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

Lieutenant, you run this station like chicken night in Turkey.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) (SPOILERS) You can’t read a review of Assault on Precinct 13 with stumbling over references to its indebtedness – mostly to Howard Hawks – and that was a preface for me when I first caught it on Season Three of BBC2’s Moviedrome (I later picked up the 4Front VHS). In Precinct 13 ’s case, it can feel almost like an attempt to undercut it, to suggest it isn’t quite that original, actually, because: look. On the other hand, John Carpenter was entirely upfront about his influences (not least Hawks), and that he originally envisaged it as an outright siege western (rather than an, you know, urban one). There are times when influences can truly bog a movie down, if it doesn’t have enough going for it in its own right. That’s never the case with Assault on Precinct 13 . Halloween may have sparked Carpenter’s fame and maximised his opportunities, but it’s this picture that really evidences his style, his potential and his masterful facility with music.

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984) If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights  may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box ’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisi

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

I dreamed about a guy in a dirty red and green sweater.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) (SPOILERS) I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street a little under a decade after its release, and I was distinctly underwhelmed five or so sequels and all the hype. Not that it didn’t have its moments, but there was an “It’ll do” quality that reflects most of the Wes Craven movies I’ve seen. Aside from the postmodern tease of A New Nightmare – like Last Action Hero , unfairly maligned – I’d never bothered with the rest of the series, in part because I’m just not that big a horror buff, but also because the rule that the first is usually the best in any series, irrespective of genre, tends to hold out more often than not. So now I’m finally getting round to them, and it seemed only fair to start by giving Freddy’s first another shot. My initial reaction holds true.

He must have eaten a whole rhino horn!

Fierce Creatures (1997) (SPOILERS) “ I wouldn’t have married Alyce Faye Eicheberger and I wouldn’t have made Fierce Creatures.” So said John Cleese , when industrial-sized, now-ex gourmand Michael Winner, of Winner’s Dinners , Death Wish II and You Must Be Joking! fame (one of those is a legitimate treasure, but only one) asked him what he would do differently if he could live his life again. One of the regrets identified in the response being Cleese’s one-time wife (one-time of two other one-time wives, with the present one mercifully, for John’s sake, ongoing) and the other being the much-anticipated Death Fish II , the sequel to monster hit A Fish Called Wanda. Wanda was a movie that proved all Cleese’s meticulous, focus-group-tested honing and analysis of comedy was justified. Fierce Creatures proved the reverse.

How do you melt somebody’s lug wrench?

Starman (1984) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s unlikely SF romance. Unlikely, because the director has done nothing before or since suggesting an affinity for the romantic fairy tale, and yet he proves surprisingly attuned to Starman ’s general vibes. As do his stars and Jack Nitzsche, furnishing the score in a rare non-showing from the director-composer. Indeed, if there’s a bum note here, it’s the fairly ho-hum screenplay; the lustre of Starman isn’t exactly that of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it’s very nearly stitching together something special from resolutely average source material.

You absolute horror of a human being.

As Good as it Gets (1997) (SPOILERS) James L Brooks’ third Best Picture Oscar nomination goes to reconfirm every jaundiced notion you had of the writer-director-producer’s capacity for the facile and highly consumable, low-cal, fast-food melodramatic fix with added romcom lustre. Of course, As Good as it Gets was a monster hit, parading as it does Jack in a crackerjack, attention-grabbing part. But it’s a mechanical, suffocatingly artificial affair, ponderously paced (a frankly absurd 139 minutes) and infused with glib affirmations and affections. Naturally, the Academy lapped that shit up, because it reflects their own lack of depth and perception (no further comment is needed than Titanic winning the big prize for that year).

Remember. Decision. Consequence.

Day Break (2006) (SPOILERS) Day Break is the rare series that was lucky to get cancelled. And not in a mercy-killing way. It got to tell its story. Sure, apparently there were other stories. Other days to break. But would it have justified going there? Or would it have proved tantalising/reticent about the elusive reason its protagonist has to keep stirring and repeating? You bet it would. Offering occasional crumbs, and then, when it finally comes time to wrap things up, giving an explanation that satisfies no one/is a cop out/offers a hint at some nebulous existential mission better left to the viewer to conjure up on their own. Best that it didn’t even try to go there.