The cult horror-comedy “Vamp” surely has a major claim to being one of the most potent signifiers of everything we’ve since come to associate with the style, culture and underlying socio-political attitudes that became prevalent in the 1980s. From the character of its content to its production-dressing and its now fairly obvious subtext, and right the way through its subsequent home viewing history, it’s almost as though the film were intended from the outset as some sort of cultural palimpsest of the age, for future generations to peel back the layers and reveal a decade’s values, social mores and subliminal concerns underneath : we start with rich, wisecracking college kid protagonists, one of whom is played by ‘80s movie go-to man and teen idol Robert Rusler (“Weird Science”; “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddie’s Revenge”; “Shag”), with George Michael’s blow-dried hairstyle and a ‘go for It’ attitude to entrepreneurship that mimics the politics of popular Reaganomics, all shot in the breezy, contemporary style of the college campus comedy genre so successfully popularised by John Hughes. We then move on into a roustabout world of colour, where the film becomes a subliminal, dayglow-lit AIDS parable replete with big-haired stripper vampires, cute girls with bubble perms, leather-coated gang members, and a striking performance art-based appearance from the 80’s iconic queen of avant-garde chic (and scourge of camp British talk show hosts) Grace Jones – all of which characterise a film whose mise-en-scene exemplifies the MTV-filtered framework of Michael Jackson’s 1984 “Thriller” video. The film was one of the big hits of the video store boom which overtook the popular culture of the decade; which is where it eventually found its audience via VHS cassette, after its initial theatrical run was curtailed by the success of the similarly themed “Fright Night”, released a few months before it, and its opening weekend clash with “Aliens”.
Written and directed with an incisive feel for both the ‘80s horror flick and teen comedy genres -- but never parodying either -- by Richard Wenk, “Vamp” is an interesting cross-pollination of genre that perhaps inadvertently reveals much about a deeply contradictory decade, as it attempts the seemingly impossible task of simultaneously promoting an aspirational, consumption based lifestyle, calculated to appeal to its predominately teenage audience by associating wealth and acquisition with youthful vigour and the ability to attract the opposite sex, with a profoundly ambiguous attitude to sex itself, which is indelibly tainted here with the mark of corruption and disease, and which is, ultimately, portrayed as a harbinger of living death.
Chris Makepeace and Robert Rusler are handsome teen pals Keith and AJ, both of whom are desperate to join their college fraternity, even taking part in silly, ill-conceived ‘pagan’ rituals (styled on Roger Corman’s adaptation of “Masque of the Red Death”, it appears) in order to gain access to the fringe benefits membership would automatically entitle them to (“plush accommodation, cable television and continental cuisine”). They decide to use a bit of business initiative in their attempt to ascend the slopes to the top of the smug frat boy heap – AJ offers to supply all the entertainment for an upcoming frat party for free if they’re made members without having to undergo the ritual humiliation the initiation rites inevitably involve. The fraternity decide they want a stripper at the event, so Keith and AJ gain access to a red Cadillac borrowed from a inveterately irritating and nerdy acquaintance of theirs called Duncan (Gedde Watanane) on the proviso that they allow him to come with them (he also makes it a condition of the deal that these two cool kinds become his best friends for a week, which succinctly illustrates the nature of the trio’s relationship), and take a trip into downtown LA, having found an ad in the local paper offering the services of a strip- joint called The After Dark Club, where they hope to buy the services of one of the performers for the evening. The three kids soon have a run-in in a local dive (the proprietor removes his apron at closing time, dons a priest’s garb and hangs a huge crucifix around his neck as he sets off home!) with a gang of freaky albino dropouts and their oddly toothed girlfriends, led by the white-haired, sharp-featured ‘Snow’ (Billy Drago), and make their escape into the neon-lit confines of the nearby strip club, where pink-suited owner and compere Vic (Sandy Baron) oversees proceedings while munching on live cockroaches.
