Arrow Video releases this sparkling new Blu-ray of cult vampire film Vamp starring Grace Jones with typical attention to detail in the production of a high-definition transfer and entertaining, informative extra features. The release gives Top 10 Films editor Dan Stephens a chance to revisit this quirky eighties b-movie.
There’s obviously a certain charm to Richard Wenk’s Vamp when you look back at it 30 years after it first arrived in theatres. But time hasn’t been complimentary to this contemporary take on gothic horror. Tom Holland’s brilliant Fright Night had come out a year earlier. Its presence makes Wenk’s attempt feel like a poor imitation; its mix of clean-cut American nice guys coming head-to-head with a subculture of vampires lacking Holland’s delightful self-consciousness despite both films sharing copious amounts of camp.
Much of its affected posturing comes from Grace Jones whose presence in the film was felt by everyone. Tales from the set recall her schedule getting in the way of production (read: she was always late) and her constant calls for a vibrator (yes, I’m taking about the sex aid). During ADR in post-production she turned up in an outfit made predominantly of metal which could be heard jangling on recordings. When told about this, she simply removed her clothes and did the rest of the day’s work naked.
These quirks can be seen in her performance – undoubtedly Vamp’s best scenes. We’re introduced to her during a striptease performance (clearly inspiration behind Quentin Tarantino’s Salma Hayek sequence in From Dusk Till Dawn) when she taunts her befuddled audience with avant-garde dance before disappearing from stage equally enigmatically. Later, she’s seen attacking Robert Rusler’s AJ who finds his sex drive getting him into more trouble than he bargained for.
Vamp has enough to like to give it that attractiveness as a cult oddity: Elliot Davis’ foreboding neon-lit urban landscape, an assortment of wonderful make-up effects including some neat transformations, and Billy Drago’s weirdly disconcerting albino gang-leader Snow. This is all in addition to Jones’ fleeting appearances that remain the most memorable things about Wenk’s effort.
But, at the time, the director was still finding his feet and it shows. Indeed, Vamp was the first feature Wenk made and his career since has turned more towards writing than taking the helm behind the camera. He freely admits – in the excellent documentary that accompanies Arrow Video’s new Blu-ray release – that horror isn’t his genre. But he took the work because it was an opportunity not to be missed. What we get is a film that never finds the right balance between humour and horror, where the horror itself is competently composed but largely unsatisfying thanks to an erratic screenplay and its paper-thin plotting and characters.
Vamp scores points because of its confidence to shirk archaic taboos regarding race. Its depiction of white college boys lusting after young black girls is marked by a sense of insignificant normality; in fact, race has a pleasing irrelevance. But if we assign such politics to Wenk’s film we’re probably picking at holes that don’t need digging. However, if he’s quite progressive on race, he’s very much regressive on gender.
Not only is chief love interest Amaretto (Dedee Pfeiffer) underwritten and, it would seem, under-schooled, she boasts an unhealthy adoration of Chris Makepeace’s Keith, a boy she kissed on a dare years ago which he has no memory of. The two actors delivering one-note performances make this hero/heroine pairing even more unsatisfying. Every other woman, including Grace Jones, is a sexual predator, a stripper or both.
Aside from a couple of set-piece flourishes that deliver some wonderful in-camera make-up effects and fun vampire histrionics – Rusler’s horny college kid getting it on with Jones, for example – there’s very little in Vamp worth remembering. Rusler’s attempts to be the jokey, confident Adonis work quite well and provide some funny moments but he’s hamstrung by Makepeace’s leaden weight; an uncharismatic performer who makes acting look like an exhaustingly conscious effort.
Coupled with the flimsy motivation of these characters (they’ve come to the “no-go” part of the city – the part that movies depict as being populated by muddied vagabonds pushing shopping trolleys full of cans across wet, traffic-less streets under the cover of artificial light – to find a stripper to impress a fraternity) Vamp lacks a sense of dramatic direction. Indeed, the characters running around desolate streets at night, which is shamelessly reminiscent of two brilliant films from the previous year (Martin Scorsese’s After Hours and John Landis’ Into The Night) has an aimlessness that could be applied to the plot. Grace Jones’ freakish eccentricity enlivens Vamp but it’s otherwise a hollow, tiresome mess.
Written by Dan Stephens
Top 10 Films reviewed Vamp on Blu-ray courtesy of Arrow Films which released the film on Blu-ray October 3, 2016. The brilliant presentation features a wonderful new documentary – called One Of The Nights – featuring the principle cast and crew including director Richard Wenk and stars Robert Rusler, Dedee Pfeiffer, Gedde Watanabe as well as collectible reversible artwork and, during the first pressing, a new booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Cullen Gallagher.