Skip to main content

It does work, you know. The fire, the wooden stakes, the sunlight. I’ve got a list right here, somewhere.

Vamp
(1986)

(SPOILERS) My affection for Vamp is only partly based on the adorability therein of Dedee Pfeiffer, in what might be the closest she’s come to a starring role. Ostensibly an entry in the resurgent vampire-comedy genre (Fright Night, The Lost Boys), Vamp actually slots more effortlessly into another ‘80s subgenre: the urban nightmare comedy. We’d already had Scorsese’s masterful After Hours and John Landis’ knockabout Into the Night, and writer Richard Wenk’s big screen directorial debut shows a similar knack for throwing its protagonists in at the deep end, up against an unfamiliar and unfriendly milieu.


Having recently revisited Fright Night, I can readily attest Vamp’s superiority, even if it likely doesn’t evoke the same sense of nostalgia for many, or feature performances as memorable as Roddy McDowall, Chris Sarandon and Stephen Geoffreys. For my money, it’s much better at balancing the laughs and scares (Fright Night mostly manages to be just gruey, and green gruey at that), and Wenk’s a more stylish director, tighter in his editing and visually more imaginative (cinematographer Elliot Davis work includes several features with Steven Soderbergh); the streets – and even the sewers – surrounding the After Dark Club, where the vampire action takes place, are all set off in pink and green hues, the kind of blanket lighting that’s difficult to find outside of a Dick Tracy but which adds a distinctive and welcome heightened flavour. Wenk has only directed a couple of times since, which is a shame on this evidence, as he has more of a sensibility than Tom Holland, who would go on to cement his horror-comedy rep with Child’s Play. Wenk’s main field has been that of screenwriter, where he’s currently much in demand (16 Blocks, The Equalizers, The Magnificent Seven remake).


He has also hit upon a winning premise: a strip club as the ideal haven for vampires seeking prey with no loose ends attached, one that attracts the “dregs of humanity”, where “nobody tells anybody when they come to a place like this”) and which offers “Our single man’s special – all you can drink for a dollar”. Kim Newman (in Nightmare Movies), approved of the picture, “despite its heavy dollops of nerd-style college humour”, noting that “Like The Howling, it works out how monsters can dovetail with human society”.  Bart Mills in Time Out berated it for precisely the same reason (“Isn’t it time filmmakers stopped preying on audiences with vampire films in which modern decadence and blood-sucking are crudely equated?”), but since he also called it a “blood-filled comic novelty” (it actually features very little blood), he might have been watching a different movie.


Various tropes are carried over from lore, of course, but instead of Nosferatu or Dracula, there’s silent Grace Jones’ Katrina presiding over the proceedings, complete with a metal disc bikini and a thing for gyrating on headless statues as she performs her act (Jones was, apparently, every bit as traumatic to work with as her reputation suggests).


Instead of Renfeld, but still eating cockroaches, there’s Vic, the club compere who dreams of moving to Vegas, played with formidable stand-up virtuosity by Sandy Baron (best known as Seinfeld’s dad’s nemesis Jack Klompus). His line in introducing the acts is suitably seedy (“Builder of major erections, our construction engineer, hard-hatted Hannah”; “She’s not got a lot upstairs, but what a staircase. Gentlemen, the fabulous Dominique”).


AJ: Hey, you think I like this? Or them? They don’t call them the walking dead for nothing. Try talking to one of them sometime.
Keith: I am.

I mentioned this in respect of Fright Night, but it’s almost impossible to watch a movie like Vamp and not have Buffy the Vampire Slayer come to mind. Particularly so when Keith (Chris Makepeace) confronts buddy AJ (Robert Rusler (who had appeared in Weird Science and Freddy’s Revenge, and would go on to become a regular in Babylon 5), now undead, and the latter launches into a comic monologue about the demerits of being a vampire. For all that Keith is the likeable, normal guy, poised between the self-assured, jockish AJ and uber-nerdy Duncan (Gedde Watanabe, notable also for Gremlins 2: The New Batch: “I am a camera!”), and Makepeace is an entirely personable lead, it’s surprisingly Rusler who steals the movie in his scenes, as well as providing Wenk’s Psycho moment (he’s the capable alpha male, but he’s also the first to be killed off).


AJ: It does work, you know. The fire, the wooden stakes, the sunlight. I’ve got a list right here, somewhere.

