Bullets, Fangs and Dinner at 8 (2015) [San Diego Film Week 2017]

Following a massacre in a church, a priest who really is a vampire attempts to get funding and new followers as a vampire hunter works to take out as many of his followers as he can. In this ambitious ultra-low budget horror-comedy by writer/director/star Matthew Rocca, a typical story of good versus evil becomes less typical when the bad guys and good guys are not clear-cut with each of them having qualities that make them more complex and thus harder to pigeonhole.  The story has interesting elements and some definitely good ideas.  The dialogue balances between funny and just ok.  The film’s issues in the story are where it seemingly gets lazy.  Rape as a character establisher or changer or even as a shocking method is cliché, overdone, and a lazy plot tool when used the way it is here.  The rest of the film uses a few other overdone plot devices but they are not as annoying and can be forgiven more easily.

As for the characters built here, for most of them a little more background could have helped a lot in making the viewers care about their plights.  As they stand, the film is just a small vignette of their lives. All of this does not mean the film is boring or unwatchable but it is really is a “leave your brain at the door” film even though it has a bit of a church as evildoers message with touch of irony.  The film’s message, or messages, gets lost in the shuffle and in it trying to have too much going on for its budget and capacities.  The San Diego-based cast composed of writer/director Matthew Rocca as priest/vampire Steven Cooper, Garrett Schweighauser as vampire hunter Michael, Eva Rocca as his sidekick Vivian, Brian Patrick Butler as Johnny, and a collection of others doe as best they can.  Brian Patrick Butler, much as in South of 8, shines and gives the best performance of the bunch.  Garrett Schweighauser does well in the conflicted vampire hunter part.  Matthew Rocca does ok in parts, but also unfortunately comes off as trying too hard at being a maniacal evil mastermind.

His character ends up coming off cartoonish which would have been fine and well if that had been maintained throughout the film and fitted with the other performances.  Instead, his performance comes off as a caricature in parts of the film and becomes too much fairly fast.  Subtlety and understated acting this is not.  The rest of the cast does mostly ok with a few performances that feel like their actors/actresses wanted to be in a film but couldn’t care less about their own acting or performances.  As this is a bloody vampire film, the special effects do have importance.  Here, they unfortunately show the lack of budget.  The practical effects look decent in most cases, especially when shown in semi-darkness or out of focus (something g covered later in this review).  The visual effects are fairly bad with gunshots and blood splatter looking like generic effects one can obtain for free with a quick Google search.  These do not look good or realistic, taking the viewer out of the scene happening on the screen and making them care less and less with each generic usage of these.

The cinematography for this film is highly uneven, something that may be due to having five, yes five, directors of photography with varying experience levels and possibly using varying equipment.  Some scenes look great while others are downright abysmal with framing, lighting, and focus issues.  The five directors of photography (Dain Fuentes, Tremain Hayhoe, Brendon Keeley, Robert Leal, and Vinnie Pompo) should have worked together and learned from each other’s’ strengths as well as planned shots together to keep a better visual unity.  This would have created a more coherent look and avoided the hodge-podge feel of the images.  Because of all this unevenness, the viewer is often jarred right out of a scene as the shooting style changes drastically from one to the other and sometimes even mid-way through a scene.

Bullets, Fangs and Dinner at 8 is a film made with good intentions that has a few really good scenes, a couple of good performances, but also has a boatload of issues.  Between the exaggerated acting of some cast members, the framing, lighting, and focus issues, and the continuity problems, it’s a film that is hard to stick with and hard to love despite its good intentions and its creators’ passion.