Fans of horror, sci fi and fantasy are pretty savvy when it comes to metaphor. We know that Night of the Living Dead was about American racism, that Buffy was really slaying the demons of being a teenager, and that Battlestar Galactica dealt with the war between church and state. We understand that things aren’t always literal. We’re also used to variations on classic horror tropes trying to revive well-worn and familiar themes.
Vampire films have often been about sexual appetite, the loss of innocence, blood lust, and the romance of longevity, and these themes have given us some fantastic fiction. Painkillers is yet another variation on the need for blood theme but, when the character who needs it asks incredulously if they’re a vampire now as he sits in the sun, you know this is something aiming high.
After a terrible trauma, a man experiences continuous and dreadful pain, his PTSD taking physical form, one which neither his wife nor doctor can help to control. An accident reveals that drinking the blood from his own wound takes away the pain, but only temporarily. As his craving for blood get stronger, he comes to realise that he’s not alone and that, where there’s a need, there are people willing to do anything to make money.
While Painkillers isn’t a vampire film in the way that we think of them, it deals with many of the same issues, coming across at times like a full film version of the scenes of Susan Sarandon trying desperately not to go back to Catherine Deneuve once she’s been bitten in The Hunger.
It’s is a surprisingly thoughtful and well-made indie film, one which looks sharp and is nicely paced by director Roxy Shih, bringing a welcome, more feminine touch to proceedings in the concentration on feeling and relationships. The soundtrack by Dustin Morgan is also worth a note - a cello providing a melodic, sombre tone throughout. More cerebral than action packed, it’s a slow burner and, for a change, a slightly longer version would have been nice, with more of the moral conflict brought to the fore.
But it's the cast which really carries it along, with a fantastic central performance from Adam Huss. Somehow, the physical demands of his role, all shaking with the ravages of pain, don’t detract from the emotional pain he’s going through, which is quite something.
Before getting carried away, if it sounds like this is a great film, it’s no Near Dark but it’s much better than expected.
PAINKILLERS / CERT: UNRATED / DIRECTOR: ROXY SHIH / SCREENPLAY: GILES DAOUST / STARRING: MISCHA BARTON, ADAM HUSS, MADELINE ZIMA / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW