A first-time independent film constrained by a micro-budget can be forgiven for elements like inconsistent color grading, unbalanced sound mixes, or occasionally stiff dramatic performances. However, under no circumstances should the story’s hero haphazardly sniff a random jar of goo they find in a vampire lair, as occurs in 2010’s GOD OF VAMPIRES.
When people want to make other people disappear and they have the money to do so, they hire Frank Ng (Dharma Lim), a contract killer who visits a weird booth to take assignments over a landline phone from a mystery voice known only as “The Fixer” (Pete O’Herne). Frank is detail-oriented bordering on obsessive-compulsive, and after each job he notes the time duration along with outside weather conditions in a bound journal. He keeps weapons in take-out food containers and wears sunglasses indoors. Does he wear a black duster? Duh – of course he does. When he’s off the job, he’s doing his best to keep his kid brother on the straight-and-narrow. Like any aspiring parental figure, he uses boxing sessions — with gloves and headgear, he’s not a maniac — to teach his sibling discipline and important life lessons. Given his career choices and current circumstances, Frank seems capable of juggling many difficult things.
That all changes when he tries to carry out a contract on the rival of a drooling crime boss (Bruce Millet) and finds out during the job that the target is a superhuman vampire (Shy Theerakulstit). Thwarted and confused after an unsuccessful hit, he flees from the scene and hides out at his local bar to lick his wounds and figure out his next move. Only after meeting with local restaurateur, Uncle Ping (Ben Wang), does Frank fully grasp the danger and magnitude of the situation.
What Frank encountered is no ordinary vampire, but a jiangshi – in this film, called a “Kiang-Shi” – a “stiff corpse” of Chinese origin with its own unique rules and behaviors. According to Uncle Ping, it finds humans by sensing their breath, and any of its victims are infected with the same horrible curse of blood lust and rotting flesh. It can be vanquished by a blessed sword made from coins or immobilized with a sacred “death certificate” stuck to its forehead. Frank’s usual methods of death – e.g., guns, knives – simply won’t cut it.
If I had to pick just one word to encompass the highs and lows of this film, it would be: messy.
Filmed over several years in the “The Queen Slipper City” of Haverhill, Massachusetts, as well as neighboring Salem, New Hampshire, with a dash of Boston cityscapes, GOD OF VAMPIRES was produced for roughly the cost of a used 2016 Subaru. Fitz and the filmmaking team borrowed from a grab-bag of cinematic influences – from 1980s Hong Kong shoot-em-ups and jiangshi horror-comedy, to 1990s American indies and action blockbusters like THE MATRIX and BLADE – and stirred those elements to create a regional and ultra-violent genre mash-up.
This is not to say that GOD OF VAMPIRES reaches clear cult gem status, because it’s held back by some glaring production details. The sound mix lacks consistent balance and clarity, with character dialogue – much of which seems like it was added in post-production – often muddled by aggressive heavy metal music or overindulgence in vocal effects. As a result, the DVD version I watched borders on unwatchable (or at least unintelligible) for significant stretches. There are lighting detail issues that vary from scene to scene, which seem like small potatoes compared to the bizarre picture resolution chosen for the DVD presentation (a 16:9 image squished to the center with outsized borders). Some of this can be excused by gaffes by the DVD distributor, as Rob Fitz discusses in this 2019 interview, in which he sounds a little let down by that aspect of the process. (NOTE: To alleviate some of these issues, take it for a spin on Tubi with closed captioning enabled).
On the flip side, the film brandishes its strengths like a blessed vampire-killing sword. For the practical gore-hounds among us, GOD OF VAMPIRES has you covered … in fake blood and real animal intestines. (Case in point, “blood fire extinguishers provided by… ” and “authentic pig intestines provided by …“ were actual end credits). The frequency and escalation of the bloodshed in the film is impressive considering its budget, so the team should be applauded for this element alone. The other makeup effects, specifically those for the vampires themselves, are creepy and effective. During his film and television career, Fitz has added more than 60 makeup and special effects credits to his name, and this movie serves as evidence of his talents.
A rising tide lifts all boats, and for me, the tide in this film is the performance of Ben Wang. After the jiangshi is introduced, the Uncle Ping character gravitates to the center of the story as he dispenses reliable knowledge the characters need to defeat their undead adversaries. He also seems like a really affable guy when he’s not helping to dispose of vampire remains. As a working film and television actor since 1997, Wang has performed in supporting parts throughout his career and is maybe best known as Xiu/Kenzo from his three-episode run in the final season of Marvel/FX television series, LEGION. He does a lot of heavy lifting in the second act, handles several moments of dry humor with aplomb, and as the most experienced actor of the bunch, he’s the dramatic glue holding the movie together.
The other members of the cast are a mix of first-timers, semi-professionals, and Fitz’s own friends, but everybody got the memo about what sort of movie they were making. It was equally refreshing to see a group of predominantly Asian-American actors in a regional horror film. In playing the hitman protagonist of Frank Ng, Dharma Lim hits the right beats most of the time, even if his physical presence doesn’t yell professional killer. The restaurant staff that Uncle Ping brings along for the ride – Dave (Morris Chung), Ducky (Evan Lam), and Z (Vu Ha) — are solid in their roles, keeping things punchy and comedic. Even the chainsaw-obsessed town drunk played by Craig Ciampa is convincing; nearly every patron I’ve seen day-drinking at the bar by themselves in a Chinese restaurant has been a middle-aged white guy in a baseball cap and a plaid shirt. And some of the smaller characters are the most memorable: at the bar where Frank hangs out, there’s a guy carving “EAT FUCK” into his stomach while occasionally stopping to yell, and a lady in unfortunate 1990s sunglasses who fires a shotgun in response to getting blood on her jeans from a fight. There are also at least two scenes with people randomly eating donuts.
Had it been filmed a decade or two earlier, GOD OF VAMPIRES feels like the sort of film that might get scooped up by a hip boutique genre movie label for a loving high-def restoration and release, rough edges and raw production be damned. It’s a rare example of an American attempt at bringing Chinese jiangshi iconography to the movie screen, and though there’s some dramatic and technical misfires, the pace of the story and the visual flourishes largely help to keep it afloat.