'Blood Drive': TV Review
Syfy's trip to the grindhouse has a strong lead in Christina Ochoa and more than one trick up its bloody sleeve.
Blood Drive, Syfy's new celebration of all things grindhouse, probably won't come up in your next discussion of Prestige TV or Emmy contenders for 2018. But in a medium prone to artistic pretensions, some realized and some damningly elusive, there's some value in a show that just aspires to be a bloody, leering, disreputable hoot and largely succeeds.
Created by James Roland, Blood Drive is the kind of series that would immediately bankrupt Syfy were the network forced to pay royalties to the many schlock and B-movie auteurs who inspired it. Roger Corman would probably be at the front of the line with his hand out, but Walter Hill, George Miller, Dario Argento and the late Herschell Gordon Lewis would be among the bigger names ready to get cut a check. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, who taught a younger generation everything they know about grindhouse, would warrant a tribute, as would the creators of Fox's short-lived drama Drive, which featured a mighty similar plot and structure.
Blood Drive is set in the dystopian future of 1999. A series of earthquakes caused by fracking tore America apart and an energy crisis followed, with the price of oil soaring to $2,000 a barrel. A privatized police force imposes strict penalties for over-consumption of water and a looming corporate entity is encroaching on the rights of the increasingly poor populace. One way to make money, if you have the stomach for it, is to participate in the Blood Drive, a questionably legal multi-state road race in which the cars are powered by blood and the loser of each leg could be put to death.
With its $10 million prize, Blood Drive attracts a desperate group of racers with names like Clown Dick, Fat Elvis and Rib Bone, as well as estranged married couple Domi (Jenny Stead) & Cliff (Craig Jackson) and the oddball pairing of The Gentleman (Andrew Hall) & The Scholar (Darren Kent). Our heroes are Grace D'Argento (Christina Ochoa), a sex bomb who thinks nothing of grinding up a potential rapist in the hungry, metallic vagina dentata that is her car's blood-guzzling engine, and Arthur (Alan Ritchson), a blandly studly cop quickly nicknamed "Barbie."
Overseeing the "meanest, nastiest, filthiest road race in the world" is Julian Slink (Colin Cunningham), wild-eyed master of ceremonies and judge, jury and often executioner for his gang of racers.
In its pilot, Blood Drive steers into its sanguine, grindhouse skid. Director David Straiton relies heavily on emulating the genre's aesthetic tropes, with washed-out colors, aggressive light saturation and lens flares and aggressive zooms and jump cuts. Blood flows and spurts and spatters freely, and I'll be curious to see if all of the language remains intact for Syfy broadcast and FX is about to have company in the basic cable f-bomb squad. Filmed in South Africa, Blood Drive makes great use of mountainous wilderness settings and augments an underpopulated Los Angeles set with ample CG. The pilot is gory and silly and wields sex as a plotpoint in a way that calls to mind Crank, which is probably something of a modern grindhouse movie.
The pilot is also exhausting and immediately raised concerns about how an entry in a genre more prone to 75-minute features than 10-hour serialized narratives would maintain this aggressive form of homage. The answer, thankfully, is that it does not, at least not exactly. In the next three episodes — Syfy made the whole series available for review, but four felt like enough of a taste — move from self-conscious emulation into the realm of affectionate parody as Blood Drive becomes a smorgasbord of genres. There's an episode with hillbilly cannibals, another with chemically augmented mutants, still another set in an asylum on Halloween. Each episode, in 43-ish minutes, runs through all of the conventions to which Ryan Murphy would dedicate a full American Horror Story. By that standard, I'd expect subsequent episodes to deal with circus freaks, true crime TV, Dylan McDermott masturbating and the weirdness that was Lady Gaga winning a Golden Globe for acting.
There's no real depth to any of it and there are only hints at the subversion that characterizes the best films of the genre. The media and political satire in, say, Death Race 2000 was much sharper. The celebration of outsiders and freak-flag-flying culture is present, but fairly tame.
Also, despite all of the viscera and body fluids, there's very little fear or even disgust generated, but this isn't Rob Zombie's brand of grindhouse celebration. Instead, it's mostly just funny, especially the third and fourth episodes directed by Psych star James Roday. The deteriorated film effects and the adrenalized driving become less important and instead there are extended subplots involving the possibility of Blood Drive becoming a network TV show or delving into the relationships of the other drivers and the result is a show that's vastly more watchable. The more Blood Drive goes for comedy, the more Slink becomes central and the better Cunningham gets to be. His interactions with the note-giving network powers-that-be are hilarious, even if they're also basically from a different show.
The CW is convinced Ochoa is a star, picking up her wildly off-brand military soap Valor. I haven't watched Valor, but given how well she maintains her take-no-prisoners dignity in a show that parades her around in a variety of cut-off shorts and belly-bearing tops and then splashes her with various glistening liquids, she should be able to withstand a CW-style depiction of Middle East conflict. She's dynamic and that slightly elevates the square-jawed Ritchson, who also has a CW background (Smallville), but will always be a Paula Abdul-wooing American Idol contestant to me. I think Grace is supposed to dominate the narrative, but Ochoa makes it really disproportionate.
Of the other performances, Marama Corlett is memorably quirky in what could be a breakout role depending on how the rest of the season progresses and Darren Kent's Scholar goes from oddball to the show's only truly sympathetic character with impressive speed.
I'm not going to rush to watch the last nine episodes of Blood Drive, but it's a show I merely wanted to sample before its Wednesday, June 14 premiere and then kept me entertained and curious for longer than I expected. If you're interested in the idea of a somewhat sanitized grindhouse experience of TV — the real thing probably would have needed to air on Cinemax instead of Syfy — and the premiere sounds a bit one-note, I can assure you that there are at least a few other notes and they're all enthusiastically gross.
Cast: Christina Ochoa, Alan Ritchson, Colin Cunningham, Thomas Dominique, Andrew Hall, Darren Kent, Marama Corlett.
Creator: James Roland
Airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Syfy, premiering June 14.