Pale Blood (1990)

Did you come away from Tim Hunter’s 1986 film RIVER’S EDGE wishing it had placed more emphasis on putting more of its soundtrack in the film itself? Maybe you thought it was a great example of heavy metal youth noir film while also lamenting that it didn’t use “Fire in the Rain” by California punk band Agent Orange to sufficient effect; and perhaps you longed for a movie that did. Well, look no further. The 1990 vampire horror-thriller, PALE BLOOD, jointly directed by V.V. Dachin Hsu and Michael W. Leighton, features excerpts from “Fire in the Rain” no fewer than five times, and various close-ups of Agent Orange singer/guitarist Mike Palm singing the song at least 10 times. Regardless of how you feel about the film overall, it’s the ultimate test of your enjoyment (and tolerance) for hearing the same song in a single film multiple times in totally random intervals.

There have been three recent murders of young women in Los Angeles, all connected by the same foreboding signature: incisor bites left behind on the victims’ necks. With the city on edge, an outside visitor named Michael Fury (George Chakiris of WEST SIDE STORY) arrives, and he’s anxious to put a stop to the carnage. His interest in the case is never explained, but he’s hired a private investigator named Lori (Pamela Ludwig) with whom he can join forces to track down the killer. Between her interest in vampires and the occult, Lori is known as the local kook among her peers at the agency — somewhat of a proto-Mulder or quasi-Kolchak, if you pick up what I’m putting down. She’s also a great host, having rented a condo overlooking the city for Fury’s lodging, and its surprising lack of furnishings are just to his liking.

A completely empty pad without amenities might seem weird to the couch-surfers and bed-and-breakfast veterans among us, but to a guy like Michael Fury, it’s ideal. He travels with his own unique sleep arrangement in the form of a collapsible popup-tent-like coffin. Fury carries a dark secret: he himself is a vampire and one of the last of his kind. However, unlike the killer he hopes to stop, he never kills or victimizes, instead taking only the small amount of blood he needs to survive. While getting a taste of the local nightlife, he meets a new donor – er, companion – named Jenny (Diana Frank), an aspiring model recently roped into an erotic video art project by her model roommate, Cherry (Darcy DeMoss), and her artist boyfriend, Van Vandameer (Wings Hauser).

The irony of a man named Van who drives a wood-panel station wagon is not lost on me, but it helps him move his video equipment around town as he films – uh, tapes! – whatever catches his creative eye. It could be an egg squeezed in the bend of a woman’s knee, a media frenzy on the street, or a face caught by the secret video surveillance system in his loft art space. Similar to Lori, his interests are well-varied and lean esoteric, from UFOs and demonology to medieval swords and artifacts. The worlds of video art, vampire lore, late-1980s computer research, and crowded Agent Orange club concerts converge as Fury and Lori race against time to stop the next grisly crime.

There are some figures so powerful, with a dark and natural charisma so all-consuming, that they can’t help but command your undivided attention. Folks, I am not talking about Dracula, I’m talking about Wings Hauser. Every minute where he wasn’t on the screen was a minute I spent wondering what his character might be doing at that exact moment. That added up to a lot of minutes, but it paled in comparison to the amount of time I spent thinking about Wings Hauser’s role after the movie was over. The directors let him loose to work his special brand of magic the whole way through and his performance is creepy, douchey, bizarre, and comedic. There are numerous Hauser highlights. Van argues with a character on a rooftop about tape vs. film and the merits of his art form. He leads a bizarre single-camera shoot with Cherry and Jenny, obsessively focused on eggs and legs. Muttering to himself, he provides real-time play-by-play commentary from his surveillance and video editing bay as if he’s criticizing a horror film or the cruddy play-making of his favorite American football team. This heavy of a performance has an outsized effect, in that one might overlook (if not outright forget) the other performers on screen, but his unique charisma is what the film needed and fortunately for us all, Wings delivered.

During its best stretches, PALE BLOOD punches above its weight with a combination of quirky Hauser moments, well-crafted cinematography by Gerry Lively (GIRLFRIEND FROM HELL, WAXWORK, HELLRAISER III) that leverages clever uses of color, light and shadows, and novel tweaks to vampire film conventions. Though the actual scenes of horror and bloodshed are somewhat scant, and the budget overall was limited, it’s an engrossing experience at times. Chakiris is an unexpected choice for top billing as vampire protagonist Michael Fury, and while I don’t doubt the producers felt an Academy Award-winning actor was a major get for a film such as this, I didn’t connect with him as this character and would be the first to admit he’s a bit of an awkward fit. The film also indulges in one too many scenes of people and car traffic with overlapping talk radio voice-over, along with the aforementioned Agent Orange performance(s). This was probably an attempt to immerse us in the hectic Los Angeles lifestyle, but I couldn’t shake my jones for more vampires and more Wings.

The filmmaking duo of V.V. Dachin Hsu and Michael W. Leighton went their separate ways after PALE BLOOD. Hsu, who maintains an active presence on social media under the name Jenny Funkmeyer and has posted videos on subjects ranging from weed harvesting and crop circles to body cleanses and lucid dreaming, would go on to direct a 2004 documentary about the making of 1981’s ROAR, as well as the 1999 road family-drama, MY AMERICAN VACATION. Apart from this film, Leighton worked primarily as a producer. In the year prior to PALE BLOOD’s release, he produced Bob Bralver’s coed horror, RUSH WEEK, which also starred Pamela Ludwig and Gregg Allman (?!), and L.A. BOUNTY with Wings Hauser and Sybil Danning.

At one point, a brief and random city scene during one of the film’s montages somehow catches Sybil Danning walking through the frame without uttering a single line reading like it’s no big thing. Just one of the most gorgeous and prolific b-movie queens of the 1980s walking around on a Friday night like an extra. This film proves that vampires, video art, and Stirba from HOWLING II can peacefully co-exist in no other place but the City of Angels.

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