DVD Review: Retromedia’s Grave of The Vampire (1972) and The Jitters (1989)

you-won-cannes-retromedia-grave-of-the-vampire

Vampire movies.

Who doesn’t love ‘em?

On March 19th, Retromedia will make you bloodthirsty with two cult classics about fiends that want to suck all your blood right out of your ever-loving body. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. Every drop. Until you’re a corpse. Like, deader than an undead doornail.

WARNING

If the sight of an infant child
nursing on human blood will
make you sick, do not see this
gruesomely explicit horror film
GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE

Those are the words you are assailed with at the end of the movie’s trailer, and right before the actual movie begins. I didn’t see this flick when I was a kid, and had not known it existed until just a few years ago when I read about it on an online forum. From what I gathered, it was a much loved cult film similar in tone to Count Yorga, Vampire (1970), a vampire movie that gave me the jitters when I was a kid. I looked it up and found it was available on DVD from Alpha Video, put it on my DVD wish list, and forgot about it. But when I heard Fred Olen Ray had acquired it for his Retromedia label and that the 35mm print was going to be remastered, I decided to finally see what this movie was all about.

The movie starts out in the 1950s where a man named Caleb Croft (Michael Pataki) attacks a couple hanging out in a cemetery at night. He was a serial rapist who met his death by electrocution in a New York subway as the police were chasing him. His body was shipped to California for burial, but years later, on this particular night; he rises from the grave as a vampire. The boyfriend is murdered, and the girl is raped. As a result of the rape, the woman gives birth to a baby that craves blood to survive. So, our “unwilling mother” cuts her chest and suckles the infant. James Eastman (William Smith) survives and grows to manhood, aware of his origin and eager to kill the monster that cut his mother’s life short.

This monster we learn, as the movie progresses, is really Charles Croyden, and he’s been stalking the earth since the 17th century, assuming different identities along the way to keep him off society’s radar. His latest “persona” is Adrian Lockwood, a teacher of occult practices at the local college. Night classes he teachers, obviously. And Eastman has tracked him here and infiltrates the class under the guise of an innocent student.  Croyden’s real objective is to reunite with his long dead wife, Sarah, who was burned at the stake in the 17th century. He intends to do this during a séance using a girl from his class who reminds him of Sarah, having Sarah possess her body once he makes contact with her on the other side. To power this séance, he needs some of his brightest and best students, which Eastman ends up being one of. From here everything spirals further out of control. It’s a grim ending, indeed, for everyone involved, I’d say.

Not a bad movie, but I wasn’t totally taken with it. I can see the Count Yorga influence, and I can also see some from Marvel’s Blade character.

Once you pop the disc in this disclaimer comes up:

The 35mm print you about to see contains
appreciable wear and tear as a result of its
many years of exhibition.
Much effort has been made to restore the film
and we sincerely hope that the remaining
imperfections will be viewed in the spirit of
the grind house experience that created them.

Aside from the film’s trailer, which is paired with another for Garden Of The Dead (1974), you get a short restoration piece (1:01) that compares the original material with what it looks like now and, yes, a lot of film damage was cleaned up, but the film’s 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer still shows signs of “wear and tear,” hence the disclaimer. I have never seen this movie in any other home video/DVD edition, but from what I can see in that restoration piece they did a good job in making this film more pleasurable to watch than it was.

Fans of Jack Wood’s 1970 film, Equinox, will immediately recognize pieces of the instrumental music used throughout, as they were lifted straight from that movie. I was quite pleased to recognizes them since Equinox is another childhood favorite of mine.

Now, I will address the gore. From what I understand, this movie was originally R-rated, but had 15-20 seconds of gore removed to get a PG, and for those collectors who are basing any future purchase of this movie on whether that gore has been restored, I can tell it has not.  Despite Retromedia having restored the “breast cutting scene,” and extended the final fight scene between Smith and Pataki, this is still the PG version.

Rounding out the extras are trailers for Coming Attractions of Wonder Women (1973), Monster From Bikini Beach (2008), and I, Marguis De Sade (1967).

Okay, time to change gears.

Before I start, though, I’d like to preface this next review by saying here’s a movie I have heard about, thanks to having been a long time Fangoria collector, but have no recollection of having seen it on cable back in the day.

Let’s say you’re having some friends over and you’ve got an evening planned of movie watching. For some reason, you’ve got a yen to see John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China (1986), and you want to add, say, three more movies to that roster, all with the same theme. So, you go ahead and pick The Golden Child (1986) and The Boneyard (1991), but you want to book end your little festival here with one final low-budget 80s flick that also tackles Asian horror mythos, and, like Carpenter’s film, takes place in Chinatown. Well, my fictional friend, look no further, I have the perfect film for you, a weird little piece of 70 minute viewing (minus end credits) about Chinese hopping vampires called, The Jitters (1989).

