Whenever I hear the word Neon I immediately think of the 1980s. Colours such as ‘hot pink’ and ‘electric blue’ could only have risen from the decade of decadence, and for a brief period neon was everywhere. In the world of popular culture it meant elegance, futurism, new wave extravagance. It represented a break from the norm, was a million light years away from the hopeless austerity of working class Britain. Duran Duran were huge back then. They represented escapism for the beleaguered masses, exhibiting the kind of worldly glamour that offered teenagers a lifeline, and neon was essential to their image, becoming the adopted look of the MTV avant-garde. The pop video for Rio, one of the most iconic of the era, was absolutely drenched in the stuff, the band’s big-haired heartthrobs lounging 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 in need of a little new wave elegance as John Barry embraced the 80s pop revolution with Duran Duran’s Bernie Edwards produced theme song and international smash 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 se.
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 of neon, but if you were an alien species who happened to stumble upon this 80s time-capsule, you could be forgiven for mistaking it as 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 (mostly) 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 Bava and Argento, but such comparisons are superficial at best. As far as I can tell, Wenk’s use of neon is mainly a concealing device, and an admirably executed one at that.
Wenk would not direct another movie for eight 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 back in 1986, despite 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. Model and singer/songwriter Jones wasn’t much of an actress, but her sheer physical presence was made for the movies, something casting agents were quick to pick up on. Bond’s grandiose spectacle was a perfect fit for her, as was the swords and sorcery fantasy world of Conan the Destroyer, a movie that Jones also starred in. The role of head vampire Katrina was another part made for the larger-than-life actress, and she devours it like a sweetly-scented jugular as far as the screenplay allows.
As a marketable concept Vamp 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 and a slew of underwhelming reviews. 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 is a fairly effective send-up of classic vampire tropes daubed in frat-pack postmodernism, but the main narrative becomes lost in an overabundance of support characters and subplots that leave our main players hanging in the neon air. The gags come thick and fast but for the most part the relationships between our lead players are neglected, and it all kind of wanders aimlessly as we enter the film’s crucial third act.
Vamp doesn’t have much of a story to speak of. It is the tale of three frat buddies who decide to get down and dirty in the city while on a quest to hire a stripper for their campus fraternity, 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). Brat Pack wannabe Chris Makepeace is the film’s quasi-headliner, but asides from looking like a younger, goofier version of Martin Riggs from Lethal Weapon, 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 an often rudderless screenplay palatable during a series of scenes which see his newly-turned vamp battling 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, and you have to admire the movie’s satirical, offbeat tone, but unless we care about a movie’s characters it’s all a little shallow, and rarely did I care about anyone here.
The third member of our trio personifies that notion. The 80s were chock-full of hackneyed characters that haven’t aged well, Beverly Hills Cop‘s wildly effeminate gay character Serge being a prime example, but while the immensely talented Bronson Pinchot was able to bring charm and a certain offbeat nobility to a character who was basically a paper-thin cliché, Gedde Watanabe’s Duncan is a contender for the most annoying Japanese stereotype ever committed to celluloid, a 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. Pfeiffer was always doomed to the shadow of her sister’s success, but there is no denying her girl next door energy. Amaretto is an effervescent delight who bubbles like Babycham. She is gorgeous, witty and infinitely likeable, stealing pretty much every scene she’s in and practically keeping Makepeace afloat during the movie’s messier moments. It’s all spirited enough and aesthetically lush, but asides from a few dead-on gags the humour is more miss than hit.
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. 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 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.
Perhaps Vamp‘s biggest drawback is its failure to fully utilise its star attraction. Jones is a colossal presence, and though she is the abiding memory here, her character is seriously underutilised. She more than fulfils her role as the film’s obscure attraction to begin with, but after a while she simply becomes a part of the furniture. 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 they 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.