“Deathlands” is a little bit similar to this year’s “Dead 7”, not in the sense of having loads of 90s boy band stars in it, but in taking your traditional low-budget post-apocalyptic movie and spinning it in an interesting direction. “Dead 7” went the Western route, and “Deathlands” has gone for a medieval flavour to proceedings. As a very early Sci-Fi Channel movie, it’s also surprisingly good, but hey! Stick around for the next 700 words or so, I’ll try and be entertaining.
It turns out that “Deathlands” is a series of books which I’d never heard of until last night. Starting in 1988, they now stretch to a staggering 125 volumes (!), with a spin-off series clocking in at 75. So that’s 7 books a year for almost 30 years (not all written by the same guy, I ought to add), but I guess they just never really made the leap to the UK? They do appear, from my limited research, to be slightly right-wing fantasies of a world which was ravaged by the Cold War suddenly heating up – Russia starting things, naturally – but the odd thing is, by 1988 change was coming, rapidly, with great swathes of nuclear disarmament on both sides and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union a few years later. Yet the book series just merrily carried on (although as of November 2015, it’s done, with its publisher being shut down).
The series has a group of central characters, and the movie was (again, apparently) pretty good at portraying them. The hero is Ryan Cawdor (Vincent Spano), who’s the youngest son of a “royal” family – turns out, when he was in his early teens, his brother was having an affair with his stepmother, and the two of them murdered the rest of the family and took over, with only Ryan and his sister escaping. The movie’s set 20 years after those events. There’s Krysty (Jenya Lano), his monogamous life partner – one of the things I read emphasised this bit strongly, which indicates it’s a big thing in the books. She’s a badass redhead, who’s half-mutant; there’s also a full mutant, Jak (Nathan Carter), an albino with glowing red eyes. The whole mutant thing isn’t really dealt with in the movie at all, but is the sort of seemingly unnecessary world-building you see often in failed pilots that are re-configured into TV movies. Rounding out the crew is JB Dix, the fedora-wearing weapons expert who…nah, got nothing. I’m sure he has a personality, though. Oh, he doesn’t trust Jak, I guess?
Ryan and his crew drive into a small village, which is part of the “Ville” (the name of all these new future areas of governance) controlled by Harvey, Ryan’s older brother. This appears to be by accident, although you’d think Ryan would remember the area – anyway, they meet Ryan’s secret nephew Nathan, who tells them how evil Harvey (Alan C Peterson) and Lady Rachel (Traci Lords) are. Ryan decides it’s about time to show his brother a thing or two, and we’re on for some rip-roaring good times.
There’s a cool scene in the throne room, as our heroes pretend to be traders to get access to Harvey’s “castle”. It feels a little Game Of Thrones-y, as Harvey and Rachel’s creepy son Jabez kisses his mother full on the lips and fondles her breast before trying to grope Krysty, then getting one of the servants killed. He’s a winner! Anyway, they figure out who the mysterious travellers are fairly quickly, and then they’re locked up, with escapes, offers of sex from super-evil stepmothers, friendships, and a surprisingly fun, fast-paced story.
They found some good sets, or just an abandoned town somewhere in Eastern Europe, and the film looks a lot more expensive than it no doubt is. There’s a red filter over a bunch of scenes to show the result of the nuclear war, and in one scene the moon seems rather closer than it is at the moemtn, which indicates someone tried at some world-building. There’s a few nice touches too, like how the dinner plates and mugs at the banquet are random, cheap plastic, rather than a never-would’ve-survived full dinner service. The cast are all excellent, too, with special credit going to Jenya Lano, who’s way too good to be in movies like this – she stopped acting in 2005 and it’s a shame.
Of course, no review of a SyFy Channel movie would be complete without a few “huh?” moments. One scene involves someone dying, and getting shoved through the bars of a cell window into the castle moat…but if the bars were big enough to fit a body through, then you could escape through them, surely? And perhaps the oddest bit is a throwaway line which is just worrying. Passing by several people who’ve been hung, presumably as a warning to any potential wrongdoers, Jak says “look at that strange fruit”, a reference to the poem / Billie Holliday song, about the lynching of black people. Is it just being used by someone who doesn’t understand the depth of meaning of the reference (like the crappy movie where Plymouth Rock is sucked up by a hurricane and literally lands on a black guy)? It indicates that there are very few black people working on these sorts of movies, because I can’t believe that line would have made it out of the first draft if there had been.
Anyway, small criticisms aside, it’s excellent for SyFy and would’ve made a fine TV series (this definitely feels like a pilot), with an enormous amount of material to draw from. I imagine fans of the books probably don’t love it, but I can’t imagine there are too many sensible fans of the books, so never mind them.
Rating: thumbs up