Everyone in the joint is transfixed by the primal, animalistic performance of a towering Amazonian called Katrina (Grace Jones), who moves like a possessed panther -- naked apart from a wire-mesh corset, all-over body art and a shock of red hair. AJ ventures backstage to procure the services of this mesmerising, near-silent creature, but ends up being ravished by her in her dimly lit dressing room while Keith and a rampantly drunk Duncan wait out front. Unfortunately, the club is merely a front for vampires who prey on the low-life of LA, whom they think no-one will miss. With her not realising that he didn’t come alone, AJ is brutally killed by Katrina -- his throat ripped away by what turns out to be an ancient Egyptian vampire goddess. Keith teams up with a ditzy waitress from the club called Alison (Dedee Pfeiffer) believing that AJ went back to a hotel with one of the other on-stage strippers. Soon they’re being ruthlessly pursued through the twilight never-world that is vampire-haunted downtown LA by revenge-hungry gang members and transforming sets of vampire strippers and waitresses alike, all of whom answer to the hypnotic power of their great queen. Suddenly, the trials of fraternity initiation don’t seem quite so inconvenient in comparison!
The film identifies its horror credentials with an opening sequence that suggests somekind of Italian-styled medieval horror with its sonorous choral theme and apparently historical setting. It turns out just to be a college fraternity initiation ceremony though, which soon fizzles-out when the cassette tape, that’s been playing the portentous chanting all along, screws up in the ghetto blaster. This is a good way of assuring the audience that there are plentiful horror-themed dramatics to come, while the film spends its next half-hour looking, sounding and to all intents being, a standard ‘80s college comedy instead. Rusler is perfectly cast as the kind of supremely confident, fast-talking, super-handsome girl-magnet protagonist who always appeared in American teen movies of the period, and who made us downtrodden Brits -- eternally stuck it seemed in a drizzly Thatcher’s Britain -- want to kick such smug bastards as hard as we possibly could. Chris Makepeace, so similarly coiffured that the two leads look like twin brothers, is the slightly softer, probably still-virginal (and therefore likely to be the source of identification for the majority of the teen audience) sidekick who takes a backseat during the straight comedy preamble but then assumes the mantle of sympathetic lead in the second act. Gedde Watanabe fulfils the standard hopeless, socially clueless geek role to perfection. Rich enough to be of interest to our main protagonist only because he has the obligatory flash car that is absolutely essential in any aspirational teen comedy, Watanabe dresses in bad taste flashy shirts, is comically lewd around women without realising that he isn’t being in the least bit amusing (and consequently is very amusing indeed for different reasons) and spends the picture pulling a variety of comical drunken expressions. In most movies today, such a character would end up being in some way redeemed by the end of the film or would come to an eventual moment of self-realisation – but not in this film. Duncan buys the friendship of the cool kids but then spends nearly the whole film, perfectly happily and obliviously, leering at strippers in the club on his own.
The film takes a turn into comic-horror as night falls on downtown LA and the outdoor locations become drenched in blocks of irrational neon lighting that give the entire a film an otherworldly fantastical character from then on. The striking vivid green and pinky-purple colour scheme, under which the entire night cityscape becomes garishly lit, mimics the alluring lighting of the interior of the strip club which first leads the boys into a world of corruption and diseased, vampiric sex. It’s as if a facetious Porkies-style sex comedy has suddenly taken a wrong turn somehow: the boys come to the city looking to advance them-selves socially, and perhaps become adults and experience all the delights that entails, but instead find only hollow-eyed disease and death. AJ is clearly meant to be the more experienced and the more socially confident of the two leads: he deals nonchalantly with the threatening gang who menace them in the café and shows little nervousness about venturing backstage to negotiate with the strippers. Consequently, it is he who meets an unpleasantly graphic end in the film’s first and only really straight horror sequence, during which he is dispatched with relish by a nubile and naked Grace Jones sporting the transfigured face of a grotesque gargoyle (something which seems unnecessary in the vampire genre, but the film delights throughout in contrasting the allure of the vampires’ nakedness with monstrous, threatening features which are taken-on suddenly when the creatures wish to penetrate the necks of their half-willing teenage victims). The less experienced and slightly more diffident Keith is protected somewhat by his nervousness, but he’ still attracted to the club waitress Alison -- who goes by the pseudonym Amaratto when she’s waitressing-- and who also strips at the club. Despite Dedee Pfeiffer’s girl-next-door persona, one of the running themes of the film plays on an evident ambiguity about whether Alison is herself a vampire and is simply leading the hero Keith into a trap. She is clearly functioning throughout as the potential love interest, but we’re made unsure all the way through the movie about whether she too is ‘diseased’. This is another resonance with the paranoia about AIDS which was just on the verge of taking hold of 1980s culture at this point, the theme reaches its apotheosis when Keith injures himself and Alice sucks the wound as an act of bonding in their romanctic friendship … or is it?
