Sunday, August 18, 2019

Popcorn Frights 2019, Day 9: Bit (2019)

Popcorn Frights ended with a bang: only one movie, but it was a good one.

Bit (2019)

Not yet rated

Score: 4 out of 5

At last year's Popcorn Frights event, I thought that Boogeyman Pop was a flawed, but still enjoyable anthology horror flick, one imbued with a punk-rock aesthetic and mood that went beyond just the look of the film and seemed to inform its characters and loose story as well. Most of the problems I had with it came down more to its long, drawn-out production than anything; it was a film that its creator, Brad Michael Elmore, had put together over the course of a few years, with some parts clearly having more polish than others and its different segments feeling like they were written at various points. I left the theater wondering what this guy could accomplish with a real budget and filmmaking schedule behind him, as a great deal of promise showed through even with that film's low budget. Well, here we are with his newest feature film, a vampire movie called Bit that promised The Lost Boys meets Ginger Snaps -- two great teen horror flicks that fused monster-movie camp with countercultural attitude. I'm happy to say that Bit certainly lives up to its inspirations, a daring and in-your-face film that's got some great characters, plenty of style, and isn't afraid to press a few buttons, especially those of the crowd that might normally hear those words and think this movie's tailor-made for them.

The protagonist Laurel is a teenage girl from Oregon who's recently graduated high school and has decided to spend the summer living with her brother Mark in Los Angeles. This turns out to be a bad move right out of the gate, as she is immediately targeted by a group of female vampires who turn her into one of them. And the moment we're introduced to this girl gang, you can't help but root for them. Their leader, Claire Duke, is immediately charismatic, clad in a white leather jacket as she sets out to do exactly what vampires do in these sorts of movies: drink the blood of unsuspecting men, from trust-fund assholes at the bar to a far-right Twitter troll. And in case you couldn't tell from her targets, she and her gang have a moral code, figuring that, if they have to kill people to survive, they may as well kill people that society would be better off without. Laurel is forced to quickly acclimate to her new life as a vampire, complicated by both her queasiness at drinking blood and the lengths Duke is willing to go to ensure that Laurel follows her code.

This film is political, and unabashedly so, with Duke presented as more or less a feminist version of Tyler Durden from Fight Club, William Foster from Falling Down, or Killmonger from Black Panther. She's the antagonist, to be sure, but one who makes cogent points about society that the film more or less agrees with, criticizing her only for how far she takes it. When she lays out precisely why she and her gang never turn men into vampires (depicted in a vivid and exceptionally well-shot scene set to Boney M.'s "Rasputin" that makes me want to see a vampire movie set in '70s Times Square), you can't help but sympathize with her basic point: why give even more power to people who have abused that which they already have? This runs into complications, however, as the story goes on and Laurel's brother Mark gets roped in, and these complications rely heavily on subtext. While the film never explicitly states it, it does all it can to hint otherwise that Laurel is transgender, much like her actress Nicole Maines (from the Supergirl TV show), and in many ways Duke's worldview is rooted in a deep sense of gender essentialism about the nature of men and women. Once that context is added to the picture, the conflict between Laurel and Duke, initially presented as just Laurel blanching at how far Duke is willing to go, suddenly takes on another meaning. Duke becomes representative of the second-wave feminists who came of age amidst the women's liberation movement in the '70s and '80s, and the heroine Laurel in turn represents the more modern, intersectional breed of such who often feel that the analyses of the prior generation, while undoubtedly important when it comes to smashing the patriarchy, are limiting, lacking in nuance, and even problematic in some of their own ways. Again, all this is subtext, but it adds layers to the conflict between Duke and Laurel that emerges as the film goes on.

All that is well and good, but this wouldn't be a vampire movie if that conflict didn't have a lot of gnashing of fangs and spilled blood. Duke and her crew may be attractive female vampires, and some (but not all) of them are lesbians, but the aesthetic the film draws on for them is less Hammer Horror or Underworld, with sexy, pale creatures of the night draped in either low-cut evening gowns or skin-tight black leather, and more Kathleen Hanna and Courtney Love. They're the riot grrrl version of the punk-rock vampires from The Lost Boys, with Duke as David, and they love ensnaring would-be vampire hunters who think that, say, vampires don't know how to use modern weaponry. They look like fierce predators as they prowl the streets and bars of Los Angeles, and they walk the walk, too, courtesy of both capable performances from the cast and plenty of creative hunting sequences. The atmosphere that Elmore brought to Boogeyman Pop is once more on full display, slightly altered owing to the different setting and characters but still feeling grungy and weird, the soundtrack once more filled with punk rock to set the tone of a life on the edge. Laurel's transformation is presented almost as somebody turning into a slacker after high school, unsure of what to do with her life and wishing to just spend most of her time under the covers at home with the blinds closed (sunlight doesn't kill them, but it is annoying and disorienting) rather than going out. For her, Duke's gang represents an escape, initially one she has mixed feelings about but which offers her something bold and daring. And I'm just gonna say it, there was something cathartic about watching these vampires take on the scum of society, people who, in this film's world, deserve little more than to be disposable victims in a horror movie but in real life get to harass and demean others at will with zero lasting repercussions.

The Bottom Line

Bit made for a great finale for Popcorn Frights, a new entry to the canon of vampire movies, and hopefully a stepping stone for Elmore's career. I can't wait to watch it again when it hits home video.

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