The Grace Jones-starring comedy-horror from 1986 gets the deluxe HD treatment from Arrow Video.
In 1979 Richard Wenk directed a bizarre short film by the name of Dracula Bites the Big Apple. It begins in sepia and a quote from Hamlet, but quickly moves into colour and disco as the titular Count boards a plane to New York to check out the “pulsating night life”. What follows is a blend of some very obvious gags, a handful of more imaginative ones, over-egged performances and an irresistible musical number revolving around a cover version of King Harvest’s Dancing in the Moonlight (later covered to much success by Toploader in 1999). Oh, and the owner of Studio 54, Steve Rubell, pops up in a cameo playing himself. It really is a genuine curiosity, an odd mix of comedy, horror, musical and love letter to New York which Wenk absolutely refuses to take seriously.
Dracula Bites the Big Apple was enough to attract the attention of producer Donald P. Borchers, a man who would spend much of the eighties specialising in cultish prospects, from The Howling and Children of the Corn to Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion and Two Moon Junction. He wanted Wenk to return to the comedy-horror genre and so Vamp was born, becoming the director’s feature debut in 1986. Borchers and Wenk worked on the storyline together with Wenk eventually gaining sole credit for the screenplay. Sadly, the end result is nowhere near as out-there as Dracula Bites the Big Apple, but nonetheless Vamp throws some interesting elements into the mix.
The film begins as though it were a frat house comedy, firmly placing itself alongside the likes of Real Genius and other contemporaneous teen movies. The casting reflects this with lead Chris Makepeace (who looks distractingly like a young Mel Gibson) familiar from Meatballs and My Bodyguard, Robert Rusler then best known for playing Robert Downey Jr.’s buddy in Weird Science, and Gedde Watanabe having appeared the previous year in John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles as Long Duk Dong. Essentially, Makepeace and Rusler hit upon the idea of hiring a stripper for their fraternity house, a plan which involves Watanabe’s car, the After Dark Club in downtown L.A. and an appearance from Grace Jones. Of course, things don’t go quite as planned as, unbeknownst to them, Jones happens to be a vampire as well as a stripper – and so do some of the other folk they bump into along the way…
The casting of Jones is the central point of interest and, indeed, she has generally been plastered over most of Vamp’s posters and VHS/DVD sleeves over the years. Getting her into the movie must have been quite some coup for Borchers and Wenk, especially as it came soon after her success in the music industry (notably the single Pull Up to the Bumper and the album Slave to the Rhythm) and her appearance as Christopher Walken’s fellow Bond villain in A View to a Kill. In a clever move Vamp never once requires her to speak and as such she is able to capture the attention by presence alone without any acting really coming into it. Furthermore, her performance feels very much an extension of herself. She is introduced onscreen through a length strip sequence which feels all Jones (and indeed it is, as is confirmed during the on-disc interviews with Wenk and Borchers), this being more a piece of performance art than it is straightforward titillation. She even grinds along to one of her own songs, the Associates-alike number Seduction Surrender which would later appear on a subsequent album. And the plot thickens: the prop she uses in this sequence was apparently a cast of her then-boyfriend Dolph Lundgren, whilst Andy Warhol contributed to the art direction of her onscreen dressing room. All of which is highly unexpected from a mid-eighties comedy-horror movie.
During his interview on the disc Wenk notes that he had different plans for Jones’ first scene and as an inexperienced filmmaker effectively let her do her own thing. It goes a long way in explaining the sheer oddness of this moment as there is nothing else in Vamp quite like it. There are other bits of strange business – such as Sandy Baron’s cockroach-eating compère – and a nicely imagined visual scheme consisting of heavy pinks and greens from director of photography Elliot Davis (who would go on to a pair of very differently vampire movies, Twilight and 30 Days of Night), but Wenk doesn’t really go all out in pursuing an uncanny mood. The other key observation he makes in that interview is that he’s “not a big horror fan” and, in some ways, this may be Vamp’s principle failing. Whilst certain elements work on their own – the presence of Jones, a vampire gang headed by an albino Billy Drago – the film doesn’t really hold together as a horror movie and feels too busy with such a disparate mixture. This becomes most notable during a protracted scene in the middle section in which Makepeace almost ends up disembodying himself with a hotel elevator. It’s one of the few sequences set outside of (or below) the After Dark Club and ultimately doesn’t really fit. The impression given is that Wenk was simply throwing in vaguely suspenseful set-pieces without any real rhyme or reason, perhaps believing that this is what is expected from the genre.
Furthermore, if Vamp fails as a cohesive horror film, then it should be also noted that the comic aspects are left wanting too. The fraternity humour of the opening scenes is muted leaving the burden primarily upon Watanabe. Yet all that’s really required of him is some stereotypical geeky Asian shtick. Admittedly this isn’t quite as overt as that found in his Sixteen Candles and Gung Ho roles, but it remains a fairly facile comedy hook nonetheless. The fact that his character is neither missed nor commented on once he’s been killed off demonstrates more than anything else his tokenistic attachment. The other big gag involves a skeletal corpse giving the finger, which again sits uneasily amongst the mixture.