The look of the film is beautifully calculated to extend this metaphor while paying obvious homage to the work of Mario Bava and Dario Argento with its outrageous use of lighting gels and its amusing nod to “Kill Baby … Kill” during the appearances of a cute, blonde-haired vampire child who supplies some of the most memorable shots in the film; this is not the kind of reference point usually found in a teen comedy though. Wenk takes the lighting methods of Bava to such extremes that the film eventually achieves a pleasing comic book style all of its own in consequence -- a gaudy style that downplays the horror content and takes the material into more fantastical realms. This excessive candy-neon look also emphasises the link with the slick appeal of the club, and we’re left in no doubt about what it and the surrounding area represent. Vic the club owner fills Keith in on the make-up of their clientele in harsh terms: “Look around. Look who comes here: the sickies, the degenerates, the forlorn, the lost, the lowlifes; the fucking dregs of humanity wind up here!” Thus, the healthy, go-getting, sexually virile AJ ends up blanched and lifeless, his body disposed of in a backstreet garbage dumpster having become a victim of his own ambitions. Returning later as a representative of the undead (a slight steal from “An American Werewolf in London” no doubt) the previously annoyingly smug protagonist suddenly becomes a great deal more sympathetic now that he has an inherent understanding and connection with the ‘fucking dregs of humanity’ identified by the duplicitous Vic, who is in league with Grace Jones’ Egyptian vampire goddess and her followers. It’s strange to consider how hard it would be to sell this vision of strip clubs as sordid havens of vice today, in a culture where pornography has gone mainstream and strip clubs exist on nearly every city street corner.
Grace Jones dominated the marketing of the film but is actually used sparingly, a fact which some use to find particular fault with it. She gets only a few scenes and then disappears until the end for a somewhat text-book confrontation with Keith and Alison -- the rest of the screen-time being filled with entertaining ‘80s visual makeup effects and comic-horror vignettes, but very little outright gore and only mildly titillating nudity. Nevertheless Jones’s performance is undoubtedly the compelling heart of the film. She gets no dialogue, performs the world’s weirdest strip-club routine (it’s more like an absurd piece of half-horrific, half-erotic performance art and not the kind of thing that would be appreciated by the clientele identified by Vic, that’s for sure) and indulges in some ferocious copulation-cum-throat-tearing hysterics that culminate in a grotesque transformation scene (all the rage in the mid-eighties after “An American Werewolf …” and “The Howling”). She’s the perfectly toned totem of the film’s implicit stance on sex in the 1980s: exotic, strange, alluring, yet scary and inherently dangerous. One of the movie’s poster tag lines sums up the double-edged attitude the film best exemplifies: ‘sometimes you have to stick your neck out to have a little fun!’
This mainstream comedy full of broad jokes and comic-book scares subliminally captures the confusing nature of the times that shaped it, and remains one of the best of the cult ‘80s classics that still retains its bite.
