Reviews

The Vampire Effect (Chin gei bin) (2003)

Erich Kuersten

The device aptly serves as metaphor for the risk currently facing Hong Kong cinema, namely, the pursuit of the global mainstream.


The Vampire Effect (chin Gei Bin)

Director: Dante Lam
Cast: Charlene Choi, Gillian Chung, Jackie Chan, Ekin Cheng, Edison Chen
MPAA rating: Not rated
Studio: Columbia
First date: 2003
US DVD Release Date: 2004-03-30

There's one new gimmick in Hong Kong's The Vampire Effect. To transcend their human frailty, vampire hunters Reeves (Ekin Cheng) and Gypsy (Gillian Chung) drink vampire blood extract. The catch is they must also drink an antidote within an hour or become vampires themselves. This makes them different from that most recently famous of vampire slayers, Buffy Summers, who was of a supernatural strain herself. Reeves and Gypsy's practice involves regular flirtation with the very thing they are attempting to destroy. This device aptly serves as metaphor for the risk currently facing Hong Kong cinema, namely, the pursuit of the global mainstream.

The Vampire Effect's plot concerns a centuries-old vampire, Prince Kazaf (Edison Chen), who falls in love with Reeves' kid sister Helen (Charlene Choi). At the same time, Gypsy falls for Reeves, but he's too busy brooding over their bloody, thankless job to take notice. The villains of the piece are a vampire group from the West, making their way around the world, sucking up all the blood energy of the old vampire royalty to create a new world order.

The group's leader, Duke Dekotes (Mickey Hardt), has a metal hand and looks like a taller, broader version of Tom Cruise in Interview with a Vampire (1994). Viewers may also be reminded of Cruise's most recent film, The Last Samurai (2003), in which he plays an iconic American hero whose immersion in Japanese feudal culture teaches him to value samurai ways. In The Vampire Effect, the imperialist purpose is less disguised. The Duke's yen to soak up the blood of ancient traditions leads to one bland mash of cheesy blue special effects.

Hong Kong and the West have long exchanged monsters and movies. TV's Xena and Buffy both borrowed freely from Hong Kong cinema, which in turn borrowed from them. But, as Hong Kong struggles to reach a mainstream U.S. audience, it is in danger of losing touch with what made it special in the first place.

The Vampire Effect manages to sustain its "special" identity for the most part, deploying a madcap surrealism familiar to H.K.'s horror/comedy/action genre. Gypsy and Helen battle over a teddy bear on a rooftop, and when the toy is tossed high overhead, we are treated to "bear's eye view" shots and mid-air, Matrix-like freezes. The goofy romantic chemistry between Kazaf and Helen is also amusing: when he works up the nerve to confess his vampirism, she is relieved he's not breaking up with her.

While Choi and Chung are fantastic (they're actually a pop music duo called The Twins, famous in Hong Kong), the same cannot be said of Jackie Chan, who seems shoehorned into the picture to draw Western audiences (this point is made obvious in the different promotional art choices: Jackie Chan is front and center on the British and American DVD covers, and nowhere to be found in the Asian poster). As a bug-eyed ambulance driver, Chan plays the comedy far too broadly; whenever he's on screen, the film's tone shifts to something along the lines of Abbot & Costello Meet the Mummy (1955).

The big climax recalls some Sci-Fi channel cheapie, with shimmering spells and anime-style bursts of power. (The church setting recalls John Woo.) The vampire hunters engage in dazzling displays of martial arts against the countless undead minions, but one can't help but feel, after Buffy, Blade, Underworld, and Kill Bill Vol. 1, that stylized blood baths are getting old. The vampires take their sword thrusts, Xena-style, in some bloodless region of their midsections, then dissolve into sanitary CGI-ed dust, as they do in Buffy.

This eclipsing of Hong Kong cinema's quirky, homegrown (and often blood-drenched) weirdness by Western digital magic is tragic. The last thing our beleaguered global action cinema needs is for the source to begin imitating its own imitation. Hong Kong actors no longer have to dangle out of helicopters like Jackie Chan did in Supercop (1996); now they can just dangle in front of a blue screen. It might be safer for the actors and stunt men, but it's not as exhilarating for viewers.

Nonetheless, The Vampire Effect features enough oddball humor to keep it jumping, as well as a seeming anti-globalization subtext in the demonized American vampires. No moment is more telling (if you are watching the DVD's original Cantonese version) than when Duke Dekotes speaks English and the Chinese characters abandon their native language to answer him in kind. The effect is startling, as if the Duke has already infected the whole cast with his virus.

The moment also recalls worries associated with Hong Kong's 1997 return to Chinese government, that action films would lose their beloved sensationalism, contained by national censorship and perhaps even Communist morality. Instead, Western influences are doing the damage, with The Vampire Effect as Exhibit A. Catering to Western tastes doesn't pay off in this case. The Vampire Effect arrives on U.S. shores with little fanfare, dumped straight to video.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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