Vamp (1986)

Vamp US poster

Tagline: Ever have one of those nights?
Director: Richard Wenk
Writer: Richard Wenk
Chris Makepeace, DeDee Pfeiffer, Robert Rusler, Grace Jones, Gedde Watanabe, Sandy Baron, Billy Drago
18 | 1h 33min | Comedy, Fantasy, Horror
Budget: $3,300,000 (estimated)


For a brief period during the 1980s, the whole world turned neon. Music videos, catwalks, nightclubs, they all glowed with it, and for a short period it became the adopted look of the MTV avant-garde, new wave pop bands such as Duran Duran bathing on sun-kissed islands over neon cocktails. Let’s just hope they didn’t get stomach poisoning.

Those garish swathes of pink and green were perhaps more prevalent in the movies than anywhere else. Sci-fi was positively alive with it, Blade Runner‘s neon-saturated cityscapes setting the speculative standard for years to come. Even James Bond would turn to neon for the opening title sequence of Roger Moore’s final outing as the series looked to reinvent itself, and an ageing Moore was indeed of a little New wave elegance as John Barry embraced New Wave the 80s pop revolution with the Bernie Edwards produced A View to a Kill. Horror was no less immune to neon’s gaudy charms, introducing neon make-up, neon gook (think Re-animator) and a charming little movie called Neon Maniacs, who in spite of the title’s proclamations weren’t exactly neon per sey.

Jones and Rusler Vamp
Something tells me he’ll regret this in the morning.

Put succinctly, neon sold, and Vamp director Richard Wenk was almost certainly aware of this. What he was probably also aware of is the fact that, utilised correctly, such use of lighting can provide enough of a visual embellishment to cover-up for movies of low ambition, and production-wise that is certainly the impression one gets here. It is perhaps odd to begin a review with so much talk about neon, but if you were an alien species who happened to stumble upon this 80s time-capsule, you could be forgiven for mistaking it for the fifth element. Neon is everywhere in this film: on the streets, in bars, deep in the darkest lairs of Nosferatu — it even finds its way into the pitch-black sewers as our heroes stumble towards the requisite daylight in search of freedom. This is used to delineate the strange After Hours odyssey of our protagonists, whose 90-minute narrative on a claustrophobic set seems detached from reality in a way that is both cheaply conceived and highly effective. Giallo lovers might recall the colour palettes of of Bava and Argento, but such comparisons are superficial at best.

Wenk would not direct another movie for 8 years, turning to the action genre as late as 2006 to rekindle his career behind the camera, heading blockbusters such as The Expendables 2 (2012) and The Equalizer (2014) along the way. Vamp failed to make any serious commercial waves, in spite of casting the red hot Grace Jones less than a year after her star-making appearance as the inimitable Mayday in 1985‘s aforementioned A View to a Kill. This was presumably the result of a slew of bad reviews, because as a marketable concept it hits all the right notes, but next to Fright Night and the soon-to-be-released The Lost Boys the film proves haphazard at best, a fact that was reflected in its paltry box office turnover. This is perhaps unfair given their differing budgets, but it is hard not to draw comparisons between three movies from the same era, each with an updated perspective on the age-old vampire sub-genre.

Vamp Robert Rusler
Robert Rusler tries to come to terms with Vamp’s lack of critical appeal.

Vamp doesn’t have much of a narrative to speak of. It is the story of three frat buddies who decide to get down and dirty in the city, only to wind up in the lap of a vamp mausoleum masquerading as a strip club (think From Dusk Till Dawn without the Tarantino screenplay and Robert Rodriguez’s keen eye for comic book grotesquery). Our three friends couldn’t have been friends anywhere outside of this movie’s questionable reality. Brat Pack wannabe Chris Makepeace is the film’s quasi-headliner, and asides from looking like a younger, goofier clone of Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs, his mainstream charisma belongs to the realms of the undead — and no, he doesn’t turn into a vampire.

Strangely, the far more charismatic and recognisable Robert Rusler (Freddy’s Revenge, Weird Science) plays second fiddle to our whitebread protagonist, and almost works wonders in making a pretty humourless screenplay palatable during a series of scenes that see his newly-turned vamp battle with issues of loyalty, though this one-note concept begins far too early and drags interminably. Spending longer on the relationship between our two high school hunks may have helped in lending the movie a strange depth briefly glimpsed as Rusler’s AJ succumbs to Katrina’s sensual venom. Humour is all well and good, but unless we care about a movie’s characters it’s all a little shallow.