His offhand approach to his own demise is perfectly delivered (“I love you Keith, but all I can see right now is food, and I’m starving” to which Keith offers him was much as he needs: “Do I look like a mosquito?” comes the indignant response). Keith refuses to believe there isn’t something of the old AJ left, to which the latter feigns introspection: “Jesus Christ, maybe there is…Nah”. Wenk probably knew he had something here, as rather than kill AJ off, he has him trailing Keith and Allison (Pfieffer) through the sewers in the last scene, speculating that he might go to night school or get a graveyard shift (a nice casual touch is that he instantly knows who Allison is, showing exactly why he’s the successful one with the girls).


Rusler is also at the centre of one of the funniest moments as, threatened by albino Snow (Billy Drago, most renowned as the henchman who ends up in the car in The Untouchables) and his gang, he wastes no time in grabbing his nuts (“Drop the knife, snowflake, or you’ll be picking these up off the floor”). Upon which, he shoves him against a jukebox, Volare pipes up, and they struggle around the café in an impromptu dance manoeuvre (another amusing sight gag has a child vamp attacking an albino gang member, chomping down on his hand as he tries to shake her off).


Duncan: Say babe, what time do you get off?
Waitress: 2.30.
Duncan: Can I watch?

The set-up is as juvenile as they come, of course, offering a The Hangover-type premise of college students hiring a stripper to get into their college fraternity. But it’s only actually Duncan who sustains this lowbrow humour, your classic sex-obsessed ‘80s nerd, and at least his lines are abysmally funny (“I would like a slow, comfortable screw” he asks at the bar, before being reprimanded and requesting a beer instead).


Allison: You don’t remember me, do you?

And then there’s Dedee, bringing the same irrepressible verve to Allison she lent to the standout scene in Falling Down a few years later (as the bemused cashier in the “What is wrong with this picture?” scene). Indeed, the biggest question lurking over the movie is how Keith could possibly fail to remember her name. Wenk keeps up a nice line in “Is she/isn’t she?” a vampire, with at least one great shot (the camera flashing to an empty mirror as Allison passes by) and an amusing pay off as Keith invites her to look out of the open manhole, upon which she is dazzled by brilliant sunlight (“God, is that supposed to be funny?”)


Allison should really have been reserved the picture’s best vampire kill, staking with a high heel (it’s Keith who performs the honours), although she does get to plunge a section of pipe into Grace’s chest (to no permanent avail: Formica also, it seems, isn’t so deadly). Wenk maintains a fine balance of fear and humour throughout, as well as supplying the plain weird. The manner in which Keith takes off around the area but ends up back in the club recalls After Hours, and en route Wenk pulls off another musically mirthful set piece with aplomb, in which Keith is wedged in the door of a descending elevator as it cheerfully blasts out muzak.


Grace Jones-wise, she’s suitably imperious, and both the pop video performance and the seduction scene are effectively conceived. The only downside is that, like Fright Night, the opportunity to go the full hog on ‘80s vampire prosthetics falls a bit flat: they lack flair or finesse, in direct contrast to the werewolf movies that inspired them (although, her skeleton flipping the bird is a nice touch).


Vamp came from the delightfully shlocky New World pictures, which during that period produced a number of minor gems including The Philadelphia Experiment, Hellraiser, Heathers and Warlock (and Meet the Applegates!) It’s exactly that kind of ‘80s movie, indelibly of its era, and you could only imagine a remake (let’s face it, it’s bound to happen) divesting it of its distinctiveness and individuality. Although, some claim From Dusk Til Dawn is a kind-of Vamp remake. Just not a very good one.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Well, we took a vote. Predator’s cooler, right?

The Predator (2018)
(SPOILERS) Is The Predator everything you’d want from a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator (or Yautja, or Hish-Qu-Ten, apparently)? Emphatically not. We've already had a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator – or the other way around, at least – and that was on another level. The problem – aside from the enforced reshoots, and the not-altogether-there casting, and the possibility that full-on action extravaganzas, while delivered competently, may not be his best foot forward – is that I don't think Black's really a science-fiction guy, game as he clearly was to take on the permanently beleaguered franchise. He makes The Predator very funny, quite goofy, very gory, often entertaining, but ultimately lacking a coherent sense of what it is, something you couldn't say of his three prior directorial efforts.

Right! Let’s restore some bloody logic!

