimmy Bigelow (Mark Diaco).
The tensions within the diverse group are a highlight. "I'm not going anywhere with that fascist", one of the Americans complains of the Russian in their midst, to which the Australian replies: "Communist, dickhead". Another standout is Sky Davies' cinematography as they board the ship, which is swathed in red lights against a variety of greys. Shot mostly inside the HMAS Castlemaine (one of sixty Australian minesweepers built during World War II), the film's production design is impressive. The confined spaces create a claustrophobic environment for the ensuing action and help give a low-budget horror movie some larger-than-life atmosphere.
Upon exploring the seemingly deserted ship, the intrepid gang find mangled corpses, charred remains and a ton of gold bullion. They also stumble upon a Nazi soldier, who has barricaded himself in a room, and a young Romanian girl, Mya (Ruby Isobel Hall), anxious to return to her "famigilia".
If it isn't abundantly clear from the title, 'Blood Vessel' is a vampire movie. However, it takes 52 minutes before we see any bloodsucking action, which is far too long to watch people opening doors, finding items, and wandering through the titular vessel. While the bat-like baddies are impressive homunculi of practical effects wizardly, they sit around in a cargo hold for the most part, working some mind control mojo on their hapless victims and flapping their clawed hands around.
Unlike the films that it draws inspiration from (the first two 'Alien' movies and John Carpenter's 'The Thing' are big reference points), 'Blood Vessel' lacks tension and scares.
I'm guessing that Dix chose to hold off on the action due to budgetary constraints, but he neglected to fill that dead air with anything substantial. Unlike the films that it draws inspiration from (the first two 'Alien' movies and John Carpenter's 'The Thing' are big reference points), 'Blood Vessel' lacks tension and scares. It doesn't even have over-the-top bloodshed to fall back on, like Robert Rodriguez's 'From Dusk till Dawn'. In fact, the film feels like a cross between a long episode of Guillermo del Toro's TV series 'The Strain' (which also featured WWII-era vamps and a hulking Nosferatu with telepathy) and special-effects specialist turned director Steve Beck's wearisome 'Ghost Ship' (minus the undiscriminating nudity and gore).
Subverting a cliché-heavy genre template requires a tricky balancing act: the setup needs to look conventional, but if it's too conventional, the audience may fall asleep before the twist kicks in. Despite some decent (if familiar) work from the makeup, prosthetics, and special effects teams, the lethargic pacing and lack of substantive innovation in 'Blood Vessel' means the end result is disappointingly lifeless.
It does have a cool title, though.