My notes on Chad Ferrin’s urban western, Parasites — which had its world premiere at Fantasia.
One night in Los Angeles, three college students – Marshal (Sean Samuels), Scott (Sebastian Fernandez) and Josef (Jeffrey Decker) – get lost while taking a supposed short cut and find themselves cruising through a wasteland of tents and abandonded buildings. Their vehicle is disabled by a tire-trap, and they’re invited to a boot party by a band of homeless folks led by the charismatic, angry Vietvet Wilco (Robert Miano). Marshal, a USC quarterback, is soon the sole survivor, stripped naked and running from Wilco’s human and animal hunting dogs …
Writer-director Chad Ferrin isn’t exactly known for comforting movies – his debut feature was called Unspeakable. This returns to the milieu of his outstanding The Ghouls (2003), which involved another outsider learning harsh lessons about himself while exploring Los Angeles’ skid row and is a much more controlled film than Easter Bunny, Kill! Kill! and Someone’s Knocking at the Door. Ferrin’s production company is called Crappy World Films, and he started out at Troma – which suggests the go-for-gross aesthetic and double-dyed everything-is-awful editorialising that runs throughout his oeuvre, though he can run to subtlety when he wants to. Here, he sets out to make an urban Western, drawing inspiration from John Colter’s escape from the Blackfeet in 1809 – though there are echoes of a run of movies (Enemy Territory, Judgment Night) in which straights get trapped in danger-infested pockets of urban decay and the action owes a lot to Cornel Wilde’s African-set The Naked Prey. Naturally, it also evokes other urbanised Western tales, like John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 and Walter Hill’s The Warriors – though note a change in the landscape as the homeless now outnumber gang-bangers, figuring as the repressed who return to take revenge on representatives of a society who have no use for them.
The fact that Marshal is black and his pursuers (mostly) white is another inversion of the way this sub-genre usually plays out. Forced to put on clothes taken from a fallen enemy, he is taken for a bum by a couple of nasties who drive through the wastes with a paintgun to get their jollies tormenting the homeless. In the era of ‘black lives matter’, there’s a sense that the hero is in as much danger from the cops he tries to find as the killers who are on his trail – and there’s a significant homage to Duane Jones’ role in Night of the Living Dead, another African-American whose striving to survive makes him all but indistinguishable from the walking dead who want to eat him. Miano, a grizzled bit-player whose career stretches back to a significant role as one of the muggers in Death Wish, gets a rare lead showcase as the tyrannical chieftain who bullies and abuses his tribe to pursue an agenda of spiteful violence. In an amusing bit, he is contrasted with Wilde (Joseph Pilato, of Day of the Dead), another crackpot veteran who looks down on Wilco as a draftee while he enlisted voluntarily for service in Korea.
It’s a short, breathless picture – only late in the day, when Marshal tries to get help from a hooker (Silvia Spross) he rescues from a beating and runs into her obnoxious pimp (Scott Vogel) in an abandoned church, does it really pause for talk and that gets derailed by a couple of guys with guns. Ferrin has previously been better at atmosphere than action, but here he stages the chases – through everyone’s favourite Los Angeles location, the storm drains – with urgency. Samuels gives a very physical, agonised performance, simmering about his situation but too busy running to soliloquise – the film makes its points without the need for too much underlining. The soundtrack includes Carpenterish thrumming, but runs to having Miano and Samuels warble melancholy folk songs like ‘House of the Rising Sun’ and ‘In the Pines’ to underline what an archetypal American story this is, in its deep historical inspiration and up-to-the-minute relevance.