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)
Back in the mid-1980s the whole world turned neon.
Music videos, nightclubs, catwalks: they all glowed with it, and for a short period it not only screamed high-tech, it was also the adopted look of the avant-garde, with new wave pop bands bathing on sun-kissed islands over neon cocktails. Let’s just hope they didn’t get stomach poisoning.
In the movies, those garish swathes of pink and green were perhaps more prevalent than anywhere else. For much of the decade those stylish James Bond opening sequences would turn to neon as the series attempted to stay ahead of the pack in an ever-evolving action genre, while Sci-fi was positively alive with it, Blade Runner‘s neon-saturated cityscapes setting the speculative standard for years to come. Horror movies were no more immune to Neon’s kitsch charm, 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.
But the bottom line was, neon sold, and Vamp director Richard Wenk was most certainly aware of this. What he was probably also aware of is the fact that, used correctly, neon 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 horror movie review with so much talk about neon, but if you were an alien species who happened to stumble upon this 80s time-capsule you would think the skies were ablaze with it. Neon is everywhere in this movie: on the streets, in the bar—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.
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 A View to a Kill. Presumably this was based on a slew of bad reviews because as a marketable concept it hits all the right notes, it just doesn’t deliver on its promise. Next to Fright Night and the soon-to-be-released The Lost Boys, the movie proves haphazard at best, a fact that was reflected in its paltry box office turnover.
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 vampire mausoleum masquerading as a strip club (think Dusk ‘Til 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 Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson), his mainstream charisma belongs to the realms of the undead—and no, I don’t mean he turns 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, although 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 our characters it’s all rather shallow.
The third member of our trio personifies that notion. Gedde Watanabe’s Duncan is perhaps 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 Riggs lookalike Keith (Makepeace), although 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. If only Shane Black had been feeding them their lines!
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 the 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 allow him. 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.
In the end, Wenk and co. fail to utilise their 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 synthwave 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.
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 without a soul, because what threat do vampires pose to a person who has no soul to possess? A wittier screenplay would have helped. But this character belongs nowhere near a wittier screenplay.
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!
Another Grace Jones movie, another failure to fully capitalise on her colossal presence. Vamp glows with synthetic style but lacks the narrative substance, resulting in the flattest vampire comedy of the decade. Still, as a visual insight into the gaudy spectacle of the 80s the force is strong with this one.