Chris Makepeace Vamp
When Riggs blows, you don’t wanna be anywhere near him. As for Makepeace…

The third member of our trio personifies that notion. The 80s were chock-full of cliche characters that haven’t aged well. Beverly Hills Cop‘s wildly effeminate gay character Serge is a prime example, but while the immensely talented Bronson Pinchot was able to bring charm and a certain offbeat nobility to the character, Gedde Watanabe’s Duncan is a contender for the most annoying Japanese stereotype ever committed to celluloid, a purely corporate creation and glorified plot device who pangs of creative complacency. Duncan is an unrelenting nerd who is supposed to provide the comic relief and make his friends look hunkier by comparison. The latter he manages, the former not so much. If anyone deserves death at the hands of a soulless creature it is this equally soulless caricature.

It’s while getting their pubescent rocks off that the gang meet Amaretto (Pfeiffer), a happy-go-lucky cutie who has to be the most oblivious waitress to ever find employment in a realm of heartless bloodsuckers this side of the Coca-Cola corporation. Her fate seems to be in the arms of Keith (Makepeace), though necking with Jones’ creature of the night may have been a more dangerous and rewarding endeavour. Pfeffier was always doomed to the shadow of her sister’s success, but there is no denying her girl next door energy.

Vamp Duncan
Duncan ruv his buddies rong time.

Thankfully, the ‘horror’ part of horror-comedy is achieved with much more aplomb. Thanks in large part to the enigmatic Jones, there are a number of pretty gruesome scenes as our irrepressible head vamp cackles and snorts her way through a series of all-too-easy victims. Chris Chesney’s practical effects may not be up to the likes of Savini and Bottin, but there are some pretty striking visuals on offer, a combination of cool monster design, grisly voice-overs and Jones’ sheer physical presence making for one malevolent bitch. The fact that she is able to achieve such a presence without even a single word of dialogue speaks to her inimitable, once-in-a-lifetime charisma.

There are a few other notable characters here. A Near Dark gang of comic book rebels add some extra visual flair, but it’s all very one-dimensional and underdeveloped — a shame since gang leader Snow is played by perennial bad guy Billy Drago. A more interesting creation comes in the form of Sandy Baron’s submissive bar owner, Vic, an almost Lynchian character who treats his bloodlust as a shameful addiction, sheepishly lapping at whatever the insatiable Katrina (Jones) deigns to throw his way. This results in a couple of noirish scenes that further elevate the movie’s sense of style, but what the movie really lacks is substance.

Vamp Grace Jones
Grace Jones auditions for the part of Blade Runner’s Pris.

Perhaps Vamp‘s biggest drawback is its failure to utilise its star attraction. Jones is a colossal presence, and though she is the abiding memory here, her character is seriously undercooked. Instead, the movie focuses on its weak lead and a meandering romance between Pfeiffer and Makepeace, which never seems to get going as our cast cling to the small-scale set design and generally pass the time. On a visual level it is quite the treat, but asides from its nostalgia aesthetic and sumptuous synth pop soundtrack, there really isn’t all that much to sink your teeth into. If only someone could have found a way to unlock Jones’ full potential! Roger Corman and the now defunct New World Pictures could have been onto a real winner.

Best Kill

Pandered to by a Japanese waitress whose goal it is to satisfy her vampire master’s every whim, the overly helpful dame has her heart abruptly and savagely ripped out by the highly-amused Katrina.

Most Absurd Moment

Every moment that Gedde Watanabe’s deplorable and humourless Japanese stereotype, Duncan, spends onscreen is one part absurd, two parts infuriating. So he’s Japanese, we get it! That doesn’t mean he has to be goofy and outrageous and bereft of a soul, because what threat do vampires pose to a person who has no soul to possess? A wittier screenplay may have helped, but this character belongs nowhere near a wittier screenplay.

Interesting Titbit

The make-up for Grace Jones’ human form was based on Daryl Hannah’s Pris from Blade Runner.

Most Absurd Dialogue

Relentless in his quest to push the bile to the tip of our tongues, overbearing cliché Duncan treats us to some not-so-delicious innuendo:

Allison: I’m Amaretto, not really, and I will be your waitress for this evening, guys. So what can I get for you?

Duncan: I would like a slow, comfortable screw.

Good look finding one!

Vamp logo


Another Grace Jones movie, another failure to fully capitalise on her colossal presence. Vamp glows with synthetic style but lacks narrative substance, resulting in the flattest vampire comedy of a decade ripe with them. Still, as a visual insight into gaudy 80s aesthetics, the force is strong with this one.

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