AFM Hidden Gem: Past Meets Present Meets Grindhouse Horror in ‘Samurai Priest Vampire Hunter’

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By Joshephira Honey

“This is the Tarantino film that Tarantino didn’t direct.”

So says Mark Terry of his Grindhouse action horror movie Samurai Priest Vampire Hunter, a feature mostly shot on gritty Super 16mm and boasting “hardcore stunts, hardcore stunts, unique vampire lore, nudity, and unprecedented vampire killings.” Tarantino may disagree (or may be too busy working on what is thought to be his final film), but Terry is confident that if he “had a time machine and could show it to him in the 1970s, he would absolutely love it.”

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As the title suggests, Samurai Priest Vampire Hunter — selling at the AFM — involves a samurai-sword-wielding priest (played by B-movie legend Tim Thomerson) and is set in a world in which vampires have, according to Terry, “kind of turned into crack addicts” and mutated due to all the various types of drinks, drugs and STD-infected blood they’ve been feeding on over the years. Among the varying assortment of blood-suckers are more traditional vampires, but also those who can happily walk in the sun and police vampires with mouths in their hands. Because why not? In the film, the gray-haired Samurai Priest is chasing a clique of vampires seeking untainted blood. 

While this may all sound distinctly new and unique to part-time horror fans, aficionados of the genre may feel a rather strong sense of deja vu. And they’d be onto something.

In something of an interesting twist, Samurai Priest Vampire Hunter has extended family ties to another film, 2009’s Live Evil, which Terry produced (and owns the copyright to). Although the film was released on VOD by Warner Bros, Terry claims that this version was a “rough cut,” only in standard definition and not the sort of finished product he was hoping for (“I’m kinda shocked it passed quality control,” he admits). Hoping to return to the feature around 10 years later and with new ideas, he had the entirety of Live Evil painstakingly digitally scanned and claims that in doing so he realized that various scenes — including some of the most crucial to the story — were extremely underexposed. Some of stills were even damaged. But this presented him with an opportunity — one in which he could expand the story and serve it up in a whole new creative manner.

So he went back and shot another 20 days’ worth of footage, some using the original actors and some using doubles, redoing some scenes (including one with baby vampires, this time using six animatronic dolls) and filming several new scenes that weren’t in the original. Perhaps the biggest change came with the use of animation, Terry choosing to frame Samurai Priest as if it was all coming from a comic book. More than 100 animated comic book panels were drawn, many used to replace the original — perhaps defective — footage, but then interspersed throughout the movie, cleverly breaking up the live-action to guide the storytelling (and often with the original remastered dialog over the top). 

In all, Terry says that, although it follows a very similar plot structure, only “about 9 percent” of Samurai Priest Vampire Hunter is identical to Live Evil.

“If you were to watch the original film, the basis of the story of the Samurai Priest would be the same, but then there’s all the different takes and different editing,” he says, likening it a little to Sylvester Stallone’s recent re-edit of Rocky IV that didn’t change the story of the film, just altered certain sections, with the fight scenes recut and deleted elements added back in. 

Terry is keen to make it clear that Samurai Priest Vampire Hunter — a labor of love that he’s spent the last half a decade making — isn’t merely a rebadged version of Live Evil, an “old film” that he’s “just slapped a new title on,” but a “retelling… it’s virtually a new film.” And it was something he said he had to do “out of necessity,” because — had the footage allowed him to do it — “it would have been much easier for me to redo it.”

With fans of Grindhouse-style frighteners hopefully placated by this explanation and now eager to see what Terry has done with a 15-year-old film that, for all its flaws, was actually well received back in 2009, there is still one important question to answer. In a cinematic world where filmmakers are forever dreaming up more elaborate and bloody deaths, exactly how “unprecedented” are the vampire killings in Samurai Priest Vampire Hunter? 

Says Terry: “Well, when a baby turns into a baby vampire and Tim Thomerson walks up and cuts off the baby vampire head off with his sword and then takes out his gun and explodes the head like a water balloon… I would say that’s pretty unique.”

Perhaps even too unique for Tarantino – although let’s see what he does with his upcoming feature about a movie critic.

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