By Ray Pride

For actors on the WB's series, a fresh rite-of-passage seems to be the right role to break the pretty-face mold.

J.S. Cardone's eighth feature, The Forsaken, is a hurtling, old-fashioned, slam-bang variation on Near Dark, noisy, restless and cheerfully, unabashedly "B." It's the kind of slim-plotted high-body-count bad movie I loved to discover when I was 14. Eight undead walk the earth, unleashing a "telegenic" virus as they feast on their still-human victims. The mumbo is jumbo, but jolly: The backstory of the 900-year-old band is rattled through at a diner over a rare burger with the speed of a man-walks-into-a-crypt joke. Johnathon Schaech, like a sallow-cheeked younger Peter Gallagher, and sex-mad sidekick Phina Oruche, roam the desert in search of an escaped victim (the agonizingly adorable Izabella Miko). On their trail: veteran hunter Brendan Fehr and reluctant confederate Kerr Smith.

One of the bad-guy crew is played by 18-year-old Alexis Thorpe, from Young and the Restless. Like most actors, there's a whole range of experience that gets condensed into snippets of screaming and slashing. She believes The Forsaken is about "a gang of kids who really are lost who grab onto anything they can. It's about finding a pseudo family," she says. Of the not-so-family nudity by other female characters, she notes, "It's not done in a sensual way. I don't think this movie will attract people who are looking for boobs." Of the desert locations, she reacts like a pro: "You fly me to this hellhole and have me die on my first day? I wasn't trained that way!"

Kerr Smith, preparing for "my annual smooch" as gay Jack McPhee on Dawson's Creek, is the reluctant vampire hunter in a bloody movie where the word "bitch" occurs almost as often as the F word. Is it exploitative? A pause. "You're killing me," he grins. "We all want to make a buck here, it's that simple." Is it that cynical? "Unfortunately, it is." And the language? "Some of the 'bitches' were ad-libs. I think we cursed too much in this film." Still, if he were chasing vampires, he says, "I'd be throwing f-bombs out there." Of Cardone's films, Smith says, "They all take place in the desert, and there's blood." He jokes that he and Fehr were doing an Easy Rider Nicholson-Fonda pairing. "We didn't want to do the campy teenage thing."

But he's realistic about the motion picture on view. "Really, the only roles I'm going to get are the ones [directed] to the Dawson's Creek demographic. I'm 29, I'm not a kid. I want to follow the career of a Philip Seymour Hoffman or an Ed Norton, guys my age." So what do you do? "It is a business, and you don't get the work unless you know how to market yourself, sell yourself to the casting director." But what about his bread-and-butter role? "I'm playing 18, I'm shaving twice a day. Man, it's brutal."

Izabella Miko, the round-faced, Polish-accented sidekick in Coyote Ugly (but no WB-pretty), plays a role that involves both comatose, disheveled undress and sustained shrieking. But, she notes in her mellifluous accent, "Real acting is not about dialogue." She doesn't mind her nude scenes, which include an opening shower scene where she's lavished in blood. The former model and dancer says, "I don't want to be notorious [for being cute]."

Johnathon Schaech, relishing every close-up, plays a vampire who toys with his prey like a cat with a mouse, and thinks Cardone's script is making canny fun of exploitation films, going so far as to invoke Joseph Campbell's theories of myth. But Simon Rex, model-turned-VJ-turned-Felicity co-star who plays the bloodsuckers' "day driver" may have the clearest head. "It's not your clich & eacute; fangs and garlic vampire picture. It's violent, it's got hot chicks, it's edited cool, it is what it is. Adam Sandler gets slammed by the critics, but he makes a lot of money."

The very funny, fast-joking Phina Oruche, the swollen-lipped black Liverpudlian actress recurring on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, plays someone different from herself. She found her blood-muncher to be "sexually empowered, wild, free and troublesome." She says she can't let herself shy from "rich, ripe opportunities," seeing as she finds contemporary British filmmaking a snooze. As for Cym, her lusty, bloodthirsty role in The Forsaken, she laughs off any disparaging interpretation of this role. In her throaty trill, she exits with the words, "Let the record state: I was not exploited!"

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