Rentals Revisited – Vamp (1986)

As mentioned in the book, Adventures in VHS began life as a series of articles for a site named Eat Sleep Live Film. Here is one of those original, unedited posts focused on the magical and sightly unhinged neon horror comedy nightmare that is 1986’s Vamp.

Vamp (1986)

New World Video – NWV 1016

(Originally posted May 13th 2011)

For every one of us, there will be a list of movies we remember with great fondness from our childhood. Films that left their indelible mark on our impressionable minds like magic marker on a school rucksack. For some, there’s every chance these slices of nostalgia will be linked to names like Spielberg or Zemeckis, while for others it could be Hughes, Burton or even Disney. For me though, while all these had a similar impact on my childhood, I have to say I get more joy from considering the stranger, more deranged stories I saw unfold on VHS.

This series of articles has given me a fantastically enjoyable chance to revisit these rentals and see how they hold up with older, more cynical eyes. The selection process has been pretty simple, I’ve just had to ask myself what films I rented on video back in the mid-to-late 80s that I can only just remember but know I enjoyed – and the results have been pretty positive so far. From Beyond, The Wraith and Dolls were fantastic and, while The Gate was a disappointment, I can see why it may have appealed to me as a kid.

But now, we get to a real oddity that presented itself to me in the form of a Blu-ray re-release. In the past, I’ve been relatively vocal about how I love what Arrow Films Video has been doing with cult and b-movie classics of yester year. From Argento to Bava, Fulci to Romero, they’ve put together a catalogue of titles on both Blu-ray and DVD that celebrates the very best genre films. One of their latest releases, Richard Wenk’s 1986 horror comedy Vamp, is a rental I remember more clearly than any of the films I’ve seen for Rentals Revisited so far – and I couldn’t wait to check it out again in all its neon-lit glory.

Some people might argue that this largely forgotten vehicle for the inexplicably iconic Grace Jones doesn’t deserve a high definition re-release, nor, they might add, does it warrant a four-panel reversible sleeve, collectible poster, selection of features in full 1080p alongside as a bounty of other treats. But you know what I say? Fuck those people.

As I said earlier, of the Rentals Revisited I’ve had the pleasure of covering so far, Vamp is the one I remembered most vividly. I remember the rich hues, the dark comedy and even the very last frame of the movie itself. I also seemed to recall Grace Jones ripping the still-beating heart from the chest of a young Asian girl and laughing maniacally as she did… well, there’s something to look forward to eh?

So after gleefully unwrapping the Blu-ray package and glaring like a captivated child at the gorgeous artwork that comes with it, I threw on the disc and was immediately brought right back to the past thanks to the familiar New World Video ident. After the credit sequence, we’re introduced to our heroes, Keith (Makepeace) and AJ (Rusler) – a couple of college guys looking to impress their fraternity in a way that goes beyond the usual pledges and initiations. How are they going to do this? Well, they’ll start by driving to the sinful side of the city where they plan to pick up something sexy for their decrepit dorm-dwelling brethren. Hooking up with a token Asian sidekick – a rich kid with no friends who happens to have a car – they find themselves headed for a seedy little venue that goes by the name of The After Dark Club. This place promises the best naughty entertainment in town, but of course, it turns out to be much naughtier than they could possibly have imagined.

The first thing to say about Vamp as a movie is that yes, it absolutely holds up. It’s funny, dark, charming, entertaining and has some fantastic side characters that round out the whole thing brilliantly. The quickfire double act of AJ and Keith works incredibly well from the outset and watching these two friends bounce of one another throughout is a little reminiscent of certain classic John Hughes characters. Of course, Rusler himself was one half of the bad guy team in Hughes’ Weird Science, but opposite Makepeace, he’s forms part of a duo that oozes genuine comic chemistry. Elsewhere, Dedee Pfeiffer’s ditzy blonde is as cute as she is endearing and Sandy Baron’s Vegas-obsessed club manager Vic is fascinating in all his cockroach-munching glory.

All of which leaves us with the inimitable Miss Jones, that freakishly memorable spectre of 1980s pop culture which, in hindsight, is incredibly difficult to pin an actual job title to. It would seem that in her career, she’s been a singer, a model, an actress and a performance artist – and here she’s absolutely all of the above. I honestly can’t think of a better role for Grace Jones than as the regal, sin city dwelling, succubus queen of the nightclub vampires she is here. So much so, that if you told me Vamp was a documentary about her life, I’d struggle to not believe you. Whether she’s writing around the stage like some bizarre, tribal, sex leopard or cackling maniacally at the ease with which she can snuff out a human life, she’s terrifyingly watchable.

But perhaps the most endearing thing about Vamp is its overall look and feel. The rich neons and jaunty comic book angles recall the palette of Argento’s Suspiria via Schumacher’s Batman and Robin, while the gloomy club sequences (complete with Jones’ own brand of avant-garde pop) give it a strangely seductive noir sensibility. The transfer is decent for a movie of its age/type and even the film grain gives it a certain authenticity. If I had one complaint, the lack of a stereo sound mix was a disappointment, but the mono track holds up well enough.

In addition to the aesthetics though, Vamp excels in an area where others might struggle, by deftly straddling the thin line between comedy and horror. Freaky, creepy and cheeky until its bitter-sweet Shaun of the Dead ending, I wish this underrated 80s genre gem all the luck in the world at finding a second lease of life with today’s audiences.