Arrow Video provides viewers with another excellent two-disc DVD edition here (with a Blu-ray version also available) featuring their usual packaging excellence: in other words, four choices of cover panel art, a double-sided fold-out poster and an exclusive booklet with new writing by Jay Slater (author of “Eaten Alive”). The film is presented in a strong new 1.85:1 transfer featuring a video introduction by Robert Rusler, and with the original English mono audio (with optional subtitles); it sounds nice and strong throughout, with the unmistakable eighties synth-based soundtrack (Miss Jones provides several memorable tracks) ringing out resoundingly. Disc one also features a blurry video-derived 1.33:1 version of the theatrical trailer and an audio commentary with Robert Rusler, recorded especially for this release and moderated by a high-pitched Calum Waddell who sounds about fourteen here! It’s an entertaining track though, with Waddell clearly knowing his eighties cult films inside and out and able to quiz Rusler on his opinions on a number of related topics. There are some great anecdotes about Grace Jones and a few ghosts laid to rest. Rusler is clearly a knowledgeable guy who’s lived quite an eventful life -- just as you’d expect from a man whose best friend is Robert Downey Jr!
The rest of the extras appear on the second disc, starting with “Vamp it Up – Dedee Pfeifer Remembers the After Dark Club”, a 27 minute interview with the female star of the film. “Vamp” was the actress’s first movie role and so naturally the film has a special place in her heart. She turns out to be an extremely animated and talkative person, bursting with anecdotes about the apparently extremely eventful shoot. “Vamp Stripped Bare – an Interview with Richard Wenk” runs for 17 minutes and details the origins of Wenk’s involvement with the movie. Wenk claims no special love for the horror genre and so consequently found the writing of it quite difficult. Grace Jones’s performance art-based strip scene turns out to have been entirely her own creation, conceived with the aid of her own team of designers and costumers, and even Andy Warhol was apparently involved according to Wenk. What they came up with was a million miles from the straightforward erotic dance scene Wenk had originally scripted, and the director was forced to reconfigure his original concept to accommodate it. Nevertheless, it is Jones’s unique approach to the role that plays the biggest part in elevating the film above the run-of-the-mill comedy horror vehicles of the era.
“Back to the 80s – Producing a Campy Cult Classic” is an engrossing interview with producer Donald P. Borchers, who talks engagingly about the trials and tribulations of pre-production, the difficulties encountered during the shoot such as getting the sets completed on time and the inevitable anecdotes about Grace Jones’s diva behaviour, and his attempts to keep track of her (for she was apt to fly off to Paris at a moment’s notice). This runs for 21 minutes, 8 seconds.
“Scrapbook of Scares” is an 8 minute featurette with Richard Wenk and Donald P. Borchers looking through their scrapbook of publicity materials and reviews to show how the film was marketed and publicised. We learn that Dolf Lundgren was the model who provided the body-cast for the ‘human chair’ Grace Jones uses in her dance routine and, despite the difficulties she gave them with her time-keeping, the film got itself a great deal of extra publicity through her involvement. “Behind the Scenes Rehearsals” is fascinating camcorder footage of Grace Jones rehearsing the major scene where she attacks Robert Rusler’s character, with director Richard Wenk as the stand-in for Rusler. There’s a blooper reel that also features extra nude footage of the strippers’ acts that wasn’t included in the film, plus Richard Wenk parodying Grace Jones’s dance routine while standing in for her while the scene is lit. Finally Wenk’s twenty minute short film “Dracula Bites the Big Apple” is included: the director’s first venture into the world of comedy horror imagines the count taking a trip to New York circa 1979 in search of fresh blood, but finding the pace of life is somewhat hectic in comparison with his native Transylvania. He arrives via jumbo jet to be met by Renfield, loses his coffin in a yellow taxi after a music theatre rendition of Dancing in the Moonlight, tracks a pretty girl from the New York subway to her flat but is met there by an unexpected surprise, and fails to be let into Studio 54! Shot in 1979, this slapstick comedy short resulted in Donald P. Borchers turning to Wenk with the idea of producing a comedy based around the vampire theme, with the rest, of course, being history.
“Vamp” stands up well today, both as a piece of light entertainment and as a document of its times. Arrow Video have produced an excellent package for what is, unbelievably, the film’s first appearance on DVD in the UK.