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State of Grace
Knocking on Polanski's door for the crown of funniest vampire movie up against The Fearless Vampire Killers, VAMP is surely a contender. This smart, witty, charming and scary little film still delivers in a new Arrow Blu-ray, says long-time fan Camus.
 
  "Donald Borchers, the producer, came to me with the title 'Vamp'. If I could put together these three elements, a vampire, a stripper and a couple of college kids, I could direct it. I asked him what the story was and he said "Oh, you come up with that, I got the title. I can sell that."
 
Writer/Director, Richard Wenk getting a break the Roger Corman way

 

So often you revisit a favourite film from when your sensibilities were less developed, your ambition not as subdued and the world hadn't then descended into showcasing the very worst of a certain ape species revelling in religious inspired violence. You are either nervous that the film will fail for you now thirty years on or that some of its sheen would have worn away. Well, I'm happily here to tell you that if anything, Vamp is more of a delight today than it was in 1986. It's actually refreshingly good which says a lot about today's comedies or even horror pictures for that matter. First of all, there's the screenplay credited to the director and the producer though from the above quote it's too easy to believe the producer didn't have much of a role in the writing. His one word is still quite important though. 'Vamp' has such rich non-blood sucking connotations. Let's dismiss the part of a shoe or its jazz meaning and go straight for its jugular – 'a woman who uses sexual attraction to exploit men'. That's Vamp. The dialogue is Whedonesque at times, this from a movie with vampires six years before the ill-fated movie version of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and a decade before Buffy made her TV bow. The story, which must have made a strong impression on a certain Quentin Tarantino if From Dusk Till Dawn is anything to go by, is pretty straightforward. Keith and A.J., two college boys, are stuck in a dorm populated by rampant Neanderthals. That's a metaphorical Neanderthal, all fire extinguishers and boorish behaviour. In order to move to somewhere more civilised they need to supply 'anything' the other dorm folk want and to no one's great surprise, the answer comes back "a stripper." Getting the rich kid to lend them a car, they drive to the city and scope out a nightclub named 'After Dark'. Things get seriously toothsome and all manner of hell erupts courtesy of a very singular vampire called Queen Katrina.

Vamp

The first thing that strikes me as gold is the central relationship between Keith (Chris Makepeace, a young quasi-Mel Gibson lookalike) and A.J. (Robert Rusler channelling his inner Matt Dillon). Their relationship is an absolute delight. They play 'best friends' extraordinarily convincingly. It feels like a real bond exists between them and the screenplay offers them up as good boy and jock 'types' which the actors gleefully subvert. A.J. is the mouthy, confident one but he never comes across as obnoxious even when he's eyeing up a semi naked dancer leaning over the bar next to him. The point of identification for the audience, the more reserved and sensible Keith, is that rare combination of someone real, funny and enormously appealing. Even though Makepeace never made a full career out of acting, evidence here shows just how much of a natural this guy was. To be this much at ease in front of a camera is a real skill and it's a loss to the thespian community that Makepeace moved into assisting directing. His explanation of an initial reluctance to be a part of the 'Making of...' documentary is perfectly rational (if you're not in the business any more) but Vamp was his and a lot of other crew members' 'baby' so he happily signed up which says good things about him, the movie and the extra feature. I could have happily watched a film with these two as central characters, vamp or no vamp. As the director says on the main extra, cast your movie right and you're halfway there. Watching these two as a viewer, you just have so much fun witnessing the sincerity of the relationship, the smarts of the interplay and the script's golden nuggets. I will never be able to see or think of the word 'Formica' now without a broad grin, a nod to one of the film's best little surprises.

And then, of course, there's Grace Jones. There are very few people in the performing arts with a more impressive résumé than Ms. Jones. Her polymath career has spanned modelling, writing, singing, acting and even record producing. She's still at it. Only last year at the age of 67, she's performing semi-naked, her iconic body covered in primal, tribal art. Here is a wondrous creature (women doesn't do her justice, too limiting) whose physicality is so expressive, it's taken on the mantle of an objet d'art itself. Her performance in Vamp as the titular star is wordless but when she's on screen, she's electrifying. She plays the queen vampire Katrina who gets the ball rolling with a jaw dropping dance and an after work snack. Playing the rich kid, Duncan to whom the boys have to cosy up to get a much needed car is Gedde Watanabe. In my youth, he would have been called a 'Lombard', an acronym standing for 'loads of money but a real dick head'. And even though he's written and directed to be as dickheadian as he can be, the actor still manages to make us care even while singing "I'm in the mood for love, simply because they're naked," which still makes me laugh. Striking up an attraction to Keith in the nightclub is Amaretto, aka Allison played winningly by Dedee Pfeiffer (Michele's sister). The characters share a history that Keith struggles to but can't recall and the events of the film soon pair them up trying to make the best of a sticky situation. Playing an albino vampire is the unmistakable Billy Drago. Striking looking and carving a niche for playing bad guys, he's perhaps most memorable as Connery's killer in De Palma's Untouchables in which he has one hell of a death scene. Here he's seductively nasty but the camera just adores him.

