Given the worldwide cult following of films like Bad Taste (1987), Meet the Feebles (1989), and Dead Alive (1992) (or Braindead depending on the territory), it’s almost a given that whenever New Zealand is mentioned within the context of cult and genre film that Peter Jackson is the first name that springs to most peoples minds. In more recent years the island nation has become somewhat synonymous with other comedic horror hybrids with the success of films like What We Do in the Shadows (2014), Housebound (2014), and Deathgasm (2015), What We Do in the Shadows even becoming a successful TV series. While Jackson’s success and influence cannot be denied or understated, a good decade before Jackson’s arrival the foundations of the Kiwi cult underground were being laid by David Blyth. Influenced by the surrealists, Buñuel in particular, Blyth’s debut film, the domestic satire Angel Mine (1978) was the first film to receive funding from the New Zealand film commission and is now considered a crucial part of New Zealand film history, a great irony considering the vitriol that was to be directed at Blyth and the film with several critics outright calling for stricter censorship in response to the film. The New Zealand rating board also made the brilliant “Contains Punk Cult Material” memo next to the film’s R18 certificate. Blyth’s most well-known title to international horror fans Death Warmed Up (1984) also happened to be another historically significant film, it’s the first homegrown New Zealand horror film that won the grand prize at the 1984 Paris International Festival of Fantasy and Science Fiction Film awards where it made a fan out of jury president Alejandro Jodorowsky. Jodorowsky gleefully said of the film “It would not be an exaggeration to say that Death Warmed Up has been the shock event of this Festival. It is an apocalypse of slaughter!”
By his own admission, Blyth has gone through journeyman phases throughout his career– both at home in New Zealand and abroad. Even prior to Death Warmed Up, Blyth had raked up some television credits with the interesting made-for-TV movie A Woman of Good Character (1980), one of the first starring vehicles for Sarah Peirse of Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994) and five episodes of the New Zealand TV series Close to Home in 1982. Perhaps Blyth’s most peculiar TV detour was the four episodes he helmed for the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers series in 1993, worlds removed from the likes of Angel Mine and Death Warmed Up. Alongside his narrative film work, Blyth is also a celebrated documentarian, first entering the field with the highly personal Our Oldest Soldier (2002), centered around his grandfather, WWI veteran Lawrence ‘Curly’ Blyth, who took part in the liberation of the French town of Le Quesnoy in 1918. The story of the French liberation was the subject of another Blyth documentary, French Connection (2011) and Blyth’s grandfather’s story later branched out into a series of ongoing interviews with New Zealand war vets entitled Memories of Service. Blyth’s other documentaries, Bound for Pleasure (2004) and Transfigured Nights (2007), fit much more snugly alongside his narrative work with Bound for Pleasure focusing on New Zealand dominatrices and Transfigured Nights, presented entirely via webcam, on the online masking fetish community. During his journeyman adventures in the ’90s, Blyth found himself working on direct-to-video projects for Canadian producer Nicolas Stiliadis, first with the ironically titled vampire film Red Blooded American Girl and again seven years later with the road/revenge drama Hot Blooded. Despite having nothing to do with vampires, producer Stiliadis nevertheless chose to market Hot Blooded in some territories as a sequel to Red Blooded American Girl. While completely unrelated, the two nonetheless do make an excellent pairing, Blyth’s subversive touches in both causing two of the most fascinating and rewarding cases of somewhat misleading marketing of the direct-to-video era and two films that absolutely deserve to be part of the conversation happening around the slope of enlightenment in regards to 90’s direct-to-video genre entertainment.
