Buried under a mountain of special features, Judge Brett Cullum found a shoestring-budget flick with heart.
Even the dead will scream!
In 1993 a straight-to-video vampire movie became a cult legend. Darkness was and still is the only feature Leif Jonker has ever directed (though not for long with several productions in the pipe). The rest of his film dossier includes working for Tim Burton as an assistant location scout on Mars Attacks! , and helping to produce My Day in the Barrel. Yet this low budget vampire gore fest will insure Jonker has a legacy. For years, blurry VHS and inferior DVD copies from video sources were the only way to enjoy this bloody mess of a movie, but now Darkness goes digital with its first direct port on to the DVD format. As if that weren't enough, Barrel Entertainment is offering a two disc collector's edition with over three and a half hours of supplemental material.
Facts of the Case
Darkness is about a small town invaded by an army of vampires. A band of teenagers armed with shotguns and holy water try to take on the undead and survive.
Darkness was never meant to see the light of day. For director Leif Jones it was the equivalent of a demo tape for a garage band, filmed under subpar conditions merely to provide him with a decent example of what he was capable of to studios and investors. He was searching for a bigger budget, and it never found him. Instead the movie was released as-is, straight to video, where Goth rock kids decided to embrace it as a cool, undiscovered gem of a movie. The film gathered a rabid cult following instantly thanks to its simple, bombastic plot and plenty of gore. Unfortunately, the film came out in 1993 where it was lost in a sea of direct-to-video horror titles. Had it been twenty years earlier, Jonker may have been mentioned in the same breath as Romero or Carpenter. The film was made for ten thousand dollars. Judging from the amount of gore, $9,990 of that paltry sum was spent on red goo.
Two sequences stand out the most—the first and the last. The movie kicks off with a bang with a claustrophobic attack on an all-night gas station, and ends with a wild chase into the rising sun as hordes of vampires descend on our heroes. In between, we are treated to super 8 film stock capturing bad acting and technical gaffes strewn almost as far as the carnage. The film is simply an excuse to take a vampire film and infuse it with a splatter romp made popular by Tobe Hooper with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It doesn't aspire to be any more than that. Darkness simply moves from one chase scene to the next without much plot development or character study. The acting is stilted, the camera moves are cheap, and the film is shot on location in run down parts of Wichita.
Darkness feels like early Carpenter or Hooper, and it's more than a simple homage. There's a spirit here that channels the masters of horror, and allows Darkness to rise above its limitations. Leif Jonker wanted to make a brutal vampire film that would steal the undead back from the likes of Anne Rice with her sensitive, soul-searching monsters who were just misunderstood junkies with a thing for blood. What Jonker achieves most easily is a '70s documentary feel, and an unbridled glee in allowing the gore to flow in buckets while a rock-and-roll soundtrack pumps up the action. Despite any shortcomings, this is a movie made by horror film fans for their peers. You can feel the passion seeping off the screen, and somehow a movie that should be fodder for the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 becomes a rollicking good time.
How could the transfer not be an improvement over what came before? The original source for all previous releases was a videotaped version filmed from being projected on a piece of poster board slapped up on a kitchen wall. Darkness never got an official theatrical release, and the "vampire" version on the first disc is a remastered, director-approved, unrated cut which will be released theatrically in some markets. The music has been retooled, filters have been digitally added to give the movie a better look, and the entire film has been recut from the original Super 8 negatives. It still looks like a ten thousand dollar movie shot on cheap film stock, but at least now the clarity is vastly improved. You're not going to use this disc as a demo standard for your new high definition television, but it is nothing short of miraculous over previous versions.
There is an embarrassing amount of bonus material which makes Darkness: The Vampire Edition a prime example of what DVD can do. Three commentaries are available on the feature itself, and all bonus material has optional commentaries as well. You'll spend weeks wading through the alternate tracks, and come out ready to make your own hometown horror film. Vampire Bootcamp is a making-of feature that runs thirty minutes complete with interviews from the cast and crew ten years later. There are deleted scenes, film festival question and answer sessions, the unaltered original version, a photo gallery of thousands of images, live performances from the band who made the score, original trailers, tour of the locations, extended rough cuts, and tons more. Barrel Entertainment has just trumped Criterion for setting the bar high on supplemental material. Truly this is the most definitive set of extras I've ever seen.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The movie was made on the cheap with non-actors. It often looks like someone shooting at a backyard barbecue with a cheap Super 8 cam while relatives cover themselves in sauce to look all bloody. Anyone expecting something along the lines of Blade should give this one a pass. It's for fans of independent horror only.
Darkness: The Vampire Edition will be the holy grail for fans of the film who have scoured eBay for a bootleg copy or other region release. This is a definitive DVD version with no dangers of a double dip, or any regrets about missing material. Jonker said he learned from George Lucas's mistake with Star Wars, and decided to include the rough original version as well as this new-and-improved cut. It speaks well of a man who has a passion for his own film, and a strong respect for his fans. Darkness was a labor of love, and it's only fitting the DVD seems to be as well.
Guilty of being a gory good time. Darkness: The Vampire Version rocks on DVD.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Barrel Entertainment
• Commentary from Director
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