James Hong, best known for his memorable turn as Lo Pan in John Carpenter’s 1986 Big Trouble in Little China, is a man who apparently loves wine. How else can you explain The Vineyard, a 1989 horror film directed, produced, written by and starring Hong himself?
An evil winemaker invents a potion that makes him immortal. But when his concoction loses its power, he seeks out a new fountain of youth.
That’s the plot synopsis on Netflix that got me to watch this movie in the first place. Say no more, Netflix, you had me at “evil winemaker.” But man, that does not even begin to scratch the surface of this wild, weird, audacious little movie.
Hong stars as Dr. Elson Po, the aforementioned evil winemaker(!) who is also an immortal mad scientist vampire(ish?) sorcerer and movie producer from the Qing Dynasty. Dr. Po gains his immortality from a jade amulet he wears around his neck, but in 1917 he founds a winery in Yucatán, Mexico where he also apparently begins worshipping an ancient Mayan god that also grants him immortality?
So he’s like double immortal now?
The film begins with a desiccated skeleton of a man draining blood from a still alive young woman, and Doing Science To It before drinking while praying to his dark god. Then a miraculous transformation occurs, and James Hong is revealed, young, healthy and whole.
Then there’s some sleazy softcore pornography. This movie’s kind of weird.
The highlight of the film is absolutely James Hong and his manic intensity. He’s playing a cartoon supervillain here. Dr. Po would be perfectly at home in an episode of The Venture Brothers or in a backup story of an old issue EC Comics’ Vault of Horror, and he plays it to the hilt. He even has a cadre of uniformed henchmen with names like Warrior and Scarecrow, who inexplicably wield massive butterfly swords and battle-axes (and plastic mallets…they are working at a vineyard, after all). But I guess when you’re immortal and have your own private island you can afford some measure of eccentricity.
Hong really sells it here, though. He plays the outright lunacy demanded by the script with equal parts demented glee and terrifying intensity, and creates a character who is both charismatic and truly, horrifically repugnant. And this fascinating repulsiveness permeates the entire film.
There is a fight scene late in the movie that would be thrilling (in that low-budget, inelegantly choreographed way typical of small films of the 80s and 90s, all wild frantic haymakers and awkward grappling…you know, what a real brawl is like) if it weren’t taking place in a brightly lit dungeon where a half-dozen abused, blood-drained women hang from the ceiling, alternating between groaning weakly and screaming madly. It is an ugly, affecting and legitimately disturbing scene.
It’s a shame, though, that our “heroes” are so woefully underdeveloped. Karen Witter gives it her all, bless her, and it’s a wonder she doesn’t have a more impressive filmography to her name considering she manages to imbue the no-dimensional Jezebel Fairchild* with a semblance of personality. Short of Dr. Po himself, Jezebel Fairchild (I will never get tired of saying that name) is the only character who feels at all like a person. Jeremy Young and Lars Wangberg are doing what they can, and Michael Quion and Pierre Slaughter** are appropriately menacing as the aforementioned Warrior and Scarecrow, but they are playing characters who introduce themselves by describing their one character trait and if they’re lucky they get to actually display that trait.
Wangberg in particular is oddly charming as Lucas Carroll, who is introduced as a burgeoning martial artist only to spend his every fight scene flailing wildly and trying not get punched in the face. I love that.
I love the goofiness of this movie, I am absolutely swayed by the way it plays to pulp with no illusions of grandeur. I laughed, riotously, often when intended but sometimes, admittedly, when not. I screamed in fear and surprise more than once, and one scene in particular (featuring a bunch of spiders and the bravest actor in the world) has given me a brand new phobia. There’s a prevalent weirdness to the whole thing, too. At one point there is a costume dance party that feels like it would fit just fine in David Lynch’s Black Lodge, which just gets progressively more bizarre. And then it just stops. The movie doesn’t so much end as it makes the active decision to not continue. But instead of being dissonant, this is extremely fitting to the beautiful pulpiness the script is cultivating.
And also there are zombies, because fuck it why not.
I’m convinced that this image was the catalyst for the entire film. Zombies digging their way out of their shallow graves and shambling through the trellised grapevines of a moonlit vineyard.
I really liked it, is my point.
The Elite & WINE
It’s no Starship Troopers, but The Vineyard has a much more clever script than it pretends, and it has some pointed things to say about the wine industry of the late '80s.
America had money in the 1980s, and the rise of Robert Parker (whose revolutionary 100 point rating system greatly influenced, for good or ill, the direction of the global wine industry for decades to come) led to a great wine boom in this country. In the second scene of the movie, immediately following Dr. Po’s introduction in his laboratory, James Hong skewers the entire industry.
An auction takes place for the Wine Growers Association, and a room full of gray-haired white men bid thousands of dollars for young bottles of wine. It’s meant as exposition, but a close-up on an issue of The Elite & WINE (sadly not a real publication), and the subsequent bidding scene, is shot with such vitriol that I can’t help but see it as a condemnation of the then-current wine climate, especially as the bidding itself escalates to physical violence.
I feel like Hong thought then the same way I do now. There was a time when wine was extremely elitist and exclusionary, but screw that noise. Thankfully, more and more people are learning to appreciate wine, in no small part because we are learning that good wine doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive (I’ll gladly point you once again towards Spain), and doesn’t have to be unnecessarily complicated. It is easier to get into wine now than it has been in the last thirty years, and that’s a great thing.
I love wine, and I want you to love it, too.
The Vineyard was only briefly released to theaters in 1989, and languished in obscurity until 2001 when Anchor Bay released it on DVD and has since…languished in obscurity. But now it’s available on Netflix Instathing! So you should watch it.
Also, how crazy is it that in the world of this movie the most famous and respected wine in the world is made by a Chinese doctor on the Caribbean coast of Mexico? That’s wild, and awesome, and I want to live in that world. As long as, you know, there aren’t any zombies crawling around in the vineyards.
*That name, by the way. Can we talk about that name? Jezebel Fairchild is the pulp-scienciest name I have ever heard. Why isn’t there a series of trashy novels chronicling the space-faring adventures of raygun toting Jezebel Fairchild? Someone get on that.
**Okay that’s not…this isn’t a cast list, these are the new members of Gen 13.