Vamp (1986) Retrospective

SUMMARY

Two college students, Keith and AJ, want to hire a stripper to buy their way into a campus fraternity. They borrow a Cadillac from lonely rich student Duncan, who insists on coming with them to scope out strip clubs in a nearby city. The three boys find themselves at a club in a shady part of town, and after being impressed by a surreally artistic stripper, Katrina, AJ visits her dressing room to try and convince her to come strip for their college party. Katrina seduces AJ, then pins him down – killing him with a fatal bite to the neck.

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Keith becomes concerned at his friend’s delay and gets help from a waitress named Amaretto, who keeps insisting (to his confusion) that she knows him. They search the neighborhood, and Keith is separated from her while trying to escape from both a psychotic albino street gang, as well as from vampires throughout the area. While hiding in a dumpster, he finds AJ’s discarded body, but when he calls the police and returns to the club to accuse the owners, the vampires have preempted him by bringing AJ back to the club as undead. AJ confesses to Keith that he’s now a vampire, and after realizing that Keith will not kill him and is willing to die for him, AJ stakes himself with a piece of broken furniture.

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Keith, Amaretto, and Duncan flee the club, but their car is rammed by vehicles driven by vampires. After escaping, they realize that Duncan has been turned to a vampire, and they abandon him in a burning car. The pair attempt to escape through the sewers, as Amaretto breaks down and tells Keith that her real name is Allison, and she knows AJ from a game of spin the bottle when they were classmates in fifth grade. While they flee through the sewers, they discover and burn a nest of vampires, but Allison is grabbed and held hostage by Katrina. After an arrow to the face and pipe staked in the chest fail to stop Katrina, Keith kills her by opening a grating, allowing the sunlight to destroy her. Before they can escape to the surface, they are trapped by Vlad, Katrina’s vampire consort, until Vlad is staked from behind by a revived AJ, who sheepishly notes that the stake he tried to kill himself with turned out to be formica.

As Keith and Allison climb to the surface daylight, AJ remains in the sewers calling out to him his ideas to go to night school, or work a job on a graveyard shift.

DEVELOPMENT/ BEHIND THE SCENES

The $2 million New World Pictures production recently opened on more than 1,000 screens across the country. Critics were not, for the most part, impressed; to the movie going public, “Vamp” will likely be perceived as a minor, offbeat summer entertainment, a film to be seen, perhaps, if the lines for “Aliens” are too long.

But for its 29-year-old director, “Vamp” is a major career breakthrough. Making this type of B-movie is like having a tryout in the minor leagues. Directors like Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme began their careers working in genres more suited to exploitation films than cinematic masterpieces. Given shoestring budgets but creative freedom by their producers, these directors demonstrated their skill and imagination while making movies filled with the always marketable ingredients of sex and violence. Richard Wenk, a graduate of New York University’s film school, the chance came in 1984 with a phone call from producer Donald Borchers.

As Wenk recalls, “Don told me, ‘I’ve got a title “Vamp” and I know it should have a vampire in it, and I’d like to have some strippers and some college kids. Other than that, you’re free to direct it.’ It took me three months to figure out a story that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to tell my mother. Once I hit upon the idea of creating the worst possible nightmare that could happen, I wrote the script in three days.”

In the resulting story, three college kids head into Los Angeles one night in search of a stripper for a fraternity show. They stumble into a mysterious nightclub where stripper-vampires lure customers to their doom. Grace Jones plays the exotic, animalistic Katrina, who performs a mesmerizing dance wearing virtually nothing but body paint. While it may have the trappings of a soft-core exploitation film, “Vamp” is, instead, a comedy, with clever touches and a cast that includes Chris Makepeace, Robert Rusler, Gedde Watanabe Sandy Baron and Dedee Pfeiffer.

