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Plot: who or what lurks within the darker bowels of the English countryside?

The 1970s were a decade of constant and grand innovation in horror and exploitation. No other subgenre went through greater evolution than the vampire movie. Hammer, the British film studio that once led the charge in revitalizing classic horror, found itself falling behind the times. Continental Europe and Latin America were pushing the envelope by infusing the old-fashioned gothic horror with a healthy dose of blood and boobs. The earliest example of the form probably being monochrome shockers as The Slaughter Of the Vampires (1962), Emilio Vieyra’s Blood Of the Virgins (1967), and Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses (1969). What really led to a veritable deluge of erotic vampire horrors were two little genre exercises from France and Spain, respectively. It were Jean Rollin's The Nude Vampire (1970) and Jesús Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971) that introduced some of the most enduring innovations to classic vampire lore. Their impact was so profound and immediate that it compelled Hammer to respond with the Karnstein trilogy of Vampire Lovers (1970) (with Polish bombshell Ingrid Pitt), Lust For A Vampire (1971) (with Danish ditz Yutte Stensgaard), and Twins Of Evil (1971) (with marvelous Maltese minxes and Playmate of the Month for October 1970 Mary and Madeleine Collinson). Rollin and Franco were fringe filmmakers who could appeal to an arthouse audience if they were so inclined. The Nude Vampire (1970) and Vampyros Lesbos (1971) not only were beautiful to look at, above all and before anything else they extolled the virtue of the female form, preferably disrobed and gyrating.

When he came to make Vampyres José Ramón Larraz had perfected his female-centric, sexually-charged formula to its most poignant form. While his debut Whirlpool (1970) and Deviation (1971) showed the occasional limitations in budget it was with Scream… and Die! (1973) and Symptoms (1974) where Larraz found his footing. Vampyres was hardly the first of its kind. It was preceded by Daughters Of Darkness (1971) and The Velvet Vampire (1971) (with Celeste Yarnall) on each side of the Atlantic and by Paul Naschy’s Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973) and The Dracula Saga (1973). It was consummate horror enthusiast Amando de Ossorio who had truly kicked open all the doors with his delightfully old-fashioned Malenka, the Vampire’s Niece (1969). Vampyres was a culmination of everything that Larraz had done at that point and the added benefit of experience allowed him to execute his vision in the ways he desired. Vampyres deconstructed the vampire film as much as it innovated upon it. The anemic premise was more of an excuse to work around limitations in budget and locations. What it lacked in production value it made up with acres of skin and lesbian histrionics courtesy of professional nude models Marianne Morris and Anulka Dziubinska. Larraz was as much of a provocateur as he was a businessman. He filmed where the money took him and what was fashionable on the market. In case of Vampyres the money took him to the pastoral, fog shrouded English countryside for an erotic vampire romp. Vampyres made no qualms about what it was and neither did Larraz for that matter. Against impossible odds Vampyres would become the quintessential Spanish vampire epic. In other words, Vampyres was, is, and forever will be, a stone-cold classic of European weird cinema and there was no immediate need (or want) to have it remade.

How often does a remake attain the level of the original? Practically never, a few rare examples notwithstanding. Regardless, Víctor Matellano has done just that and it conclusively proves that remakes, especially if they arrive some forty years after the fact, are as futile and pointless as these things usually tend to be. Which doesn't take away from the fact that Vampyres gets most of everything right. Perhaps the biggest difference is that this Vampyres opens with the quote, "she sprang from the bed with the force of a savage animal directly to my wound, sucking my life's blood with indescribable voluptuosity” from the short story La Morte Amoureuse (or The Dead Woman in Love) by Théophile Gautier. If nothing else it immediately sets the tone for what you’re going to get. Boasting two hot new stars, a swathe of young talent and half a dozen ancient Iberian horror icons Vampyres has its black heart in the right place and never is afraid to claw for that nostalgia itch. Regardless of one’s own feelings about the necessity of remakes of beloved classics the good thing is that Matellano obviously has a deep love and kind appreciation for the 1974 original. His well-intended and lovingly crafted remake of it is an enjoyable enough homage if you come to it with metered and measured expectations. While we hold the original as an untouchable and unsurpassed highpoint of nudity-laced Spanish fantaterror Matellano happens, by design or by happenstance, upon a few improvements by tweaking a few minor variables in his modern treatment. Is Víctor Matellano the Álex de la Iglesia or Alejandro Amenábar of the Instagram and Tiktok generation? Only time will tell.

