If you grew up during the 1980s and 90s, you probably went to school with at least one kid who listened to nothing but heavy metal music, another kid who loved sword-and-sorcery movies, and someone who kept all their peers on edge because they were into the occult and collecting animal skulls. The 1989 heavy-metal-crime-horror movie BLUE VENGEANCE imagines that those kids were all melded into one person who grew up to be a delusional serial killer.
At a high-security facility for the criminally insane, an inmate named Mark Trax (John Weiner) escapes his cell and then hangs himself with a sheet. Amid the confusion and cacophony of the screaming inmate population, guards pull him down and rush him to the medical office to be revived. During the time he spends unconscious, he experiences a nebulous world between life and death where he’s a virtuous warrior – complete with sword and loin cloth — fighting a masked and fearsome enemy to the death. Around the same time that he defeats the combatant in his vision, he regains consciousness and kills the medical staff trying to revive him. Trax then escapes through a shoddily constructed window in a clear-cut “deferred maintenance” incident that could have been averted through better use of state tax revenue.
Around the same time, NYPD detective Mickey McCardle (J. Christian Ingvordsen) is putting in another thankless day of work down at the precinct. When he gently reminds a colleague the correct procedures for interviewing an underaged perp suspected of a felony, the co-worker pays back the advice with a sharp rebuke (“I don’t know why anybody would want to work with you anyway,”) which sends McCardle off into a solemn, self-reflective tailspin.
Years ago, he was just another greenhorn working the beat with his partner before they stumbled into the “Mirror Man” serial killer case that left 10 people dead. During a fortuitous but disorienting bust in the killer’s hideout – the lair was outfitted with dozens of mirrors and strobe lights — McCardle accidentally shot and killed his own partner. An arrest that should have been a career-making achievement was instead an enduring and horrific trauma that permanently changed him and the trajectory of his life. The alleged killer taken into custody that day: an unassuming, heavy metal-loving teenager named Mark Trax.
That evening, Mark hits up a rock club where the music blares, the booze flows, the audience shakes with excitement, and a young photographer named Tiffany (Garland Hunter) snaps shots of the whole scene as the night unfolds. What her camera fails to capture, however, is the grisly spectacle in the club’s backroom office, where Trax crosses paths with the club’s promoter. When the gory details of the crime hit the NYPD’s radar, McCardle has a fine-tuned sense that Trax is alive and well and shedding blood. As other bodies across the city pile up, he’s the only one with the belief and determination to connect the dots, hunt Trax down, and put a lasting end to his brand of chaos.
This movie, a genre hybrid of psychological thriller, slasher horror, police procedural, and action, is a well-paced cinematic treat that punches well above its weight class. It’s unlikely that it will be included (or even considered) for most lists of seminal “New York City” films, but it will always have a place on mine (also on that list: NIGHT OF THE JUGGLER and DEVIL’S EXPRESS). Before it became more expensive and bureaucratic to shoot and produce films there, NYC was a haven for exploitation filmmakers of the 1970s and 80s creating on the cheap. BLUE VENGEANCE came on the heels of that heyday but uses the city to forge its own gritty vibe.
On Vinegar Syndrome’s excellent 2018 release of the movie, star and co-writer/co-director J. Christian Ingvordsen talks at length about the “guerrilla filmmaking” philosophy that allowed their team to steal shots throughout the city that might normally require an application for a permit, some coordination with the city, or the involvement of union members – basically, shoot first and then get ready to run. This resourcefulness, combined with the skilled eye of cinematographer Michael Spiller, allowed them to stretch their dollar to ensure the production value that NYC locations provided showed up on the screen at a frequent clip. The well-varied action is staged on/under bridges, in building ruins, in Times Square, a junkyard, on the platform at the Canal Street subway stop, in parks, and even inside rock landmark CBGB (punk band the Lunachicks make a special appearance). Shots are generally well composed, it’s reasonably well edited, and the finished film feels accomplished without seeming small, and polished with some rough edges without feeling overproduced.
Aspects of this story have been executed with more gloss and precision by bigger films with more resources – cop tries to track down the escaped killer he arrested years ago – but I can’t recall many similar films of this budget that are quite this enjoyable. That’s due in part to the aforementioned craft, style and genre aspirations, but also the solid performances by this cast. As Mark Trax, John Weiner is an unpredictable live wire throughout the 103-minute runtime. His version of a cinematic serial killer isn’t working from a prior blueprint. Trax blends into crowds because his leather jacket, band t-shirt, jeans, and white sneakers were the uniform of the late 1980s male metalhead. His voice cracks when he yells at his mom even though his character is ostensibly in his mid-20s. The crossbow is one of his favorite weapons. He sings the lyrics of his favorite metal songs in a high-pitch scream to his victims during his transgressions (“WE ARE THE CHILDREN OF THE INFERNO, FORMED IN THE CRUCIBLE OF DESPAIR!”) He yells “I GOT WHEELS!” and fist-pumps when he steals a car, not just because he’s criminally insane but because that sort of joy is memorable and fun (cinematically speaking). Ingvordsen has a completely different energy and he’s quite good as McCardle, who is far from the “cop on the edge” personality that might typically occupy this story. Instead, he’s a man turned timid by an early-career trauma whose fighting spirit is re-awakened by a hunch, and he has to seek help outside his supposed “brotherhood” to fully test his theories. As Tiffany, the rock band photographer and casual drug user inadvertently forced into a partnership with a burned-out cop by the circumstances, Garland Hunter holds everything together and acts as the audience’s beacon. Her portrayal of a character who wants absolutely nothing to do with any of this madness and would prefer to just get high and hang out in her darkroom developing film felt very real and very relatable.
Last, while I’ve never once hitchhiked, I’ve used plenty of ride share apps. Regardless of the circumstances, I would like to think that if my driver ever said, “if you gotta piss, piss out the window. Cause I’m on a quest … I’m searching for the gates of hell,” that instead of ignoring it, I would promptly open the passenger door and launch myself from the moving vehicle. If I somehow survived, I would never get in a stranger’s car again. This is one of many valuable lessons I learned from BLUE VENGEANCE that I hope I’ll never need to apply in the future.