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I Can Tell You About DEAD BUT DREAMING, Even Though I Worked On It

12 Aug


Here’s the thing. I worked on Dead But Dreaming, yes. But in a very limited capacity. I helped out with some minimal production assistant duties here and there, early in its production. And I was given a very, very small role (I’m making that sign you make with your thumb and index finger…you know what I mean?) in a sequence that was shot very late.

I was treated to a handful of dailies and rough cuts of scenes (mostly the opening, which has since been changed) whenever the director got drunk and wanted to show them off.

I never read the script and, outside of the scene I participated in, was only ever on set like twice.

I pretty much knew next to nothing about the film apart from some cursory details and the fact it had something to do with vampires.

That’s all I knew. It was a Bolivian period piece about vampires.

Oh… And I knew it was the first part of a trilogy.


So, when I finally watched the movie – about two weeks ago – in a crowded La Paz theater for its big premiere, I watched it entirely as an audience member.

That’s why I can tell you about it.


Now, I want you to look at this not so much as a “review,” but as an anecdote. You know like when you’re chilling by the water cooler and…

Hang on a minute.

The whole “water cooler” analogy, is it even valid anymore?

Full disclosure: I haven’t had an “office” job since 2001. And, even then, it was telemarketing. We didn’t have a hallway with a water cooler the way you see in the movies. We had a snack room with a couple of vending machines and a round IKEA table; and I think, I THINK…a microwave. So, all of you who work in an office environment, I ask you this: Do you actually do that? Do you actually go out in the hallway to the water thing, pull out a paper cup from that aluminum tube on the side, fill it; and talk about last night’s episode of Breaking Bad? Or whatever movie came out that Friday that, supposedly, everybody saw? Is that really what you do? I’m curious.

Anyway… When I was a kid, it was the lunchroom or the…um…the playground? Whatever that big cement area out in the open with huge basketball hoops on either side of it was… Where the kids would go and hang out after they ate Beefaroni or that “pizza” they used to make on supermarket bread.  That’s where kids would talk about whatever movie they saw on the weekend. And they would quote Eddie Murphy in The Golden Child or Whoopi Goldberg in Jumpin’ Jack Flash and I’m using those specific examples because I grew up in the eighties.

And what I mean is, this “review” is like that. It’s just a guy telling you about a movie and being like: “and there’s this really awesome part where the predator rips Apollo’s arms off and they’re STILL SHOOTING THE MACHINE GUN WHEN THEY FALL OFF!”

That’s what this is.

Now, where was I?

Oh, right… Dead But Dreaming.

I wanted to say that…I liked it.

As in: genuinely.

I watched it with an audience and was appropriately sucked in to the story… Following it along, getting to know the characters… Feeling the suspense of wondering what was going to happen next and where all this was going.

So… What is this movie about?

AtLast Well, it’s both simple and complicated at the same time if that makes any sense. It’s about vampires in Bolivia during a time of turmoil – the 1805 War of Independence from Spain – but it also has flashbacks to other eras… There is a sequence that takes place in the year 10,000 BC…

She's Bolivian, did you know that?

She’s Bolivian, did you know that?

…on some island with crystal clear waters surrounding it and a spectacular blue sky. Where a human sacrifice is about to take place.


And it also flashes back to Antioch, during the year 57 BC…where a retired general really wants to do the business with a fair courtesan – but she decides to send him on a “mission” to retrieve some sacred items.

The Antioch sequence is the one I participated in.

DBD4 And I will tell you more about that in due time.

But, what does it all have to do with vampires in Bolivia? The film is edited together like a tapestry…similar to something like 21 Grams. Where the connections between characters and events are revealed progressively through the film. This is in line with Jac Avila’s style as director. He employed that same device in his film Martyr as well as his celebrated documentary Krik? Krak! Tales of a Nightmare. And I happen to know he’s a big fan of Julio Cortazar’s novel Hopscotch.


Jac Avila is able to use that style in an accessible “pop” narrative that is rather easy to follow. In the first ten minutes of the movie, you might be slightly confused. But it becomes very easy to just get caught in the stream of consciousness. By the end, you should be able to grasp it all unless you are a complete moron who doesn’t watch too many films.

