Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Vampires (1988)

... aka: Abadon
... aka: Vampiros

Directed by:
Len Anthony

At a prestigious New York art college called the Abadon School, construction workers using a jackhammer unleash some kind of deep-voiced spirit that promptly goes upstairs to the dorms and sucks a topless girl and her boyfriend down the toilet. Don't worry, it remembers to flush afterward. However, it won't be for another fifteen painfully disjointed minutes, which includes an art show, a tarot card reading, a woman wandering around foggy corridors, a narrated prologue (“Wouldn't you like to live forever?”) and some guy attacked by the spirit, that an actual plot starts to take shape. The pretty Orly Benyair, a real-life artist from Israel who has a beautiful smile but issues stumbling her way through her awkward lines, stars as foreign student Ione. Ione's just arrived at Abadon to study photography and film and already has one acquaintance there; a music major named Gary (Thomas Ostuni), who she was once romantically involved with. Because she's a scholarship student, Ione gets to stay on the third floor of the main building on campus. As she's getting settled in, she's befriended by a kooky but friendly girl named Helen (Vicki Richardson), whose room is right across the hall from hers.

It doesn't take Ione long to discover the staff is as strange as they are unfriendly, the students are a little more immature than she'd hoped and her former flame has a reputation for being king man-whore on campus. What else could possibly go wrong? Wellll... For starters, Gary was the guy who already got sucked down the toilet along with fellow student Tracy (Karen Nielsen). Then, during orientation, Ione feels dizzy at the mere presence of stern headmistress Madeline Abadon Avernus (Jackie James), who gathers the new students together to explain not only the school's history but also the school rules. Built in the 17th Century, the Abadon estate has been in Madeline's family nearly as long, was once used as a mental asylum where unorthodox experiments took place and was almost destroyed in a fire several decades earlier that claimed the life of Madeline's father. As for the rules, they're simple: The fourth floor and the basement are both off limits. Break those rules and you'll be “punished."

Ione starts hearing voices, including those of her dead former boyfriend, and feels general unease being at the school so she seeks help from tarot card reader / psychic Dr. Charles Harmon (Duane Jones). Another scared student named Deborah (Robin Michaels), who was also involved with Gary (damn, he really got around) also goes to Charles for help. Deborah begins snooping and finds a few books authored by Madeline's late scientist husband with titles like “Making the Fountain of Youth” and “Experimentation in Energy.” Prior to dying, Dr. Abadon had created some kind of machine that can be used to extract positive energy from victims that can then be transferred to someone else to keep them from aging. Two guesses as to who's been using it.

As much as I love when some unknown 80s title like this suddenly pops up, some things were buried for a reason the first time around. Vampires is most definitely one of those instances. From what I can gather, this was never even finished and what's been cobbled together for this release is a dull, confusing and completely incoherent mess from start to finish. Supposedly some of the footage seen here came from another unfinished film called Negatives, which had also starred Jones and featured future Scream Queen Debbie Rochon in an early role. About half of that film was shot before production closed down due to the producer passing bad checks.

We never once get to see the machine (a major part of the premise) at work, never learn how it works nor do we really get to see Madeline even using it. Characters also come and go without rhyme or reason and keep saying they're going to do something or go somewhere and it never seems to happen. One actress is our heroine one minute and a voice-over is describing her mysterious death the next. A groundskeeper character (John Bly), who's been promised sanctuary and safety by Madeline's late husband, is introduced and given a revenge motive and then vanishes. The evil Madeline also is gone for long stretches of time and isn't even present at the big finale! There's talk of positive and negative energy, fields of energy and threats of people being “neutralized” and none of it really makes a lick of sense.

If this is remembered for anything, it will be for containing one of the final film appearances of Duane Jones. Jones, who broke barriers in the horror classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), worked as an acting teacher, an English professor and a stage director after appearing in Romero's landmark film. A theatrical association with Bill Gunn also landed him the lead role in the black-cast vampire film Ganja & Hess in 1973. After that, he wasn't seen onscreen for around a decade. Perhaps finally being recognized as a horror icon and star of a horror classic in the video era, Jones was in the middle of staging a film comeback when he appeared in this and a few other films before unexpectedly passing away in 1988 at the age of just 52. What makes his appearance in this film extra sad is that his talent still manages to shine through something that's otherwise incompetent. The only other known name in the credits is Ernest R. Dickerson, who shares cinematography credit with Larry Revene.

IMDb and many other websites currently list this movie as having been released in 1986. That's incorrect. Though parts of it may have been shot as early as 1986, it has a 1988 copyright date and was screened at the Cannes Film Market that same year. Instead of receiving a traditional home video release, Vampires was shortened considerably in length, re-edited (again!) and paired up with another shortened horror feature (which also supposedly contains additional footage from Negatives) to make up Fright House, which was released to home video in 1989. To my knowledge, Vampires was not widely available in its current 80-minute form until it finally popped up on DVD in May 2016 on the Film Chest Media Group label, which uses a strictly VHS quality print. Seeing how the cast list in the end credits lists characters who aren't even in this “full” version, clearly not all of the footage from the original shoot made it into this cut either.

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