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“The thing I found interesting right away,” said Wenk, “is if vampires were alive today, why wouldn’t they get a job where people came to them? Here’s a bunch of female vampires. Why should they go out in the streets and pick up people?” By opening a strip club, he observes, “they can operate out of one place. And the only kind of people that even go to these places are salesmen and guys who kind of mosey in by themselves. Nobody says, ‘Hey honey, I’m going down to the strip club.’ These people are not easily traced. They’re the perfect victims!”

The presence of Grace Jones, was central to “Vamp’s” commercial viability. She also set the proper tone for the film. “As long as Katrina was really threatening,” says Wenk, “the comedy could work. If people just start laughing at the vampire, then you’ve got Abbott and Costello. Grace Jones is exotic, and can be not only fascinating but truly frightening as well.”

The film’s main selling point is expected to be the presence of Grace Jones as Katrina. The role was originally written with Tina Turner in mind, but she declined. “She’s very big now,” remarked Borchers. “I guess she wants to do Chekhov or something. Wenk and Borchers discussed various rock stars who might have the right look, then began an all out campaign to get Jones. Borchers sent her a copy of Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire, along with the script. It worked. Jones, previously seen in CONAN THE DESTROYER and A VIEW TO A KILL, clearly relishes her latest in a series of unusual roles. She helped design Katrina’s makeup, hairstyle and costumes, creating a vaguely Egyptian look to suggest the character’s ancient origins.

Borchers said that Jones’s involvement in the film greatly increased VAMP’s budget. “She’s one of the most expensive players they’ve ever had in a New World film,” he said. “And after you pay her salary, there are a lot of other costs, because she’ll only work with the greatest hair people, makeup people, wardrobe people. It was a major coup to get New World to come up with the money.”

But both Borchers and Wenk feel Jones was worth it. “Katrina has to be mysterious and sensual and scary,” said Wenk. “And Jones pulls it off. She’s been real helpful, and great to work with. She brought a lot to the part.”

Before making “Vamp,” he did a number of odd jobs, including writing children’s books, directing short videos for the Showtime cable channel, writing comedy for Gallagher and working as an assistant to director John Huston on “Annie.”

“I was watching a great filmmaker ply his trade,” says Wenk of working with Huston. “This gave me enough knowledge to say ‘I can do that.’ I wasn’t intimidated by the filmmaking process.”

Although VAMP is his first feature film, Wenk has dealt with the subject of vampires once before, in his half-hour 16mm short DRACULA BITES THE BIG APPLE. The comedy, made for a budget of roughly $12,000, was shown extensively on HBO. It was while distributing his film in Los Angeles in 1979 that Wenk met producer Donald P. Borchers, at the time still an aspiring producer.

Donald P. Borchers
Donald P. Borchers

Their first collaborative effort, a spoof of ’50s monster-on-the loose thrillers called IT CAME… ALL NIGHT, failed to attract financial backing, and the pair split to try other things.

Wenk directed some Showtime shorts and wrote one of the Indiana Jones paperbacks. Borchers became an independent producer, turning out ANGEL and the Stephen King adaptation CHILDREN OF THE CORN, among others. In 1984 he approached Wenk with nothing but a title, VAMP, and the premise of three college kids who somehow get mixed up with vampires. Wenk recalls Borchers telling him, “If you can write a story around this, I’ll sell it and you can direct.”

At first Wenk hesitated. He was afraid that after his DRACULA short and VAMP, he’d be tagged as a director of vampire movies. “I’m not well read or brought up in the [horror] genre,” he admitted, and he denies having any special affinity for vampires. But the opportunity to direct his first feature was a powerful incentive. “Once I hit upon the premise that it all happened in one night and made it more or less a comedy, a humorous adventure, that helped pull it all together.”

Jones also features prominently in what is hoped to be the show-stopping moment of the film, a strip-tease act in which the singer gradually sheds her clothes to reveal that her body has been elaborately painted from head to toe in complex, colorful designs.