Harriet (Verónica Polo, as Veronica P. Bacorn) and John (Anthony Rotsa) have travelled to the English countryside for a vacation and to shoot a documentary of local superstition concerning forest-dwelling witches. Harriet is the most pro-active in regards to the documentary while John just sees it as a convenient excuse for a little relaxing getaway. The young couple has brought along their mutual friend Nolan (Víctor Vidal) who hopes to make amends with his jilted ex-girlfriend Ann (Alina Nastase). In another part of town Ted (Christian Stamm) has checked in in his hotel, and decides to explore the environs. The receptionist (Lone Fleming) and hotelier (Caroline Munro) wax philosophically about what fate awaits him. Ted spots Fran (Marta Flich) wandering along the road, and offers to drive her to wherever she’s going. Fran directs him to a nearby mansion, offering him a drink to relax and immediately starts to seduce him. When he wakes up the following morning he has a nasty gash on his arm. Bewildered he stumbles into the tent of John and Harriet who take to looking after his injury. The following night he runs into Fran again, but this time she’s in company of her friend Miriam (Almudena León) and a man called Rupert (Luis Hacha) and his lady friend Linda (Remedios Darkin). When he wakes up the next morning Ted finds it odd to discover the lifeless and naked body of Rupert in what appears to be a car accident. This prompts him to investigate the darker bowels of the aristocratic mansion and somehow he manages to get himself locked in the cellar.

The next night Fran and Miriam bring in another victim to exsanguinate. When they are done with him they discover Ted locked in the cellar, and their weakened guest doesn’t mind the prospect of a potential threesome, even if the two women end up draining him of more than just his seed. After they’re finished with him and he’s in a dazed and confused state of phlebotomized stupor, Fran and Miriam feast on each other. Harriet has experienced going-ons at the mansion, mostly in the form of a mysterious scythe-wielding man (Antonio Mayans) skulking the environs, and decides to investigate. Her curiosity leads to her to mausoleum beneath the mansion, and the crypts wherein Fran and Miriam reside during the day. John returns from his morning excursion to find Harriet investigating the mansion, and leads her back to their tent moments before she’s bound to find the captive Ted. Fran and Miriam surmise that Harriet and John are posing too much of a threat and zone in on them. It might just be enough for Ted to plan his escape. The morning after his escape Ted is woken up by a real estate agent (Hilda Fuchs) and a senior couple (Conrado San Martín and May Heatherly) and learns that the mansion has been abandoned for decades.

In what turns out to be a very respectable remake this new incarnation follows the story faithfully and loving re-creates all the signature scenes and moments. Perhaps its faint praise but by changing a few variables around and slightly altering the lead character dynamic somehow has managed to improve on the Larraz original. The most important change here is that this Vampyres focuses on the kids first and only then introduces the motorist as a more abstract secondary viewpoint character. It also helps that the kids are actual young adults and not grown-ups like in the original. Less original is perhaps the reason why these kids are on their little excursion. They are out camping on a quest to document a tale of witches in local superstition in what can only be described as the umpteenth retread of The Blair Witch Project (1999). Reflecting the drastically lower budget the camper has been downgraded to a simple tent. And then there are the two incredible leads, Marta Flich and Almudena León. If you want to nitpick, Matellano has not kept the blonde-redhead duo intact. Perhaps there’s a point to be made that the supposedly aristocratic homestead isn’t sufficiently palatial and time-worn enough. What considerably bogs down Matellano’s homage is that it’s shorn of that vivid color palette and warmth of old-fashioned 35mm with hard/soft lighting and in its stead is that desaturated color scheme and washed out grey cinematography of digital video. It’s surprising how much this looks like the median Rene Perez indie or Arrowstorm Entertainment feature but these are truly minor criticisms.