There’s another interesting element in the way this is all put together. And that’s the music. Brad Cantor has composed some good themes here but what I find particularly interesting is the way the music is laid out through the film.

That’s just it. It’s laid out through the entire film.

That is at first strange. Because it’s odd to experience a movie with no silences. But, eventually, it achieves a kind of hypnotic effect. The constant tapestry of images, together with its ever present soundscape, give the movie a very musical feeling that’s unique. Like a symphony. So… If this is the first chapter, I’m anticipating the three “movements” to form a kind of opera. I’ll be curious to see if that’s how it ultimately plays out.

Now… The tone of the movie is what I want to talk about next. Because it is, like the construction of the film, unusual. Although the story does take a handful of cues from – say – Anne Rice, it’s not quite that. Not quite. Which is to say, it’s not quite Gothic. But it’s not modern either. There’s a rawness to all of this. I suppose part of that is the fact this isn’t a slick Hollywood production, but an artisanal film made by a dedicated crew on a limited budget. In any case, they sure injected quite a bit of production value into the film regardless…


…and the movie ultimately benefits from this crudeness, achieving a unique feeling that will remind you of 70s Spanish and Italian Grindhouse pictures before it reminds you of True Blood.

It is absolutely sexualized. But not necessarily in a titillating way. I put the word “necessarily” in italics because the sexualization of the film will really depend on perspective. Some people are bound to find all this very arousing, while others will not. They will see it as disturbing, unnerving… Either way, the film is effective and it works on both those levels, giving a unique experience to the viewer.

For my money, I think I can sum up its tone and tenor as follows: Consider this kind of like Interview With the Vampire meets I Spit On Your Grave.

To illustrate that, there are two sequences I want to discuss. I guess this is a little spoilery, but whatever… My intention is to get you to watch the film. I won’t give away the ending or anything like that.

First… There is a rape scene that lasts – I did not make an actual calculation but I’m sure this is pretty close – about ten minutes.

Now… To someone well versed in the history of rape scenes on film, this might not seem like too much of a big deal. Irreversible has a very controversial such scene that goes on for about that long. And it is rather excruciating because it is just one continuous shot.

The scene here is equally disturbing. But it becomes even more disturbing for a deeper reason. Because it is intercut with an erotic, s&m love scene.

There is a valid, storytelling reason for this. The director is trying to make a connection between two characters. He is connecting a woman being gang raped by Bolivian soldiers to the vampire being “punished” by her master to imply they are both being violated one way or the other…that they are both ultimately victims. It is a good idea and it is well communicated. But the combination of sexual arousal from the eroticism of one, with repulsion at the sheer brutality of the other, creates an extremely unnerving cocktail that keeps you on edge for the entire sequence so that, by the time it’s over, you’re not even sure how to feel.

But isn’t that what a horror movie is supposed to do?

I don’t want my vampires with horrible Southern accents having well-lit, slick sex in front of a fireplace; or playing baseball and glistening in the sun. I want them doing this stuff. Creepy, intense, horrific stuff.

So, on a purely visceral level, the sequence is rather astounding.

Then… There is another scene in which a political prisoner is publicly flogged. We’ve probably witnessed scenes like this in other movies. Mel Gibson made a blockbuster film that was, basically 125 minutes of that. If you make that comparison, the argument is done. But the reason this particular scene really stood out for me was the artful way it was done. It is, just like the rape scene, a sequence that seems to go on forever.

The prisoner is sentenced to receive thirty-six lashes and, brother, we are asked to witness each and every one.

You will feel this.

You will feel this.

And it’s easy to feel those lashes because of some very convincing acting by Amy Hesketh as the woman receiving them; and expertly constructed tension in the editing of the scene (by director Avila himself).

There is an added detail to this sequence, which makes it special…

The prisoner in question is an Irish spy named Moira – who has been collaborating with the Bolivian rebels. Well, the public official who dictates the sentence, and must now announce each lash, turns out to be a friend – one of her co-conspirators. Actor Rhobess Pierre gives a terrific performance here. The pain on his face as he counts down the lashes is palpable. It becomes a riveting and moving sequence. We are not captivated by gory special effects…we are gripped by real emotion.

It’s rare to see that… A low budget horror film that uses its raw esthetic to a real advantage. Not for camp value, but to generate a real sense of unease.