Which is fortunate, for in mid-1984, Wenk received his fateful phone call from Borchers, a producer for New World. Borchers had already tried, unsuccessfully, to get another of Wenk’s projects off the ground, a horror spoof he wrote with two friends. There was one problem with the script of “Vamp.” New World wanted a straight horror film and was reluctant to finance a comedy. “I kept saying that vampires aren’t scary today. You’ve got aliens, guys with machetes . . . Bela Lugosi doesn’t scare anymore. You’ve got to add an edge to it.”

One of the keys to setting the proper tone was a scene that used the song “Volare” on a jukebox. The inclusion of the Bobby Rydell recording was possible only after the producer mortgaged his house and put up his own money to pay for the music rights.

“My only real fight was over this song,” says Wenk. “The editor put it into a scene in a coffee shop before the characters go into the After Dark Club. It was great. It changed the attitude of the movie and told the audience, ‘You’re not going to see what you expect.’ I told Don that we had to get that song. But the music company wanted a lot more than New World was willing to pay for what they thought was a joke. I told them it wasn’t a joke, that it sets the tone and style. Don stepped in and paid a large sum of money out of his own pocket for the song.”

Don’t get the impression, though, that his producer gave Wenk carte blanche. “There are a few compromises in the movie. I disagreed with Don in that I didn’t want the film to start at the college. The expository scenes work, but the film doesn’t really start until it gets to the nightclub. Also, Don felt very strongly that we should see all the vampires die to put the audience at ease. There is a scene towards the end that I didn’t want to put in.”

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But overall, says Wenk, “the only real pressure in this kind of film is to meet the schedule. I didn’t have time to do all the things I wanted to. We had a 3 1/2-week shooting schedule, and it rained solidly for the first eight days of filming.”

How did Wenk handle the combination of such a tight schedule, a script filled with time-consuming special effects and stunts, and the pressure of making one’s first feature film?

“I remember the first day of filming. What amazed me was that I was not nervous. This was my lifelong dream, to finally make a ‘major motion picture,’ and when I got out there I wasn’t nervous, I was happy. It never really overwhelmed me. What did get to me was all the long days. We’d four or five 18-hour days in a row, and we were working six days a week. You become like a walking zombie, and the enthusiasm is dampened. It becomes work.”

“There were people knifed not on the crew, but on the same street. People’s cars were ripped off. It was pretty bad. Plus, they had a lot of rain which really messed things up a lot. Richard (Wenk] was great on VAMP, but it was just so hectic that even he didn’t know what he was shooting till he got on the set in the morning.”

Billy Drago as SnowVamp was a really interesting picture. For me it’s always interesting who’s involved in the project. Grace Jones is such a legend, so to not only get to hang out with her but work with her… We’d shoot from sundown to sun up, and then she’d always invite everyone over to some place she’d rented for a party, and the crew and everybody would be over there and there’d be champagne in the bathtub. And then she’d just disappear, like she really was a vampire and couldn’t be out in the light. Everyone would keep on partying at her place until they got tired and fell asleep, and then they’d wake up and go and shoot again. If I wasn’t going to her place I’d have to drive back to my house from downtown LA. It’d be really early in the morning and I’d just rush out from the studio without taking off the albino make-up so I didn’t get stuck in the rush hour traffic. And I’d be wanting a cup of coffee so I’d stop at a little Chinese supermarket and forget that they’d bleached my hair and my eyebrows and my eyelashes… I got some really alarmed looks! – Billy Drago as Snow

 

Interview With Actor Robert (AJ) Rusler

In your opinion, why do you think Vamp has been able to keep living on as it has then?