Coming at the very beginning of the 90’s trend of highly original takes on vampirism that includes the likes of Philip Ridley’s The Reflecting Skin (1991), Michael Almereyda’s Nadja (1994), and Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995), Red Blooded American Girl stands out with its science-fiction take on vampirism. Working for Dr. John Alcore (Christopher Plummer), the head of the mysterious Life Research Foundation under the guise of researching blood-borne diseases, drug designer Owen Urban (Andrew Stevens) meets and immediately falls for Paula (Heather Thomas), a research volunteer who soon quits and warns Owen that not all is as it seems at the clinic. Not entirely convinced, Owen takes Paula along to snoop around the clinic where Paula is bitten by an animalistic patient and Owen soon discovers Alcore is in fact a vampire, searching for a cure through blood research, Owen soon in a rush to the cure before the escaped and infected Paula further transmits the virus. Along with arriving at the beginning of the 90’s vampire resurgence, Red Blooded American Girl was also released just as direct-to-video erotica was becoming a hot commodity. With the provocative pose of the model on the video box not to mention the explicit selling of the film as “An exotic thriller” right below said model, the casting of Andrew Stevens in the lead the same year as his starring role in Jag Mundhra’s pivotal direct-to-video erotic thriller Night Eyes (1990) as well as Heather Thomas’ sex symbol status of the time, Red Blooded American Girl certainly announces itself as an erotic horror film. Blyth even opens the film with a dreamy scene of sensuality complete with blowing canopy curtains and cigarette smoke. There’s something about the tone of this opening scene however that is noticeably off, the first instance of vampirism that follows initiated not by fangs but with scissors, Blyth’s first clue that video store patrons of the time expecting a cheap, DTV vampire skin flick were in for something quite different and at times very strange.
Red Blooded American Girl delivers somewhat on its advertising in that while Blyth is unquestionably delivering an erotic horror film, even shooting it in an incredibly lush and stylistic fashion associated with 90’s erotica, the particular brand of eroticism on display might not fit the general population’s idea of “erotic horror”. The slightly off-kilter feel of the film’s opening is heightened as soon as we enter the Life Research Foundation, with its’ odd, pack-like behavior of the inhabitants and hermetically sealed-off atmosphere. Yet that aforementioned style that Blyth injects most every scene with gives the film a “hot/cold” dichotomy so to speak. Aesthetically, the film may share several characteristics with other films from the time that fall under the “erotic” banner. As a matter of fact, Blyth’s style is downright fetishistic at times. However, because of the film’s approach to vampires and the detached feel of the Life Research Foundation, much of the film’s fetishism is cold and of a medical variety. IV blood bags are caressed as if they’re bare skin, and a scene of blood filtration between Stevens and Thomas is shot more erotically and suggestively by the two leads than the obligatory sex scene that follows. Setting aside the fact that the film was a Canadian production, the obvious tonal comparison would be reminiscent of early Cronenberg. Rabid (1977), in particular given the rabies-like symptoms caused by vampirism in Red Blooded American Girl and the film’s treatment of vampirism as a medical virus. The more direct kin however, is Blyth’s previous horror film, Death Warmed Up. Which, along with Red Blooded American Girl, has one foot in the mad scientist subgenre. Dr. Alcore, the Life Research Foundation itself, and the various medial fetishism of Red Blooded American Girl echo Dr. Hal Archer, the arch-villain of Death Warmed Up with his Trans Cranial Applications facility and its fetishistically meshed masked nurses. The male form is also eroticized as in Death Warmed Up in the form of Kim Coates’ vampire henchman Dennis getting ample screen time, one of the film’s bizarre kinky highlights being Coates submerging himself in a bath, orgiastically caressing and slurping from an IV bag.
Blyth had intentions of taking the ending of the film further away from vampire film norms, by having Stevens and Thomas embrace Plummer into vampirism, with all three raising a champagne glass of blood. This was ultimately hampered by the lack of a final cut. Talking to the Never Repeats podcast in 2017, Blyth recalled “It was a situation where I had a lot less control and it wasn’t my script, it was a script by Allan Moyle, and it was a wonderful opportunity to work with Christopher Plummer and that had a sort of real budget as in about a million.”(1) Curiously, a few years after Red Blooded American Girl back home in New Zealand Blyth was at the helm of a very different kind of vampire film, the family friendly My Grandpa is a Vampire (1992) or “Grampire” starring The Munsters Al Lewis, though his next project for producer Stiliadis, once again lensed in Canada, was a much more adult-oriented affair. Despite having nothing to do whatsoever with vampires, 1997’s Hot Blooded was released in some territories as “Red Blooded American Girl II” or sometimes even more confusingly “Red Blooded II” or simply “Red Blooded”. The film did finally have another, more appropriate alternate title of “Hit and Run” as the film begins not with scientists or vampires in a lab but with Trent, a naive college student on the road to visit his parents for Thanksgiving who inadvertently finds himself in the midst of an altercation at a truck stop involving Miya (Kari Wuhrer), a prostitute and Roy, a disagreeable trucker, resulting in a hit and run. After jumping in Trent’s passenger seat, the two speed away from the scene, and although reluctant at first to have Miya ride along, the two form a bond and continue on to Trent’s parents, trailed by both a vengeful Roy and the police while Miya pulls the sheltered Trent further in over his head. Blyth simultaneously pulls the rug out from unsuspecting viewers, subverting the advertising of his own film even more than he did in Red Blooded American Girl, once again giving unsuspecting home video or late-night cable viewers expecting cheap trash not only something different but this time something really surprising.
