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 hit upon a winning premise here: a strip club as the ideal haven for vampires seeking prey. It ensures no loose ends attached, as it’s 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).
Rather than 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?
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 schlocky 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 till Dawn is a kind-of Vamp remake. Just not a very good one.