Robert Rusler: I think it came down to the storytelling; Richard had a knack for balancing humor and horror that I think is still something you see in his work now, even though he’s doing more action-type stuff now. He just knew how to get audiences to care about these characters because they were so well-written and well-developed and then as a director gave all of us (the cast) the space to make these roles our own and have some fun with the material too. I think we’re all kind of pleased now looking back that Vamp became a cult classic like it has; I think we all pretty much knew that was the kind of movie we were making at the time too. I always knew it was going to be a completely different kind of movie just because of Richard and because of the cast he put together for Vamp. Sandy Baron was absolute perfection in this- he was always perfection in anything, but I think Vamp was one of my favorite roles of his just because of the level of class he brought to such a wonderfully strange role, if I can borrow from his character for a moment. And Grace was just something else altogether; at the time she was this completely underground persona so it was interesting that Richard chose her for the role. There were a lot of traditionally sexy women in Hollywood back then, and to go with someone so unconventional really took things to an entirely different place in the story and explored some new sexual taboos at the time too, I think. But I love that Vamp is still building an audience even though it came out like 26 to 27 years ago; there seem to be new fans of the movie all the time and that’s really cool. That’s when you know you’ve made something special. We weren’t a blockbuster by any means but we did fine and I’m happier with being involved in a great movie that continues to get discovered over time than if I had done a movie that was HUGE in its day but ended up being ultimately forgettable.

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Considering other horror movies at that time. It has such a different vibe to it.

Robert Rusler: For me, there were two key moments of surrealism that changed the tides in Vamp; the first was the car spinning out and us inside the diner sequence. I think of them as the same because we slid pretty much right into that diner scene. Everything about those moments were so heightened, from the colors to the way Richard shot it to the scene with Billy it completely sets the tone for the rest of the movie. We were basically showing audiences what was in store for them, and then once we reveal Grace’s true nature, that’s when things get even more surreal.

That moment was so violent and terrifying because Grace was so animalistic in her performance. It was shocking- her vampire look was startling, and I think that really threw people off at that time because it was such a gut-punch moment. You knew things were about to get messy.

The relationship between you and Chris, including the ending which was a really fun twist. Was that a huge appeal to taking on the role at the time, that these guys were so relatable and likable?

Robert Rusler: For sure; what I thought was great about Vamp is that Richard really got you to like and empathize with these two college kids who just want nothing more than to live in a decent place, and along the way they get a lot more than they bargained for. The mosquito line that I say to Chris after he realizes what’s happened to me was so powerful, I thought, and gave a new dimension to their relationship as friends. It’s a funny line but it’s kind of sad at the same time too. It’s hard to balance emotion and humor like that in a horror movie. Plus, our characters get caught up in all kinds of naughtiness, and I think that’s something people of any age can relate to- either you’ve done it yourself or you’re going to one day. Everyone enjoys teenage shenanigans

And how I ended up being cast in Vamp all revolved around that relationship too- Richard knew me and my performance style from Nightmare 2 and so he said he knew I was definitely going to be the guy playing AJ. I guess a lot of my performances back then had a certain charisma to them, and Richard saw that. Somehow he knew that I was going to be able to balance out Chris in a way that would really make these likable guys you wanted to hang out with. At that time Chris was always playing the meek and awkward guy, and I think I was able to bring something out in him that people hadn’t really seen from him onscreen before Vamp. I definitely think that Chris came into his own as Keith, and I’ve always enjoyed that role because of that rare confidence he displayed in it. He was an easy guy to like; I think we chatted for like 15 minutes the first time we met, and by the end of that conversation it was like we were old friends.

Can you talk a bit about where you guys shot Vamp I always thought Richard did an incredible job of making such a crappy part of town look so vibrant with the way he lit everything.

Robert Rusler: Oh, I know right? Richard put so much thought into the look of Vamp; it was incredible just how precise he was with the way it was shot and all the vivid colors he infused into the picture. Those pinks and blues and greens were great juxtapositions against each other and that decrepit city landscape we were shooting in. We shot that in downtown LA, and if you’ve heard stories about downtown in the 80’s, they’re probably all true. It was by far one of the craziest places I’ve ever made a movie, undoubtedly. One night when we were shooting late, we were having lunch at like 3 am, and as we’re sitting there, this homeless guy wanders onto our set, in the middle of where we’re eating like he’s Gary Cooper in High Noon. He’s just standing there, looking around at all of us, not saying a word; without missing a beat, he immediately squats down and takes a shit in the middle of the street and then walks away.

