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BLOOD TIES (1991)

"Geography never was my strong area. I’m not even sure where Carpathia is. Isn’t it – somewhere near Transylvania?"
"In the neighbourhood…."

Blood Ties

Director: Jim McBride

Starring: Harley Venton, Kim Johnston-Ulrich, Patrick Bauchau, Michelle Johnson, Salvatore Xuereb, Jason London, Bo Hopkins, Grace Zabriskie

Screenplay: Richard Shapiro

Synopsis: In Loving County, Texas, a sleeping couple are murdered by three intruders, who drive stakes through their hearts and pour dirt into their mouths, then set the bed on fire. The couple’s teenage son, Cody (Jason London), wakes suddenly, certain that something is wrong. He enters his parents’ bedroom and is shot through the side by a wooden bolt from a small crossbow. He collapses in pain as the intruders leave the house. With a desperate effort, Cody struggles out of the house and runs away. The leader of the intruders (Bo Hopkins) tells the others to let him go, as he will "fly back to the nest". In Long Beach, California, journalist Harry Martin (Harley Venton) receives the details of the Texas killings, before heading out to hear the verdict of a court-case he has been covering. Assistant D.A. Amy Lorne (Kim Johnston-Ulrich) is cornered in an elevator by the members of a gang known as the Shrikes, one of whom she is prosecuting. Suddenly, Harry appears, breaking up the incident. The gang leader, "Butcherbird" (Salvatore Xuereb), warns Harry that "Uncle Eli" isn’t happy with the articles he’s been writing. Harry explains to a confused Amy that he and Butcherbird are "distant cousins". In court, an obviously fixed jury announces that it cannot reach a verdict. Disgusted, Amy storms out, and Harry goes after her. He asks her to attend a "family party" with him before leaving her to join Eli Chelarin (Patrick Bauchau), the powerful businessman who fixed Butcherbird’s trial. At Eli’s office, Harry warns Eli that "it’s starting again", and shows him the newspaper clipping of the Texas killings. Later that week, Cody reaches town and tries to find Eli. Instead he encounters the Shrikes. At Eli’s birthday party, Amy is surprised to learn that Harry is connected to so much wealth and power. The party comes to an abrupt halt when Butcherbird enters with Cody. Harry excuses himself to Amy, joining a council in a private room. There, the male family members hear about the death of Cody’s parents. When Cody has left the room, Harry tries to convince the others to leave the killings to the police, that the family "cannot go on in the old ways". Furious, Eli accuses Harry of betraying the family, speaking sneeringly of Amy and provoking him to a violent anger. Meanwhile, a nervous Amy is teased first by Celia (Michelle Johnson), Eli’s half-sister, then by Butcherbird. Harry rescues her and takes her home where, despite his obvious attraction to her, he rejects her advances and leaves. Later that night, Harry receives an unexpected visit from Celia, who seduces him, inviting him to bite her throat as they couple….

Comments: When you have a taste for genre films, you tend to spend an awful lot of your time watching unadulterated crap. The upside of this situation is that sometimes you find something worthy in a most unexpected place. On the surface, Blood Ties looked most unpromising: a failed TV pilot produced by Gene Corman and written by, of all people, Richard Shapiro, and featuring nobody-in-particular plus a couple of "guest stars". I went into the film expecting nothing at all, and ended up being pleasantly surprised. After a couple of weeks spent watching mindless drivel almost non-stop, I had the very welcome experience of finding my attention caught and held by this little film, which succeeds both in finding a new twist or two in the well-worn vampire lore, and in updating the material in a way that is actually credible. Now, I don’t want to make the mistake of praising Blood Ties too much. It isn’t great, by any means. The acting is only passable; some of characterisations are ill-conceived, to say the least; and although it is about vampires, the finished product is almost entirely bloodless. (I should also point out that the video box cover is, shall we say, rather misleading.) What it does have, however, is a rarity indeed: an interesting script; some ideas. In fact, Blood Ties is a "message film"; and yet manages to be so without heavy-handedness or preachiness, and even maintains a sense of humour.