The movie takes place up in Canada’s Chinatown and centers on a couple, Michael (Sal Viviano) and Alice (Marilyn Tokuda), and Alice’s grandfather, Frank. Frank runs a store in Chinatown that, as of late, is constantly being preyed upon by gang members—oddly enough, Caucasian gang members, for the most part, led by a guy who looks like Adrian Zmed’s brother—who are under the assumption Frank has a shit load of money stashed somewhere.

Eventually, all this preying upon leads to the death of Frank. But the inhabitants of Chinatown, who die a ‘restless death’, don’t sail gently into the night. They become a type of undead creature the Chinese refer to as a Jiang-shi, spelled, gyon-sii, in the credits. This term has many spelling variations, as I have recently learned. These “vampires” are known to hop as their preferred mode of locomotion, with rigor mortis riddled arms outstretched before them. Traditional Chinese legend states they crave the ‘life force’ of living beings, not so much our physical, liquidy blood.

In The Jitters, however, they just create havoc and only manage to turn one guy into a fellow creature. These Chinese hoppers can be stopped and controlled by writing a Chinese spell on a piece of paper and sticking it to their forehead and they generally track you by your breath. In theory, holding it would confuse them, and it does in the movie.

Enter Tony Yang, Sr. (James Hong who played the deity Lo Pan in Big Trouble In Little China), his son, Tony Yang, Jr and Mona who have been collecting these hoppers for some time in their warehouse. Apparently, this gang has been quite busy bee dirtnapping the residents of Chinatown and unknowingly turning them into the undead. What do they care, they’re gang members.  But this particular gang just won’t relent until they find Frank’s money. All this comes to a head one night when the remaining cast—Tony Sr., is the only one that ends up getting his bucket kicked, and, yes, becoming a hopper—set loose, against the gang, the hoppers they have housed after Alice is kidnapped. Unlike Grave Of The Vampire, this movie has a happy ending all the way around.

Like Big Trouble In Little China, it also comes with it’s own theme song, which plays out over the ending credits“(You Give Me) Jitters” by Dan(n) Linck and Tom Borton (Borton is no longer walking our material plane).

This movie was originally conceived as a straight horror tale, the final product, however, is mostly played for laughs. It was supposed to be America’s answer to those popular Chinese hopper movies over in Asia called the Mr. Vampire franchise. According to the commentary with director, John Fasano, Marilyn Tokuda and Fred Olen Ray, it didn’t work out that way. If you are a fan of this movie and want to know exactly where things went wrong, you’re in luck, John will tell you. In fact, his feelings about this movie can be summed up in this statement he makes, “This film is an odd mix of well executed stuff and complete crap . . .”

That may be so, but, for some odd reason, I liked it more than Grave Of The Vampire. It’s definitely one for the “weird cinema” category, much like Jennifer Lynch’s snake woman movie, Hisss (2010), but I digress.

The back of the DVD states its Not Rated, if had been, I can easily see it getting a PG-13. Fasano says he’s just not a fan of bloody movies, and aside from one fairly gruesome neck wound this movie has no real gore. There’s a very well executed transformation, done by Steve Wang that shows us what can happen to someone bitten by one of these creatures. It’s not explained, it just happens, this “thing” is there and then it’s destroyed, but the slewing off of the skin to reveal the beast underneath isn’t all that gory, impressive, but I wouldn’t consider it gore. Perhaps, if you were a kid seeing this for the first time, okay, sure, you might get a little jittery.

The movie is in a 1.66:1 anamorphic aspect ratio, which is quite dark. I had to crank the brightness up on this one. Of note, which Fasano also explains in the commentary, was that this movie was filmed in 35mm, but no original film elements exist, only a 1” tape master does, which is what this transfer was created from. So, for those who are going to see obvious problems with it, take that into consideration.

Other extras on the disc are a Gaga AFM Promo Reel (8:58) and a Skouras Promo Reel (1:57) and a Coming Attractions section for future releases by Retromedia—Grave Of The Vampire (1972), Wonder Women (1973), Monster From Bikini Beach (2008), and I, Marguis De Sade (1967).

Even though I didn’t like Grave as much, it wasn’t enough to keep it out of my collection, and I’m certainly adding The Jitters to it. I’ll admit Fasano’s flick has piqued my interest in those Mr. Vampire movies now.

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