Blood Red Sky is set on an airplane, out on a transatlantic flight from Germany to New York. In short order, the plane gets hijacked by a group of terrorists led by Dominic Purcell in the role of “Berg”. The other noteworthy terrorist is a German homicidal psychopath codenamed “Eightball”, played by Alexander Scheer. It’s not exactly clear who these terrorists are or what they want, but they’re holding the passengers hostage and turning the plane around toward London.
I know what you’re thinking, and yes, this is absolutely Die Hard on an airplane. But didn’t we already have a movie like that, and it was set on a whole plane full of hardened criminals? Yes, we did — that was called Con Air.
(Side note: A friend of mine once observed that if Die Hard was ’80s hair metal, Con Air would be ’90s grunge. I love that analogy, it’s so perfect.)
So if this “Die Hard on a plane” riff is set on a common passenger airliner, what’s the gimmick? Well, this one’s a doozy: Our John McClane is a vampire.
Nadja (Peri Baumeister) is on her way to NYC for a highly advanced bone marrow transplant. This is purportedly for a cutting-edge cancer treatment, but it is in fact a last-ditch effort at curing Nadja’s vampirism. It’s a long story as to how she turned, and I won’t go into details here. Suffice to say that Nadja has spent the past several years struggling to get the blood she needs while keeping her hunger in control, staying out of daylight, and avoiding any suspicion.
Further complicating matters, Nadja is the widowed mother of a young boy (Elias, played by Carl Anton Koch). So on top of everything else, Nadja has to learn how to be a loving and capable single mother to a helpless pre-school boy, all while living as an undead abomination. To say nothing of the unwitting threat that Nadja herself may pose to her own human (read: not vampire) son.
Nadja desperately wants to contain her vampiric side until she can finally get rid of it, yet embracing the bloodthirsty monster is the only chance that she, her son, or any of the other passengers have at repelling and surviving the terrorist threat. On the other hand, she can’t give into the bloodlust to the point where she poses any kind of threat to the innocent hostages. And of course she has to limit collateral damage to the aluminum can flying 36,000 feet above the goddamn Atlantic Ocean.
Oh, and remember that scene in Die Hard, where John McClane is trying to get the hostages off the roof of the building, but everyone’s scared of him because they all think he’s one of the terrorists? Imagine if he was a literal vampire. That’s the scenario Nadja is looking at, with regards to the hostages on her plane.
Last but not least, there’s the distinct possibility that humans on board can be turned into vampires. Just imagine the chaos if any of the passengers — or God forbid, any of the terrorists — got turned.
This film is a reminder that airplanes are an inherently fantastic setting for any kind of action and/or horror thriller, precisely because it means several dozen people forced into close proximity, hundreds of miles in the air above a painful and fiery death if anything goes wrong. The setting itself is a pressure cooker, and it works beautifully here.
Alas, there’s a significant problem with staging an action movie on an airplane: The close quarters. The spacing is so incredibly tight that there isn’t a lot of room for choreography. Hell, there isn’t even a lot of room for the camera most of the time. And of course, when the plane takes on abuse and everything starts to break down, the lights go out and everything is that much harder to see.
Granted, the camerawork never sinks to the level of incoherent. Plus, the darker presentation lends itself nicely to the atmosphere and the general premise of “vampires on a plane”. Overall, the filmmakers did a neat job of keeping everything dark enough to lend that stylized touch, but bright enough that we can follow what’s happening. It still put a bit of a damper on the fight scenes, though.
But of course the film’s greatest strength isn’t in its action or its horror, but its heart.
First of all, as over-the-top goofy as the premise looks on paper, the filmmakers play it totally straight. They full-on commit to making these vampires into terrifying unnatural beasts, with special attention given to the makeup effects and the actors’ primal body language. Moreover, the filmmakers never let us forget that so many innocent lives are on the line here. Even before the vampires come into play, the filmmakers linger on the mortal fear and panic that come with being a helpless passenger on a hijacked plane.
Even so, of course it’s the central mother/son relationship that’s the emotional core of the film. Though Elias is proactive and does every constructive thing an eight-year-old boy could plausibly do in this scenario (Indeed, this movie could be seen as a coming-of-age story with Elias as the protagonist), he still needs his mother to protect him from the terrorists and the other vampires. Meanwhile, Nadja needs her son to talk the other passengers into leaving her alone. Perhaps more importantly, Elias gives Nadja something to protect, something to live for, and something to stay human for. It’s a strange and beautiful dynamic, elegantly performed by Peri Baumeister and Carl Anton Koch.
Dominic Purcell is a welcome presence, but he’s sadly underutilized here and it’s hard to shake the feeling that he’s slumming it here. (Or maybe the German writer/director Peter Thorwarth simply didn’t know how to direct an American in the pan-European hodgepodge of this production.) Likewise, though Kais Setti has a hugely significant role as a scientist on board, I’m disappointed that he didn’t get a whole lot to do until the third act or so.
By contrast, Alexander Scheer plays to the cheap seats without even the pretense of playing a halfway plausible human being. We’ve also got one or two passengers (I’m sorry I can’t confirm the names of the characters or the actors) who are only there to serve as idiotic cannon fodder. Granted, Scheer’s over-the-top performance works well enough in the context of the movie, and it’s an old established bullshit convention that any horror plot can only be driven forward by the bad decisions of its characters. Even so, this rank stupidity stands out in a movie that’s otherwise surprisingly creative, and these two-dimensional characters stand in stark contrast to the deeply sympathetic and fleshed-out lead pairing of Nadja and Elias.
In the end, Blood Red Sky evens out to a good time. Our two lead characters are strong enough to overpower any flaws in the supporting cast, and the filmmakers are diabolically inventive in their treatment of the basic premise. Moreover, the central mother/son pairing gives the film more than enough emotional heft to get the action and suspense where they need to be, and it helps that the filmmakers don’t skimp on sympathy for the other passengers as well (for the most part). The highest compliment I can give this movie is that every time I thought I had it all figured out, the filmmakers would throw some new curveball.
It’s a two-hour flick that’s free to stream for anyone with a Netflix account. That’s definitely worth the cost of admission for this one.