As I’ve mentioned before, the 80s were kind of a weird time for horror movies. My own biases may be showing when I say this, but mentally I most associate the decade with slasher films, with sci-fi/horror hybrids holding their own in the first half of the decade, and supernatural horror making it’s way back in the later half. Vamp is an interesting case because, by most standards, it’s not really a very good movie, but it’s oddly compelling. I think part of it’s appeal, apart from Grace Jones in bodypaint of course, is that it’s part of that wave of reappraisal of classic movie monsters that was going on during the decade. It comes after Fright Night, with it’s “smarter than it needed to be” insistence that no, really, vampires can be scary, and precedes both the preening, swoony teen bad-boy rebels of The Lost Boys and the completely unromantic portrayal of vampires in Near Dark, yet shares elements of all of them, hinting at a pretty decent understanding of the zeitgeist by the folks who made it.
The film opens in suitably Gothic tones, with college slackers Keith and AJ enduring a lame hazing ritual for the frat they’re pledging. AJ, the alpha of our pair, proposes that, instead of trying to scare them with fake hangings and robes and chanting, why don’t Keith and AJ just get a stripper for the party tonight? The frat agrees, which leaves the pair with no choice but to borrow a car from desperate to be liked rich kid Duncan (with the price being the very reasonable demand that they take him along and pretend to be his friend) to drive the 200 miles to the city and find a stripper. A near collision in traffic sends the trio spinning from the mundane urban streets to a green and red light urban underworld where, despite a run-in with an aggressive gang of albinos, they eventually make their way to the “classy” After Dark Club, a run down, divey strip club where the atmosphere is at odds with the bizarrely avant-garde performances. AJ is led back-stage to meet with Katarina, the club’s headliner, and what he thinks is a stripper who is really into him ends up being just a hungry vampire. Keith, meanwhile, is being flirted with by waitress Amaretto, who insists they know each other despite Keith’s utter failure to recall who the hell she’s supposed to be. When it’s discovered that AJ was not the friendless drifter the staff believed him to be (because a handsome kid in nice clothes isn’t going to be missed at all, apparently), they arrange to kill Keith, exposing the true nature of not just the club, but the entire neighborhood to Keith and Amaretto. When chases through sewers and the vampiric resurrection of AJ fail to get rid of Keith, the vamps decide to simply…corner him in the club and kill him after last call. Keith and Amaretto manage to survive, however, burning down the club and killing Vampire Queen Katarina by trapping her in sunlight.
Plot-wise, Vamp doesn’t really have much going for it. The story is simple and straight-forward and not terribly inventive in its structure. Where the film shines, though, is in the production aspects. The red and green lighting dominates the film, and coupled with the increasingly off-kilter and mis-framed shots, creates a disorienting sense of unreality that permeates the urban wasteland setting. The urbanoia is mostly effective, though comically overplayed, and feels less committed to than the vampire plot. Yes, an albino street gang is visibly interesting, but serve little purpose other than to justify a joke near the end of the film. More effective is the film’s take on vampires. It’s unromantic, and despite the glamour of Katarina and her girls, the vampires themselves are grotesque and animalistic, mostly communicating in grunts and snarls, if at all. It’s another clever touch, making the veneer of “sexy” the vamps possess just a cover for the beast beneath. Katarina is beautiful and exotic, like a tiger, but she’ll rip your heart out if you get too close, like a tiger. With all that mood and a relative paucity of gore, it’s a bit surprising that most of the humor is fairly dry, arising from characters reacting to their situation with an air of disbelief. They could have gone broad, and do, to ill-effect during Katarina’s death scene. But mostly the humor comes from the characters having trouble believing that any of this could actually be real. In other films, this would be something that strains disbelief, but given the fantastical landscape the action takes place in, this sort of reaction feels natural. It’s one of the reasons why the film can be frustrating. Great thought went into production, and care was taken with some aspects of the story, but the heart of it just fails to connect in any meaningful way.