Can you believe that? It was insane; I’ve never experienced anything like that ever. And it definitely ruined our appetites that night; I think lunch wrapped pretty quickly after that too. But that was just one of many crazy moments we had on Vamp; there was also Grace and her entourage, who were just so incredible to hang around with, especially being a young guy at the time. There were always celebrities around because of Grace. We even had Timothy Leary show up on set one day how surreal is that, to have the guy who introduced the world to LSD, show up on a movie like Vamp? There were just so many unforgettable moments.

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So how was it working with Grace?

Robert Rusler: You know, being 19 at the time and being introduced into Grace’s world was something so different than anything I had ever experienced, or probably will ever experience. Hanging out with these fashionistas and artists was beyond me I had no idea what I was doing. Grace even introduced me to people like Robert De Niro and Mick Jagger, which was incredible. I remember at the Vamp premiere in NYC I took Brooke Shields, and afterwards we ended up at an Andy Warhol party because of Grace. I had a blast too- I think a lot of those artsy people really liked me because I wasn’t the typical California kid or anything like that. I was always just myself, and I think they appreciated that I wasn’t trying to be someone else to fit in their world.

What’s really surreal though is that the next day after the premiere, I was sitting in my hotel room and my phone rang- it was Andy. He asked me to come over so he could paint me, and to be honest, I think I was totally taken aback at the time so I stupidly gave him some lame reason I couldn’t come over. I told him I’d come and visit him the next time I was in New York, but he died only a few months later. I missed such an incredibly opportunity; looking back, I think I’d definitely do it differently if I could because that was a huge mistake. I didn’t realize what I was passing up at the time.

I don’t know if you’d be able to pick just one thing, but what was your favorite part of Vamp, either about the movie or your experiences working on it?.

Robert Rusler: Hmmmm, well I definitely love the music and all the characters in Vamp, but for me my favorite thing about that movie and my experiences making it was Sandy Baron. I was such a huge fan of his and he was such an amazing person to know. I don’t think a lot of people realize just how much he contributed to the comedy world; people forget that Sandy was before Jackie Mason even and a lot of guys owe their career to guys like Sandy and Jackie. Because he was older, I’d often drive him to and from set and he’d tell the most incredible stories; we became friends because of Vamp, and to have been able to work with someone like Sandy AND to be able to call him a friend was so special.

One last question how incredible was it sitting there for Grace’s dance number? It’s still such a powerful moment in the movie.

Robert Rusler: Man, that scene STILL holds up; it was so artistic, so innovative and totally unexpected. None of us knew what Grace was going to do before she shot that scene, and that probably includes Richard. I think he just gave her some guidelines and trusted in her vision for the scene, and it worked. When Grace performed in that scene, I don’t think there was a single person on that set, cast or crew, who didn’t go “WHOA” when she finished dancing. And I really don’t think any one of us were expecting that kind of intensity either, but she just nailed it- we even shot that sequence in one take. That’s how good Grace was on Vamp- Richard just had three cameras rolling the whole time and let her do her thing; he never needed to go back and get anything else because she didn’t miss a single beat. It was incredible.

SPECIAL EFFECTS

Greg Cannom  joined the New World vampire production with the understanding that he would have to get the makeup FX done quickly and cheaply. “On Vamp, I just tried to do simple stuff because it’s a very low budget film,” Cannom explains. “The producer and I knew that we couldn’t go with something never done before. We didn’t have the budget for anything truly elaborate, but we did come up with some interesting makeup effects.”

Cannom’s Vamp FX workload included creating 26 pairs of “conventional” vampire teeth, a decomposing scene, and for Grace Jones’ vampire transformation, he provided growing toenails, protruding fangs, and finger extensions. The makeup artist also decided to keep Jones’ undead look somewhat less vampiric.