Grace Jones in Vamp

At the start of the movie, composer Jonathan Elias's homage to Jerry Goldsmith's iconic, Oscar winning score for The Omen introduces what seems to be a gothic execution scene, so playfully done, I was almost taken in again on my first viewing after thirty years. It is of course, a college dorm initiation rite that our two heroes completely subvert but despite their dismissal of the theatrics, they end up promising to find a stripper for the frat boys as 'payment' to move into their dorm. The director has chosen to keep small mistakes in the movie, something we support at Outsider. The scene in which A.J. is trying to call dancers has a bit of business that fortifies the boys' relationship and from my point of view, makes me adore their effortless chemistry. While he's on the phone, A.J. takes out an apple and places it on the top of the fridge. Keith calmly cuts the apple in half with an arrow shot from his bow. This activity is not remarked upon. It's thrown away as a riff on their closeness. What I loved was that Keith didn't catch the apple-half cleanly. It falls into his lap, something that made me love the scene even more.

There is a tremendous transition early in the film, mostly achieved with precision picture and sound editing. The boys have blagged a car from Duncan who's sitting in the back and are enjoying a drive in the big city. A green truck cuts across them and A.J. yanks the wheel to the right and keeps it there. 16 shots and 16 seconds later, the red car has spun into the red light district. The effect is made more interesting as the sound is that of a radio being tuned, hitting snatches of channels, music and speech mixed with the squeal of Starsky tyres. There's a very Wizard of Oz hurricane vibe accentuated by the next line of dialogue that at the time was not as big a cliché as it has now become; "D'you uh... Do you get the feeling we're not in Kansas any more?"

Vamp

The special make up effects by Greg Cannom do not offer up the same sophistication as those featured in Rick Baker's work on The Thing or American Werewolf in London (I suspect budget constraints) but they service the movie well. We don't stay on the make up effects shots too long to appreciate them fully (or examine their weak spots) but they are effective enough to say what they need to say for the narrative to work. Eyeballs roll up, fangs elongate – everything's there that needs to be there. The flight of the vampire child, attacking Snow, is one of the best effects in the movie. I have no idea how the filmmakers managed to (presumably, wires?) make her fly at Snow's throat. Kudos for that effect. The cinematography lurches into a pink and green two-tone ambience once the boys have arrived at the After Dark Club. I have no idea why the director or cinematographer chose this colour palette but it's obviously designed and during the second half of the movie, there is almost no getting away from it. It's probably the only obvious aspect that plants the movie firmly in the 80s (that and the hair styles and costumes). It has that comic Creepshow feel, as in panelled story art not funny ha-ha.

I mentioned earlier that we like 'mistakes' that give movies more reality. Well, there's a whopper at one hour, twenty-seven minutes and three seconds and if reality is really you're after then here it is (not in the best sense of good for the movie if I'm honest). I cannot imagine how this got past anyone in post-production. I suspect someone's request for an optical zoom-in was unheeded. In a post undead death sequence, bones are left and the almost completely dead undead manages to flip a skeletal finger at its slayer. It's a nice if ridiculous sight gag. But more alarming is the pair of very human hands animating the bones on the right of frame. It matters not one jot.

Vamp is a scream in both senses of the word. Its intelligent screenplay coupled with buoyant and engaging performances, good make up effects and a brisk narrative, make it one of the very best films of its genre. If comedy with bite is your thing, check it out.

sound and vision

Vamp is presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. There is noticeable grain throughout as most of the movie is shot at night with a comic book lighting style so the stock was correspondingly fast (more sensitive to light) hence the grain. The film feels inexpensive but it doesn't look cheap. There's too much thought and care gone into it.

Vamp

The original mono soundtrack is perfectly acceptable with no noticeable hiss or any other general age issues.

There are English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired.

extra features

One of those Nights: The Making of Vamp – a brand new documentary featuring interviews with director Richard Wenk, stars Robert Rusler, Dedee Pfeiffer, Gedde Watanabe (44' 30")
My notes on this feature start with the scribbled "Bloody brilliant!" This is how to do a retrospective. We're only missing Grace Jones herself but that's somehow appropriate retaining Katrina's mystery. All three of the principals are interviewed and all come across as extremely enthusiastic about the movie. Director Wenk tells us in an easy manner the inception and production of his classy little comedy. There are some lovely behind the scenes stills. There's a haunting synchronicity about the first day of production that has personal resonances for me also. Actor Watanabe remembers it specifically because it was the day the Challenger space shuttle exploded on the way to the stars (January 28th, 1986). It was also the day I started writing short stories on a friend's behest. Billy Drago thirty years on looks amazing and somewhat terrifying too. All in all, if you are a fan of the movie, this is a delightful three quarters of an hour without a duff minute in the running time.

