In the dying days of World War II, a lifeboat of Allied soldiers drifts across the North Atlantic. When the survivors see an approaching Nazi minesweeper, they figure alive and captured is better than dead and board the ship – only the entire crew seems to be missing, and something much more terrifying may still be on-board.
I believe any given film should be assessed based on three questions. Firstly, one needs to ask ‘What is the filmmaker trying to achieve?’. That in mind, it is important to ask ‘Were they successful in that attempt?’. Finally, and really only to be asked through the lens of the first two questions, one may ask ‘Is it any good?’ It is something that feels important to state when discussing Justin Dix’s 2019 horror film Blood Vessel, which was recently released in Australia via online rental and which is available to buy on DVD later this week. It is a shameless B-movie, produced on a tight budget with a largely unknown cast, and enthusiastically joins that specific sub-genre of ‘the Nazis mucked about with the occult and paid for it’ films including Michael Mann’s The Keep (1983), Joel Schumacher’s Blood Creek (2009), Julius Avery’s Overlord (2019), and others. Even popular action features like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Hellboy (2004) have their stories predicated on the Third Reich meddling with supernatural forces.
To return briefly to those three key questions: Dix is clearly aiming to make a pulp horror film set on an abandoned Nazi ship, and he unquestionably succeeds in that goal. The characters are broadly drawn and performed, the story is straight-forward and comfortably predictable, and there is plenty of shock-scares and gore to keep its target audience entertained. If you are not in that target audience, in all likelihood Blood Vessel will disappoint you – but it will be your fault. This is not a film that hides its stylistic intentions, and if you miss the key art, the title, the premise, or the first five minutes of the actual film – all of which are very clear on what sort of movie it is – then you only have yourself to blame.
To be scrupulously fair, Blood Vessel does open in a fairly abrupt and unsteady fashion that does not signal something particular good. A major character dies within minutes, and goes curiously unmourned by the survivors. On the other hand the opening act is mercifully swift, and the film improves considerably as it goes on.
Characters occupy cleanly-drawn archetypes, with helps in identifying who is who from the earliest stages. Performance qualities vary, although two standouts are Nathan Phillips as Australian soldier Sinclair and Alex Cooke as the Russian sailor Teplov. Both characters are steeped in cultural cliches, but in a good-natured and amiable fashion. The acting accentuates the humour of each man nicely.
Technically the film has its drawbacks – likely the result of a modest budget – but it also boasts a wonderfully bold red-and-blue colour scheme and some exceptional practical effects work. The design and execution of the film’s main supernatural menace is particularly strong.
It is great to see Australian filmmakers get into such a wonderful tradition of monster movies. If you are keen for a classic pulp experience with a good eye for genre convention, then Blood Vessel may just be the World War II supernatural monster flick for you.
Blood Vessel is now available online in Australia, and is released to DVD from tomorrow.