Festooned with the provocative tagline“She’s tough, sexy and out of control”, Hot Blooded actually ranks as one of Blyth’s most visually fetishistic works, Blyth has even referred to the film as a “dominatrix road movie” due to Wuhrer’s leather-dominated wardrobe, copious shots of Wurher’s black heels, and a memorable scene in a leather shop. While Blyth was quick to reveal his unorthodox intentions in Red Blooded American Girl, Hot Blooded wears its genre mask a bit longer, Blyth dropping in little clues as to his true intentions, this is especially apparent during the films kinkier moments, while having the chase angle with Roy play out in mostly typical exploitation/road movie fashion. The film reaches a crossroads however when the film’s vengeance elements come into play with the revelation of Roy being Miya’s sexually abusive father, putting prior moments in the film into a much different and far more uncomfortable context. The film then switches gears once more from a revenge film to a legitimate character study anchored by a brilliantly enthusiastic performance from Kari Wurher, billed for some reason as “Kari Salin”, whose tough persona hides a severely damaged individual. It’s here where the film becomes all the more fascinating, while technically remaining a chase film until the conclusion, Blyth instead puts more focus on the relationship between Trent and Miya. Both Miya’s streetwise facade and her more wounded persona leave open to interpretation the question if Miya, with her philosophy of “All parents rape their kids”, is essentially becoming a victimizer herself, taking advantage of and manipulating the various naivetes of Trent, who despite being of college-age is still very much under the wing of his controlling parents, to merely stay ahead of the law, or if there is genuine affection grown between the two. Nevertheless, the relationship is plenty engaging and Blyth’s presentation of Miya is entirely objective throughout the entire film. If anything, given her past, the films tragic, upsetting really, ending presents Miya, even at her most unhinged, in an even more remarkably sympathetic light.
Like with Red Blooded American Girl, Blyth initially had a much different ending in mind for Hot Blooded that would have been a more satisfying conclusion in the immediate sense. The question remains whether or not the film would have retained the same emotional resonance and effectiveness. Blyth also had no say in the titling of the film where it was released and the DTV market being what it was. Despite the seven-year gap, producer Stiliadis was still trying to use the Red Blooded American Girl name to draw potential renters in. By 1997 however, even the DTV/premium cable market wasn’t what it was like in 1990 and Hot Blooded regrettably fell through the cracks into DTV obscurity save for a few reviews failing to see the film Blyth was actually trying to make. The title confusion probably didn’t help much either. Blyth continued on his journeyman phase following Hot Blooded, making the stylish thriller Exposure (2001) back in New Zealand, the tense production causing Blyth to take a decade long break from narrative films until coming back with a blistering vengeance with Wound (2010), a favorite of Ken Russell. Blyth explained the genesis of Wound to the Never Repeats podcast saying “2000 I made Exposure… and it had so many producers and I came out of it so depressed. I then spent the next ten years basically the tutor at South Sea’s Film School… The whole thing with Wound was that I became so frustrated and I went back and I re-looked at Angel Mine and I said to myself I’ve got to go back to my roots, I’ve got to go back to the unconscious, to the things that drove me and attracted me at the beginning of my career because I’d lost all of it, I’d become a journeyman, I’d become a hired gun.”(2). Although neither originated as his original scripts, the subversive drive that fueled films like Angel Mine and Death Warmed Up was hardly lost on Blyth in the 90’s, both Red Blooded American Girl and Hot Blooded being two of the most individual, memorable, and transgressive 90’s direct-to-video genre offerings from an underground legend.
1-2. Never Repeats Episode 33: An Interview With David Blyth (Part 2). 2017