Overlooked Movie Monday: Vamp

by Phil Fava on October 17, 2010

in Columns,Overlooked Movie Monday

“I used to own this club. You know who used to work here? Louis Prima. Buddy Greco. Phil Harris. Class!”

robert rusler "vamp" 1986Vamp” is a film that could only really exist in the 1980s (1986, to be exact), when directors (particularly of low budget horror) had a seemingly limitless array of outlandish ideas they could stitch together into some of the weirdest movies this side of “Eraserhead.” Think “Repo Man” and you’re on the right track.

Written and directed by Richard Wenk (“Just the Ticket.” Don’t worry; I didn’t see it either), starring Chris Makepeace (“My Bodyguard”), Robert Rusler (“Weird Science”), Gedde Watanabe (“Sixteen Candles”), Dedee Pfeiffer and Grace Jones, among others, “Vamp” starts off by establishing a tone that is completely uprooted by its midpoint and characters who couldn’t be less prepared for what they’re about to endure.

The first scene of the movie is a mock hanging that turns out to be an initiation ritual for an obscure fraternity at an unnamed university in the Midwest. Those participating in the ritual are the film’s stars, Makepeace and Rusler (Keith and AJ), and both sidestep what they perceive to be a ridiculous and arbitrary rite of passage and opt to buy their way into the frat by supplying them with booze, music (1986!), and a stripper.

grace jones dedee pfeiffer "vamp" 1986They hit the road with Duncan (Watanabe), the school’s resident aristocratic Asian nerd who pays people to do his homework for him and is known for lending out much needed vehicles to his desperate fellow students, and wind up somewhere resembling downtown LA with its sleaziness dial cranked up way past acceptable proportions.

They aren’t in town for more than a half hour when they run into Snow (Billy Drago), the leader of a street gang comprised entirely of trench coat-cloaked albino men and leather-clad black women, for example.

But that’s more than enough plot description for a flick like this. Once Snow and his goons show up, all preconceptions must immediately cease. The strip club the three leads wind up choosing as their destination is the aptly named “After Dark Club,” and it’s totally convincing in its neon-trashiness with its smoky, boozed up, world-wearied patrons who stare blankly at the gesticulating women on stage. Gesticulating vampire women.

The club’s manager, Vic—played by Sandy Baron as equal parts depraved and self-effacing—is a major, major highlight of the film. His place in the club’s vampiric hierarchy isn’t totally clear, though he evidently resides underneath Vlad, its taciturn, bulky bouncer, and Katrina (Grace Jones taken to a new level of eccentricity), its main theatrical attraction and queen vampire. It’s precisely his being in that tenuous spot of having minor authority and yet being subject to punishment and scolding that makes his character’s frequently expressed pipe dreams of a classy club in Las Vegas all the more hilarious.

chris makepeace "vamp" 1986And on the subject of the vampire element in the film, not much can really be said. It’s more or less incidental, very much underdeveloped, and yet is effective because the characters regard their supernatural impediments as annoyances and vampirism in general as a cruel joke. The scene where AJ explains to Keith the methods by which one can exterminate the undead is particularly noteworthy, christened by the line: “I have a list, here, somewhere.”

Their relationship actually feels genuine, as does Makepeace’s with Pfeiffer, and the interplay Rusler and he have with Duncan is priceless.

Along with “Fright Night,” “The Lost Boys,” and “Near Dark,” “Vamp” stands as a seminal contemporary vampire flick of the 1980s. Its creature and vampire effects aren’t anywhere near as creative or impressive as “Fright Night,” and its gore is tame in comparison with any one of the three others mentioned, but its originality and patent disregard for its audience’s viewing anticipations and aesthetic preferences is what earns its status as an overlooked gem.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Eric Melin October 18, 2010 at 11:37 pm

Wow, Phil. Strong case. This is most certainly overlooked and, I guess until I read this, I thought it was for good reason. “Genuine relationships”? A “seminal contemporary vampire flick”? I love the idea that it messes with the audience’s perceptions, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the “cruel joke” may still be on the audience. Still, you make a case for its charms, however slight, and I’m intrigued. Consider this Netflixed!

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