The New Orleans police department is just like any other police department in the country. But when it comes to dealing with a nearby deserted neighbourhood only referred to as “The Parish”, things work a bit differently. It is off-limits to the police, because it is vampire territory. Veteran detective Harry Ganet (Mike Doyle) knows this, but since it is not generally talked about – most citizens believe the people squatting there to be a weird religious cult – and since the detectives concerned prefer to keep the circle of those in-the-know rather small, Harry hesitates to tell his rookie partner Roy (Danny Agha) the truth. Through bad luck and bad timing, Roy runs into the vampires only hours after he started his new job, and since he does not know the rules of engagement, his life is at risk.
Harry tries to protect Roy, but he knows that he cannot protect him forever. Things get increasingly more complicated, and soon Roy is not the only one who needs Harry’s protection.
Right from the start, this film seemed very promising. Great locations and sets, good make-up and costumes, a fittingly unnerving musical score, and most of all: decent world-building. The acting was also not too shoddy, so I was beginning to hope that I might have stumbled upon a sleeper hit.
Unfortunately, however, the film was unable to keep up this level of quality. The world-building, which started out promisingly as a “world-teasing”, sold this world as believable, but it never follows through with fleshing out the details. This goes hand in hand with a problem with the vampire characters: Trying to have a “complicated” environment with shifting alliances is a good thing, but this film tries to achieve this by staying far too vague when it comes to details about the society, its rules, its balance of power, etc.
This is in part connected to the fact that this film’s protagonists are the two human cops (especially Harry) and that the film is told from their perspective. This human perspective is undoubtedly the right choice, but – again – it means that we learn too little about the plans, personalities and motivations of the vampire characters.
The human characters are also a bit “under-written” in the script. While Harry is cliched he is almost a 3-dimensional character, but his new partner Roy is not. Roy is presented to us a strong-willed, honest, and religious, but nothing about that ever comes back later in the film in a useful manner that would further the narrative. That (together with a lack of screen-time) means that Roy stays a pretty pale, “we-hardly-knew-ye” character. One point where this short-coming in character-writing hurts a story element is in Harry’s and especially Roy’s relationship with the young runaway girl Katherine (played very well by Olivia Renee Dupepe). In the first act, Roy promises Katherine that no harm will come to her, but the film fails to establish how much that promise means to Roy, or how protective Harry feels of her, etc. Near the end of the film, a lot is made of Katherine’s fate and attempts to rescue her. But in between, there is nothing that would set this up or establish a significance for this sub-plot.
There are other plot problems. The main one for me lies in the fact that the – apparently vindictive – Moldero vampire clan is somewhat flexible with its need for revenge and conflict. It is big or small, urgent or not, depending on what is convenient for the plot. Which means that the Molderos (played by Estella Warren, Massimo Dobrovic, and Billy Blair) often appear to have odd priorities, sitting around for too long doing nothing, waiting to be attacked instead of going on a counter-offensive, etc.
The fight scenes are nothing to shout about, but there are one or two short bits of choreography that looked nice. In general, the fights are the element where you see the limited budget most. They are mostly filmed in very dark conditions and you cannot see what is going on. Moreover, there are just not enough extras: with just a handful of people on screen at any given time, you never feel that this is a “battle”, it feels more like a brawl in a pub’s parking lot.
This relative emptiness (large buildings with comparatively little going on inside) also affects the Nocturna, the vampire night club run by Brisbane and his family (Lydia, played by Mariana Paola Vicente; and Dimitri, played by Lawrence Turner). You just never feel that there is any money to be made here, much less a living, as you never see more than a dozen people sitting around in a sparsely decorated room. The film’s atmosphere, which was kickstarted nicely in the beginning, started to suffer from this type of budgetary limitations.
Brisbane, by the way, is played by Jonathon Schaech, who also played the lead vampire in The Forsaken. The intervening 14 years have eaten away his youthfulness, but his unique face and steely eyes are still as impressive as ever.
As I said, Nocturna does a lot of things right, but the shortcomings start to pile up the longer the film goes on. Some of it has to do with the budget, but problems with the plot might stem from the inexperience of first-time writer-director Buz Alexander. It is difficult to describe, but the narrative feels like Alexander had certain milestones in mind that the plot should pass by on its way, certain story beats that he was aiming for; and it feels like he did not always care how the story got to these milestones, or always know what to do with the time in between.
Still, the film was not bad, had a lot of interesting things to offer, and was entertaining. Which is more than can be said for many similar films. I would rate it at 6 out of 10.