The Last Sect (2006)

Journalist Sydney St. James is tasked to write a story that involves internet dating websites. One mysterious site called “Artemis” is on her agenda, and when she turns up for a scheduled interview Artemis’s boss Anna fascinates and unnerves her. Anna’s description of Artemis’s niche in the market is that the site gives women more control and information than men. Meanwhile, in a different part of town, an assistant of Professor Van Helsing’s discovers that the Artemis website and another mysterious website called The Vampire Web seem to be run by the same people.

 

The film often jumps between these two worlds: Van Helsing’s office and his research on the one hand, and Sydney’s work and private life on the other. Not that there is much of a private life to talk about. Apart from her outrageously cinematic name, Sydney St. James has little excitement in her life, a life that is beset by routine and increasing frustration.

The two strands of narrative, Sydney’s and Van Helsing’s, do never really intersect until the second act is nearly over and there are less than 15 minutes of film left. And the jumps between the two worlds happen too often at times, especially at the beginning, and those short scenes and quick cuts are irritating. In order not to confuse the audience, the filmmakers throw in screen captions, telling you what or where the current location is. They do that with really big letters dropping into view from above, single-file, and accompanied by irritating sound effects. Visually and acoustically I find that pretty annoying, and not fitting for the genre.

 

 

The cast is decent and the acting is good throughout. The “selling-point” for this film is, of course, David Carradine, even though his character’s actions do not amount to much. With the exception of one scene, Carradine’s Van Helsing only sits in his office talking (in scenes that probably took not more than a day or two to shoot). Still, his delivery makes the forced exposition somewhat endurable with which he and Jordan Van Dyck (playing the assistant) are saddled. I wish Van Dyck would be cast in more things, as he clearly has a lot to offer in an oddball role. As for Carradine, he even pulls off a surprising moment of perfect deadpan humour, which I did not know he had in him.

The person stealing the show, however, is character actor Julian Richings as Karpov. An elderly man with the looks of an undertaker and the impeccable dress-sense of an old-school mobster, Karpov is Van Helsing’s agent and a trained killer. Halfway through the story, he delivers the first “teaser fight scene” of the film, but there are only two others to follow, including the final showdown. In all, there are only six minutes of fighting in this film, and almost all of it involves Karpov. Structurally, his character feels a bit like an afterthought. So I wonder if his scenes were supposed to be Carradine’s scenes (easily imaginable within the film’s plot) and that Carradine was ill or otherwise physically unable to go through with the fight choreography in those scenes so that the writer and/or the director had to pull a white rabbit out of the hat and invent an additional character.

As for the other story-line, Natalie Brown (The Strain) is a pleasure to watch and gives a very good performance as Sydney St. James. Sebastien Roberts gives an equally enjoyable performance as Sydney’s laddish photographer Sam. Both roles, however, do not have nearly enough meat to allow the actors to show their talent. Smaller, equally well-cast roles include Megan Fahlenbock as Sydney’s best friend Jess and brief appearances by Richard Blackburn as Sydney’s boss Luke and Rosalba Martinni as a fortune teller.

The actors are not only good individually, the main pairings also have great chemistry: Brown and Roberts are playing off of each other very well, and – as I indicated above – the interaction between Carradine and Van Dyck is extremely enjoyable.

On the villains’ side, there is only one character worth mentioning, and Deborah Odell fills that role competently, but the script gives her character no story-arch and no depth to latch on to. There may be actresses who could have made that character “alluring” or “mysterious” in spite of these obstacles, but Odell is not one of them. Abandoned by the writing and directing, Odell’s villain falls flat, which has a noticeable negative impact on the overall film.

 

 

I am not sure how much of the film’s tight 1.5 million CAD budget went to the cast and crew, but it is clear that there was little to no money spent on either special effects or make-up. The make-up of the male vampires looks on par to the one Buffy’s vampires had on television back in the late ‘90s. I find that sufficient for a low-budget B-movie, but at least Buffy tried to have “dusting” effects for killed vampires, even if those effects were pretty poor in the early seasons. In The Last Sect, however, killed vampires simply fall to the ground – that’s it. Again, I am all for budget-conscious creative decisions if you have to deal with a tiny budget – but there is no harm in cutting away quickly from the body and replacing it with a pile of ash before the camera sweeps past the next time. That has been done before, and effectively.

The camera work is average, but there is one visual trick that, again, falls in the cheap-but-effective category: in one dream/vision sequence, the picture is jittering, put through some sort of colour filter, and is at times sped up or slowed down, so that the whole scene feels like a disturbance in the normal flow of time and space.

The music for this film is remarkably well-chosen. The sets are limited in number, but are mostly looking pretty decent; except for a “dungeon” which looks rather poor. The design of the opening titles sequence is interesting in its own way, and certainly cost-sensitive, but in my opinion it does not fit the look nor the tone of the film.

 

 

Yet, while the acting is good, and the visual aspects overall adequate for the budget, there are some significant problems with the writing. A big one being the fact that, as mentioned above, the two strands of narrative are completely separate almost up to the finale.

