Blu Reviewed: Arrow Video's Vamp – Special Edition

The 1980s were a decade so full of off-beat horror/comedies that it can be difficult for even dedicated fans of that era and that genre to keep track of them all. There are plenty of well-loved cult classics from that time, like The Return of the Living Dead, Fright Night, and Night of the Creeps, that are sure to make any must-see list for '80s tongue-in-cheek terror, but there are just as many that have fallen through the cracks over the years. That's why it's great that we have companies like Arrow Video and Scream Factory that have made it their mission to revive such films and put them back in the cult spotlight. Earlier this fall Arrow resurrected one such film which had once enjoyed a pretty solid word-of-mouth reputation back in the video store days, but which I hadn't heard discussed in quite some time. Like the latter two films mentioned above, it is a tongue-in-cheek tale of hapless teenagers in way over their heads and surrounded by monsters. Also like those films, it has only become more entertaining with time as a result of its kitschy, unmistakable '80s-ness. While it is flawed, and not on the same level as Fright Night or Night of the Creeps, Vamp offers quite a bit to enjoy for fans of '80s cheesiness and neon-lit monster carnage – not least of which is an awesomely off-center performance by Grace Jones (in full-on performance-artist mode) as the movie's ruthless vampire queen. Arrow Video previously released Vamp on blu-ray as a UK-only limited edition in 2011, but this release (which is different in several ways, good and bad) is their North American debut of the film.

The Movie:

Keith (Chris Makepeace, My Bodyguard) and AJ (Robert Rusler, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2) are a couple wannabe-cool-kid college freshmen who have just pledged to a fraternity, and have been given a final hazing test: find a stripper for the next frat party, or else. With the “help” of a hopelessly awkward fellow student (Gedde Watanabe, Sixteen Candles), they venture downtown to the After Dark Club... and find themselves caught in a trap set by the ruthless and powerful Katrina (Grace Jones) and her den of vampires. What Vamp does with that premise isn't entirely what you'd expect. While it certainly brings on the expected college-frat-comedy buffoonery and antics in the first act, it isn't the sleazy, sex-and-skin focused film that you might expect. Rather than exploiting the strip-club setting for a bunch of cheap thrills, the script instead explores the idea that Katrina has made this particular sort of club her trap because shallow, desperate, and sleazy men are easy to unsuspectingly make food out of, and society won't miss them. The joke is very much on the guys who would want to go to a club like this, and all of them except for the reluctant Keith are thoroughly portrayed as jackasses. Meanwhile, Katrina is played as sensual but powerful – a commanding mythical figure and not a sex object – and the dance routine which introduces her is far from a conventional striptease and more of a gothy burlesque performance-art. Add in a darkly satirical commentary on the seedy and violent underbelly of after-dark LA, seemingly inspired by Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, and this is not the college-guy/stripper/vampire movie that you would expect.

Weirdest Ronald McDonald cosplay ever.
But despite these attempts to do something different and unexpected, Vamp still falls back on familiar genre tropes more than it should, particularly when it comes to character development in the first and second acts. The film begins with an Animal House-style college-dude-comedy attitude, and despite its apparent best efforts, it doesn't quite succeed in moving away from this or turning it on its head. The problem is that Keith and AJ are not very well-written or well-developed characters; unlike Chris and JC from Night of the Creeps or Charlie and Evil Ed from Fright Night, you never really get to know them, and they remain largely superficial archetypes. And while Night of the Creeps' JC and Fright Night's Ed were successful comic-relief jokers, Vamp's AJ just comes off as an opportunistic jerk whose desire to join the frat seems to come more from actually being a frat-boy type, rather than the outsider-who-wants-to-fit-in than he needs to be for the story to work well. Chris Makepeace gives a solid and likable performance as Keith, who clearly wants no part of this and has just been dragged along by his strong-arming friend, and his performance does a lot to fill in the gaps of character development that the script leaves, but he can only do so much. The comic chemistry is strong between him and Robert Rusler, but it's never clear why Keith would continually put up with AJ's crap, and the script doesn't give them sufficient room to grow as characters and deal with this. Of the two secondary protagonists, Deedee Pfeiffer is quite good as the upbeat but down on her luck waitress who gets pulled into the fight with them, while Gedde Watanabe is arguably more comic relief that the movie needs. He is quite funny, and the role is a very good fit for him, but since the tone of the film is more tongue-in-cheek than straight-up comedy, his wildly over-the-top characterization is increasingly too much as the film turns more to horror. Given this unevenness and weakness in the character department, the film has trouble gelling into a consistent and compelling story during its first half, despite being technically well-made and having its moments. Fortunately, it finds its stride eventually, as the horror side of the film takes over.