It Couldn't Happen Here (1987)
(SPOILERS) "I think our film is arguably better than Spiceworld" said Neil Tennant of his and Chris Lowe's much-maligned It Couldn't Happen Here, a quasi-musical, quasi-surrealist journey through the English landscape via the Pet shop Boys' "own" history as envisaged by co-writer-director Jack Bond. Of course, Spiceworld could boast the presence of the illustrious Richard E Grant, while It Couldn't Happen Here had to settle for Gareth Hunt. Is its reputation deserved? It's arguably not very successful at being a coherent film (even thematically), but I have to admit that I rather like it, ramshackle and studiously aloof though it is.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

My pectorals may leave much to be desired, Mrs Peel, but I’m the most powerful man you’ve ever run into.

The Avengers 2.23: The Positive-Negative Man
If there was a lesson to be learned from Season Five, it was not to include "man" in your title, unless it involves his treasure. The See-Through Man may be the season's stinker, but The Positive-Negative Man isn't far behind, a bog-standard "guy with a magical science device uses it to kill" plot. A bit like The Cybernauts, but with Michael Latimer painted green and a conspicuous absence of a cool hat.

The possibilities are gigantic. In a very small way, of course.

The Avengers 5.24: Mission… Highly Improbable
With a title riffing on a then-riding-high US spy show, just as the previous season's The Girl from Auntie riffed on a then-riding-high US spy show, it's to their credit that neither have even the remotest connection to their "inspirations" besides the cheap gags (in this case, the episode was based on a teleplay submitted back in 1964). Mission… Highly Improbable follows in the increasing tradition (certainly with the advent of Season Five and colour) of SF plotlines, but is also, in its particular problem with shrinkage, informed by other recent adventurers into that area.

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

Bring home the mother lode, Barry.

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

If Panos Cosmatos’ debut had continued with the slow-paced, tripped-out psychedelia of the first hour or so I would probably have been fully on board with it, but the decision to devolve into an ‘80s slasher flick in the final act lost me.

The director is the son of George Pan Cosmatos (he of The Cassandra Crossing and Cobra, and in name alone of Tombstone, apparently) and it appears that his inspiration was what happened to the baby boomers in the ‘80s, his parents’ generation. That element translates effectively, expressed through the extreme of having a science institute engaging in Crowley/Jack Parsons/Leary occult quests for enlightenment in the ‘60s and the survivors having become burnt out refugees or psychotics by the ‘80s. Depending upon your sensibilities, the torturously slow pace and the synth soundtrack are positives, while the cinematography managed to evoke both lurid early ‘80s cinema and ‘60s experimental fare. 

Ultimately the film takes a …

What a truly revolting sight.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (aka Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) (2017)
(SPOILERS) The biggest mistake the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels have made is embracing continuity. It ought to have been just Jack Sparrow with an entirely new cast of characters each time (well, maybe keep Kevin McNally). Even On Stranger Tides had Geoffrey Rush obligatorily returning as Barbossa. Although, that picture’s biggest problem was its director; Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge has a pair of solid helmers in Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, which is a relief at least. But alas, the continuity is back with a vengeance. And then some. Why, there’s even an origin-of-Jack Sparrow vignette, to supply us with prerequisite, unwanted and distracting uncanny valley (or uncanny Johnny) de-aging. The movie as a whole is an agreeable time passer, by no means the dodo its critical keelhauling would suggest, albeit it isn’t even pretending to try hard to come up with …

Believe me, Mr Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart und still create ze proper effect.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
(SPOILERS) Some of the reactions to Spectre would have you believe it undoes all the “good” work cementing Daniel Craig’s incarnation of Bond in Skyfall. If you didn’t see that picture as the second coming of the franchise (I didn’t) your response to the latest may not be so harsh, despite its less successful choices (Blofeld among them). And it isn’t as if one step, forward two steps back are anything new in perceptions of the series (or indeed hugely divisive views on what even constitutes a decent Bond movie). After the raves greeting Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan suffered a decidedly tepid response to his second outing, Tomorrow Never Dies, albeit it was less eviscerated than Craig’s sophomore Quantum of Solace. Tomorrow’s reputation disguises many strong points, although it has to be admitted that a Moore-era style finale and a floundering attempt to package in a halcyon villain aren’t among them.

The Bond series’ flirtations with contemporary relevance have a…