Ask most genre fans to name a horror comedy with vampire strippers, and most will probably shout out Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn (1996). Fine and fun film that it is, it is not the first particular cinematic example of this combination. Writer/director Richard Wenk’s debut feature Vamp (1986) (from a story by Wenk and producer Donald P. Borchers) predates it by a decade. A trio of fraternity pledges find themselves headed to Los Angeles in search of a stripper to hire for a party. Unfortunately for them, they end up at a club where the strippers have “a little something extra” – fangs. While ostensibly a vampire film, the horror is secondary to the comedy; it has more in common with Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) than with other vampire films. Stylishly lit and shot, it has an otherworldly quality that contributes to the feeling that the characters are caught in a nightmare. The film’s strongest asset is its excellent casting, most notably 1980’s icon Grace Jones as the lead vampire Katrina. It may not give viewers “chills”, but it is fun.
Keith (Chris Makepeace) and AJ (Robert Rusler) are college roommates and pledges at the same fraternity. After telling the fraternity brothers that they would get them “anything” for the fraternity’s upcoming party, they find themselves tasked with procuring a stripper. As the college is in the middle of nowhere, they find themselves looking at a road trip to Los Angeles to complete their task. Seeing as they have no transportation, they ask to borrow one of the many cars of rich-and-nerdy fellow student Duncan (Gedde Watanabe), who agrees, as long as they take him along and at least pretend to be his friends. After nearly getting in an accident in Los Angeles, they find themselves “over the rainbow” and at the “After Dark” strip club, presided over by the creepy MC Vic (Sandy Baron) and headlined by the mysterious Katrina (Grace Jones). One of the dancers, Amaretto (Dedee Pfeiffer) recognizes Keith from him past and begins flirting with him, though he has no recollection of their previous relationship. AJ heads backstage to try and hire Katrina, and finds himself in more than a bit of trouble when she turns out to be a vampire. Soon, Keith, Amaretto, and Duncan find themselves on the run from a whole club full of vampires as well from a gang headed by the dangerous albino Snow (Billy Drago). Making their way through the streets and sewers of one of the more deserted sections of Los Angeles, the friends hope to escape Katrina and her minions and make it through the night.
There are plenty of films labelled “horror comedies” that manage to mix humor with genuine frights in equal measure. Films such as John Landis’ American Werewolf in London (1981) and Tom Holland’s Fright Night (1985) pull off this balancing act quite well. I do not know if “horror comedy” is actually the proper label for Vamp though; it is more of a “black comedy with horror elements” than a “horror comedy” proper. That should not be considered as a criticism of the film; in fact, concentrating on the comedy appears to be writer/director Wenk’s intention. In this respect, the film is quite successful, with plenty of chuckles and even a few belly laughs. The humor mostly comes from the natural absurdities of the situation (such as the ineffectiveness of staking a vampire with a “wooden” plank that turns out to be Formica) and not from overly broad “gags”. That is not to say that there are not a few good frights in the film; it is just that the horror is more of a setting for the situational comedy than the focus of the story. That said, one particularly effective horror moment is Katrina’s first transformation and attack, which is genuinely frightening in its brutality. Part of the effectiveness of that scene probably comes from the fact that Grace Jones is so animalistic in her attack that her “victim”, actor Robert Rusler, is actually in real pain during it.
Vamp is a stylish and atmospheric film, though with its concentration on laughs over horror, the atmosphere is a little different than most genre fans would expect. Wenk takes inspiration from Martin Scorsese’s black comedy After Hours, following his characters as they try to make their way through the increasingly nightmarish and surreal world of late night downtown Los Angeles. Director of Photography Elliot Davis shoots this world in a stylized way, projecting a sense that the characters are no longer quite in the same reality as when they started the film. Many scenes are shot at a strong angle, reminiscent of early German Expressionist horror films, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Davis lights much of Katrina’s world in contrasting magenta and light green, further enhancing the otherworldly feel and giving the film a distinctive look. Katrina’s appearance itself equals the unnerving and uncanny look of her surroundings. She sports bizarre fashions, often accented by (or sometimes just consisting of) coils of wire simultaneously reminiscent of both radio antennas and petroglyphs. Her first appearance on screen is iconic, as she is primarily “wearing” body paint applied by legendary 1980’s graffiti artist Keith Haring.
Grace Jone’s wild and weird Katrina is just one of several strong performances in Vamp. She brings a sensuality and danger to her character that both attracts and repels. It is like standing on top of a tall building, afraid that you might fall off but unable to keep yourself from stepping closer and peering over the edge. Sandy Baron is another stand-out on “Team Katrina”, playing the MC Vic with the air of someone who has seen his dreams crumble and is resigned to being a vampire’s thrall, but who also still has a bit of hope for something better. (He just wants to open a club in Vegas some day.) The chemistry and performances of the “Good Guys” is equally impressive. Chris Makepeace is a likeable as always as the reluctant hero Keith, and his friendship with Robert Rusler’s AJ feels genuine. The two of them make a believable and likeable pair of buddies in which the audience feels invested. Gedde Watanabe has fun with his broad, nerdy character of Duncan, while still bringing some sympathy into the character. DeDee Pfieffer’s Amaretto is more that a standard “ditzy blonde”, and one can really feel the growing attraction between her and Makepeace’s Keith. The only casting missteps are the other strippers in the club; their performances are so low-energy that they look like they could be the walking dead. On second thought, seeing as they are supposed to be vampires (the undead), maybe that is intentional.
Vamp is not really a “horror comedy”; instead it is a black comedy with some horror elements, but that is exactly the filmmakers’ intent. The occasional frights provide spice to the laughs and chuckles that arise from the absurd situation in which the protagonists find themselves. Oozing style, the film builds a nightmarish and surreal world from which the heroes have to escape. The strong chemistry amongst a talented and likeable cast is the film’s biggest asset along with Grace Jones’ iconic performance as the stylish, sensual, and deadly Katrina. While certainly not the scariest of films, those looking for a fun low-budget comedy with a horror flare will enjoy this stylish slice of the 1980’s.
Vamp (3.3 / 5)