Tuesday, October 13, 2015
The Films of 1986: Vamp
Writing for The Richmond Times Dispatch, movie critic Carole Kass termed Vamp (1986) “sleazy, tawdry and disgusting.”
Oddly, those are some of the very reasons I enjoy this film so much. The film is absolutely all those things, and, I would argue, delightfully so.
But the reason Vamp worked in 1986, and still (largely) works nearly thirty years later is that the film boasts a goofy big-hearted sense of humor.
Although I am not one of those horror fans who insists that the genre today is dead or even in trouble, I do believe that -- to a certain extent (and certainly post-torture porn era) -- the modern horror genre has forgotten a little how to have fun; how to make audiences scream and laugh at the same time. I believe the quest for gritty authenticity has, in some way, driven the horror genre away from humor.
By contrast, the mid-1980s represents a great time in the horror cinema precisely because efforts such as Return of the Living Dead (1985), Fright Night (1985) and yes, Vamp, all walked that uneasy line between horror and comedy.
Fright Night and Return of the Living Dead are better films, but Vamp is stylish, and boasts a powerful reason for using the creative approach that alternates screams and giggles.
In short, the film is a coming of age story about a sheltered, privileged suburban kid, Keith (Chris Makepeace) who sees life in “the Big City” for the first time, and must reckon there with people who are different from him, and possibly dangerous.
These people have different life-styles, different orientations, and yes, different appetites. Mostly, they’re vampires.
In the film, Keith takes his first steps into this larger, initially unsavory world, and must determine where and how he fits in. He must learn how to recognize those who are dangerous (like Grace Jone’s Katrina, or Billy Drago’s albino, Snow,) and those who are merely different.
Taken on those terms, Vamp is fun and forward-looking, and probably deserving of a re-examination in 2015.
One might even conclude that the film, with its meditation on a vampire co-culture feels “very new, very now.”
“Welcome to your worst nightmare!”
Fraternity pledges Keith (Makepeace) and A.J. (Robert Rusler) make a deal to hire a stripper for the frat house’s upcoming party, in exchange for membership in the organization. Unfortunately, their campus is “200 miles from nowhere” and they don’t own a car. Accordingly, Keith and A.J. agree to pretend to be friends with Duncan (Gedde Watanabe), a rich kid who owns a car, and take a road trip to the big city to procure an exotic dancer.
There, by night, the trio visits the “After Dark Club” in hopes of finding a good stripper for the party. A.J. is enamored with exotic Katrina (Grace Jones), but the dancer turns out to be an aged Egyptian vampire. Worse, the young men seem to have stumbled into the Vampire District!
After Katrina kills, A.J, Keith must step up and find a way home. He must do so alongside an employee at the club who claims to know him: Amaretto (Dedee Pfeiffer).
But it’s going to be a long night…
“All you are to her is a quick fix.”
As I noted in Horror Films of the 1980s (2007; McFarland), there’s a nice little joke informing Vamp. Many hero’s journey tales or coming-of-age stories involve, specifically, the crossing of the threshold. That concept is literalized here. Early in the film, Duncan’s car goes on a crazy, out-of-control spin, and when it stops, those inside it have arrived at the world of the Big City.
It’s as if a tornado itself has deposited the car and the occupants there, and one character -- appropriately referencing The Wizard of Oz (1939) -- jokes “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.” The idea, clearly, is one of transition; of Keith moving from his cultural comfort zone (as A.J.’s straight man) in the safe world of college, to the larger, more dangerous and exotic world beyond.
The exotic (and erotic) world of the After Dark Club is depicted in Vamp in lurid shades of green and red, a color palette that suggests the red light district, cheap motels, and neon signs. It is Keith’s task, in this garish world, to determine who is friend, and who is foe. If he is to grow up (and not die), in other words, he must come to understand the perils of pleasures of a multi-cultural world. He must confront those who are not like him and determine how to view them.
What I resolutely admire about Vamp is that even though the film is yet another story of a white male’s heroic journey, it nonetheless takes time to genuflect to a superior idea; that Keith’s narrow, parochial world view isn’t the only one, and that he can and will grow beyond it.
One delightful moment in the film finds Keith realizing, to his horror, that all the denizens of the After Dark Club are vampires. “That doesn’t make them bad people,” replies a patron, and that’s sort of the film’s point. As human beings, we are afraid of the things that we don’t know. We judge that which is different --- at least at first -- to be bad.
So at least initially, the vampires of the film are terrifying to Keith. They aren’t people…they’re monsters! Note, for example, the scene in which he watches a child vampire viciously attack an unsuspecting stranger. Keith recoils in horror and disgust at the sight. And when he confronts A.J. as a vampire, his friend tells him he can no “longer be trusted” because of what he has become.
Yet by Vamp’s denouement, Keith is not only more confident, he is more experienced, and therefore willing to accept that his former best friend, A.J. (Robert Rusler) can be two things simultaneously: both a vampire and buddy.
