Frost: Portrait of a Vampire (2003)

A present day crime scene serves as an introduction to a main plot that takes place a decade earlier. Jack Frost and his secret ops team have seen a lot of violence and death around the world. And once, in Afghanistan, they encountered a man of whom people said that he was cursed.
When Jack chose to retire and transition into civilian life, some of his team stayed in the war-game and became mercenaries. But one day, one of their missions does not end as planned. Jack has not forgotten his training, and he sets out to revenge his friends. But it soon appears that not all of them are as dead as it first seemed.
With the bodies piling up back home, Jack will have to suspend his disbelief and he will have to confront one of those closest to him.

 

 

Frost was written and directed by visual effects specialist Kevin VanHook. It was his first feature film, and while his main career in the past two decades has been in effects work for network television and major Hollywood productions, he has on occasion written and directed a few more passion projects since Frost, most notably 2006’s vampire film Slayer.

 

Frost was clearly done on a very limited budget, with a cast that consists in part of people who are not full-time actors. The post-production seems to have stretched over quite some time. VanHook not only, wrote and directed this film, he did a number of other things as well, including the editing. And I think it is fair to say that this film shows signs of too much control by VanHook and too little outside influence.

 

The writing is not bad, but it is not too good either. There is some forced exposition that shows inexperience. And while the story is interesting, it is possibly too convoluted. VanHook’s decision to have this construction of going back 10 years for his main plot, and then forward a few months, etc., makes for a slightly muddled story. More importantly, it creates so much back-story and build-up that it takes up the larger part of the film, with the main confrontation beginning too late. The vampire character in this film is the story’s biggest asset, but he only gets proper room in the final 25 minutes of this film. That decision weighs all the heavier since the actor, Charles Lister, delivers the best performance of the entire cast. Experiencing him so late in the film automatically makes you regret that there was not more use made of him earlier.

One reason for this structure is probably VanHook’s wish to show Jack on a solo mission. After all, he is our protagonist, and the film bears his name. Apart from the fact that this makes you feel like you are watching three shorter films in stead of one long one, there is also the problem that the actor playing Jack, Jeff Manzanares, does not have enough charisma or screen presence to make this solo mission work, despite the fact that he is not a terrible actor.

It is difficult to see what VanHook could have done differently when it comes to time. He obviously wanted to have a “frame” so he could put Gary Busey – the only known actor in the cast list – at the beginning and end of the film; giving him more prominence and also making up for the fact that his screen-time overall is limited. And since the main plot itself does have to contain a time-gap as well, you are already on three different time levels from the get-go. So, if the layered time-line is not something you can get away from, the structural problems VanHook should have tackled relate to the fact that the main plot feels like it tells three shorter stories in succession. Again, probably a situation that stems from one original decision. I assume that VanHook wanted to save the final vampire reveal for late in the game; and he also wanted to have the confrontation with Jack rather late in the game. Both are valid decisions, but they make this feeling of the film having a fairly segmented nature almost inevitable. So at least VanHook should have tried to shift the weight of the segments, shorten Jack’s solo mission, and allow Lister’s character to open “his” second act earlier and have more screen time. But remember, we are talking about a first-time writer/director here, and these things are not easy.

 

 

As I just mentioned, the cast list’s “big name” is Gary Busey, in a supporting role that feels significant but that probably also allowed his scenes to be shot within two or three days. Busey gives a decent performance, but as his role as “Micah” is in part cliché, his performance is in part hammy. Busey plays a blind sage, the type of which you will occasionally find in a horror film – apparently equipped with heightened senses, and with a quarterstaff for good measure. But Micah is not just a well a wisdom, he is also an art dealer, a fence, and a man with information about some shady goings-on and with enough connections to organise special weapons on short notice. It’s a bit much, and all things considered I would not be surprised if this role was originally two separate roles which were amalgamated once Busey was on board in order to give him more screen-time.

The whole art angle is a bit of a dead end anyway. Apparently, special ops man Jack Frost paints and writes academic books about art. It is hard to tell why all this is in this film. It almost seems as if it is just a way to establish a shared back story between Jack and Micah. But their conversation about their latest art-related exploits – and the inevitable flashback that comes with it – is highly confusing, serves no purpose for the story, and muddies the water in this film even further considering the many timeline jumps and flashbacks we already have.

 

Other non-minor roles in this film are filled by Shane P. Allen, Karen Bailey, Alan Waserman, and stuntman Jason Rodriguez. Rodriguez and Bailey give very fine performances, but Bailey is somehow not given enough to do despite the fact that she has a fair amount of screen-time. Waserman has a limited role, but I listed him here because he displays significant screen-presence and charisma – so much so that the medium-length scene that he and Manzanares share suffers from their different levels of charisma.

The weakest overall performance out of this bunch might be that of Shane P. Allen as an ex-soldier and police officer. He certainly looks the part, and his performance in this somewhat thankless role is fairly average; but at times it is marred by decidedly sub-par line delivery.

And Allen is not the only one. There is on occasion some weak line delivery in this film. And it is often by actors who have no trouble with their lines in other scenes. This may be in part because this low-budget production did not always allow time for repeated additional takes of individual scenes. But there is also the fact that VanHook is probably not the greatest writer on earth and that some of the lines are just difficult to deliver naturally and convincingly – not to mention the fair amount of lines that I would count as “forced exposition”, which are very often lines any actor will struggle with.

As I said, the most enjoyable performance is that of Charles Lister as the vampire character. His character is well-written (although he has the occasional clunky line), and it is in many ways an over-the-top character. This allows Lister to give a hammy, over-the-top performance which does not necessarily need outstanding acting skills, but requires energy, charisma, skilful employment of mannerisms, and the willingness to go all out. And Lister is doing all that.

 

For the most part of the film, most of the sets and locations look rather unremarkable. When it switches from action/drama to horror (which is does rather late), the sets get better. In its horror parts, the film is also rather good at creating atmosphere with limited means; and it uses some powerful (though not new) imagery.

Practical effects such as make-up and blood-splatter look really good. In terms of special effects, there are war scenes and explosions, as well as a swarm of CG bats. As a specialist in that field, VanHook is able to pull this off on a sufficient level. This is by no means the type of CGI quality you would see on a Hollywood production with unlimited money and man-power. But for a 2001-2003 low-budget production stemmed largely by one person, it is rather impressive.

 

All-in-all, Frost: Portrait of a Vampire is a solid, low-budget B-movie with flaws. I would rate it at 3.5 to 4.0 out of 10. Personally, I prefer VanHook’s later attempt, Slayer.

Frost is not something you need to add to the top of your watch list. But Lister’s performance is enjoyable; so, unless you find this method sacrilegious, you might consider to simply watch the film’s final half hour (which also has better atmosphere, imagery, and sets than the rest of the film).

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