Friday, August 19, 2016

Lapdances & Bloodletting: VAMP

As someone who unironically enjoys movies like DEATH PROMISE, DON’T GO IN THE WOODS, and SPIDER-MAN 3, I don't believe in guilty pleasures. Feel guilty about liking veal, not about liking art. There is no reason to be ashamed about liking a movie, as long as it isn't actively hurting anyone (inciting racial hatred, physically exploiting actors, etc.).  Film affects a person subjectively; your opinion is just as valid as anyone else's. Just because I find Akira Kurosawa movies more thought provoking doesn't mean I can't find RAW FORCE hysterically fun. Different doesn't have to mean better (although it would be hard to argue that example). This realization came with maturity, though. I still carry the unconscious stigma of guilty pleasures about some of the movies of my childhood, and that needs to end. Today I declare my love of VAMP (1986).

The Capsule:
College kids Keith (Chris Makepeace) and AJ (Robert Rusler) have to find a stripper for a frat party at their middle of nowhere university.  Along with third wheel Duncan (Gedde Watanabe), they end up at the After Hours bar, a sleazy strip club in the bad part of L.A.  While Keith chats with a mysterious (and bubbly) waitress, (Dedee Pfeiffer) who swears they’ve met before, AJ goes back stage to see the club’s headlining act, the thoroughly indescribable Katrina (Grace Jones).  Keith starts to dig around when AJ doesn’t come back, and he notices several odd things about the joint, like the lack of mirrors and the bouncer who hauls out “drunks” in body bags.  After a few near fatal accidents, Keith realizes that he and his friends have stumbled into a bonafide vampire bar, where Katrina and the other bloodsucking strippers have been feeding off the city’s lowlifes for years.  Keith is in for a long and neon drenched night.

VAMP is unique.  Yes, it is one vampire movie in a crimson sea of vampire movies, and yes, it borrows from other films, and yes, it’s the blueprint for FROM DUSK TIL DAWN, but VAMP stands out.  The first time I saw it thirty years ago (happy unintentional anniversary), I was captivated.  It creates its own world inside a dingy block of downtown L.A., with its own rules and logic.  The disparate elements don’t always mix gracefully, but the final cocktail is a memorable one.

There is something magical about being in a part of the city that has closed up for the night.  Normally busy streets are now still.  The only sounds are the hum of the street lights and the mechanical clicks of the traffic signals cycling over and over.  All the normal people are tucked away in bed, only the weirdos are left wandering around.  You have the feeling you’re not supposed to be there, which is both unsettling and exciting.  As Dick Miller says in Scorsese’s AFTER HOURS, different rules apply.  VAMP captures that feeling perfectly, but also transforms the empty streets of L.A. into someplace otherworldly.  This is mainly due to the lighting.  The background is cast in a haze of neon pink and green.  That kind of lighting is more associated with super stylized Italian filmmakers like Mario Bava or Dario Argento than an ‘80’s American vampire movie.  It’s one of the things that make VAMP stand out.

Another thing is the interesting cast.  Chris Makepeace was famous for being a cute, sensitive nerd in films like MEATBALLS and MY BODYGUARD.  Sort of the early ‘80’s version of Michael Cera.  It was nice to see him playing more of an action hero type, killing vampires and getting the girl, but he still comes off as a little sweetheart.  He has great chemistry with Robert Rusler, who plays his best friend, AJ.  At the time, Rusler was poised to be a big heartthrob (he was fresh off the hilarious disaster of NIGHTMARE ON ELM ST. PART 2), but he never broke out big. I will always think of him as the jerk from WEIRD SCIENCE who did not go on to become Iron Man.  Although he mostly plays AJ as a cocky wiseass, he has some great emotional scenes with Makepeace, especially the one where Keith can’t bring himself to kill his now vampified friend.

Also on hand is Gedde Watanabe (Long Duck Dong from SIXTEEN CANDLES), as the desperately dorky and clueless Duncan.  He somehow manages to stay just shy of annoying, leaning more to the lovably pathetic corner.  When AJ and Keith stop by his fancy dorm room looking for a car, Duncan tries to play it cool by offering them a plate of bagels and a cold cut platter.  It’s cute how excited he is to have weaseled his way into the road trip, content with being a pretend friend.  His attempts to be suave fail miserably (he is always missing his mouth with his breath spray), and everything he says is wildly inappropriate.  When the waitress asks him what she can get him, he replies “I would like a slow, comfortable screw,” and is immediately punched in the arm by Keith.  