Behind-the-Scenes Rehearsals (6' 41")
This is notable for the extraordinary commitment Grace Jones gives to her performance. Director Richard Wenk stands in (or lies down) for A.J. and lets Grace do her thing. Ms. Jones' efforts are full-blooded (sorry) and there are few places she wouldn't go as a performing artist. There was a story about how the crew had to wait for nine hours for her to turn up once... I wonder how the Bond producers marshaled the ‘diva' in Grace for View To A Kill. But you are left in no doubt that when Grace commits to a project, there's no holding back. Bravo for the enthusiasm and what a terrific look at the rehearsal process

Vamp

Blooper Reel (6' 14")
A few choice moments of screw ups gives way to a crew montage set to Phil Collins ‘I Don't Care Anymore'. There's probably more bared flesh in this blooper reel than in the whole movie. The reel ends with Wenk providing a lighting reference or a comic dance (pick one) and a personal message from Keith... "Look, Richard needs more editing time, three and a half weeks, give me a break," says Makepeace on behalf of his director. He has no idea how many editors' hearts would swell hearing such support from an actor. Editors need all the help they can get.

Dracula Bites the Big Apple (1979) – Richard Wenk's celebrated short film (22' 03")
And I thought there were no more real surprises to be mined from this release. This was the last extra I got to and after the first minute of Dracula swanning around his castle in sepia tones complaining about the lack of fresh blood, and quoting Hamlet in Romanian, no less, I thought little of what turns out to be director Wenk's first stab at filmmaking. Inexplicably, the Count has a travel brochure on hand to make him think of New York as a viable source of fresh blood... Well, what happens after that is a bizarre delight that had me smiling, chuckling and open mouthed with surprise. It seems Richard Wenk woke up one morning knowing as much as we all do about Dracula. He was 24 years old and seemed to have had a curious thought. Wanting to be a filmmaker but having little life experience to draw on, he decided to direct a film in the following genres; horror, comedy (sounding familiar?), musical (yes, musical), satire and pastiche. Dracula Bites the Big Apple is the most absurd film I have seen in a long while and thoroughly belongs as the precursor to Vamp and a distant but beloved cousin of What We Do In The Shadows. It has all the hallmarks of a debut stab at the craft; questionable choices and overacting although the word ‘gusto' comes to mind, having characters point at things in frame, mixes and cuts that gave continuity a wide berth and a multitude of zooms and shaky camera movement (definitely not in vogue at the time). But its sheer verve and light touch wedded to an amusing and batty script by Fred Olsen meant that it was good enough to come to the attention of producer Donald Borchers. And lo, Vamp was born.

Vamp

TV Spots (3' 44")
Here we have seven 30-second TV ads for the movie with inevitable overlap among the seven. The fifth version has Grace Jones' own voiceover exploiting her own persona, a sort of ‘Grace herself gives the movie her personal nod' kind of deal.

Trailer 1 (1' 27") & Trailer 2 (1' 27")
Emerging from out of the sewers, Keith looks into camera and says "Did you ever have one of those nights?" Makepeace makes this somewhat odd fourth wall breakage work as naturally as can be. I miss specially shot trailer material these days when trailers used to be an art in themselves instead of today, with spoiler upon spoiler and all the good lines just casually thrown away. The promise of Vamp is neatly encapsulated in both versions and you're never in any doubt that the movie is intended to make you laugh and scream... OK, as a horror movie, it's not The Exorcist (so few horror movies are) but there are decent shocks and for first-timers, its spookiness is more effective.

Image gallery
Fifty-nine stills comprise not only behind the scenes production stills but the marketing imagery and poster designs too. All good fun.

Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by the Twins of Evil

First pressing only: Booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Cullen Gallagher

Both of these were not available for review and shame on me for not running out and buying the official release when it became available thirteen days ago (at the time of writing). Been a bit busy.

summary

Locked into my long gone youthful past as a sweet, funny and hugely entertaining memory, Richard Wenk's Vamp has gloriously stood the test of time. Yes, it's rooted in its era but the script is so witty, the performances warm and attractive and hey, Grace Jones as a vampire. What more could you want? Highly recommended.

Vamp Blu-ray
Vamp

USA 1986
93 mins
directed by
Richard Wenk
produced by
Donald P. Borchers
written by
Richard Wenk
story by
Donald P. Borchers
Richard Wenk
cinematography
Elliot Davis
Douglas F. O'Neons
editing
Marc Grossman
music
Jonathan Elias
production design
Alan Roderick-Jones
starring
Chris Makepeace
Sandy Baron
Robert Rusler
Dedee Pfeiffer
Gedde Watanabe
Grace Jones
Billy Drago

disc details
region B
video
1.78:1
sound
Linear PCM 2.0 mono
languages
English
subtitles
English SDH
extras
One of those Nights: The Making of Vamp documentary
Behind-the-Scenes Rehearsals
Blooper reel
Dracula Bites the Big Apple short film
TV spots
Trailers
Image gallery
Booklet
distributor
Arrow Video
release date
3 October 2016
review posted
17 October 2016

See all of Camus's reviews