We therefore arrive in a situation where Vamp doesn’t work as a vampire flick or as a comedy and therefore certainly doesn’t succeed as a comedy-horror. The major problem with this, other than those which are self-evident, is that the film cannot help but pale against a strong field of both vampire movies and genre mash-ups so prevalent during the 1980s. The former includes Salem’s Lot, Fright Night, The Lost Boys, Near Dark and Mr. Vampire, whilst the latter takes in Return of the Living Dead, Bad Taste and the works of Frank Henenlotter, Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna. Admittedly the quality and reputation of these films may waver, but each is undoubtedly superior to Vamp. And yet, I really don’t want to be too harsh towards the film. There are a number of positives and interesting elements, from the casting of Grace Jones and Sandy Baron (plus an appearance from feminist bodybuilder Lisa Lyon) to the distinctive photography and a great synth score by Jonathan Elias. Moreover, Wenk – as with Dracula Bites the Big Apple – refuses to take things seriously, which undoubtedly helps even though his inexperience comes through. (Although maybe here I’m being a little too fair in this respect. His subsequent films were a forgotten comedy starring Andy Garcia and Andie MacDowell, Just the Ticket from 1999, and the equally blink-and-you-missed-it horror, 2002’s Wishcraft. Perhaps it’s little surprise that he seems more at home writing no-nonsense action-thrillers such as the recent remake of The Mechanic.) On top of this there’s also its inclusion in Alex Cox’s Moviedrome series back in 1991 which will no doubt spark a hint of nostalgia in certain viewers (this was how I first got to encounter the film). Cox saw Vamp as a “perfect Moviedrome film: a rarely seen cult exploitation movie with irrelevant actors, average direction, a daft script borrowing from other, equally daft movies, and guest appearance by such cult luminaries as Grace Jones…”. Perhaps you’d rather take his word for it.
Despite my misgivings about the film itself, there is no denying that Vamp has been given an outstanding treatment with this Blu-ray package. The presentation itself is excellent, maintaining the original mono soundtrack and 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and showing off both to the best of their ability. The 1080p transfer is very strong, containing solid blacks, a light level of grain that looks correct and film like and an able handling of Elliot Davis’ colour schemes. There are a few minor blemishes on the print and the occasional flicker, with the grain looking a little heavier during a couple of shots, but you could hardly address these as flaws. Indeed, any issues appear to be fully inherent in the original materials (as with a couple of shots looking somewhat softer than the generally high standard of crispness) and there are no problems with the transfer itself to report. Similarly, the soundtrack remains crisp and clear throughout, handling both the dialogue and Jonathan Elias’ score without any cause for complaint. For a film of this vintage and budget, Vamp really does impress, and there’s something satisfying about seeing the New World come up onscreen in HD. English subtitles are also available, although only for the main feature.
The extras are plenty and, for the most part, worthwhile. Various cast and crew members contribute either through interviews or the commentary. Deedee Pfeiffer (who plays the female romantic lead in her first starring role) chats for 28 minutes, director Richard Wenk does likewise for 17 minutes, and producer Donald P. Borchers wraps up the interviews with a 22-minute piece. Meanwhile, actor Robert Rusler provides the commentary with critic Callum Waddell. In all four cases the approach is predominantly anecdotal, and as such they throw up plenty of interesting trivia. We learn, for example, that Rusler turned down a role in cult favourite Rolling Thunder, that Quentin Tarantino contacted Borchers owing to the plot similarities between Vamp and From Dusk Til Dawn, and that Grace Jones was in Paris when she should have been on set for a day’s worth of shooting. Understandably, there’s some crossover between the four interviewees/commentators, but together they do provide a really in-depth look at the film’s conception, production and response. Only Jones is conspicuous by her absence, though I’m sure the fact that she isn’t here would cause surprise to many. Furthermore, these various contributions (each of which is exclusive to Arrow Video’s release) means that we don’t really miss the commentary track previously available on Anchor Bay’s Region 1 DVD which featured Wenk, Pfeiffer and her fellow actors Chris Makepeace and Gedde Watanabe.
Elsewhere we also find Wenk’s 1979 short film Dracula Bites the Big Apple (discussed in the main bulk of the review) and an eight-minute featurette in which Wenk and Borchard look over the former’s scrapbook with Waddell, a rich offering containing various Polaroids, posters and press clippings. Then there’s seven minutes of rehearsal footage in which Jones tries out her vampire attack on Wenk, a six-minute blooper reel and the theatrical trailer. The disc also opens with a 13-second introduction from Rusler, although its brief length should demonstrate that it doesn’t exactly have anything major to offer, other than the advice to listen to the commentary! As with Arrow Video’s other cult/horror releases the package also contains a selection of sleeve options and a booklet. Unfortunately, the latter was not provided for review and so cannot be commented upon.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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