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“Grace’s makeup is very demonic,” reveals Cannom. “The Exorcist is still one of my favorites. In that, Linda Blair didn’t wear that much makeup, but it was very scary. Grace has such an amazing face and bone structure that I kept the makeup subtle and demon inspired. When she smiled on the set, it was very scary.”

Cannom went on to praise Vamp’s lead actress. “Grace was the best. You never know how an actor will react through everything. I even did a cast of her with her eyes open, plus she wore contact lens and had goop coming out of her mouth at times. But, Grace had a great deal of fun with it.”

During one of the movie’s love scenes, Jones changes into a fierce bloodsucker and tears a victim’s neck open. The transformation, again, didn’t call for complicated FX and utilized mostly brief camera cuts to get the idea across. Cannom also created several puppet heads of Jones for use in insert shots, including one with retractable fangs that snap down. The neck tearing, however, proved to be one of Vamp’s more violent and FX laden sequences.

Cinefantastique v16n04-05 Oct Psycho (1986)12

“I built a foam neck for an actor that Grace could sink her teeth into,” Cannom reveals. “She bites into it and then tears down a couple of inches. But the producer didn’t want too much blood. Later, that same victim becomes a vampire and his friend helps kill him with a chair leg through the heart. The vampire then turns his neck and the old wounds open up. That was a simple neck appliance. It was pre-cut and filled with goopy blood. When he turns his neck one way, it slowly opens.”

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“On Vamp, the producer and director had never worked with makeup effects before, so they didn’t know what to expect,” he adds. “Plus, the movie was very unorganized. Nobody knew what was going on. Still, there were good crew people on it and director Richard Wenk helped me get through it. But right now, I would love to do a film like Legend.”

One of Cannom’s puppet heads is used for the effect of layers of beauty makeup melting off Jones’s face to reveal the vampire underneath. Originally, the shot had been planned for the actress herself. “I was going to do it on Jones,” said Cannom, “but they didn’t plan well the time it took to shoot the makeups. They scheduled the transformation and the bedroom scene (in which Katrina metamorphoses into her “creature” form) in one day, when there was twenty hours of makeup! There was a good three or four days shooting right there. I knew it. I tried to tell them,” Cannom shrugged. Adding to Cannom’s woes were last-minute script changes. “They changed the ending,” he said. “Jones was supposed to burn up in a fire. Now, the sun hits her and she disintegrates.” For the scene, Cannon devised a puppet-head effect of the centuries-old vampire withering away to a mummified state, before disintegrating entirely, filmed as an insert shot. Cannom cast Jones’s vampire makeup in gelatin over a sculpted mummy face. By applying a blast of heat to the gelatin on the set, Cannom made the creature’s face melt away.

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On VAMP, Cannom was assisted by Brent Baker, Gil Mosko, and Earl Ellis. During the latter stages of production, Cannom came down with the flu, and Ellis wound up doing much of the actual application of the prosthetic makeup on Grace Jones. The makeup chores required Jones to undergo four different face casts, including ones with eyes and mouth open, a time consuming and uncomfortable process. “I didn’t think she’d put up with it,” said Cannom. “But she was great.”

Music Jonathan Elias

PROMOTIONAL/ADVERTISING

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CAST/CREW
Directed by   Richard Wenk
Produced by Donald P. Borchers
Written Richard Wenk/Donald P. Borchers

Starring       
Chris Makepeace as Keith
Robert Rusler as AJ
Grace Jones as Katrina
Dedee Pfeiffer as Allison/Amaretto
Gedde Watanabe as Duncan
Billy Drago as Snow
Sandy Baron as Vic
Lisa Lyon as Cimmaron

Brent Baker  …       special effects makeup assistant
Everett Burrell         special makeup effects artist
Greg Cannom         special makeup effects
Earl Ellis       …       special effects makeup assistant

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
washingtonpost.com
the-void.co.uk
dreadcentral.com
Cinefantastique v16n03
Fangoria#56

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