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Contemporary Vamp Thriller “PAINKILLERS” Has Old-Fashioned Attitude

Friday, February 1, 2019 | Review


Starring Mischa Barton, Madeline Zima, and Naomi Grossman
Directed by Roxy Shih
Written by Giles Daoust
Vision Films

Befitting an infamously immortal folkloric baddie, the vampire has had real staying power. From the early days of narrative film, through the AIDS-haunted 1980s, and on to the gloomy teen romance of Twilight, undead bloodsuckers have remained remarkably adaptable cultural and cinematic figures thanks to filmmakers like David Cronenberg, Kathryn Bigelow, and Guillermo del Toro, to name a few. This is due, in large part, to the way the modern depiction of the vampire drives the audience to reflect upon our own feelings regarding such existential quandaries as the sanctity of life, our own mortality, and what we lose of our humanity when forced to feed on others (in a literal or figurative sense) to survive. The vampire, it seems, is the most intellectual of monsters: walking the line between good and evil and compelling the viewer to reflect on where we, ourselves stand on that spectrum. 

PAINKILLERS, directed by Roxy Shih (THE TRIBE, and upcoming anthology series DARK/WEB) is the latest ambitious re-tooling of the vampire mythos, but it simply can’t quite get its fangs into substantial thematic meat. Shooting from a script by Giles Daoust (producer of the underrated STARRY EYES), Shih and her actors fall prey to an underfed central metaphor that shows a ghost of promise before the film gets stuck in the muck of its moralistic plot.

After his son dies in a car crash, surgeon John Clarke (Adam Huss) begins to suffer a mysterious physical pain triggered by his grief. As his condition worsens, so does his marriage to wife, Chloe (Madeline Zima). By chance, John finds out that the only thing that can ease the pain of his symptoms is the consuming of human blood, which an urbane and dangerous stranger (Grant Bowler) can provide him…for a diabolical price. The cast also features Naomi Grossman of AMERICAN HORROR STORY and MADtv’s Debra Wilson in a surprising dramatic role as John’s chief physician. 

PAINKILLERS conspicuously front-loads its “special appearance” by early-aughts It girl Mischa Barton in a cold open that feels like a fake-out. The attention-grabbing use of lurid pink lights and a corkscrewing camera drive the viewer into an eerie credits sequence that overlays the names of its cast against a background of gauzy white paper that slowly grows fat and red with spidery fingers of fresh blood. This stylish one-two punch of an opener has little in common with what follows as Shih and cinematographer Felipe Vara de Rey keep things strictly business with an uninspired shooting style that calls to mind a televised crime drama with its over-reliance on establishing shots and slick on-the-cheap visuals.

Huss is a likeable leading man who nevertheless struggles with unenviable task of performing undefined physical pain for nine-tenths of the runtime. Landing somewhere between Parkinson’s disease and a bad chill, his directionless quaking is a symptom of the same larger issues with clarity and specificity in Daoust’s script. The philosophical history of filmic vampirism is surely fertile ground for exploring the grieving process, but Daoust tills this soil with only half-formed ideas that never manage to take root, and leans on a black and white moralism that robs his piece of any sort of intricacy. Bowler says “You’ll find that gray is a fine color for all seasons” in one of the script’s more revoltingly obvious lines (second only to Huss’ “Am I like a…vampire now or something?” Ugh.). His character’s belief in moral relativism marks him early on as an objectively bad guy in opposition to Huss’ oh-so-desperately-trying-to-be good one. PAINKILLERS is hardly the first vampire flick to take a hardline good vs. evil stance on the guzzling of plasma (For example: Abel Ferrara prescribes a spiritual cleansing for the intellectual hunger that vampirism represents in his exquisite THE ADDICTION) but it’s rare for one to take great pains to present a re-imagined view of the affliction then drop the ball with such pat, and, frankly, lazy didacticism.

Roxy Shih’s PAINKILLERS may attempt to offer up a modern take on the vampire mythos, but is ultimately undone by a script that lacks finesse and glibly fails to probe the moral gray area within which the best of these stories exist. Though the film’s setup, both in terms of style and central conceit, is solid, PAINKILLERS is ultimately a visually flavorless attempt to inject fresh blood into the vampire subgenre that clips its leathery wings mid-flight with an oddly conservative perspective on good and evil. 

PAINKILLERS is in select theaters now, and will be available on VOD February 4th, 2019.

Rocco T. Thompson
Rocco is a Rondo-nominated film journalist and avid devotee of all things weird and outrageous. He penned the cover story for Rue Morgue's landmark July/Aug 2019 "Queer Fear" Special Issue, and is an associate producer on In Search of Darkness: Part III, the latest installment in CreatorVC's popular 1980s horror documentary series.