Attending a wine tasting is an enjoyable sensory experience by most measures. Even if the wine isn’t great, you’re on a ride – comparing a variety of flavors and aromas while listening to someone describe what all those notes mean and why it all matters. Most important: you are hopefully on your way to getting good and drunk. It’s hard to know whether the fictional winery in the 1989 low-budget horror movie, THE VINEYARD, offered wine tastings. I would guess not. When your limited staff is busy with corralling prisoners and overseeing a makeshift cemetery chock full of the undead, who can find the time to develop a coherent tasting menu that will both drive sales and satisfy an increasingly savvy wine-drinking public?
Dr. Elson Po (James Hong) is the talk of the wine world. He lives on a sprawling island vineyard estate and moonlights as a film producer. He’s a doctor of Eastern medicine and specializes in acupuncture and massage. His vintage bottle selections sell for thousands of dollars at auctions attended by the affluent and well-connected. His face is splashed across popular magazine, “THE ELITE AND WINE” because he encompasses both. But the secret to his success has a cost, one that must be paid in flesh and blood.
We catch a glimpse of the vineyard’s dark underbelly in Po’s handling off his adulterous wife, Tina (Lissa Zappardino), who’s been cheating on him with the mechanic on staff. Po directs his first lieutenant, Warrior (actor and co-producer Harry Mok), to castrate the illicit loverboy in broad daylight, and then kill him. Tina is banished to an underground dungeon where we see dozens of other captives whose blood is harvested for a potion that prevents Po from rotting into a wilting husk of a human being.
Under the guise of a movie audition, quirky talent agent Paul (Karl-Heinz Teuber) puts together a group of ambitious and impressionable young Californians and brings them to Dr. Po’s vineyard for a weekend of fun. Jezebel (Karen Lorre) is a wide-eyed young actor trying to catch her first big break, accompanied by Lucas (Lars Wanberg), her protective and slightly paranoid martial artist boyfriend. Jeremy, played by Michael Wong, is a journalist who remains intrigued by the winemaker’s background but equally suspicious of his methods and philosophy. Some other folks join them for the trip, including earnest meatheads, Brad (Rue Douglas) and Brian (Sean Donahue), and actors Nancy (Cheryl Madsen), and Claudia (Cheryl Lawson). Almost all of them enjoy wine, but none of them enjoy being killed. Given the wide range of possible outcomes, how will this trip turn out?
The first night of the group’s stay is celebrated with a masquerade and costume party. Dressed in his favorite silky pajamas, Po kicks things off by entertaining his guests with a bizarre solo dance to strange electronic music fit for a Super Nintendo game. As more people make their way to the dance floor, his golden party mask is knocked off to reveal a deformed, monstrous face and everyone reacts with immediate repulsion. He removes that mask to reveal his actual, handsome face (“I fooled you, let the party begin!”) and their collective horror turns to laughter. The appetizers look delicious but Brian, dressed like a lady, yells out that they taste bitter, like spiders. Nobody agrees with him.
As the days go on, Po takes an immediate interest in Jezebel, turning up his charms in an effort to woo her. Jealous boyfriend Lucas is agitated because she won’t return his affection, worried that it might hurt her chances of getting a movie part. Brad complains about a mysterious pain in his neck – maybe he slept wrong? Jeremy starts asking dangerous questions after he goes snooping around in the estate’s library of books and old newspaper clippings. All the while, members of the winery staff slide plates of food into a mysterious locked room and guests report seeing moving corpses in the fields at night.
What do you get when you combine monster make-up effects, spooky group hijinks in the style of SCOOBY-DOO, a sprawling vineyard location, and James Hong shrieking and literally frothing at the mouth? You get THE VINEYARD, a movie I enjoyed very much. Made for less than $300 thousand and filmed mostly in San Jose, CA, it’s a vehicle for the dramatic styling of Hong, whether he’s charming the ladies as a well-dressed playboy, or screaming at his underlings as a rapidly melting ghoul. This also served as his debut screenwriting project and his third directorial credit (following 1970s sex comedies TEEN LUST and HOT CONNECTIONS), but even with the additional responsibilities, he’s absolutely *going for it* in every scene. His character cuts a little close to David Lo Pan from BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA – a cursed man who wavers between handsome eccentric and hideous weirdo – but his “daytime” mode is surprisingly tender, occasional crime boss outbursts aside (“Kill the eunuch!”)
There are issues, to be sure. The story is uneven and creeps into incoherence given all of the elements the film’s screenwriters – Hong, Mok, Douglas Kondo, and James Marlowe – were trying to juggle in the story. The wine-making doctor of Chinese descent who practices black magic derives some of his powers of longevity by randomly praying to a Mayan god. The blood of innocent hostages is used to create a youth elixir, but bodies are also occasionally dumped into open vats of wine (where is the quality control?) Living people are chained up in a dungeon to supply the blood, but there’s also dead people buried around the vineyard who occasionally become undead and try to break into the mansion. You will have questions about how this business model is even remotely sustainable — ignore them.
The result is a chaotic romp that doesn’t make sense if you stop to think about it, but the film’s pace leaves no time for thinking. By the end of the 90 minutes, you’re totally buzzed on wine-fueled horror and feeling good, and it doesn’t really matter what went into it.