Night Hunter (1996)

PLOT: A moody vampire hunter must destroy a brood of undead bloodsuckers before a lunar eclipse threatens to increase their ranks. Can he finish the job before motion sickness destroys his will to live?

Director: Rick Jacobson
Writer: William C. Martell
Cast: Don Wilson, Melanie Smith, Nicholas Guest, Maria Ford, Vince Murdocco, Vincent Klyn, Sophia Crawford, Cash Casey, James Lew

Historically, very few directors have dared to combine the vampire film with martial arts -- the entirety of this subgenre could probably be written on the back of the Famous Jewish Sports Legends leaflet. The Hammer Studios and Shaw Brothers 1974 collaboration Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires marked the first official attempt, and it would be another decade before Mr. Vampire hopped into theaters. Stateside filmmakers didn’t really warm up to the concept until the success of the first Blade film. But predating even that effort was a Don “The Dragon” Wilson vehicle called Night Hunter. Director Rick Jacobson’s 1996 horror-actioner is disturbing if you’re prone to motion sickness, horrible if you have photosensitive epilepsy, and absolutely terrifying if you have both.

In the world of orphaned vampire hunter Jack Cutter (Wilson) you can’t trust anyone. Some asshole betrayed his parents and left them to die at the hands of a ruthless gang of vampires, and young Jack was forced to flee. Now the last of his kind, Cutter is gradually crossing names off a list of destroyed vampires in the handy, leather-bound reference guide left to him by his father. The mythic means of garlic, stakes, and sunlight won’t cut it against these bloodsuckers though; the only way to kill them is to break their necks. Or their backs. Or maybe it was their left ACLs. The story is a little inconsistent in that regard.

After Jack annihilates a group of American vampires out for a celebratory dinner at a Los Angeles restaurant, a high-ranking British vampire, Bruno (Guest), and his remaining disciples are on alert. When they’re not hot on Cutter’s heels and trying to kill him, they’re cooling down in upright coffins kept at a refrigerated L.A. warehouse lair. The vamps aren’t the only ones after Cutter, though. The L.A.P.D. wants him for the restaurant “murders” -- Vince Murdocco plays a prominent investment banker vampire, after all -- and a curious reporter (Smith) crosses paths with him in search of a scoop.

If you want to please Satan, you slaughter a goat or two. If you want to please directors like Paul Greengrass and Sylvester Stallone, you sacrifice your fight scenes at the Altar of Shaky Cam. After the work on display here, there may be a special place in Cinematic Hell reserved for Jacobson and cinematographer John B. Aronson because they made every effort to assure that the fight scenes were as incomprehensible and nauseating as possible. While it’s easy to blame what was, at that time, a growing production trend in Hollywood, the filmmakers are responsible for the stylistic choices that end up on the screen. Jacobson and Aronson unfortunately betrayed the talents of their performers and fight choreographer Art Camacho, and caved to convention by employing a lame camera technique. For a battle scene in a war movie like Saving Private Ryan? Sure, go nuts. For fight scenes involving actual martial artists, though, you need to check your filmmaking flair at the door and let the fights themselves provide the tension and visuals.

In a film rife with odd technical choices -- shaky cam, oversaturated shot composition, flickering lights in clubs and bathrooms, undercranking selected vampires’ movements, and a very conspicuous dummy fall -- the strangest may have been the repeated use of upbeat Spanish guitar music during almost every action scene involving Cutter. As far as I can tell, Cutter wasn’t Latino. Was Jacobson trying to appeal to the Los Lobos fanbase? Was he making a subtle social comment about the city of Los Angeles as a melting pot of diversity? I honestly have no idea, because any time the cast wasn’t primed for a flamenco dance-off, Jacobson went for a grandiose orchestral sound. It was the most confusing combination of sounds I’ve heard since Jack White teamed with the Insane Clown Posse.

Wilson is surprisingly adept at playing guarded and brooding. Between the messy mid-length hair, black duster, and faraway glare, he looks like a roadie for Alice in Chains, but the grungy, Crow-inspired ensemble is a nice change of pace for an actor known for playing straight-laced and fairly plain characters. The brother-in-law of Jamie Lee Curtis is just fine as head vampire Bruno but it would have been amazing to see Matthias Hues in that role. Smith is perfectly fine as the curious and concerned journalist, and Casey is all kinds of awful as a skeptical cop, but the real revelation is Maria Ford as Tournier, the French bloodsucker. Not only does she put on a fairly believable accent, but she wore a black sequined beret, the kind you’d find at a second store (if it were raspberry). I was halfway expecting her to break out the baguettes and brie, but when’s the last time you saw a vampire eating bread and cheese? It’s quirky performances like these that can really elevate a film and it makes you long for Ford in more over-the-top roles like this.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the casting of Sophia Crawford in this film. A seasoned veteran of the golden age of Hong Kong action film and a player on WMAC Masters, Crawford is one of the more underrated and underseen females in the action genre. She’s carved out a long career doing stunt work, and has around 40 acting roles to her credit. Thus, I was pretty stoked to watch this film to see how Crawford was utilized in a Stateside production. The answer, which should surprise no one, was, “poorly.” As one of the American vampires, she has a short fight scene with James Lew and others in the opening scene, and is phased out within the first 15 minutes of the movie. “I am disappoint” doesn’t begin to describe my frustration with that choice, but then again, Crawford may have taken the role as a favor to a producer, or to hang out with her martial arts friends for a few days. Not every casting like this is going to make you all sweaty in your Zubaz.

An uneven genre hybrid like this is practically begging for puns -- “I couldn’t sink my teeth into it,” “it sucked the life out of me,” and “I hope Wilson didn’t have too much stake in this as a co-producer” -- so I’ll just say that I was really let down by the way some of the actors were utilized and by the technical choices for the action scenes. Watch it for the Ford performance and the decent shootouts. Wilson completists are encouraged to check it out for a different look at the Dragon, but this might scare you off Rick Jacobson movies for the rest of your days.

It's out there, lurking in the shadows of Amazon, EBay and Netflix.

3 / 7

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