But I want to make something clear. Those scene descriptions might imply the film is hard to watch. But that’s not the case. This is an engaging film. Because these are interesting characters and a rather imaginative world. I compared it to a Grindhouse picture but I’ll also make another comparison. It’s a little bit like a superhero origin story. It reminded me, in fact, of the first X-Men movie.


That’s a weird thing to say, right? To go from I Spit On Your Grave to The Passion Of The Christ to X-Men?

Yeah… But that’s because this is, ultimately, a real geek movie. It introduces us to some operatic comic book characters and presents us with a larger than life world. And, at 93 minutes, it only has time to scratch the surface.

That element also makes it feel a little bit like the season finale of a TV series. Because this is, ultimately, all a big build-up. The last 10 minutes of the film, in fact, feel like an extended trailer for whatever is coming for part 2. Promises are made… “Shit’s about to GET REAL!” is appropriately set up.

And I don’t want that to sound like a criticism. Like I’m saying the movie is “all set up.” In some ways, I guess that’s the case. But this is a complicated world with its own mythology and it needs to be established in a way that makes sense. So, although this movie is “the set up,” it’s a necessary set up. And, much like at the end of the first X-Men, we now know who these people are, we know what’s going on; and are ready to follow them on an epic adventure.

And these are great characters!

I already told you about the Irish spy with a mission. There’s also an evil, enigmatic vampire named Asar, who just returned home from a pilgrimage in the jungle, and his apprentice/lover Aphrodisia – who has gotten bored and hungry in his absence; and begun to dine on hapless Bolivian gentlemen as they walk the cobblestone streets.

Jac Avila as Asar and Mila Joya as Aphrodisia.

Jac Avila as Asar and Mila Joya as Aphrodisia.

Asar was turned into a vampire thousands of years before this, by a mysterious creature from a faraway land – possibly even another dimension entirely – named Nahara. He has since been pursuing her through time and space, because he wants to capture her and have unlimited power.

If that isn’t a comic book, I don’t know what is.

Veronique Paintoux as Nahara...doing her thing.

Veronique Paintoux as Nahara…doing her thing.

 There’s a good-hearted priest named Ferenc. Although the authorities have been blaming these “mysterious murders” on the rebels, he is sure it is actually the work of a Lamia – a demon who seduces young men and feasts on their blood.

My favorite character is Ferenc’s niece… A novice named Varna, who remains undecided about her faith and her path, even after being raised by the sisters of her uncle’s parish. I’m not sure if the character was written this way of if it was actress Claudia Moscoso’s choice to play her this way, but I found the concept of an autistic, lesbian nun in training – who really wants to be a rebel – to be just fascinating.

Jorge Ortiz as Ferenc.

Jorge Ortiz as Ferenc.

Anyway, it’s all here…

A rich, imaginative storyline that spans millennia, interesting archetypal characters that grab your attention, murder, rape, torture… I feel like Peter Falk in The Princess Bride now, so I’ll leave it at that.

But it’s a good movie is what I’m saying.

There have been, to date, two Pachamama Films productions I can say that about. This and Barbazul.

Which is not to say those are the only worthwhile releases from the company.

But I have been too involved in the others to look at them 100% objectively. My opinion was clouded by more in-depth participation, where I could not watch them without thinking about how they were made. They were more like photo albums than movie experiences for me.

I was barely involved in the production of Barbazul and I was equally barely involved in the production of Dead But Dreaming.

So, I can say honestly and with a straight face: It’s a good movie and not feel like a shill. That’s what I mean.

I have approached the filmmakers and told them this. And, chances are, I will be much more involved in the crafting of the sequels. I kind of feel like a fanboy now. It’s sort of like if Harry Knowles goes up to Zach Snyder and tells him: “I really loved Man Of Steel and I have some great ideas for where you could go with this!” and then Snyder lets him in.

It’s not entirely like that, of course. For many reasons. The first being I’m not Harry Knowles. But it’s kind of like that.

What I mean is I probably won’t be able to come back here next year to rave about the sequels.

But that’s okay.

I’ll leave the raving to you.


Dead But Dreaming is currently in limited theatrical release in Bolivia, and will soon be available for purchase on VOD and DVD directly from VermeerWorksWatch this space for more details.