Keith (Chris Makepeace, The Last Chase) and AJ (Robert Rusler, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge) are roommates, best friends, and co-conspirators; or at least, AJ gets Keith to go along on his crazy schemes. The latest is to pledge to a fraternity, not because it’s cool, but because it will afford better opportunities for mischief. The pair balks at the frat’s lame initiation rites and offers a favor instead: provide booze and a stripper for the frat’s big party that evening (my how times have changed; would locating a stripper be considered a difficult chore today, even in a remote college town?). Surmounting the problem of limited funds and no wheels by agreeing to be friends for a week to lonely but wealthy nerd Duncan (Gedde Watanabe, Sixteen Candles), the boys journey from their remote campus to Oklahoma City. On the way an ad for the After Dark Club catches AJ’s eye, with promises of a truly unusual experience. Arriving in the club’s strange neighborhood, troubles begin with a fight with an albino gang member (Billy Drago, Invasion U.S.A.) and his black girlfriends, and continue at the club, where the cocktail waitress Amaretto (Deedee Pfieffer, Dangerously Close) knows Keith and demands he guess from where. Things get worse when AJ goes back stage to hire the club’s star attraction Katrina (Grace Jones, A View to a Kill) and finds that charm and good looks only get you so far with someone more interested in a quick bite….
People have a lot of memories about what the 80s was about. Neon, hair metal, New Wave, crazy haircuts, shoulder pads, Prime Time Soaps, terrible sitcoms that revolve around aliens or robot children, action movies with muscled up yahoos mowing down thousands of opponents, montage sequences, slasher films, film franchises, blockbusters where spectacle outweighed other concerns, the threat of nuclear Armageddon, home video games, yuppies, Wall Street, Reagan….I could go on and on, and this would become the kind of list of cultural touch points that R.E.M. and Billy Joel turned into hit songs in that very decade. Most “Totally 80s” lists leave off one important thing: all the damned vampires. My time in that decade was full of them. Sure, when I was young they were the kind you saw on Sesame Street, or the Creature Double Feature, but the second half of the 80s was awash in newer, hipper vampires.
The Hunger kicked things off with vampires in a modern setting and in modern clothes rather than capes, but it was not a mainstream hit (#91 in 1983’s box office). Things really got moving in 1985 which saw the release of Once Bitten and Fright Night. Fright Night expertly combined a yuppie vampire in suburbia, comedy, and a gleeful celebration of horror hosts and their fans and struck it big, hitting #35 at the box office (and the top grossing horror film of the year after Freddy’s Revenge; no accounting for taste, I guess) that year while Once Bitten ranked 85th. I guess Jim Carrey hadn’t really hit his stride yet; certainly we can’t blame it on a sexiness gap between Lauren “Viva Knieval!” Hutton and Chris “My Ex-Wife Starred in The Hunger ” Sarandon.
Mainstream success means cash-ins, and the next few years saw a lot of two things: self-aware horror comedies (sorry Scream fans, Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson didn’t invent them, and, to be honest, neither did Tom Holland of Fright Night) and vampire movies. Vamp came out the next year, followed by A Return to Salem’s Lot, The Lost Boys, The Monster Squad, Near Dark, and My Best Friend is a Vampire in 1987. The wave was gasping for air by 1988-89 with Vampire’s Kiss, Fright Night II, and TV product like Night Life.
That’s a lot of films, and those are just the thematically linked ones from Hollywood, leaving out foreign language films like Mr. Vampire, low budget films like Graveyard Shift (the Canadian movie with the cab driving vampire, not the one set in a Maine mill with giant rat bats) and films not inspired by The Hunger and Fright Night, such as the alien vampires of Lifeforce and the more traditional vampires of Transylvania 6-5000, Transylvania Twist, and Count Duckula. Vampires wouldn’t have long to wait before they would be revived (do they ever?), but the comic updating of the vampire mythology favored in 80s cinemas was soon replaced by brooding, sexy vampires. The 80s seems to be the last decade when the majority of vampires were antagonists, although the shift was already underway, with many protagonists who join or who are tempted to join the vampires’ subculture (including Once Bitten, The Lost Boys, A Return to Salem’s Lot, and Near Dark) only to reject them and return to normal by the end of the movie. The exceptions (such as My Best Friend is a Vampire and Night Life) feature misunderstood vampire outsiders hunted by prejudiced vampire hunters.
Vampire films were staples of late 80s and early 90s cable, and, with a brother who was deep into Goth music (Siouxise and the Banshees and The Cure in particular), read Stephen King religiously, dressed all in black, and loved Hammer and Universal horror movies, is it a surprise that I saw most of them multiple times? I favored the comedic ones, at first, because as a kid I was the world’s most easily scared horror fan. I loved the genre, but everything from horror trailers, posters, stills from monster movie books, and video boxes to seemingly innocuous things like stop motion animation, yipping Sesame Street aliens, and even bad folk art (the less said about novelty coconut heads, and their moving eyes, the better) haunted me as I tried to sleep. That didn’t stop me from slowly increasing my tolerance, and it was this wave of vampire films that I really cut my modern/R rated horror movie teeth on. For whatever reason vampires are something that I’ve never found particularly scary, and I was very familiar with them from books and older movies. That isn’t to say that some scenes didn’t get to me, but they were usually leavened with comedy or, in Near Dark‘s case, totally bad ass action sequences. I mean did you see how that kid went flying when he got his with the sunlight his shotgun blast allowed into the hotel room?