Marta Flich and Almudena León throw themselves into the roles made legendary by Marianne Morris and Anulka Dziubinska and do so convincingly and completely. Whereas Morris and Dziubinska were professional nude models that allowed Larraz to use their bodies – contorted, exposed and otherwise - as canvas, Flich and León are acting professionals up for a challenge. To their everlasting credit (and like their predecessors some forty years earlier) they are absolutely not shy about baring their skin and getting covered in blood. Also not unimportant is that Matellano was wise enough to change the age brackets of the vampires around. Marta Flich is the youngest of the two and her seduction of the motorist makes more sense in that regard in contemporary times. When Almudena León finally joins in the whole thing becomes ever so more potent. Vampyres also gives Eurocult fans something to chew on with a host of familiar faces from Mediterranean pulp cinema. Caroline Munro, Lone Fleming, Antonio Mayans, Conrado San Martín, Hilda Fuchs, and May Heatherly represent several decades’ worth of some of the finest Spanish exploitation. It’s great seeing beloved old screen veterans paid respect to with major or minor supporting roles.

The prominence of La Morte Amoureuse (or The Dead Woman in Love) gives Vampyres a beautifully poetic undertone rendering it broadly French, narrowly fantastique, and specifically, Jean Rollin with its hazy oneiric atmosphere and very minimalist premise. As far as remakes go Vampyres is one of the better examples of why such an exercise occasionally yields worthwhile results. For one, it gets the tone right and stays very close to the original with only minor deviations here and there. Marta Flich and Almudena León have some obvious chemistry on-screen and are separately (and together) as beautiful as actresses like them come. Yet how hard they might throw themselves into their respective roles and the filth and the sleaze they get to partake in they never quite attain the same sizzling sensuality as the original duo of Marianne Morris and Anulka Dziubinska. Is this remake perfect? No, obviously not. It would be folly to expect such a thing. Something like this was never going to be able to capture that impossible to explain sweltering atmosphere of dread and sleaze that the 1970s as a decade so perfectly encapsulated. Yet the last thing Vampyres can be accused of is not trying to channel the spirit of the original. While it may not quite get there exactly it’s never for a lack of trying.

Plot: scholar falls in love with a beautiful girl who might, or might not, be human.

The Extreme Fox (非狐外传) is about the last thing you’d expect from actor-producer-director Wellson Chin Sing-Wai. Chin started out as an assistant director under famed action choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping and actor-producer-director Sammo Hung Kam Bo, and is a specialist in action and comedy, or some combination thereof. Wellson Chin is mostly known around these parts for helming the enduring action comedy franchise The Inspector Wears Skirts (1988-1992) or the Police Academy (1984-1994) from Hong Kong as well as the delightfully insane Girls with Guns actioner Super Lady Cop (1992) with Cynthia Khan. In recognition of his human interest features The Third Full Moon (1994), Once In A Life-Time (1995) and The Day That Doesn't Exist (1995) Chin has received multiple Film of Merit awards (in 1994 and twice in 1995) from the Hong Kong Film Critics Society. While primarily active in the environs of Hong Kong Chin occassionally branches out into Mainland China and The Extreme Fox is a good example of a director doing a genre he isn’t typically associated with.

