The Jitters (1989)
Dir. John Fasano
Written by Sonoko Kondo, Jeff McKay
Starring Randy Atmadja, Marilyn Tokuda, Sal Viviano, James Hong
THE JITTERS is an enjoyably dorky attempt to bring Hong Kong “Jiangshi” or “hopping vampires” (as seen in MR. VAMPIRE and its sequels) to America. Why this was done, I do not know; no one was asking for it, and, considering its low profile on the horror scene today, is seems like no one knew what to do with it once they had it. But I guess it had to be tried, and ROCK N’ ROLL NIGHTMARE and BLACK ROSES director John Fasano was the man to do it.
The story centers around a shop (various reviews online call it an “antique” or “toy” shop, but to me it looks more like one of those stores in Chinatown that sell knick-knacks and golden waving cats and stuff) owned and run by a Chinese-American merchant (Randy Atmadja*), who runs afoul of the absolute worst gang in (Toronto? Chicago?), a gang of indeterminate size (various scenes range from 3 to dozens of members) which seems to have struck on the brilliant idea of robbing the same knick-knack store day after day. When they kill the proprietor in revenge for the savage beating he lays down on three of them, his daughter (Marilyn Tokuda, receptionist in ALL OF ME, various TV shows) discovers a few local religious types (including a funny James Hong [BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, The X-Files]) have resurrected him as the unique flavor of Hong Kong undead, which eventually facilitates some hoppin’ mad revenge.
Unlike BLACK ROSES, which sported some goofy puppets but had a weirdly serious tone for a lot of the runtime, THE JITTERS hits that sweet spot between hilariously boneheaded and genuinely goofy fun. From the GHOSTBUSTERS-esque sythnpop themesong to the animated hopping vampire which menaces the opening credits, to the whiny, incompetent gang members, it’s solid camp through and through, but still captures the charm in the gimmick perfectly. This will never exactly be a terrifying concept, but the movie treats it exactly as seriously as necessary while still having fun with it. There’s plenty of wacky scenes with the hopping vampires mistakenly getting out of control and causing a ruckus, but our main characters (the merchant’s niece and her cornball white boyfriend (Sal Viviano, Demonic Metal singer Damian in BLACK ROSES) don’t ever seem to be in serious danger. That’s no problem, because we’re more invested in the undead victims getting their revenge against the gang than we are terrified by these unholy abominations.
You gotta enjoy the clueless American boyfriend, whose dismissive incredulity to all this Chinese superstition becomes significantly harder to defend by the tenth ambulatory vampire corpse he sees. Like the smug Englishmen in THE MUMMY, he’s so patronizing about it in defiance of all the crazy stuff he’s constantly witnessing that you have to laugh. Unlike THE MUMMY, though, I think this is an intentional parody of clueless, unwittingly ethnocentric white dudes who are so sure they know everything that even being proven wrong again and again can’t shake their cocky confidence that they have it all figured out. But the movie forgives him for it, he’s a good guy at heart, he can’t help it that he’s a white guy in the 80’s. 1989 wasn't exactly noted as a high-water mark for cultural sensitivity, so it's nice to have Fasano tacitly acknowledge though this goofy character that this is China's world, and he's just playing in it. Lest you worry that the movie too enlightened, though, also note that the villain's girl describes the resurrected vampire as "Count Chinkula," in what is surely the year's funniest use of a racist epithet.
There’s plenty of fun to be had with the ever-growing hoard of hopping menace, but there is one weird, out-of-the-blue scene which took me by surprise. One of the gang members (the only Asian one, if that means anything) gets bit by a vampire, and returns to the gang headquarters for a midnight snack (posing, improbably, as a delivery boy). But their leader is no slouch, he’s done his homework and for some reason understands that you can defeat such a creature by showing its own reflection in the mirror (a weird twist on the usual vampire v mirror antagonism that I don’t recall from MR. VAMPIRE, but whatever). When they try this, though, there’s an unexpected result: The vampire freaks out and rips off its skin and becomes some kind of other, weirder, scarier vampire. Doesn’t seem like it’s a significant tactical improvement since they defeat him anyway (by showing him another mirror! Boy, I wouldn’t have thought to try that a second time!), but I don’t know what to make of this bizarre tangent, which is completely different from anything else in the movie, and also from any other movie ever made. I guess Fasano couldn’t constrain his love of goofy monster costumes to just one specific kind of vampire, one more reason you gotta love him.
|I don't know what this is, but I like it.|
Mostly though, this one gets by on charm more than spectacular effects or harrowing terror. That’s fine, because charm is something it has a surplus of, and more than enough to keep a brisk 80 minutes compulsively watchable. The wacky, slapstick humor is actually deftly in line with its Hong Kong counterparts, and although its martial arts are significantly weaker, it’s generally well-shot and structured. That means that even its obvious weak points --hilariously tin-eared line readings, an astounding inappropriate score which endlessly repeats two or three semi-random keyboard runs which would sound low-rent as the score to an Atari game-- end up being part of the fun. This is clearly the best John Fasano movie, blending the sublime silliness of ROCK N ROLL NIGHTMARE with the generally competent z-grade filmmaking of BLACK ROSES, and also unfortunately his last film as a director. He subsequently worked as a script and TV movie guy for years afterwards, even writing ANOTHER 48 HOURS, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: THE RETURN, and --according to his IMBD bio (though not his actual IMDB list])-- ALIEN 3, and was in pre-production for his fourth film when he died last year at 53. To my knowledge, the idea of bringing Jiangshi to America** died with Fasano’s career as a feature film director. I don’t know that anything in THE JITTERS suggests that this was some kind of horrible tragedy, but for an under-the-radar one-off, I think is about as good an American tribute to this obscure and ridiculous subgenre as anyone could possibly hope for. Frankly, the idea that some other hack who didn’t have Fasano’s obvious affection for the conceit and talent for making charming trash could come in and shame our great nation with a suboptimal Jiangshi effort… well, it’s enough to give one the jitt[warning: computer has detected hacky writing and has successfully blocked it].
*That seems to be an Indonesian last name, but I’ll trust Fasano to have found a legitimate Chinese-American.
**A dream which apparently Hong Kong production company Golden Harvest flirted with, going so far as to produce and film half of an English-language MR. VAMPIRE sequel --starring Michelle Phillips from The Mommas and The Pappas (!?)-- before pulling the plug when they realized the director’s English was too limited to make a go of it.
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