DEATH FORCE (VENGEANCE IS MINE)
Color, 1978, 110m.
Directed by Cirio H. Santiago
Starring James Inglehart, Carmen Argenziano, Leon Isaac Kennedy, Jayne Kennedy, Joe Mari Avellana
Color, 1978, 79m.
Directed by Cirio H. Santiago
Starring John Carradine, Bruce Fairbairn, Trey Wilson, Vic Diaz, Leo Martinez, Karen Stride, Lenka Novak, Katie Dolan, Lex Winter
Vinegar Syndrome (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
An American G.I. trained in the samurai arts and a bloodsucker obsessed with Shakespeare are just a few of the jaw-dropping pleasures awaiting you in this double feature of Filipino madness from Vinegar Syndrome, both helmed in 1978 by very busy director Cirio H. Santiago who had just come off of TNT Jackson, She Devils in Chains, and The Muthers, and would go on to the ridiculously wonderful nudie kung fu film, Firecracker.
First up we have Death Force, also known as Fighting Mad, which made the rounds on VHS from Continental Video in its common reissue version running a scant 89 minutes. What the Vinegar Syndrome disc actually delivers is its much longer initial cut under the title Vengeance Is Mine, running a whopping 110 minutes and featuring a very nasty, nihilistic ending cut from most prints. The action starts in the South Pacific as three Vietnam vet buddies are celebrating their imminent return home. Doug (Inglehart, aka Randy from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) can't wait to get back to see his wife Maria (Jayne Kennedy) and their child Jimmy (played by Inglehart's real son). His pal McGee (Leon Isaac Kennedy, Jayne's real-life husband at the time and strangely billed here without his last name) seems a tad annoyed at losing Maria years ago, but he doesn't appear to be holding a huge grudge... at first. Then there's Morelli (Sudden Impact's Argenziano), the Caucasian third wheel who's just along for the ride -- until he and McGee end up slashing Doug's throat and leaving him for dead in the water so they can take off with the gang's smuggling stash. Doug washes ashore on an island where he's saved from death by a couple of Japanese soldiers stranded since World War II, and after nursing him back to health, they use some handy sticks to teach him the ancient art of Japanese combat just before some troops arrive. More than a little blood is spilled before Doug gets a ride back while McGee is trying to force his way into Maria's bed by telling her that Doug is dead and she can't get a job singing at a decent venue. The two traitors are also working their way up the criminal chain in the city, but that doesn't stop Doug from bashing his way to the doors of those "motherhumpers" looking for revenge.
Solid fun all around (and even featuring a pretty good soft pop musical number for Jayne), Death Force is unusually ambitious for a Filipino production with a wide variety of locales, characters, and tonal shifts, at one point even intercutting our hero's samurai training with his nemesis' rise to power oceans away. The action scenes are pretty great once they kick in full force, too, including a wild kung fu showdown in a barbershop, a blade-slinging group battle in an athletic club, and an unexpected sword assault on a car windshield. Former DJ Leon Isaac Kennedy made this one year before his big break starring as Too Sweet in Penitentiary (and its two sequels), and he and Jayne would also appear together in a 1981 remake of Body and Soul one year before divorcing. He actually looks really wiry and unassuming here, a good choice for a weasely bad guy; that said, his final showdown with Inglehart is pretty strong stuff including a great triple severed head gag and some vicious swordplay. Inglehart has less to do in what amounts to a stoic role, basically looking ticked off and killing off several members of the cast while his family veers in and out of danger. Reuniting with Santiago after The Muthers two years earlier, Jayne Kennedy doesn't have a terribly demanding role either, but she looks astonishingly beautiful as always and, as mentioned above, gets a nice number all to herself. Of course, this wouldn't be a Filipino production without the ever-present scene stealer Vic Diaz in a quick cameo, but more on him in a moment...
The Vinegar Syndrome packaging notes that both this film and its co-feature were taken from 35mm interpositives, and overall this one looks pretty solid despite some obvious ravages over the years (especially the opening and closing credits, which may just be due to cheap, cruddy opticals, as well as some water damage and scratches that may have actually been printed into the original elements given the way they come and go from one shot to the next). It's a tremendous leap up in quality over the very few past video editions, to put it mildly, and finally having the film complete in its much more brutal original form is worth the price tag all by itself. If you've seen this before, be prepared for some pretty severe curve balls that were understandably trimmed to make this more palatable for a mainstream audience, especially that closing shot.
Sharing space on the DVD is another Continental VHS staple from Santiago, Vampire Hookers, which made its DVD debut with a very brief 2008 release from BCI on a double bill with Count Dracula's Great Love (under the title Cemetery Girls). That transfer was taken from a so-so 35mm print, but the Vinegar Syndrome edition is a whole different ball game entirely. It's absolutely gorgeous, looking practically immaculate with very vivid colors and far more detail during the gothic cemetery and crypt scenes. Though still as stupid as anything unleashed on movie screens in the '70s, it's a much more enjoyable film under these circumstances with something resembling a sense of style.
John Carradine opens the film spouting a Shakespeare-inspired soliloquy to the camera, a trait he'll continue throughout as Richmond Reed, the master of a trio of bloodsucking nymphs who hit the streets as hookers to bring back a fresh food supply. Enter a pair of idiot hayseed sailors, Tom (TV actor Fairbairn) and Terry (Wilson, who went on to play furniture tycoon Nathan Arizona in a certain beloved Coen Brothers classic). They're on shore leave with their CPO (Winter), who goes missing after falling into the clutches of the female vampire trio. Meanwhile the duo are all fired up after sailing from San Francisco and scouring for action all over the streets, with Terry unwittingly picking up a she-male in the men's room and starting a big tranny bar fight. Eventually they discover a nasty surprise underneath the local cemetery, and though they run back to the ship to quietly freak out for a while, Tom winds up captured in the vampires' lair and prepared as their next chew toy. Also on hand to help out the fanged ones is their own goofball Filipino Renfield, Pavo, played with complete scenery-chewing abandon by a gleeful Vic Diaz (again). Will the three sex-starved strumpets spend an ungodly amount of time in a threesome with Tom before draining his blood? Will Terry get there in time to stop them? And how many of the Bard's plays can Carradine quote before the title disco song blares the end credits?
By this point Carradine was at the height of his glorious "anything for a paycheck" period, with this one sandwiched in between his roles in fare ranging from the semi-respectable (Shock Waves, The Sentinel) to the ridiculous (Doctor Dracula, Satan's Cheerleaders). Of course, this is really most interesting as a dry run for his similar comedic turn as Count Dracula in the disco vampire comedy Nocturna, which is way, way overdue on DVD and would play very well as a co-feature with this one. The multi-national hookers of the title are actually pretty gorgeous, and though it takes a long time to deliver the sexy thrills promised by the title, it does pay off eventually with one of the longest sex scenes in drive-in history. None of the three actresses had particularly noteworthy acting careers elsewhere, though Playboy model Novak fared best with roles in a handful of films like Moonshine County Express and Cheerleaders' Wild Weekend (not to mention a quick but hilarious moment in the best sketch from Kentucky Fried Movie). All in all, it's goofy, trashy schlock from start to finish, and the improved presentation makes it a good choice for a Santiago twofer. The Vampire Hookers theatrical trailer is the sole extra, but after well over three hours of this much entertainment value already, what more could you want?
[Addition: Thanks to reader Jimmy for the reminder -- the BCI version of Vampire Hookers mentioned above was also reissued with the same cover art from Code Red with an added audio commentary by Emmett Alston.]
Reviewed on August 31, 2013.