Vamp was not one of the films I saw early on, even though I knew about it. Looking back, it probably aired late due to the strip club setting, and my older brother probably avoided showing it to me for that very reason. I think I saw it in middle school because I don’t recall thinking it was particularly dated, and it now screams 1980s like a Flock of Seagulls haircut or a “Special Guest Star: Mary Lou Retton” credit. Vamp features Grace Jones art-disco dance numbers (complete with a Keith Haring-esque sculpture from Andy Warhol and her eccentric outfits), neon pink and green lighting (like Dario Argento directing a Duran Duran video!), a “one crazy night” story (cough, cough, After Hours, cough, cough) and a college sex comedy set-up. AJ, screams power yuppie in training: you will believe a guy in an electric blue paisley print shirt, grey wool jacket with rolled up sleeves, jeans, and gelled hair can take on Billy Drago and come out on top. Or maybe you won’t, but AJ is the “preppy operator” character you know from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and countless other 80s films, the thematic equivalent of Harold Lloyd’s “young go-getter” character of the silent era. Both personified the upbeat, positive side of their plush eras, when we believed that anyone could be a success if you just worked hard enough; or, at least that was the message in the 1920s; in the 80s you had to be smart, stylish and cunning enough to best your rivals, cut deals, and look good while doing it. Even Amaretto believes that her cocktail waitress job at a club that is a literal dead-end is just a temporary destination; these are characters who believe in a future.
Some of the dated elements are charming. The 80s sex comedy/vampire movie mash-up retains most of its entertainment value, and it was fun seeing an aspiring yuppie going up against the supernatural (and losing, which could be seen as a condemnation of the yuppie operator archetype; or maybe I’m reading too much into this movie). Other elements don’t fare as well. The lighting calls attention to the scenes shot on sets and makes them look like they were shot on location at some long-lost 80s amusement park haunted house (the amusement park of my youth, in fact, painted its haunted house in horrific neon colors around this time). The “one crazy night” plot doesn’t really work with the vampire part of the story and detracts from it. Instead of sticking with the strip club run by vampires, the film detours to the outside neighborhood and then back again, destroying Vamp‘s momentum. This is especially notable in the lackluster climax, which perfunctorily runs from one dangerous situation to another without ever feeling dangerous.
The need to serve both plots also means the film’s best ideas aren’t developed. The genius of Katrina’s set-up, preying on the kind of guys who come alone to a strip club, is pointed out by the After Dark Club’s sleazy manager and sort-of Reinfield, Vic (Sandy Baron, comic and future Grandpa Munster replacement): who tells anyone they’re going alone to a strip club? Feasting on lone drunks makes much more sense than killing every person who comes to visit, as they did in From Dusk Til Dawn (even if that film is better overall). At the same time, the club is located in what amounts to Oklahoma City’s vampire district, an interesting idea is never really fleshed out. We see a blood bank in the background, a milkman delivering what must be blood at night, vampire garbage men collecting bodies from the club, a little vampire girl, and a scene with a cop that could be interpreted as police cooperation with the vampires. The club could be supplying the entire vampire ghetto, but we’ll never know, because Vamp consists of set pieces, lazily linked and lacking common sense (why would vampires have open barrels of flammable liquid next to their coffins?), destroying our suspension of disbelief.
While we’re talking about unexploited elements of this film, how about the one and only Grace Jones? She has almost no dialogue, and,is here for her dance, music and costuming choices, her screen presence, and her looks (highlighted in a blood drinking/sex scene and as a solid base for some very well-done, Nosferatu inspired, make up). Jones is an Egyptian vampire queen, but we find out nothing about her history except seeing her sarcophagus and her thrall named Vlad (Brad Logan, Trancers). Wantanbe is left doing a variation on his usual schtick, though at least his defining characteristics are overbearing cluelessness, a belief that money should make him popular, and his insane wealth, rather than the simple fact of his ethnicity. Hell, even Pfieffer, insanely cute and perky here, is ill-served by a character who’s only characteristics are that cuteness and an inexplicable fixation on Keith.
Despite these flaws, the ideas that are buried here are a lot of fun, and the film has moments of amusement. Vic’s Reinfield via the Borscht Belt schtick is enjoyable, as are those hints that “Vlad” is a Katrina co-dependent Dracula, and Drago as an albino gang leader is priceless. I especially enjoyed his gang’s all too short encounter with the vampires of the neighborhood. There are jokes that work, and it’s worth seeing if you’re a fan of vampire films just to see ideas that would get reused in coming years (vampire night/strip club, vamps that get “ugly” rather than just growing fangs (though I suppose Stephen King/Tobe Hooper and Werner Herzog already revived that idea in the late 70s), and even a few things that show up in Shaun of the Dead that you can read about after some spoiler space.
I have to wonder if the creators of Shaun of the Dead were fans as this movie also features the leads escaping a burning bar in a lift from the basement to the street, and, probably more importantly, the central theme of a man who must learn to move out of his overbearing friend’s shadow during a crisis involving the undead that’s resolved when the friend becomes one of the undead, seems to have been killed, then shows up at the end “alive”. Am I reaching even further when thoughts about the film’s climax in the sewers under a city that leaves the scam artist half of the pair of friends left for dead recall The Third Man?