Where Vamp really excels is in its second half, when it moves away from the college comedy tropes and becomes a stylized hybrid of vampire thriller and a darkly comic look at '80s LA's violent night-life. Here it finds a much more comfortable balance of horror and humor: less goofy and more sardonic. Images of criminals and low-lifes out for the ol' ultraviolence (among them Billy Drago) are juxtaposed with images of vampires until it is difficult to tell who's undead and who is merely unhinged (and who is both). The surreal vision of a city devolving into nightmarish chaos at night repeatedly reminded me of After Hours, and is very nearly as much fun. The two strongest leads, Makepeace and Pfeiffer, take center-stage as this shift occurs, and are able to carry the film far more effectively, when it isn't being stolen from them by Grace Jones, in a performance of few words but much power. Jones throws herself into the role of Katrina with absolute abandon, making her a fierce force of demonic energy who is totally otherworldly. This is a rightfully iconic performance, and deservedly the thing that the film is best known for, despite having more good stuff to offer in the second half.

It's a good thing vampires are only killed by
sunight, and not purple and green set lights,
or this would be a much shorter movie.
As the vampires bare their fangs and the tension starts to mount, director Richard Wenk and cinematographer Elliot Davis crank up the atmosphere with a beautifully stylized aesthetic which basically boils down to intense green and magenta lights everywhere. The whole movie is very brightly colored, and this effect only gets more intense as it goes on. It almost ends up looking like an EC-style comic book in its extreme use of color, and it is simply awesome – in the most 1980s way. The vampires themselves look pretty great, thanks to some impressive – and again, rather EC-Comics-inspired – effects. Between these effects, the great lighting, and Davis's equally strong cinematography, this is a very good-looking, well-put-together film, despite not having a huge budget.

Vamp is without a doubt an uneven film, and its flaws ultimately hold it back from being on the same level as a Fright Night or Night of the Creeps. It needs better fleshed-out characters, a clearer sense of how it feels about those characters, and a more firm grip on tone and style of humor in the first act. However, once it finds its footing in act two, it gets pretty good, and ultimately ends up being quite a fun and wild ride in the latter half. There's a lot to like in this film, and genre fans should find it a worthwhile experience despite its flaws. It is certainly a welcome addition to Arrow Video's pantheon of cult-classics restored to blu-ray.

The Video:

Gedde Watanabe comic relief: now with less
racial stereotyping! But twice as much awkward.
Since North America did not get Arrow's 2011 limited-edition blu-ray, this is Vamp's first high-quality HD release in its home country. Previously the film had gotten a solid Anchor Bay special edition DVD, with a bunch of good extras and a high-quality-for-2001 transfer, but since that disc went out of print we have been stuck with an Image “Midnight Madness” blu-ray with no special features, and a transfer that was allegedly worse than the DVD in many ways. Now, not only do we at last get Arrow's high-quality restoration, but we get an even slightly better one than that included on the 2011 disc. It appears that they did even more work on the film this time around, at least in the color-correction department. The previous disc appeared to already be a very sharp transfer, but this one handles the dark parts of the picture slightly better according to side-by-side comparisons, giving more visibility and fine detail to the film's dark scenes. Given how important the green/magenta/black color palette is to the film's look, this is definitely a good thing: the colors look awesome.

The image is very sharp and clear, and the film grain is very evident throughout, and has certainly not been interfered with digitally. Between the grain and the intense color palette, the whole thing really has the look and texture of the 1980s – as it definitely should. There are occasional issues which appear to be inherent to the 35mm source: a bit of wobble here and there (most noticeably during the credits), and the occasional speck or scratch. These imperfections didn't really bother me: while I did notice a few of those specks and scratches, it only serves to remind that this is a very faithful reproduction of the 35mm presentation, and I can't complain too much. Overall, this looks very nice, and is easily the best presentation Vamp has ever seen.