Blood Ties posits a colony of vampires---ah, no, excuse me. One of the things we learn in the course of the film is that the term "vampire" is actually an offensive racial slur. So what the film really posits is a colony of "Carpathians" living in California. It also suggests that they are not so very different from "normal" human beings. At one point, Cody, coming to terms with his heritage, eagerly questions Harry concerning his new powers. "Do I live forever? If I bite someone, do they become one of us?" Harry is appalled by his ignorance. "Where’d you pick up all this crap? Didn’t your parents teach you anything?" These Carpathians, by and large, live like anyone else; they eat, they drink, they are indifferent to sunlight. They’re just a little better than other people, that’s all. They live longer; they’re stronger; they heal faster. And – sometimes they drink blood. Carpathians don’t have to drink blood, we learn; they just like it; for one thing, it puts them "at the top of the food chain". But it is, on the whole, a matter of choice. Only in the throes of passion – whatever the passion – does the urge become an almost uncontrollable one. Their adopted home has been good to these immigrants. The elders have wealth and influence; the younger ones, secure in the none-too-scrupulous protection of the colony’s patriarch, Eli, run wild. (I must interrupt myself here to observe that, unfortunately, the younger Carpathians represent this film’s single biggest shortcoming. The idea of the gang is excellent, but the execution is just appalling. You get the distinct feeling that Richard Shapiro saw The Lost Boys once too often before writing this, if you get my drift. Similarly, calling the gang "The Shrikes" was immensely clever; explaining the reference, however, kills the joke stone dead.) Unfortunately for the Carpathians and their comfortable lifestyle, however, serious trouble is on the horizon. Blood Ties is told from the perspective of journalist Harry Martin (or "Harlevon Martinescu", as we discover), who has chosen to leave the protection of his family and live an ordinary life. He has not cut his ties completely, however, despite his differences with Eli – for whom the main attraction of life in America is the possibility of "limitless corruption" – and when news of the Texas killings reaches him, he is swift to take the news to the colony. Cody’s arrival, and the awareness that his parents’ killers cannot be far behind, forces the Carpathians to decide on a course of action; to choose between the old ways and the new.

Although on one level Blood Ties is standard genre fare, beneath this surface it is actually a clear-eyed look at racial prejudice in all its ugliness and stupidity. What is most remarkable is that the storyline does not take sides, but instead offers an admirably even-handed look at the problem from two, three, even four different perspectives. The Carpathians themselves, for instance, are exactly the kind of immigrants that tend to fuel the hatred of the anti-immigration brigade. Since arriving in America, they have kept themselves to themselves. They use and exploit their new home – Eli’s business is property development; his hobby is "collecting" politicians and judges for his personal use – but give nothing in return. Most distasteful of all, they are sickened by the notion of intermarriage with "inferior" races. When the news of Cody’s parents reaches him, Harry tries desperately to convince his family not to do things "the old way", arguing that after three or four generations in the country, they are Americans – "Carpathian Americans", no less – that they vote, and pay taxes, and as such are entitled to the protection of the law. "Isn’t it time we came out of the coffin?" he pleads. For his trouble, Harry is dismissed as a "damned assimilationist". Eli is swift to find a motivation for Harry’s "disloyalty" in his growing relationship with the blonde and WASPy Amy, sneering that the real reason Harry’s so eager to have his family integrate is because – and I quote – he’s "slipping it to the Pillsbury Doughgirl". When Eli demands to know whether Harry has told Amy the truth about his family – that his ancestors used to "gorge themselves on the blood of travellers", afterwards "lying in the road like ticks, too bloated to move", Harry counters that at the same point in history, Amy’s ancestors were "clubbing their brains out in the peat bogs of Ireland". His first tactic failing, Eli goes on to conjure up a vision of a future filled with "half-breed bastards" who must be "strangled at birth" so that they cannot "grow up to drive a stake through your heart". As for Amy herself, she has picked up the thoroughly negative vibe emanating from Harry’s family, and assigned it to the correct cause: that she isn’t "ethnically correct".

