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'Goriest' Vampire Film Earns Wichita Filmmaker Global Following

In the early 1990s, local filmmaker Leif Jonker made "Darkness," which has been called the "goriest vampire film of all time." Through international screenings and word-of-mouth, "Darkness" developed a global following due to its manic energy and high-level special effects and makeup. 

Interview Highlights

Fletcher Powell: Leif Jonker, the director of "Darkness," also writer, producer, editor, cinematographer, composer, sound designer, makeup artist. Did I miss anything?

Leif Jonker: I do appear in the film three times as a vampire and get killed twice.

And twice! Very good. Well, so "Darkness" is one of I think a very small handful of films that came out of Wichita that could genuinely be called "cult" films. I mean I think it's basically "King Kung Fu" and "Darkness" and that's about it. And there have been other movies made out of Wichita. And with respect to those movies, "Darkness" has actually become somewhat of an international, at least underground, cult classic movie.

The irony about that happening is "Darkness" was never supposed to be released. I had talked to Bob Walterscheid, who made "King Kung Fu," and he was very encouraging about when I was trying to start "Darkness." Other people in town literally used the words, "you can't make a movie in Wichita." And so I had one guy, who's now a good friend of mine, I pitched the beginning of the movie to him. I was trying to raise $100,000 to make the film. And he said, "Leif, I can't shoot the first 10 minutes of your movie for $100,000. There's no way you can do the whole film."

But I made "Darkness" to be a demo like a band demo. I had no budget but I decided to do a feature because it was clear I had to prove I could make a movie in Wichita. When we first announced the film it was at the Zombie Jamboree in Pittsburgh, the 25th anniversary of "Night of the Living Dead." We went because George Romero was gonna be there and he is my hero. I wanted to be the George Romero of Kansas.

There was a guy from Germany there named Steve Aquilina who asked if he could see the film. We showed it to him. He invited us a few months later to a film festival in Germany. I've told this story a few times. It's sad but it's true. Now it's funny. "Darkness" showed in Germany to a packed house theater. Part of the process of making the film — we were so low budget, we worked different jobs. We also sold plasma. Go give our blood, take the checks, cash them and then go to Mohler's camera and buy some film and film that night. We were on such a low budget and we're struggling to make ends meet still, that when "Darkness" first ever showed to an audience in Germany, because we couldn't afford to go with the time difference and all, I realized we're sitting in Plasma Alliance giving our plasma right now [while] an audience around the world's watching "Darkness."

But little showings like that, they played at Fanta Festival in Rome, Italy, to a thousand-seat theater full. It just got out there. I'm not going to lie, it's deeply flawed. It's a movie made by a teenager, a first time-movie with a bunch of teenagers, but it also really delivers on the gory goods.

As you said you made the movie for no budget and you pretty much mean that--a few thousand dollars probably. Even given that, the level of mayhem that exists in this movie, it nears something like the lawnmower massacre sequence in Peter Jackson's "Dead Alive." Maybe not quite to that level, but it's up there with most anything I've ever seen. That level of mayhem really does elevate it to something far beyond its budget.

I think there's an energy of breaking the rules that comes through the film. We filmed on streets in the middle of the night without closing the streets. We would literally wait for traffic to clear for like 10 seconds and film, say "action!" and people would run in the street, and then "cut!" and literally we have a couple shots where you see the cars coming back in the frame.

We had the police called on us all the time because we had no permits and sometimes they got out with their guns drawn. I thank the Wichita Police Department in the end credits because people [were] calling in saying, "they're killing somebody!" or "they have a machete!" or "they have a machine gun!" and the cops came. And towards the end — I don't want to swear — but at one point I came running out, they're like "the cops, the cops are here, the cops!'" And I come out with my hands up saying, "it's me guys, it's me!" They swore at me, they're like, "g- d- it, Leif!" You know, because they now knew my name. But they came over and they would look at the special effects and say, "Well, that looks pretty realistic." And they started talking like, "Well, that guy looks like the guy who drove his motorcycle underneath the truck." It's like, "Whoa, OK. Well, I guess we're in the right ballpark."

You mentioned breaking the rules and certainly that's true for sort of the kind of guerrilla filmmaking that you were doing. It's also true for the type of movie this is. It's not typically what people think of when they think of a vampire movie. There's not your sexy vampires lurking in the shadows. It's almost kind of a chase from the beginning to the end. And there are waves of vampires running at you almost in the same way that there would be in say a zombie movie if the zombies were running and rather than walking slowly. And so it really is a different kind of vampire movie, and then, of course, we get to the climax, which is incredibly gory and disgusting but also incredibly effective.

I actually intentionally set out to do a movie that I thought showed the scarier, more ferocious side of vampirism. People, you know, watch a vampire movie and the girl gets bitten and she kind of gasps "ah," you know, with pleasure. Well, think about some of these teeth going through your skin [chuckles] and your muscle. I just knew there was something more vicious there.

Now, some of the things that would have made it more clearly a vampire movie got lost when we had, you know, in the translation, the script pages got thrown out. Originally all the vampires were going to be pasty and everything else, and then when they drink blood they get less pasty. The idea was, the hungrier they got the more horrific looking they got, but we didn't have the budget. There are some purists who say, "well, this is a zombie movie, it's not a vampire movie." No, it is a vampire movie. It's just a very different type of vampire movie.

Well Leif, your movie is really gross, but it's a real treat to watch.

Thanks, man.


Jonker's film screens tonight at the Warren Old Town as part of Wichita Big Screen's annual October at the Old Town Horror Movie Festival. The film will receive a restoration and blu-ray release next year. 

The October at the Old Town series continues through the end of the month (all screenings at the Warren Old Town):

Monday, October 14 - Darkness - 7:00 p.m. & 10:00 p.m.
Tuesday, October 15 - Dario Argento's Deep Red - 7:00 p.m. & 10:00 p.m.
Monday, October 21 - Candyman - 7:00 p.m. & 10:00 p.m.
Tuesday, October 22 - John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness - 7:00 p.m. & 10:00 p.m.
Monday, October 28 - Piranha & Humanoids from the Deep - Starts at 7:00 p.m.
Tuesday, October 29 - John Carpenter's The Fog - 7:00 p.m. & 10:00 p.m.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.