Three USC students driving back to their dorms get horribly lost in the Skid Row section of Los Angeles. Things go from bad to worse when Marshal’s spiffy new truck gets a flat tire. When they jump out of the truck to investigate, they find a spiked board is the culprit. A booby trap. This was intentional. A gang of homeless people surround the three doe-eyed freshman and strike. The most dangerous game has begun. College football quarterback Marshal is in for the run of his life.
The premise of Chad Ferrin’s Parasites is so brilliantly simple, but the execution is even better. The film had its world premiere at the Fantasia International Festival and it’s one I intentionally went into completely blind. I’m glad I did, because within the first 10 minutes I was knocked flat on my ass. By the time the title card appears over an ominous tunnel, Parasites had already pulled the rug out from under me and was standing over my broken body, laughing.
Inspired by OG explorer John Colter’s capture and escape from the Blackfeet tribe in 1809, Parasites is a survival thriller inhabiting the gutters, homeless camps, abandoned buildings, and every other shadowy corner around Skid Row. Marshal (played with captivating conviction by Sean Samuels) flees from the homeless gang, only to find danger around every corner – yuppies with paintball guns, cops, pimps, prostitutes, the whole kitchen sink of night walking derelicts.
And in a cruel twist of fate, Marshal was stripped naked by the gang when they thought he was dead. He bests the first homeless man who subsequently attacks him and takes his ragged clothes. So now everyone Marshal comes across for help thinks he’s a filthy, piss-soaked bum and treats him cruelly as such.
The homeless gang is led by a megalomaniac named Wilco – played by the prolific as hell Robert Miano. He rules the gang through fear and threat of expulsion – no more shelter, no more shared food, no more protection. When his homicidal approach and dismissive attitude towards their fallen comrades gets to be too much for some of the gang (who are named after the weapons they carry: Rake, Hammer, Spade, Chain), Wilco lets his walls down and expresses his hatred for the modern world, with their condos and Starbucks on every corner. “We’re the last of the Mohicans!” he cries.
His rant mirrors the attitudes towards Native Americans in this country held by many. Just ignore them and that whole genocide thing and it’ll all go away. Ferrin definitely has a lot to say about society in Parasites. Wilco’s rallying speech is really the only time it’s delivered with straight up dialogue, and other times the commentary is delivered subtly. A man with Down’s syndrome is dumped on a curb by a hospital van because he doesn’t have insurance. A friendly homeless man was abandoned after returning home from Vietnam. “Purple heart, purple balls, purple everything!” The social commentary at the film’s close is particularly biting and just plain heartbreaking. Ferrin handles it all with deft hands and a sharp eye.
Speaking of eye, the words “raw” and “gritty” get thrown around a lot in movies and usually the film doesn’t deserve those adjectives. The actor was sweating and had dirt on his face? GRITTY! Central characters die? RAW! But Parasites earns those words in spades for its narrative and photography. Ferrin and DP Christian Janns nail the tone and atmosphere of seedy LA, with all of its dark underpasses and alleyways. It looks like mainly natural lights were used, which at night isn’t much. Headlights, road flares, blinking street lights are the main sources. Every frame just feels dangerous. The Los Angeles River has been done to death in films, but never quite like this. I honestly wonder if they got permits for some of this stuff.
Parasites is intense from the first shot to its harrowing curtain call. Extremely well-acted, well-crafted, well-shot, and proper gritty, it’s hands-down one of my favorites coming out of Fantasia Festival. It’s got something to say without cramming it down our throats and it takes a simple premise and runs with it down to hell. Think Judgment Night meets Escape from NY meets Jeremiah Johnson, then do a shot of Tenafly Viper and run for your life.
The film screened at the ongoing Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal.
Check out the trailer and AWESOME poster below!