Tecate, Mexico: 35 years ago, Luis contracted vampirism. He was caught, and buried alive by his fiancée’s father and the local priest – paralysed by a large cross that was placed on his coffin. But now he is free and is looking for revenge. Or for a fresh start…
A second narrative strand introduces us to three Californian college girls. The two narratives merge almost immediately, so I am not sure why we needed those supposed Malibu scenes. They are very short and tell us nothing about these characters that a 30-second conversation at a later point couldn’t have told us just as well.
The central character here is Marciela, whose Mexican aunt, Sarita, has suffered a stroke. Sarita, by the way, is the above-mentioned fiancée of Luis. Sarita is still aware of her surroundings, but she cannot communicate any more, which is crucial for the narrative as she is almost the only one left who knows about Luis. With 5 weeks left before the new college term starts, Marciela travels to Mexico and look after her aunt for a while – and her two friends decide to accompany her. Of course Marciela, who just happens to look just like her aunt did 35 years ago, manages to run into Luis within hours of arriving at her aunt’s ranch. And Luis is torn between his desire for revenge and his desire for a fresh start.
The film’s cold-opening sequence is quite effective as a “teaser”. It is only four-and-a-half minutes long, and it sets the time & place as well as the tone of the film, without giving too much away. Desert of Blood employs the setting and imagery that you expect from films that fall broadly into the “Southwestern Gothic” genre. Add to that the appropriate musical score, and you have yourself a well-made, if clichéd, atmosphere.
In terms of looks, atmosphere, and most technical aspects, *Desert of Blood* is a rather decent and well-made B-movie, but it does have its fair share of creative problems. The main problems are that the plot is a bit thin; that the final showdown is lacklustre; and that the character of Luis is somewhat poorly written, with ill-defined character motivation and confusing, at times erratic character development.
Among the problems with Luis’s character is the fact that he is almost exclusively feeling sorry for himself, but not for others. And this is not even the deep, psychological self-hate that some vampire stories employ (whatever you may think about that). Luis merely comes across as self-centred and brattish. That is a writing problem, but possibly more so a directing problem. Not that the distinction matters, as the writer and the director are one and the same person (Don Henry). The problem with the writing in Luis’s case also extends to the fact that one of the key issues here was clearly meant to be his inner conflict: which desire do I prioritise over the other? Revenge, or fresh start? Past, or present? But while this conflict is there, it is not written well enough, not used well enough.
To a similar degree, not enough is made of the fact that after her stroke Sarita can still understand everything, but not effectively communicate. The actress, Yvonne Rawn, plays this situation very well. But the script is just not sophisticated enough to milk even a fraction of the drama and despair that this constellation has to offer.
Smaller problems include the fact that Marciela’s two friends are barely more than eye-candy. They serve little to no function in this story. It also seems to me that there was an attempt to introduce a comic relief character in the form of Carlos (played by Mike Dusi), a small-time gangster Luis teams up with for some reason. His main function in the script seems to be to give Luis someone to talk to, but, as I said, there also seems to be an attempt at comic relief – but that plan was never seen through.
The acting itself is mostly fine. Actually, for a minor vampire B-movie with a thin plot, the acting is more than fine, it is surprisingly solid (not counting the child actors). The solid acting extends to all central roles, whether leading or supporting, including performances by Flint Esquerra and Spanish actor/pop-star Naim Thomas; although Thomas’s character is one example of characters in this film who were in need of better writing.
A small problem lies in the fact that – despite her solid acting – lead actress Brenda Romero (Marciela) just does not command enough screen presence for her role. Again, poor writing in one or two scenes exacerbated that impression.
There is a minor but noticeable issue with understanding the dialogue. Maybe it is just because English is not my first language, but the fact that most characters spoke with a Mexican accent may have been part of the problem. But it also extended to accent-free characters at times, so I am not sure if there is a general problem with the audio. Not to mention the usual difficulties that several actors have when it comes to talking while wearing artificial vampire teeth. On top of that, Justin Quinn (Luis) suffers from general elocution problems in some scenes, even when not wearing fangs. Trying to fake a Mexican accent seems the root of the problem for him.
The make-up is unambitious but very well-done. It is limited to a pale face here and there, fangs, contact lenses (possibly supported by CGI), and very good-looking bite-wounds. The make-up is on level with all the other visual aspects of the film: as mentioned above, everything looks very well-done and professional. Another thing I liked about this film was the fact that Luis had contracted vampirism ( – neither “vampire” nor “vampirism” is ever mentioned by name in this film, by the way – ) not too long before being buried alive, and that he never really knew what this thing was that was happening to him. It seems that for him it was all a bit “learning-by-doing”, so when he is now asked by others about this or that practical aspect of vampire existence, his answer is more or less “I guess so, I’m not sure.” It’s a nice bit of “realism”, but underplayed and underused.
As I pointed out, Desert of Blood is a well-made, good-looking and decently acted B-movie that is mainly held back by its thin plot and some poor writing. Still, with its short net running time of 78 minutes, you could give it a go if you are looking for something really undemanding. But it is definitely not worth the 4.- Euros I paid for it.
For me, this film falls into the 5-out-of-10 territory – and so it turned out to be far better than I initially expected. But I feel that – if you are looking for a Southwestern-Gothic vampire film of middling quality – The Forsaken is probably the more exciting choice?