As far as we can tell The Extreme Fox is a loose adaptation of the short story The Painted Skin from Liaozhai Zhiyi, or Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, from Qing Dynasty writer Pu Songling. Songling’s writing has been the basis for a variety of adaptations including, among others, The Enchanting Shadow (1960), and its famous Tsui Hark reimagining A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), Green Snake (1993), Painted Skin (2008), Mural (2011), and Ghost Story: Bride with Painted Skin (2016), and is considered a timeless monument of Classical Chinese literature. The beauty of many of Songling’s stories is that they can be interpreted as either tragic romances or horror stories, depending on how you choose to read them. The Extreme Fox chooses the romantic aspect with only the bare minimum of horror scenes required to tell the story. While Ghost Story: Bride with Painted Skin (2016) was the more faithful adaptation it never quite reaches the heights of The Extreme Fox, which as far as perfectly serviceable period-costume romances is concerned, is on the smoother end of unremarkable and utilitarian. It never exhibits the creativity of A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) neither does it possess the thick fairytale quality of Green Snake (1993). In those times before the hypnotically beautiful The Enchanting Phantom (倩女幽魂:人间情) (2020) this was a fairly faithful adaptation. Filmed in Hong Kong and aimed at the Mainland China market The Extreme Fox is extremely well-produced and beautiful to look at for what, for all intents and purposes, is a cheap webmovie.

Over the years we’ve taken quite a shine to Chrissie Chau Sau-Na (周秀娜). Chau rose to fame as a lang mo model with her 2009 and 2010 photobooks. Even though sweet Chrissie debuted in 2006 it wouldn’t be until Womb Ghosts (2010) four years later until it became apparent that she wasn’t just another model that stumbled into acting. Chau - famous for her 32D figure and the once-and-future queen of cleavage - was a spokesmodel for luxury lingerie brand Lamiu and in 2012 released her own lucrative bra line. In 2013 Chrissie appeared in 11 (!!) movies, among them Cold Pupil (2013), Lift to Hell (2013), and Kick Ass Girls (2013). In a career now spanning over a decade and sixty-plus productions Chrissie has worked everywhere from Hong Kong, and China, to Taiwan and Malaysia. Chau has played everything from the imperiled love interest, the enchanting spectral maiden, and the tough as nails action girl to more stereotypical romantic - and comedic roles. To our knowledge she never played a mermaid when that was something of a minor thing in Chinese webcinema a few years ago. Hampered by the same problem as Betty Sun Li (孙俪) and many far less than prominent (or talented, for that matter) Mainland China actresses Chrissie’s only fluent in her native Mandarin and Cantonese and she seems content to remain in regional and cultural borders. It’s unclear whether Chrissie speaks English (her Western social media at least suggest some basic knowledge and mastery of English, but her usage of it is inconsistent) and, if so, if she would be able to break into the Anglo-Saxon world in the same capacity as Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Q, Fan Bingbing, Yu Nan, and Ni Ni have.

In ancient Beijing narcoleptic Confucian scholar Wang Sheng (Alex Fong Lik-Sun) remains steadfast in his ambition to become a public servant in the bureaucracy of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Unfazed by the fact that he has failed the Imperial Examination three times in a row already, he travels to a small, sleepy farming hamlet in the village of Liuxian in the province of Wuxia. Liuxian has apparently been haunted for some time by a Kitsune or a fox spirit (why refer to it by its Japanese name if this is supposed to be ancient China?) if the Mayor (Lam Suet) is to be believed. Unable to afford bed and board Wang attracts the attention of gambling con artist Xiao Cui (or Glitter of Dawn) (Renata Tan Li-Na) and a very superstitious local girl (Cai Zi-Fen) before tavern hostess Li (He Mei-Tian) throws him out into the streets. He travels to the Miduo temple and is stunned to meet the beautiful Xianer (or Rosy Clouds Inside) (Chrissie Chau Sau-Na). What Sheng doesn’t realize is that Xianer is actually Princess Xianxia (Noble Summer or Noble Glow of Sunrise) who has spurned her lover General Wu Zhen (Huang Jun-Qi) and now exists as a húli jīng or nine-tailed fox. As Wang Sheng and Xianer face dangers, both ethereal and terrestrial, together a deep romance blossoms between the embattled fox spirit and her virtuous mortal suitor.