Another one is that a lot of things are simply too coincidental and convenient. For example, Van Helsing’s assistant looks into the two websites (“The Vampire Web” and “Artemis”), because he has discovered that they “originate through the same server”. At the same time (a bit of a coincidence already), Sydney and Sam do come across both websites. But Sydney is researching Artemis, while Sam simply shows her The Vampire Web (just for fun) at the very same moment as they are going to leave for the Artemis interview. That is just pure plot convenience.

In general, that whole “dangerous internet dating” angle feels mightily tired and overdone – but maybe that is just a “2016 thought”. Maybe it would not have felt that way back in 2006.

 

Then there are, of course, the usual minor plot holes and inconsistencies we are used to in B-movies, but also a lot of underdeveloped themes and missed opportunities. The whole film feels like it is never actually going anywhere. Problems with data protection, for example, are hinted at, but the idea plays no role for this plot.

Then there is Artemis, a women-oriented dating website, combined with a vampire culture in which the “sect” is run by women, who are vampires in the traditional sense: individuals thinking independently, making their own decisions, etc. At the same time, male vampires are merely foot-soldiers, brainless underlings that do the sect’s bidding and at times resemble zombies much more than vampires. So there is a clear feminist angle in this film, but that angle is never really explored. This also includes one throwaway line about the vampire hunters being defenders of the patriarchal status quo – an idea the filmmakers make zero use of. There is also a question of moral relativity (are the hunters really the “good guys”, and the vampires really the “baddies”?), which is similarly mentioned in a split second but never picked up.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not of the opinion that the film has to discuss these themes. I am equally happy if it discusses none of them. But what a film really mustn’t do is to first tentatively float such ideas and topics…… and to then never touch the subject again. That is just bad storytelling

 

The actual plot itself is very thin. Excluding the credits, the film has a net running time of 79 minutes. Over six and a half minutes of those are wasted on pointless dream sequences, and twice as much time is spent by people looking at computer screens where either nothing is happening, or nothing new, or nothing important. It just slows down an already slow-moving film. At one point, Van Helsing slams his assistant’s laptop shut and says “Don’t waste your time on that thing!”, and I couldn’t have agreed more.

Of the 60 minutes that remain for the story, a lot is sacrificed to exposition and some more to Sydney’s indecisiveness.

 

What I am trying to say is that there is simply not much actually happening in this film. The film is hinting at a world of secret vampire sects and millennia of back-story, but we only ever get to know one vampire that really matters, and as a villain she simply does not work well enough – as mentioned above.

It seems that, instead of acts and events, The Last Sect tries to aim for atmosphere. Some sort of moody, female-centric painting of a film. And it tries to be vaguely erotic, and includes clear lesbian eroticism. But that does not work either, though I am not sure why. Part of it certainly is because Odell’s character Anna is simply not intriguing; another part of the problem might be that we never feel that Sydney has any desires of her own (hidden or otherwise), so none of the things that happen have any deeper meaning on a personal level.

 

Therefore, throughout this film, there is no tension, no arc of suspense. And this is the biggest problem I have with the script. As I said, the film feels not like a story in which there are actually things happening – it feels more like a mild fever dream, and not an interesting one at that. In a parallel universe, someone probably made a pretentious art house film on that basis, but not in this universe; and as a vampire B-movie, The Last Sect clearly falls flat.

 

Now, the failure to successfully build an arc of suspense is something that cannot necessarily be blamed on the script alone – maybe the fault lies equally (or predominantly) with the director and the editor.

And there are clear editing problems in the film, such as the many quick jumps between the two strands of the narrative, as mentioned above. There is also a scene at the end that feels like it should be an after-credit or mid-credit scene, but that is tacked onto the “main” film before the credits start to roll.

There are many problems with the directing as well. I mean, just think about it: in this film, you have scenes in which two beautiful women are making out (and a similar scene involving a man), and many scenes in which semi-naked men are shackled to a table and bitten and licked by attractive, scantily-clad women. And somehow the director managed to make all of this utterly dull and boring. There is no erotic allure to any of this. Zero. And I would be hard pressed to blame the writer for this failure. The film also suffers from a final showdown that is rather disappointing. Budget probably plays a major role here, but still the director would have needed to pull off more, by whatever means, in order to save the finale. What we have in that finale is barely more than a handful of people, repeatedly running into the same corridor and back again into the dungeon, because the production for this scene apparently had not more rooms to offer in terms of sets. It just looks stupid; and the fights are mostly disappointing. That feeling is so overwhelming, because – just minutes before – we had a short but much better-looking fight scene with Karpov, not to mention the “teaser” in the second act, with Karpov in a very brief fight sequence that is both fascinating and amusing (though not so much physically challenging). Karpov is just an all around cool dude, and those two earlier fighting scenes raised expectations that the finale was not at all able to meet.

 

 

Because of the many shortcomings of the script, the thin plot, the missing suspense, and the general lack of direction, this film can – in spite of its cast – not be rated any higher than 2.5 or 3.0 out of 10. If there was a bit more of Julian Richings’s Karpov in this film, I would still recommend people check it out. But as it stands, I suggest you give this one a miss.

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