Sunset on the River Styx is certainly not the film I was expecting it to be. It’s the first feature from writer/director Aaron Pagniano who got noticed via his breakout short We Got a Monkey’s Paw. That was hyperactive and funny as hell. Sunset on the River Styx is a much slower-paced and more serious film.
It’s also not what you would expect from a vampire film. With a focus on hearts and minds, not on fangs and throats, Sunset on the River Styx is much closer to Morbid Colors or Ganja and Hess than Dracula.
Will (Phillip Andre Botello, Devil’s Revenge, The Art of Self Defense) leads a less than satisfying life. He drives a city bus for a living and spends his off hours eating microwave dinners, watching TV and sleeping alone. One day that boring routine is interrupted by an abusive passenger. When he has to step up and deal with the situation he catches the attention of another passenger, Ashe (Jakki Jandrell, Sex and Violence! or: A Brief Review of Simple Physics).
The two of them begin spending plenty of time in each other’s company which gives Will a much better outlook on life. But Ashe has a few secrets, deep, dark ones that may put both of their lives in danger.
The film is everything that I wanted to explore as a young director. It’s dark, it’s weird, and it explores themes I’ve struggled with for most of my life: depression, purpose, perception of time… vampires… Florida…Aaron Pagniano
For much of its first hour Sunset on the River Styx plays like an offbeat love story, which of course it is, even if that’s not why we’re watching it. Thankfully Pagniano manages to keep this from becoming either dull or overly angsty and arty. I responded to their relationship the way many viewers did to the romance at the center of Spring.
And the mention of that film is my segue to mentioning just how much editor Michael Felker, who also worked on Spring and The Endless among other films, contributes to making Sunset on the River Styx work. He and cinematographer Idan Menin (Division 19, Badland) give this somewhat morbid tale of two broken souls a wonderfully trippy look and ambience.
It’s not until comparatively late in the proceedings that Will, and the viewer, finds out about Wreck (Cory Vaughn, Girl Number Three) and his death cult that Sunset on the River Styx shows its fangs. And while it becomes bloody, it still doesn’t become entirely conventional. The pair find themselves trapped in a sort of limbo between life and death, or possibly mortality and immortality. They have to find a way out before their own demons destroy them.
Credit also has to go to Botello and Jandrell for their performances. It would have been easy for their characters to have come off as morose, mopey stereotypes. But they make them into people you care about and are interested in, even during the film’s slower moments. They also give Sunset on the River Styx a human, relatable, core no matter how weird it all gets. And while he doesn’t have as big a part, Vaughn is convincingly threatening as Wreck.
I don’t think I have to say that Sunset on the River Styx won’t be to everyone’s taste. The slow beginning and bizarre plotting will probably leave a lot of viewers scratching their heads, and some of the rapid-fire cutting in the last act may make some people’s heads ache. But if you’re up for something different this is a rewarding and at times fascinating film. I’m anxious to see what Pagniano does next.
Sunset on the River Styx is available On Demand and on Digital from Indican Pictures. You can check their website for more details. The film has a Facebook page, but it hasn’t been updated since the film’s festival run.