After the new-ness of the vampire population has worn off, and Keith feels he can conquer the danger they represent, he is open to A.J. returning to school, and re-establishing his friendship with him. He has also met a love-lorn vampire (one who dreams of being more to Katrina than a quick-fix), and another who dreams of being “classy” like the people he imagines in Las Vegas. Now these characters may still be monsters, but they are people at the same time. The dynamic has reversed.
Not long ago, a user on Twitter contacted me and pointedly asked me if I felt there was homo-erotic tension between Keith and A.J. in Vamp. My answer? I think there is, and I think that it is absolutely intentional.
That unspoken homo-eroticism fits in with the film’s bigger idea: that Keith is growing up in a world of different kinds of people, and reckoning with different kinds of relationships.
Far from home (which remember, in terms of the film, is 200 miles from the city metropolis…) Keith must reckon with new vistas and new ideas. And it’s impossible to deny that, historically-speaking, vampirism is often equated in the horror film with homosexuality.
Therefore, it is possible to read Keith and A.J.’s bromance as being indicative of desires deeper than mere friendship. A.J. come out as a vampire -- a surrogate for homosexuality -- but confesses to Keith that because of his new identity, he can no longer be trusted. That’s an expression of fear in the face of something new. But in Vamp, after some initial discomfort and trepidation with that “new” idea, however, Keith finds he is absolutely okay with A.J. and his new orientation. A.J. is okay with it too. They find they can still be friends, even with new knowledge about each other.
Ironically, this plot-line makes Vamp the second film (after A Nightmare on Elm Street: Freddy’s Revenge , to pinpoint Rusler as an object for homo-erotic desires.
In Vamp, however, the homo-eroticism is quickly defused. In growing up, Keith finds his confidence, and that confidence is expressed in the fact that his amorous attentions are now directed towards women, namely Allison/Amaretto. A.J. becomes a vampire and friend rather than a potential lover.
Still, I would argue that the film deserves credit, at the very least, for its through-line of acceptance.
By the end, A.J.’s “other-ness” is de-fanged as a threat, and he stands around kvetching about his wardrobe. He has been assimilated into the mainstream, his “difference” from the dominant culture no longer judged a mortal danger to it. He can be a vampire, and still go to college, and still be best friends with straight-arrow Keith. No longer is he a “monstrous” other. He’s just one voice in a culture of many.
Grace Jones’ Katrina is the yang to that yin, one might conclude.
If A.J. is The Other made normal (and acceptable to mainstream society), Katrina is the “Other” as a continuing threat. Katrina is a feral, abusive user, one who does not seek consent before indulging in her feral appetites. Jones is perfect for this villainous role, given her career and physical attributes. As Julia Felsenthal quotes photographer Jean-Paul Goude in Vogue (September 28, 2015): “Men think she’s sexy. Women think she’s a little masculine…and gays think she’s a drag queen.”
Vamp plays up Jones trademark androgyny in a clever way. We aren’t certain, seeing Katrina, what exactly she is, how she identifies, or what she wants. Her strip-tease is quite different from the others featured in the film, and seems an expression more of wildness than any particular brand of sexuality. We see Katarina and we register her as hungry, animalistic, prowling. She could be, essentially, any number of things -- male, female, gay, straight, what-have-you -- but in fact Katrina is just one thing: a hungry “user” of those around her.
Of all Grace Jones’ 1980s genre roles, from Conan the Destroyer (1984) to A View to a Kill (1985), Vamp utilizes her physical presence and charisma best. We have doubts about Katrina’s identity until the truth becomes plain. She is a monster, and yet that monstrosity has nothing to do with how she identifies (gay, straight, androgynous), but rather with how she treats those around her: as walking blood banks.
But at first, her physical otherness is all the viewer sees.
Today, it seems difficult to deny that Vamp is about category-straddling as a normal aspect of life in the Big, Modern, American City. The child-vampire is both innocent and a monster. Snow is both ‘white’ and part of a deried co-culture (the Albino gang). The After Dark Club is both sexually liberated and predatory, perhaps even simultaneously sleazy and “classy,” given the predilections of its owner. Likewise Amaretto is both known and unknown to Keith. In broaching a multi-cultural, diverse world, Keith must navigate all these contradictions, and accept the ones that don’t hurt him (like A.J.’s new orientation) and dismiss those that could (Katrina, namely).
In other words, the film asks Keith, ultimately, to view others not by categories, but by their actions. The world, if not shades of gray, is shades of red and green.
I opened the review by noting that Vamp is alternately funny and scary, and I believe that approach is the best way to mimic the film’s leitmotif about the Big City. When confronted with the unknown, sometimes we assess it as dangerous, and sometimes not. By making us laugh and scream, Vamp reflects this reality. We can react to “new” things with terror, or with humor. Danger can be defused by humor…or not.
Vamp is a fun, gory horror movie, and an example of a different age and different sensibility in the genre, for certain. But the film retains value today because it is about a person of the dominant culture opening his eyes to the fact that not everybody who is different than he is must by definition be bad, or a “monster.”
Sometimes, Vamp reminds us, people are only “monsters” until you get to know them; until the initial dread of difference recedes and you see the people not for their categories or labels, but for their common humanity.