The Audio:

The audio on this disc, it must be said, is a good deal less robust or impressive than the video presentation. There is only one audio track on the disc, and it is the original mono mix that has been used for the film ever since theaters. It is what it is – this is clearly the only audio mix for Vamp that exists, and it's probably better to stick with it than to try and make an artificial surround mix or anything like that. It is cleaned up as well as possible, and it sounds perfectly fine: dialogue is clear and understandable, music and sound effects sound good. Sure, it's nothing spectacular... but it's perfectly adequate, and it sounds like it did in theaters. That's probably good enough.

The Extras:

This is where this disc is a bit of a mixed bag when compared to the previous Arrow blu-ray. Judged on their own merit, the extras on this disc are quite impressive. There's a very interesting and thorough 45-minute documentary on the making of the film, featuring new interviews with the entire cast and crew aside from Grace Jones, as well as some vintage behind-the-scenes footage, and director Wenk's earlier short film about vampires in the city. The new documentary in particular is very good, giving a much deeper appreciation for what Wenk and company did with this movie, and what a significant experience it was for the young actors involved. Everyone involved is refreshingly candid about the ups and downs of the production – including what a powerful artistic force, yet extremely eccentric and difficult co-star, Grace Jones was.

"This is where the city flushes away all their
colored accent lights and movie fog when
they're done with them!"
If these were the only extras that existed for Vamp, I would express a certain amount of sadness that the disc has no audio commentary, but would generally be very happy with the extras present. However, a bunch of other extras exist that were not included here, including several items from the 2011 limited edition Arrow blu-ray. That release included a commentary track with actor Robert Rusler, an introduction to the film by Rusler, extended interviews with director Richard Wenk and actress Dedee Pfeiffer (which are, at least, partly included in the new 45-minute doc, though a lot is missing), an interview with producer Donald P. Borchers (which is not present on the new disc at all, in any form), and a look at Wenk's collection of memorabilia from the film. While it's awesome that Arrow did a bunch of new interviews and made the documentary for the new blu-ray, it is frankly bizarre that they chose not to include all of this already-existing material from their previous release. I understand the concept of putting extra features on a limited-edition release, and slightly less on the non-limited one... but this is an awful lot of stuff to leave off, especially when the limited-edition blu-ray is five years old, and has been out of print for some time. Equally perplexing is that the 2001 Anchor Bay DVD had an audio commentary with Richard Wenk, Chris Makepeace, Dedee Pfeiffer, and Gedde Watanabe, which likewise is nowhere to be found here. This omission I am even more sad about, as that track would be a great listen, but I suspect that in that case rights issues are to blame, since Anchor Bay undoubtedly owns the track.

It's an odd dilemma. This new blu-ray's special features are, by their own merit, very good, with the 45-minute documentary largely making up for the lack of other extras. But knowing how much else exists but isn't included here is frustrating, especially when this is such a strong release otherwise. The documentary is definitely enough to make this disc worth a purchase for fans of the film, though.

All in all, Vamp is a flawed movie and this is a flawed blu-ray, but both are worth a look for fans of this particular type of '80s horror/comedy. The movie has its issues that hold it back from being great, but once it hits its stride it really is a good time: a memorably stylized and off-center entry in the vampire genre, despite its flaws. It certainly is a better film than the more famous (but even more erratic and uneven) vampires-in-a-strip-club movie that it partly inspired a decade later, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's From Dusk Till Dawn. Arrow's new blu-ray is quite good in most ways: the transfer is absolutely wonderful, and the new documentary about the film is great. If you're only going to buy one edition of Vamp, it's a no-brainer that this is the one to get. It's just a shame that it's missing so many of the extras from its past special edition DVD and blu-ray releases. Still, this generally is a worthy addition to the Arrow Video library, and the disc makes a strong case that this film is an '80s cult classic deserving of more appreciation.

Overall Score:

- Christopher S. Jordan