Reign in Darkness

Year: 2002
Production Co: RapidFire Productions
Director: David Allen/Kelly Dolan
Writer: David Allen/Kelly Dolan
Cast: Kelly Dolan, David Allen

Some of the films I have on my list have been there for years, sometimes decades, but whether I buy them on an old release DVD, they eventually show up on streaming or (like this one) somebody's put them on YouTube and the original filmmakers or rightsholders don't even care, I always manage to track them down in the end.

I mention that because this movie has been on my list about the longest of any other. There was a DVD release of it when I worked at a video store circa 2002/3 and I immediately liked the look of it, but didn't get through all the others I borrowed from there fast enough to reach it on my list and haven't seen it anywhere since. Then, two decades later, I realised it was online free.

I remember a single comment online alluding to how cheap and unprofessional it was, and that's all the context I had about it. And like a lot of films that have grown to outsized proportions in my mind simply because of how long I've wanted to watch them, I'm glad I finally watched it but God, it's hard work.

By way of historical context, the DIY filmmaking era in Australia was in full swing. Tropfest was a major cultural force that created careers (Gregor Jordan), Hollywood blockbusters had started filming in downtown Sydney and at the newly reminted Fox studios, and every Tarantino fan who had access to a camera was salivating at the possibilities.

Two such guys, Kelly Dolen and David Allen, took up the mantle. Neither the website for the film nor that of their production company is online anymore, so it seems like they thought better of their aspirations. They made one more film together, a bootleg Star Wars film called Wrath of the Mandalorian back in 2008, Dolen made a few more movies that weren't any better received than Reign in Darkness and neither of them seems to have worked in film in the last ten years or more.

And like the career of Ed Wood, the story of Reign in Darkness is one of sweeping ambition over talent or resources. Every single filmmaking craft from the script to the acting, the continuity to the aesthetic and the cheap video cinematography to the effects is beyond abysmal.

Some, like the clip of a building blowing up, make it obvious the poor guys didn't have a lot of budget to play with – it's a static shot of a building with a dodgy, early-2000s era Adobe After Effects video of an explosion superimposed on top.

But some is simply them figuring it will be so cool it will paper over the many flaws. Just watch the fearsome bounty hunter dude speaking the risible hackneyed dialogue in a laughable American South twang. In just a single scene he manipulates nunchucks like a pro, and you're suddenly sure he was just a local Melbourne martial arts instructor they guys met after putting a casting call in the paper, loving his skills so much they resolved to cast him even though he couldn't act his way out of a wet paper bag.

Dolen and Allen were obviously obsessed with 1998's Blade and The Matrix and couldn't come up with anything more imaginative than the visual hallmarks from both films that were already becoming cliched (and even then not executing them very well).

That's on top of every eye-rolling thriller cliche you've ever seen in a movie in general. It even has the head of the bad guys slowly circle the deadpan hero for what felt like a full 10 minutes at the climax, explaining the entire premise behind their evil plan to him. I expected Dr Evil to lean in and say 'guard! start the unnecessarily slow dipping mechanism!'

The overarching premise is that a lab scientist, Michael Dorn (Dolen, and they were apparently so clueless about the wider world they didn't even realise they were using the name of the guy who played Worf in Star Trek: The Next Generation) is working on a cure for HIV.

In a surprise to nobody but him, his top secret employer is actually a government front creating a mutation that turns people into vampires for military research. When Michael and one of the tough guy security detail are out tracking people down who've apparently been infected, it all goes wrong.

The homeless guy turns into a hissing ghoul, attacking them. Michael gets stuck with the needle and when the security guys makes to kill him to contain the threat, he shoots the guy instead and runs off, now a fugitive.

The company sends various goons after him as he dresses up completely in black leather and sunglasses, acquires guns and a katana and goes on the run to clear his name, take the bad guys down and follow the trail to the top of the conspiracy.

And all the while, Michael tries not to give in to the new compulsion that makes him not only thirsty for human blood but gives him superhuman strength and fighting agility, just what he needs for action scenes that have lots of quick cut editing to hide the joins (and fail spectacularly) and are full of continuity errors.

You won't strictly enjoy a single moment of watching it – unless you're sitting around with like minded friends eating pizza and getting stoned and want something to laugh at like Showgirls or The Room – but it's an interesting historical document from a time and place when everyone with a minimum of means was trying to get in on an exploding field and make their fortune.

Of course I (along with everyone else who ever watched it) could be wrong, and the guys are actually stealth performance artist geniuses who set out to create a piece of art where every single creative and technical element was the worst it could possibly be, maybe as a piece of guerilla satire on the banality of Hollywood filmmaking just like Tropic Thunder would be years later.

But I doubt it. It just sucks. Hats off to them for making the attempt, which is a lot more than plenty of armchair critic cineastes ever did, but read the reviews on the IMDB page for the movie instead, they're much more inventive and entertaining. I watched the movie so you don't have to.

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