In Defense Of The Forsaken
Yes, this is my second consecutive article about a vampire film from the early aughts, and guess what? Blade II just celebrated its 20th anniversary, so I may be going for the hat trick! In any event, I wanted to talk about a movie that I’m sure many would consider to be trash, but some may constitute as a “guilty pleasure”, although maybe it’s time we got rid of that designation. Why be guilty about a movie or television show that brings you pleasure. If you find enjoyment in a particular media, when the general consensus is against you, why feel guilt over that enjoyment. Believe me, I have a handful of universally panned films that I make no apologies for enjoying, and the 2001 vampire road film The Forsaken, is definitely one of them. (What’s that? I called Queen of the Damned “the guiltiest of guilty pleasures” in my previous article? Oh shut up, I’m just trying to be profound!)
Piggybacking on what I touched upon when writing about Queen of the Damned, regarding the landscape of mainstream film at the turn of the Millennium, The Forsaken fell squarely in the era of “Young Hollywood”, casting its leads from popular teen dramas at the time, which were, incidentally, both airing on The WB; Kerr Smith from Dawson’s Creek, and Brendan Fehr from Roswell. The latter even appeared briefly with Smith in the prior year’s Final Destination, but The Forsaken would center on them together as they faced off against a traveling band of ruthless bloodsuckers. The same way you could expect to see a rotation of the same half-dozen or so black actors in films like Brown Sugar, the Wood, The Best Man, and Love Jones, in the late 90s and early 2000s, you were pretty much guaranteed to see your favorite Fox or WB stars in everything from I Know What You Did Last Summer, to Cruel Intentions, to Urban Legends. Watch Can’t Hardly Wait, and you could legitimately make a drinking game out of spotting actors who appeared on (or would subsequently appear on) Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
Essentially, The Forsaken was a young adult riff on Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, with just the slightest dash of Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher sprinkled in. More than a few plot elements and character beats are lifted heavily from the former, as we’re introduced to Sean as he is on a road trip to deliver a car to a wealthy client. Eventually deciding to pick up a drifter named Nick, played by Brendan Fehr, the two ultimately cross paths with a young woman who they discover has been bitten by vampire. Lucky for her, Nick just so happens to be hunting the same vampire, and hopes to use her to find him. We might as well throw in John Carpenter’s Vampires from 1998 into the mix, as a similar dynamic was on display amongst that film’s three main protagonists, played by James Woods, Daniel Baldwin, and Sheryl Lee. Both films also made use of the open roads of the southwest as their setting.
Writer and director J.S. Cardone may have done what he could to put his own spin on the concept, but he’s certainly wearing his influence on his sleeve with character’s like Kit and Cym, played by Johnathon Schaeck and Phina Oruche, respectively. Kit served as the stoic, often deadpan analog to Near Dark’s Lance Henriksen, while Cym chaotically leapt between Jeanette Goldstein and Bill Paxton’s characters from the same film. Admittedly, The Forsaken’s take on their characters embraced an almost campy tone in certain scenes, even as straight as the film in general is played. What made this work for me as the film progressed was just how committed the actors were to these moments. By the film’s climax, you buy into Kit, who spent a majority of the film not saying much, breaking out into Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’, as he stalked the films’ trio of protagonists. Oruche as Cym, meanwhile, went full Paxton by this point, chaotically murmuring taunts at her prey and slapping a handgun against the side of her head with devilish glee. The only thing better was a prior scene of her honey-potting a pair of drunken dude bros, before cavalierly delivering my favorite line in the film, “Time to die, cowboy!”, and ferociously tearing into one of their throats. Making this scene all the better, is the surviving dude bro tearfully pleading for his life as Kit, rather calmly, forced the barrel of a gun in the poor man’s mouth.
The Forsaken features so many great moments like this, where the filmmakers give the audience the right amount of gore, but they also know when to pull things back. There have been countless horror films that suffered from not knowing when to employ a gory and visceral effect, and when to cut away and leave things to audiences’ imagination. Yet I would argue that The Forsaken did a phenomenal job of walking this tightrope, making for a well-balanced horror thriller. What I like to call “highway horror”, as a subgenre, may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s something I thoroughly enjoy, and I love how much The Forsaken drinks in all of its tropes, and makes an effort to try and develop its own mythology. The “true backstory” about the origins of vampires may be silly, for example, but Brendan Fehr sold the hell out of it.
Another element that makes The Forsaken so enjoyable is the chemistry between Kerr Smith and Brendan Fehr. They establish this great “buddy cop” dynamic with one another, starting off with their own riff on the meet-cute bar scene between Tyler Durden and the Narrator in Fight Club. As the film progresses, they naturally lock horns while trying to fight their common enemies, often peppering in bits of humor to cut the tension at just the right time. A subplot about Sean’s missing wallet, throughout the film, was especially satisfying.
We could legitimately follow this through line into another WB show that ultimately went on to be a massive success for that network, even carrying over into its transition into The CW . . . Supernatural. I know I probably can’t go as far as to say that Eric Kripke was inspired by The Forsaken, in some way, when he was creating Supernatural, but there is so much about this film that feels foundational in terms of what that series would give us, four years later. The film and series share the same fundamental conceit, right down to the Forsaken ending with Sean and Nick teaming up to hunt other vampires in a vintage muscle car. The Forsaken even makes a point to highlight Nick’s love of pie, a trait that would be synonymous with one of Supernatural’s lead characters, Dean Winchester. I’m not necessarily willing to die on this One Tree Hill, but these connections are definitely worth a fair amount of consideration.
While I won’t sit here and act like The Forsaken is some misunderstood classic, it’s still way more fun than most give it credit for. It’s a well-paced flick with just the right amount of gore and suspense. Admittedly, I was smackdab in the target demographic for this film, but a lot of it still works for me. It’s as paint-by-numbers as you can get, but it knows what it is, and hits the mark more often than not. And shame on anyone who only loves Simon Rex now after Red Rocket, but couldn’t appreciate him as Pen, the hillbilly familiar and daydriver for Kit’s crew.