Despite this repellant view of the Carpathians, the viewer’s sympathies are recalled to their side after we get a nice clear look at the vampire-hunters. The film’s opening scenes are enough to let us know that these people are all sorts of trouble. For one thing, they’re led by "guest star" Bo Hopkins, who sports one of those square, pointing-out chin-beards that always seem to denote religious fanaticism of one kind or another. Our next good look at these people and their followers comes in perhaps the film’s cleverest sequence, one that manages to be funny and frightening all at the same time. It starts lightly enough, with Cody and a young female Carpathian watching TV. As Cody flicks the dial trying to determine who’s "one of us" ("Him?" [Donald Trump] "Her?" [Zsa Zsa Gabor]), he stumbles across an appalling, Jerry Springer-like talk show called "Smart Alex" (hosted by "Alex Smart", naturally). Alex’s guests are members of the "S.C.A.V" (Southern Coalition Against Vampires) and, as you’d expect, are encouraged to make fools of themselves while their host ridicules them and the studio audience howls with laughter. At one point, one of the guests (Grace Zabriskie – yay!) grabs the microphone and spells out her precise objections to the presence of vampires in America, and ah, my friends! – where have we heard all this before? You can tell a vampire by his "dirty eyes". They are "disgusting"; it is "disgusting" to be "in the same room with one" or to be forced to "sit next to one on the bus". Warming to her theme, the woman gets specific: "They’re here to take your jobs! They’re here to take your wives!" (We are distracted from this speech by other events at this point, but if you listen carefully, you hear an even better accusation: "They’re here to take your parking places!") The members of the S.C.A.V. have committed themselves to the bloody extermination of the Carpathian people not because of what went on "in the old country", not because of anything that has happened since both cultures arrived in America, but simply because they are Carpathian. They’re different, and that is enough.

And Harry, of course, is caught in the crossfire of this brutal cultural war. Another interesting thing about Blood Ties is that there are no clear-cut good guys. Even Harry, our putative identification figure, is seriously flawed. After throwing down the gauntlet on the talk show, the vampire-hunters abduct Celia in order to force a showdown. When the inevitable battle ensues, Harry takes part, capturing the lead vampire-hunter himself. He then makes one further effort to convince his family to try the new ways, but fails. He does not take participate in the ensuing "execution", but stands by and allows it to happen without further interference. (Blood Ties may be bloodless, but the sight of the Carpathians falling on their victims like packs of wolves is seriously disturbing all the same.) Equally problematic is Harry’s decision to commit himself to a relationship with Amy without telling her truth about himself, and while knowing full well that this will make her the target of retaliatory action by both opposing camps. (Earlier, one of the vampire-hunters denounces her as "the one that’s fornicating with this one!" "We are not fornicating!" Amy responds indignantly, and then, rightly bewildered, demands of Harry, "When did this become everyone’s business?") Furthermore, Harry has not entirely broken with Celia, who has been using hot vampire sex (complete with lots of neck biting) to keep him toeing the Carpathian line. Surrounding these personal matters are the larger issues of Cody’s place within the clan, appalled as he is by his relatives’ behaviour, yet tempted by the discovery of his new powers; the repercussions of the clan’s execution of their persecutors; and Amy’s position in the justice system. In short, Blood Ties was a story with possibilities; and it seems a shame to me that the pilot never led to a series - particularly considering the rubbish that does make it onto television screens each year.

Footnote: Many films use dummy newspapers or newspaper headlines to convey information to the viewer, but Blood Ties has one of the most bizarre ones I’ve ever seen. Beneath the story of the murder of Cody’s parents – and without any intervening headline to indicate a new story – is the following:

"….ended with an old fashioned message: that America still loves a love story. In a season where nearly all the movies were big-budget action pictures, blockbuster hit "Renegade Timewarp" is more than just a pretty face. Hollywood’s macho image at the box office has changed with the emergence of…."

The rest can’t be made out, unfortunately. However, if you look carefully at the newspaper in question, you can see that duplications of this same paragraph fill up the rest of the page. Increasing the mystery is the fact that I can find no evidence that anything called "Renegade Timewarp" was ever produced or even pitched. Was this meant to be Gene Corman’s next production? Richard Shapiro’s next writing assignment? Anyone? Anyone…?