In a gloomy apartment complex gun-toting drug dealer Atum Vine (Tobias Jelinek) happens across Sarah (Keely Aloña), a frightened little girl fleeing her abusive stepfather. Though Vine prevents a rape he ignores Sarah's plea for help and lets Andre (Derrick L. McMillon) take her home. For Vine is actually a demon, one of several who dwell in the building feeding on human misery. It is his job to ensure the mortal residents continue suffering which he does by dealing drugs but also preventing human death. Yet one morning Vine wakes up to find the hitherto troubled residents leading happy, fulfilling lives. With no pain or misery on which to feed the trapped demons start to go crazy from hunger. Resident demon seer Cornelia the Interpreter of Signs (Danielle Chuchran) maintains some powerful outside force has altered humanity. It falls to Vine to find the creature responsible and a way to restore order while he grapples with strange, uncertain feelings for human beings and young Sarah in particular.
Practical effects wizard Tom Woodruff Jr. played the Gill Man in The Monster Squad (1987), the alien in Alien 3 (1992) and worked on groundbreaking classics like The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986) and Tremors (1990). Released the same year as Harbinger Down (2015) the crowd-funded indie monster movie helmed by fellow effects man Alec Gillis, here credited as executive producer, Woodruff's directorial debut shares a similar agenda. It is a project conceived and part self-funded by a practical effects team as a showcase to keep their art-form alive. For many effects artists and genre fans alike a crisis point was reached with the 2011 remake of The Thing where Universal studio heads inexplicably replaced the accomplished practical effects work with computer animated effects that pleased no-one. As a result independent projects like this engendered a fair amount of good will among the fan community and were arguably vindicated with the inclusion of practical effects in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015).
In a welcome change from the usual, over-familiar indie slasher clones and mindless zombie fare, Fire City: End of Days exhibits ambition and imagination in weaving a vivid world with its own rules and mythology. Woodruff and his team at Amalgamated Dynamics Incorporated craft an eye-catching, evocative nightmare realm on a tight budget with no small amount of style. On the other hand the storytelling gets off to a regrettably sloppy start. The first fifteen minutes or so are a near-incomprehensible melange of shadowy demon shapes, moody film noir lighting, murky mystery and snarling latex creatures that dredges bad memories of Clive Barker's similarly ambitious but flawed Nightbreed (1990). Many viewers may feel tempted to bail out then and there. Persevere though and Fire City proves an intriguing, offbeat dark fantasy reminiscent of the idea-driven comic books DC Vertigo published back in the Nineties.
Woodruff's skillful lighting and staging make the practical effects shine but the film is not simply a feature length effects reel. Co-writers Michael Hayes and Brian Lubocki have a story to tell with a clear philosophical agenda. Initially the amoral demon characters are none too engaging given their prime goal is to restore the 'natural order' so they can continue to feed off human suffering. Yet the film gradually involves us in their plight as the monsters take stock of their own mortality for the first time. Their hapless attempts to try to make the humans miserable again leads to some welcome humour including the scene where struggling succubus Amber (Kimberly Leemans) strips off in front of an unimpressed couple (including former Glee star Harry Shum Jr.). Woodruff also stages a gross demon-on-demon sex scene that must be a screen first. In its murkier moments Fire City illustrates the danger of too much ambiguity and abstraction alienating the audience but amidst the gloom the tender relationship between cynical, hard-boiled demon detective Vine and vulnerable child Sarah adds welcome heart. As compassion broadens Vine's outlook, challenging the very essence of his being, the film spins a flawed but poetic fable that dredges hope from the depths of despair.