Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Wendigo Meets VAMPIRE HUNTER (1997-2004)

Can you make a decent vampire movie on a $5,000 budget. My friend Wendigo, a vampire-movie fan, thinks it's possible. You'd have to do a character-driven, intimate story, going easy on the mythos and effects. The key, he thinks, is not trying to do something you can't pull off on the budget you have, unless you can come up with a way of making it look interesting. Skip the shape-changing and other stunts; you still really need no more than a pair of fangs to get the point across. Jean Rollin is an example of someone who got by on style and story sense without elaborate makeups. The recent British film Vampire Diary is another successful example in Wendigo's opinion.

Sean Gallimore
claims to have spent no more than $5,000 on Vampire Hunter, a film shot on video in 1995, copyrighted 1997 but listed as a 2004 film in many reference sources and on the recent Blood Suckers video collection from Mill Creek Entertainment. I found Blood Suckers in the checkout aisle of a Borders bookstore a few months back and bought it cheap, thinking to myself, "Now I can hold up my end of the Wendigo series for the next few months." But after previewing some of the films I was reluctant to show any of them to Wendigo. These are micro-budgeted movies, most if not all shot on video, and the production values are amateurish. At first glance, Vampire Hunter is no exception. Gallimore is a former Disney animator as well as a martial artist. Vampire Hunter reflects his martial-arts influences more than his Magic Kingdom influences. It opens most unpromisingly with a fight in an art gallery between a hero and two vampires, a beefy dude we'll later know as Morgan Bane (Leonardo Millan) and his hair-band type minion. The hero puts up a valiant fight to save his girlfriend, but Bane seems unbeatable. Triumphant, he grouses, "Immortality sucks!" It sucks because he hasn't faced a worthy adversary in centuries, but you're supposed to assume that that's about to change.

Faces of death

Enter John O'Ryan (Gallimore), an ex-Marine and a graphic as well as a martial artist. Director Gallimore treats us to a montage of some of John's sexy artwork as well as longer, time-killing montages of O'Ryan working out. John hopes to show his art at the same accursed gallery we saw before the credits, and it's there that he and his wife encounter Morgan Bane, as well as a crazy man who tries to kill Bane with a piece of wood. O'Ryan disarms the madman, who nonetheless manages to make good his escape. No matter: Bane dispatches his scruffy sidekick to take care of the apparent vampire hunter, but Ramone (fellow animator Frank Suarez) is always prepared. The man has a cross tatooed on his palm to turn away unwanted vampires, though his stake throwing leaves a little to be desired. People in this film have a hard time killing vampires because they manage to miss the heart more often than not. But after some exertion Ramone finishes his foe. Later, Ramone has a tense confrontation with John in a parking lot after O'Ryan notices that he's been followed. Imagine the following spoken with as little emotion or inflection as possible:

John: One warning: stop following me.

Ramone: You're in danger. Your wife is in danger.

John: Oh, really? From who?

Ramone: You know who....Bane. He's got eyes for your wife, which means you're dead unless you learn to protect yourself.

John: I can take care of myself.

Ramone: I know, remember?...He's a vampire. He had eyes for my wife and she's dead now. He tried to kill me but I know how to fight them, but they're so many and I need help.

John: Stay away from me and my wife. I'm worse than any vampire.

Shouldn't the film be called Vampire Hunters? Sean Gallimore (left) and Frank Suarez (right) make two of a kind.

Don't worry, folks. John will come around. One of the aspects of this movie that resembles a character arc is our hero's gradual spiritual awakening. While Ramone is so spiritual that he can draw a cross on his hand and gain power from it, John can put a crucifix in Bane's hand with no effect. As Bane plays with the object, we learn that O'Ryan's an atheist, and infer that the traditional holy symbols won't have their traditional effect when wielded by an unbeliever.

Inevitably, of course, there are no atheists in vampire movies; with so much obviously supernatural shit floating around, it's hard to maintain one's materialist poise for long. So inevitably, as Bane makes his moves on Heather O'Ryan, John learns the ways of the vampire hunter from Ramone, who wields a mean Super Soaker full of holy water among other weapons. In the end, however, Ramone is sidelined ("It got me, and fucked up your car."), and John must penetrate Bane's lair on his own-- it's behind a black curtain in the gallery -- to save his wife from the vampire's power.

Honorable warrior John O'Ryan opens his duel with a vampirized martial-arts master by throwing garlic powder in his foe's face. Below, the fight finishes the way it started.

When martial-arts expert vampires can't stop our hero, Bane himself, after losing an eye to John in an earlier showdown, makes the unholy transformation into a puppy-faced monster in a rush to spend the majority of Gallimore's budget on gore effects....

Wendigo thinks that Gallimore simply bit off more than he could chew by trying to make a vampire-fighting action film. The auteur simply lacks the skills or means of fight choreography, camera placement or editing, not to mention a cadre of competent stuntpersons, to pull off what he wanted. Some of his actors clearly have martial-arts training, probably from Gallimore himself, but many lack any sense of timing and as a result the fight sequences often come to a dead halt while someone slowly falls to the floor. Worse, in Wendigo's opinion, Gallimore couldn't resist the temptation to try for cool effects that fall flat. The already-poor sound effects become almost unintelligble whenever he tries to give Bane a supernatural spooky voice. The props are sometimes ridiculous, too. Wendigo thinks this film has the fakest-looking wooden stakes he's ever seen; maybe that's why it's so hard to kill vampires with them. As for the sets, they have that lived-in look that simply can't be faked, and Gallimore seems very intimate with them. In other words, there's no such thing as art direction in this project, though there's lots of art on the walls.

On the other hand, Wendigo found Vampire Hunter charming in a pathetic way -- the way of a mewling kitten found out on the street in the rain. He can't say there was anything good about the film, but he feels that he saw Gallimore trying his best, and like a lot of us, when he sees that starts to root for the filmmaker a little. While Gallimore went overboard reaching for effects a bit, Wendigo felt that the story itself, the master vampire's relatively unambitous scheming, was on a level that suited the budget. If we have an "urban fantasy" genre today, then Vampire Hunter may be a Skid Row fantasy, but there's nothing necessary wrong with that. Gallimore doesn't really make any original contribution to the vampire genre, but Wendigo can't help but say, "Bravo!" to anyone who can put a feature film together on such limited resources. We might not be able to account for every penny of that $5,000, but every bit of the enthusiasm that put it all together is on screen. Wendigo can't recommend it to anyone, but he thinks it could be a fun film to watch with like-minded friends. If your mind is like ours, you might find it worth that fraction of $4.99 that it cost me.

Gallimore has posted a trailer for Vampire Hunter on YouTube under his Wassabe23 tag, but doesn't allow enabling. To take a look at it, follow this link.

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