“DEATH FORCE / VAMPIRE HOOKERS” (DVD Review)
It isn’t every day that fans of both heads-on-stakes and stakes-in-hearts are able to indulge in one stop shopping, but this double feature of films from the “King of Filipino Exploitation” Ciro H. Santiago (courtesy Vinegar Syndrome’s endlessly awesome Drive-In Collections) provides precisely such a buying opportunity.
One of the most striking aspects of this set is just how vastly different two films helmed by the same director in the same year (1978) can be in both tone and style. DEATH FORCE—also known as FIGHTING MAD, and presented here uncut under its original title VENGEANCE IS MINE—is a gritty revenge picture, featuring a sword-wielding Vietnam vet doling out old school low budget FX decapitations, two suspiciously tube-like streams of blood spurting up each time he sends a foam rubber head flying (pictured above). VAMPIRE HOOKERS, meanwhile, is unabashed buxom-horny-lady-bloodsuckers-in-see-through-negligees-plus-potty-humor camp.
As if to reinforce/anthropomorphize this dissonance, the great Filipino character actor Vic Diaz (THE BIG BIRD CAGE) plays a steely-eyed, menacing mercenary in the former and a farting, masturbating vampire wannabe imbecile in the latter.
The rap on VAMPIRE HOOKERS has always been that it delivers neither real scares nor belly laughs. True enough, so far as it goes, though to simply say this and nothing more is to give the eccentric charms of the film short shrift. From an opening shot wherein cinema legend John Carradine breaks the fourth wall to recite a fiery (if somewhat atypical) translation of Baudelaire’s “Metamorphoses of the Vampire” directly to the audience and running straight through Diaz’ last, film-closing exaggerated flatulence beneath a makeshift burlap sack cape, this is a profoundly odd feature that should appeal to hardcore fans of Seriously, who the fuck green-lit this? weirdness.
It is tempting at this point to forego the explication and simply direct readers to the film’s 70s rock theme song which covers the thematic bases fairly comprehensively—i.e. “Whoa, they’re vampire hookers and blood is not all they suck”—but here are the basics: Luzon-based Richmond Reed (Carradine) lives in a sub-mausoleum swinger pad that looks as if it was decorated by Anton LaVey, complete with stuffed leopard, gong, copious candelabra, and a wall painting of a cartoon demon and angel copulating. When not feeding on “red-blooded American” sailors lured to his lair by the promise of illicit sex, Richmond spends his leisure time working to convince his small harem that the great poets he loves to recite, particularly Shakespeare and Whitman, were actually vampires as well.
Trouble is, Cherish, Suzy, and Marcy are more concerned about the lack of sunshine (“I haven’t had a suntan in 136 years…”) and male companionship (“I don’t mind being a vampire, but this is being like a nun!”), so Richmond allows the girls to drain captured sailor Tom Buckley (Bruce Fairbairn) in a more carnal way, leading to a long, ridiculous slow motion softcore orgy. Breasts will be bared, feathered hair will be flipped and flipped again, but can Tom keep it up long enough to formulate a plan of escape?
In DEATH FORCE, a trio of army buddies headed home after a tour of duty hatch a plan to smuggle a bevy of gold bars out of Vietnam in the coffins of less lucky KIAs. Alas, when greed gets the better of Morelli (Carmen Argenziano) and McGee (Leon Isaac Kennedy), good-natured, trusting Doug Russell (James Iglehart) ends up stabbed in the neck.
Tossed overboard and left for dead, the prognosis for Doug ain’t looking so hot until serendipity steers his body to an island inhabited by two Japanese soldiers who have been willfully marooned since the Second World War. At first, the soldiers are less than thrilled about the visitor—“Half-dead man wash up on beach. Why can’t case of wine wash up? Why can’t barrel of rice wash up?”—but soon they settle on a mutually beneficial rate-of-exchange: The soldiers nurse Doug back to health and train him in the ways of the ancient Samurai, and Doug regales the soldiers with wondrous tales of the great advances of civilization has made since they’ve been off the grid, including, though not limited to, the 8-track tape and Mr. Coffee machine.
Inevitably, Doug escapes the island—we’ll skip the spoiler—and returns to Los Angeles, where he discovers his Judas pals have not only utilized their military training to take over the city’s drug trade, but also that McGee has been putting the moves on his ravishing wife, Maria, portrayed by Jayne Kennedy, a Miss USA 1970 finalist and the first African American woman to appear on the cover of PLAYBOY.
As one might suppose, this doesn’t sit well with Doug, and soon the newly minted samurai is slashing his way up the gangland chain to save his family and deliver a righteous blow against his betrayers and their evil enterprise.
It’s a fun ride with the usual subgenre caveats: Which is to say, though the choreography and pacing are exploitation flick level, Santiago doesn’t skimp on the carnage or the body count—it’s actually not much of a surprise to learn Quentin Tarantino took inspiration from DEATH FORCE while writing KILL BILL. What really sells the film, however, is Iglehart’s brooding, charismatic turn as Doug, a performance that will leave viewers wondering why he never achieved wider acclaim or stardom.
No doubt VAMPIRE HOOKERS and DEATH FORCE are strange bedfellows. Yet, as examples of the outré creative churn and diversity of the Philippines grindhouse boom, the pairing makes plenty of sense and is highly recommended for anyone willing to approach it on those terms.