Bloodsucking Freaks on Bloody Screens Aglow is a recurring blog series about vampire and Gothic horror media that inspired Project Vampire Killer, my novel about vampires, cinema-as-sorcery, space weed, and the glorious Gothic ascendant.
Leif Jonker’s Darkness: The Vampire Version is a surreal descent into the gore-soaked DIY Dracula apocalypse of Wichita, Kansas, 1988-1991. With almost no budget (supposedly made for five grand or less) across its sporadic self-starter production, it seethes with raw talent and passion, taking viewers willing to overlook its occasional lapse into “friends messing around with cameras in someone’s house” moments through an anxiety-inducing carnival of bloodsucking hordes, chainsaw violence, folk horror imagery, extreme gore effects, and American despair.
Darkness is endless nights of wasted youth in America’s heartland. It is senseless killing at an isolated gas station. It is an atonal, rhythmic flight of terror from a ravenous horde through a car wash. It is exurban spaces drenched in blood and paranoia. That Jonker has not gone on to a long and storied career as a visionary horror director is a crime, but that he might produce something so singularly unique and batshit within his local community with little more than beer money and some copies of Fangoria magazine gives me hope for the arts in our present age of corporate art, AI-produced dreck, and focus-tested monoculture. Jonker reconfigures the familiar zombie and vampire signifiers into pure heavy metal: your neighbors are out to EAT you, just as Romero warned us all those years ago, and it’s going to hurt like hell.
Forget the subtext for a moment. The budget-busting gore effects are silly, simple, nauseating, impressive. Pustules grow and burst. Layers of putty and rubber slough off writhing actors. Blood pours out in geysers. Actors scream and flail in a holy water-infused retention pond. The climax of the slaughter is best kept a surprise for your first watch, as it is a rousing series of gore effects that will make you believe in the power of cinema all over again.
As a feature, Darkness transcends whatever technical and budgetary limitations it may have through sheer willpower, creativity, and explosive shock value to stand shoulder to shoulder among other late-80s gorefests. Its influence on Project Vampire Killer is in its hazy, dreamlike atmosphere and its recontextualization of American spaces into darkness-shrouded Gothic killing grounds, little different from their continental counterparts. The pathogen-like nature of the vampire's kiss (or flesh-rending bites, in this case), the neighborhood lynch mobs of the undead, and the lo-fi but effective gore set pieces are all resonant with me as a fan and creator of vampire fiction.
Where other vampire films and literature may take a sympathetic look at the monster of monsters, Jonker’s work has little time for that. The vampire is an unstoppable force, one that must be escaped and, failing that, faced with unflinching resistance, even unto death, in the vain hope that others may live to see one more sunrise.
Regrettably, Darkness is hard to find and is not, to my knowledge, officially streaming anywhere. There were reports as recently as 2019 about a Blu Ray release from Arrow, but that appears to have fallen through. If you can find a way to watch it (perhaps with a little searching on a prominent video streaming site) it is well worth your time. Here’s hoping for more from Jonker in this age of inexpensive production equipment, or, maybe, from the next generation of monster-obsessed kids from a place like Wichita, Kansas.