For the last two weekends, Salem Horror Fest 2020 gave fans a killer virtual outlet to experience all kinds of panels, podcast episodes, and indie horror films and shorts for fans from all over. Here’s a look at my thoughts on a trio of films that played during SHF 2020: Danni and the Vampire, The Last Thanksgiving, and Papi Ramirez vs Giant Scorpions.
Danni and the Vampire: As someone who can’t resist vampire movies or genre comedies, I absolutely loved Danni and the Vampire, which is the feature film debut from writer/director Max Werkmeister. A charming story about finding acceptance and connection in a world that is often cold and detached, the story follows the peculiar monster hunter of sorts, Danni (Alexandra Landau), who recently captured the Jersey Devil, and is doing her best to try and chase down that high once again. After she randomly hooks up with a guy at a bar, she finds herself mixed up in the crosshairs of two different cryptid activist organizations who both have their sights set on a vampire named Remy (Henry Kiely). But when Danni crosses paths with the bloodsucker, she decides to set him free and the two embark on a hilarious road trip with both travelers in pursuit of finding something more fulfilling in their lives.
While Danni and the Vampire is most definitely a horror comedy, Werkmeister’s script also thoughtfully explores the themes of personal gratification and human connection as well, as we watch Danni often hilariously struggle with trying to relate to others or feel that sense of satisfaction that she achieved after she was able to hunt down the Jersey Devil. She’s missing any sense of emotional attachment in this story, and she somehow finds it in the most unlikely of places: right alongside a vampire named Remy, who wants nothing more in this world but to build a vampire sanctuary so that his fellow creatures of the night have a respite from a society that would otherwise want them dead.
Both Landau and Kiely are fantastic together in Danni and the Vampire and their instantaneous charisma goes a long way in the film. They’re both quirky, likeable, not without their faults, and they are two entities that you can’t help but root for to make it through this story together. The film’s often neon-drenched palette and sunny aesthetic makes for some dazzling visuals here as well (it’s rare to see a vampire-centric movie utilize daylight the way this one does), and I also enjoyed how Werkmeister plays around with a few of the tropes of the monsters we see in the movie in some rather clever ways.
While it might have some rough edges production-wise, those seams hardly matter when you can create a story as irresistible as Danni and the Vampire. As far as directorial debuts go, Werkmeister makes a little go a along way with his first feature, and I’ll definitely be following his career from here.
Movie Score: 4/5
The Last Thanksgiving: Since we have a serious lack of Turkey Day horror, I was pretty stoked about The Last Thanksgiving from writer/director Erick Lorinc. The film is centered around a family of cannibals who spend their Thanksgiving rounding up those they feel don’t treat the holiday with the same sense of sanctity that they do, and they turn those unfortunate souls into their own Thanksgiving Day feast. But this year, as they attack a diner full of patrons and restaurant employees, they get more than they bargained for, proving that some traditions are worth dying for—and some definitely are not.
The Last Thanksgiving is mostly centered around Lisa-Marie Taft (Samantha Ferrand), a young woman who wants to be anywhere than at work on Turkey Day. She begrudgingly goes into work at the small-town greasy spoon where she works as a waitress, and when she arrives, she discovers that most of her co-workers aren’t exactly happy with having to spend their Thanksgivings away from home, either. But when a mysterious guy named Kurt (Matthew McClure) shows up looking for a job, what everyone in the diner doesn’t realize is this potential new employee has far more sinister intentions, and it’s a fight for survival when Kurt’s family shows up, looking to get their hands on some human-style grub for their very own holiday dinner being held later that night.
While The Last Thanksgiving struggles from some tonal issues, and pretty much all of the action scenes play out rather awkwardly, I couldn’t help but admire the ambition that Lorinc lays out on the screen here, resulting in a film that feels a bit like a lost Troma movie out of the ’80s. The Last Thanksgiving also features a number of extremely inventive kills as well, and some of the sight gags left me giggling, too. Beyond all the genre window dressing, the story at the heart of The Last Thanksgiving is really all about the importance of families, which sometimes doesn’t include the people who you share a bloodline with, and I really appreciated those touches that Lorinc puts into his otherwise over-the-top holiday horror fest.
Even if the filmmaking is a bit messy at times, The Last Thanksgiving is still a worthy entry into the sparse pantheon of Thanksgiving-themed horror, and I think it’s a movie that a lot of fans out there who dig on goofball genre comedies will have a lot of fun with.
Movie Score: 3/5
Papi Ramirez vs Giant Scorpions: Truth be told, the reason I wanted to see Papi Ramirez vs Giant Scorpions in the first place was because of its oddball title, and how it reminded me of all those zany B-movies that came out of the oversized monster mash of the 1950s. What I didn’t expect was how much I would absolutely fall in love with the titular character, nor could I have anticipated just how much ingenuity and heart that writer/director/star Leslie Rivera would be able to pack into this 50-minute road trip battle of the ages. What Rivera is able to achieve with Papi Ramirez vs Giant Scorpions is nothing short of a cinematic miracle, and it is truly some of the most impressive and resourceful filmmaking that I’ve had the pleasure of watching all year.
PRvGS introduces us to Papi, who works as a stunt actor and is excitedly awaiting the birth of his daughter. He’s a man who dreams of something more out of life, but he’s not exactly sure what that means, until he gets stranded one night in the desert and finds himself trying to outrun a very hungry giant scorpion who wants to feed him to her pair of hungry scorpion kids. Yes, it all sounds extremely silly, and that’s kinda the point, but beyond its goofy setup and all the zippy punch lines and zany pratfalls, what Papi Ramirez vs. Giant Scorpions is really about is parental devotion and the lengths that those with children will go in order to do right by their spawn. We see that demonstrated through Papi’s plight in the desert, as he fights to survive so that he can be reunited with his wife, who is very pregnant with his daughter, as well as with the giant scorpion, who has two very hungry (and sassy) mouths to feed and take care of as well.
Because I was so entranced by Rivera’s wholly singular approach to the filmmaking of PRvGS, I did some research after I watched the movie, and I was shocked and highly impressed when I learned that he filmed the entire movie using a green screen inside of a storage unit. Talk about making a lot out of a little—this do-it-yourself director redefines the concept here. Rivera demonstrates a real knack for dynamic visual storytelling in Papi Ramirez vs. Giant Scorpions, and there’s something rather refreshing about how outside of the box the movie feels like as a whole. The best compliment I can give Papi Ramirez vs Giant Scorpions is that it would feel right at home as part of the live-action slate on Adult Swim, and I would love to see someone (or somewhere) give Rivera an opportunity to do more with his unique directorial voice in the near future.
Movie Score: 4/5