That The Extreme Fox is heavily redolent of A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) goes almost without saying. Chrissie gets to wear a few beautiful dresses, there’s plenty of shots with Chrissie in a mist-shrouded forest, a condensed variation on the bathtub scene, but there’s no instances of Chau playing a guqin or singing. Neither are there any instances of martial arts, swordsplay, or characters breaking into impromptu song-and-dance numbers. Understandable as this was shot on the budget of the average television movie. The Extreme Fox is, fortunately, vastly superior in every respect than the ghost horror Ghost Story: Bride with Painted Skin (2016) while never reaching the epic scope of Painted Skin (2008), and Painted Skin: The Resurrection (2012) either. The Extreme Fox sits comfortably in between and truly makes the best of what it could accomplish on a limited budget. To its everlasting credit it’s far more faithful to its source material than Wilson Yip Wai-Shun’s A Chinese Ghost Story (2011) with Liu Yi-Fei (劉亦菲) from two years before. The production value is surprisingly decent for a webmovie for the Mainland China market. Had this been produced in Hong Kong it probably would feature a lot more action, but The Extreme Fox works the best as a supernatural love story. The two female name-stars apparently ended up on opposite ends of the cinematic spectrum. Renata Tan Li-Na would end up in the well-intended Girls With Guns action feature Angel Warriors (2013) and hasn’t acted since 2016, whereas Chrissie Chau Sau-Na has become a respected and respectable A-lister.

If your only exposure to Wellson Chin Sing-Wai was the The Inspector Wears Skirts (1988-1992) franchise and the loopy Cynthia Khan HK actioner Super Lady Cop (1992) you’d never expect him to be able to conjure up something as delightfully old-fashioned as this. It never quite reaches the lofty heights of Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) but that doesn’t stop it from at least trying to channel its essence. The Extreme Fox is closer in spirit to A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) than the ill-fated 2011 remake was. Joey Wong’s performance as the condemned ghost maiden is legendary for a reason, and Chrissie Chau Sau-Na does a close approximation of it here. On average (and given its slightly higher budget) Chau does a better nine-tailed fox than Shin Min-a (신민아) in the South Korean television series My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho (내 여자친구는 구미호) (2010). We would have preferred a prosthetic mask for the partial transformation scenes but digital is the way of today, so there’s that. Alex Fong Lik-Sun is tolerable enough as the clumsy and kind-hearted scholar but he’s no match for the late Leslie Cheung in one of his most memorable roles. Perhaps it’s the nature of the beast with this being a Pu Songling adaptation, but at key points The Extreme Fox re-enacts scenes from A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) sometimes almost verbatim. The most notable among these are the opening kill of an intrepid male wanderer, the truncated bathtub scene (albeit without the drifting rose petals, Chrissie Chau losing various articles of clothing, or any of the situational humour), and the scholar warding off various unholy forces of evil with a merry band of different allies. For reasons largely unexplained the nine-tailed fox (狐狸精) is referred to here by its Japanese name. Even the Korean gumiho (구미호) is more recognizable on average.

As it stands The Extreme Fox not only is one of the better Pu Songling adaptations, but also a Chrissie Chau Sau-Na feature that can be actively recommended for the casual viewer. It never becomes an epic or grand adventure on the scope of Mural (2011) but it compensates its lack of impressive setpieces with an abundance of dream-like atmosphere and a screenplay that understands the strengths of the story it’s adapting. It might not possess the oneiric, fairytale quality of Green Snake (1993), and in fact etches closer towards the stageplay quality of the Shaw Brothers classic The Enchanting Shadow (1960) from some five decades earlier. Mainland China has an abundance of fantasy wuxia on the small – and big screen, and the quality tends to be wildly divergent depending on any number of variables. The Extreme Fox comes to us by way of the Film Bureau which is usually never an indication of quality. Thankfully the opposite is true, and The Extreme Fox is a fantasy wuxia for a general audience. It might not be a match for Tsui Hark’s most celebrated works but it admirably rises to the occassion of transcending any number of limitations imposed upon it. That should count for something, and there’s Chrissie Chau Sau-Na too. Let’s not forget her….