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[Panic Fest] BLACK DRAGON Review – A Forceful and Unflinching Look at the Brutality of War

Celia Au in BLACK DRAGON (2023), directed by Alex Thompson - Panic Fest 2023.
Courtesy of Alex Thompson

Black Dragon, written and directed by Alex Thompson and Nathanial Hendricks, is a high-tension, heart-pounding psychological horror, and fable set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Defiant and intense, its forceful, unflinching look into the morality (or lack thereof) of war is divisive and electric. Featuring haunting visuals and a stellar cast, Black Dragon is memorable and set apart, even as it pays homage to the classics that inspired it.

Inspired by the atrocities committed during the Mỹ Lai Massacre on March 16, 1968, Black Dragon follows Colonel Palmer (Matthew Del Negro) leading his platoon through the war. Haunted by everything he stands to lose, Palmer continuously uses his young son as a light to get through the war’s bleak terrain. However, when a mysterious Vietnamese woman, Chau (Celia Au), arrives, appearing to have incredible healing powers, Palmer takes advantage, looking for a way to flip the war to his benefit and return to the family he left behind.

While Black Dragon comes from a minuscule budget, you’d never notice. Its high-definition shots are focused and crystal clear –– almost to a detriment. Several slow-motion frames throughout the short are nearly too sharp. In its first act, a slew of water sprays across the screen and has the potential to remind us of a television advert for a new soda brand. While it does toe that line, in the context of the film, the shots strangely work. In conjunction with Harper Alexander’s brilliant cinematography, Thompson's direction creates a dramatic sequence in which the ferocity of war is portrayed with a chilling fervor. When the Vietnamese child falls, his chin smeared with blood, clutching his wounded stomach, we are left breathless.

Au and Del Negro’s performances are an integral part of why Black Dragon is as eloquent a display of the horrors of war as it is. Del Negro’s portrait of a man who truly believes himself to be doing “what [he] needs] to do to protect what [he] loves” is remarkable and, at times, even poignant. We can truly feel his deep desperation and denial. Au’s role as Chau is equally discerning. The subtleties of the character reflect in the way Au carries herself through her physical acting. Chris Day also delivers an emotional performance as the Colonel’s son, Eddy.

Despite its limited resources, Black Dragon doesn’t disappoint. Special effects makeup by Starr Jones delivers visceral and compelling body horror, while Jeffrey Alan Jones’ music highlights the intensity of the violent events we see. While its scares are subtle (some might say lacking), the film reveals a spine-chilling evil to impress audiences with its well-deserved ending.



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