The waitress, by the way, is played by Dedee Pfeiffer, Michelle’s sister.  Like Watanabe, her character could have easily been a lazy stereotype (ditzy blonde, in this case), but Pfeiffer plays her with enough charm and goofy enthusiasm to make the role endearing.  Plus, she rocks some amazing ‘80’s hair and a white tiger print jacket.  I like that she spends the whole movie teasing out the mystery of her name (it’s Allison) and her connection to Keith.  When she finally and dramatically reveals her secret, it’s so insignificant that Keith barely reacts.  It’s literally the worst time ever to share a personal moment.  Still, they are very cute together.

The showstopper is, of course, Grace Jones as the head vampire, Katrina.  Jones is such an outrageous and striking person that playing a vampire is probably one of her least bizarre experiences.  Believe me, though, there has never been a vampire like Katrina.  When Salma Hayek’s Santanico Pandemonium does her strip tease in FROM DUSK TIL DAWN, it’s mesmerizingly seductive.  When Katrina does her dance, it’s an indescribable, performance art, mind-fuck.  When it is over, they cut to the audience, sitting in dead silence, too stunned to even process what the hell just happened (turns out that was their actual, on-set reaction).  I totally buy that she is an ancient vampire who holds an entire neighborhood in her thrall. 

Even the minor characters are complete oddballs.  Vic, the Vega obsessed club MC, is pretty much Katrina’s Renfield, even to the point of eating cockroaches out of a mint dish.  Sandy Baron plays him with sleazy, world-weary, relish constantly trying to impart a little class to the joint.  I cannot fail to mention prolific b-movie bad guy, Billy Drago, as Snow, the leader of an albino street gang.  He shows up from time to time to menace Keith, waving around a huge knife and talking like a crazed Amish (“We be lookin’ for ya”).  The gang members, who look like pale LOST BOYS cosplayers, aren’t even vampires, they are normal people.  That’s how weird this movie is. 

The similarities to FROM DUSK TIL DAWN are undeniable, even to the point where Tarantino’s people had to ask VAMP’s people for permission before making their version.  Now, I love FROM DUSK TIL DAWN, and it’s certainly a slicker movie, but the mass carnage business model of The Titty Twister doesn’t seem very sustainable.  Hard to get good word of mouth (or Yelp reviews) if you routinely murder every single person in the building.  The vamps of the After Dark club, on the other hand, have this shit worked out to a science.  They only go after the guys who won’t be missed (even offering a Lonely Man Special).  They can drain them right from the table because no one ever takes their eyes off the dancers.  Vic even makes the announcement, “Anybody going to claim this lush?” before Vlad the bouncer hauls out the body.  They’ve paid off a tow truck guy to get rid of the extra cars and a garbage truck driver to get rid of the dead.  It’s a sweet set up.  If it wasn’t for the rookie mistake of storing uncovered barrels of gasoline in their communal crypt, they would still be in business.

Being a mainstream horror movie, there isn’t a great deal of blood on display.  Katrina does pull someone’s heart of their chest. The neck biting is gnashy and the scene where Katrina slits her wrist with a razor blade to let Vic get a taste makes me shudder, but overall it’s comparatively mild.  This one relies on mood, atmosphere, and quirk to get by.  There are so many weird little touches packed into it, like the dancers sitting face to face doing each other’s makeup in lieu of mirrors.  The world is so full of oddities that it’s fun just watching Keith and Allison roam around the city, wondering what freaks they will bump into next.  The fact that Keith doesn’t even figure out exactly what is going on until an hour in doesn’t really matter. From the outtakes, it looks like they filmed several action sequences that were cut.  I would have liked to see them as full-fledged deleted scenes, but the pace of the current cut is so nicely balanced between humor, action, suspense, and character movements, it didn’t need them.

This was director’s Richard Wenk (Dick Wenk?  tee hee)** first full length movie.  Now a days he’s more well known for writing action films, like THE MECHANIC (2011 remake version), THE EQUALIZER (2014 movie version), and THE EXPENDABLES 2 (2012 travesty version).  The director of photography, went on to great success as a cinematographer for movies like OUT OF SIGHT, TWILIGHT, and Keanu Reeves’ MAN OF TAI CHI.  VAMP was certainly a product of its time, but the other-worldliness of the color and eeriness of the setting keeps it from feeling dated.  Looking back at it, I have no idea why I ever thought of it as a guilty pleasure.  We should really dump that term.  Like what you like, no guilt needed.  Unless you’re into that kind of fetish porn where people step on insects or adults wear diapers.  Guilt might be appropriate there.
C Chaka

** - dick joke courtesy of my wife doing the proofreading.  Sorry Richard.

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