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…

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

Stupid adult hands!

Shazam! (2019)
(SPOILERS) Shazam! is exactly the kind of movie I hoped it would be, funny, scary (for kids, at least), smart and delightfully dumb… until the final act. What takes place there isn’t a complete bummer, but right now, it does pretty much kill any interest I have in a sequel.

I have discovered the great ray that first brought life into the world.

Frankenstein (1931)
(SPOILERS) To what extent do Universal’s horror classics deserved to be labelled classics? They’re from the classical Hollywood period, certainly, but they aren’t unassailable titans that can’t be bettered – well unless you were Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan trying to fashion a Dark Universe with zero ingenuity. And except maybe for the sequel to the second feature in their lexicon. Frankenstein is revered for several classic scenes, boasts two mesmerising performances, and looks terrific thanks to Arthur Edeson’s cinematography, but there’s also sizeable streak of stodginess within its seventy minutes.

Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict... breeds catastrophe.

The MCU Ranked Worst to Best

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

I want to see what love looks like when it’s triumphant. I haven’t had a good laugh in a week.

It Happened One Night (1934)
(SPOILERS) In any romantic comedy worth its salt, you need to be rooting for both leads to end up together. That’s why, while each has its individual pleasures – and one is an unchallenged classic in every other department – the triptych of Andie McDowell ‘90s romcoms (Green Card, Groundhog Day and Four Weddings and a Funeral) fail on that score; she doesn’t elicit any degree of investment (ironically, she’s much better as a knockabout nun doing a dolphin impression in Hudson Hawk). Even Hanks and Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle are merely likeable; you can’t get that caught up if there aren’t any sparks flying (Crystal and Ryan, though). It Happened One Night has sparks in spades, the back and forth between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert ensuring it’s as vital and versatile today as it was 85 years ago.

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.