After a bit of a hiatus, writer/director Chad Ferrin returns with Parasites, a sort of clumsy effort at topical filmmaking that faintly recalls the work of John Carpenter. Yeah, I know—what else is new, right? At this point, referring to something as “Carpenter-esque” might as well amount to white noise, especially since it usually amounts to surface level affectations at best. However, Parasites really wears this influence on its sleeve and mimics it pretty well, so much so that it’s a bit disappointing that it’s in the service of such a limp, underdeveloped script.
Seriously, the opening shots are almost convincing enough to make you think you’ve somehow uncovered some lost 80s Carpenter dispatch. At the very least, it sounds like someone’s at least swiped an unheard Lost Theme and overlaid it onto some ominous imagery. An eerie synth note backed by a pulsing drum beat transforms the Los Angeles skyline (naturally captured in a slick widescreen) into a foreboding hellscape. It’s moody, evocative, and draws you right in—and then a group of assholes kind of ruin it by breaking in with their noxious chatter.
Ostensibly our protagonists, this trio of buddies have found themselves lost in the more unseemly side of town, one that crawls with the homeless and their refuse. “Why don’t they just gentrify this place, already?” one of the dopes asks, oblivious to the terror he’s about to encounter at the hands of Wilco (Robert Miano), the enigmatic leader of a homeless population looking to revolt against anyone who wanders into their territory. After capturing the three friends and torturing them, he orders his minions to kill them and dispose of the body, only to see one of them escape. Now on the run for his life, freshman star quarterback Marshall Cotler (Sean Samuels) must navigate the treacherous streets in the hopes of finding safety.
Parasites is an appreciably minimalist and economical man-on-the-run thriller, one that briskly moves from point A to point B, slowing down to only make the occasional gory pit-stop. In addition to echoing Carpenter, it also plays like a more lo-fi, grungy, exploitative take on The Warriors, as Marshall encounters various people on the streets, most of whom are also out to kill him. If there’s an overwhelming, obvious motif to Parasites, it’s that everyone sucks—in this fight for his life, Marshall can’t count on anyone’s help, and he’s often forced into kill-or-be-killed situations that are punctuated by outbursts of unsettling violence.
Whenever Ferrin leans on his purely visual filmmaking chops, Parasites works fairly well. His excellent command of the frame and geographic space is on display often—this film just looks killer, particularly its setting. Los Angeles becomes an eerie, desolate, almost purgatorial wasteland, as Ferrin recreates the same dusky vibe from vintage Carpenter films. Light reflects off of shiny surfaces, resulting in menacing lens flares that pepper the landscape as spooky little flourishes. In a better world, Parasites would be virtually dialogue free, allowing Ferrin to play to his obvious strengths, like creating atmosphere and staging horrifically gory encounters.
But in this world, Parasites is awash in dialogue, most of which arrives in the form of puerile exchanges. It’s laden with the sort of eye-rolling profanity and provocations that deflate whatever genuine tension Ferrin creates. In many ways, the opening few minutes are a succinct overture for the film: here’s this great, evocative scene-setting that’s crudely interrupted by a bunch of loudmouths, thus killing the vibe. It’s a pattern that recurs throughout Parasites: we’ll watch Marshall frantically scramble for his life against either the moody score or some choice soundtrack cuts, only to have it interrupted by some obnoxious exchange or another. Most of them come courtesy of Miano’s deranged performance, which becomes increasingly unhinged to the point of coming off as a bit cartoonish.
Obviously, this runs into some tonal issues; attempts to make the situation more horrific simply backfire because the characters are too broadly sketched. Some measure of restraint and subtlety would suffice, but Ferrin feels the need to have everyone practically shout into a megaphone. What’s more, his characters become an obvious mouthpiece for the film’s political subtext, which is both obvious and muddled all at once. Obviously, he’s trying to express something about our poor, inhumane treatment of the homeless, but it’s a concern voiced by a racist, psychotic hobo. As such, Parasites has the effect of championing the homeless and demonizing them all at once, leaving you wondering what the point is.
It’s arguable that Ferrin has too much on his mind and too little of a movie to wedge it into. You sense that he’s so desperate to say something—anything—which perhaps explains the out-of-left-field ending that reveals what’s been on his mind all along. It’s a clumsy attempt at a gut punch, but it does land better than anything else Ferrin muses upon during the film. There’s something almost incendiary about it that really makes you wish he’d crafted the entire film around this socially relevant turn of events; instead, it feels like an exploitative twist when it deserves to be an exclamation point.
Still, at least Ferrin does have something on his mind, and he certainly has the filmmaking chops to deliver it. With a more solid, thematically sound script, Parasites would have been something; as is, it at least shows some flashes of a promising talent in need of stronger articulation.
Parasites made its world premiere at Fantasia Fest on July 30th.