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

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

You're skipping Christmas! Isn't that against the law?

Christmas with the Kranks (2004)
Ex-coke dealer Tim Allen’s underwhelming box office career is, like Vince Vaughn’s, regularly in need of a boost from an indiscriminate public willing to see any old turkey posing as a prize Christmas comedy.  He made three Santa Clauses, and here is joined by Jamie Lee Curtis as a couple planning to forgo the usual neighbourhood festivities for a cruise.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

We’ll bring it out on March 25 and we’ll call it… Christmas II!

Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)
(SPOILERS) Alexander Salkind (alongside son Ilya) inhabited not dissimilar territory to the more prolific Dino De Laurentis, in that his idea of manufacturing a huge blockbuster appeared to be throwing money at it while being stingy with, or failing to appreciate, talent where it counted. Failing to understand the essential ingredients for a quality movie, basically, something various Hollywood moguls of the ‘80s would inherit. Santa Claus: The Movie arrived in the wake of his previously colon-ed big hit, Superman: The Movie, the producer apparently operating under the delusion that flying effects and :The Movie in the title would induce audiences to part with their cash, as if they awarded Saint Nick a must-see superhero mantle. The only surprise was that his final cinematic effort, Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, wasn’t similarly sold, but maybe he’d learned his lesson by then. Or maybe not, given the behind-camera talent he failed to secure.

When primal forces of nature tell you to do something, the prudent thing is not to quibble over details.

Field of Dreams (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s a near-Frank Darabont quality to Phil Alden Robinson producing such a beloved feature and then subsequently offering not all that much of note. But Darabont, at least, was in the same ballpark as The Shawshank Redemption with The Green MileSneakers is good fun, The Sum of All Our Fears was a decent-sized success, but nothing since has come close to his sophomore directorial effort in terms of quality. You might put that down to the source material, WP Kinsella’s 1982 novel Shoeless Joe, but the captivating magical-realist balance hit by Field of Dreams is a deceptively difficult one to strike, and the biggest compliment you can play Robinson is that he makes it look easy.

On a long enough timeline, the survival of everyone drops to zero.

Fight Club (1999)
(SPOILERS) Still David Fincher’s peak picture, mostly by dint of Fight Club being the only one you can point to and convincingly argue that that the source material is up there with his visual and technical versatility. If Seven is a satisfying little serial-killer-with-a-twist story vastly improved by his involvement (just imagine it directed by Joel Schumacher… or watch 8mm), Fight Club invites him to utilise every trick in the book to tell the story of not-Tyler Durden, whom we encounter at a very peculiar time in his life.

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…