CELEBRATING 35 YEARS OF THE URBAN VAMPIRE CLASSIC 1986 MOVIE VAMP
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
"Thirty-five years ago, New World Pictures and producer Don Borchers gave me the opportunity to write and direct my first feature film. The one caveat? It had to contain strippers, college kids and vampires. Oh. And it was to be called VAMP. Written in six days and shot in 28 the resulting film turned out to be one of the great experiences of my movie career. Surrounded with so much incredible talent - Director of Photography Elliott Davis, Composer Jonathan Elias, Stuntman Dar Robinson - on and on as well as comrades-in-arms Chris Makepeace, Robert Rusler, Gedde Watanabe, Sandy Baron and the wonderful Dedee Pfeiffer I got to create a strange, funny and scary night of horror sprinkled with some good laughs. And the honor of working with the incomparable Grace Jones who embraced the role of Katrina and turned in an iconic and legendary performance. I’m delighted to hear the film has continued to have staunch fans.
Many thanks to all of you!"
In mid-1984 up-and-coming AVCO Embassy Pictures executive Donald P. Borchers approached New York based aspiring film director Richard Wenk with nothing more than a title, a basic premise and an idea for the poster for an as-yet-unmade movie to be called VAMP.
The story was to involve college kids, strippers and vampires.
The rest was up to writer/director Wenk, a graduate of New York University’s film school, to formulate. Borchers would produce the picture.
Borchers and Wenk had previously met in Los Angeles in 1979 when Wenk was distributing his half-hour, 16 mm NYU thesis short DRACULA BITES THE BIG APPLE. Though VAMP was not their first collaborative effort (Borchers and Wenk had previously worked together on a spoof of 1950s monster-on-the loose thrillers called IT CAME… ALL NIGHT. After failing to attract financial backing for the project, the pair went their separate ways to try other things) it would prove to be their most commercially successful union.
By now a producer at New World Films (founded in 1970 by director/producer Roger Corman as New World Pictures, Ltd),
Borchers had already achieved success as an independent producer, turning out both ANGEL and the Stephen King adaptation CHILDREN OF THE CORN in 1984. Wenk had directed some Showtime shorts and wrote two of the Indiana Jones paperbacks, his DRACULA short had picked up traction after being shown extensively on HBO. Wenk recalls Borchers calling him up and telling him, “If you can write a story around this [VAMP], I’ll sell it and you can direct. It took me three months to figure out a story that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to tell my mother. Once I hit upon the idea of creating the worst possible nightmare that could happen, I wrote the first draft of the script in three days.”
At first Wenk was hesitant (the then 29-year-old director was afraid that after his DRACULA short and now VAMP, he might be tagged as a director of vampire movies) “I’m not well read or brought up in the [horror] genre,” he admitted. But the opportunity to direct his first feature was a powerful incentive. “Once I hit upon the premise that it all happened in one night and made it more or less a comedy, a humorous adventure, that helped pull it all together.” There was one problem with the script of VAMP, New World wanted a straight horror film and was reluctant to finance a comedy. Wenk commented “I kept saying that vampires aren’t scary today. You’ve got aliens, guys with machetes… Bela Lugosi doesn’t scare [audiences] anymore.
You’ve got to add an edge to it.”
Fast-forward to Tuesday, January 28, 1986 (a significant date in modern history, the Space Shuttle Challenger took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida and broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, tragically killing all seven crew members on board, cast and crew members on VAMP huddled around a TV set to watch the events as they unfolded) the five week shoot begins at Ren-Mar Studios (now Red Studios) in Hollywood, California on the $2 million New World feature, a budget that is in stark contrast to the $12,000 budget on director Richard Wenk’s directorial debut DRACULA BITES THE BIG APPLE.
On set for less than two weeks, on screen for less than 13 minutes, the film’s main selling point is undoubtedly the presence of Grace Jones as Katrina, vampire owner of the nefarious After Dark Club. A role that was originally written with Tina Turner in mind, Wenk and Borchers discussed various contemporary rock stars who might have the right look- then began an all-out campaign to get Jones. Borchers sent her a copy of Anne Rice’s INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE, along with the script for VAMP. It worked.
Jones, already an established recording artist and performer, previously seen in CONAN THE DESTROYER (1984) with Arnold Schwarzenegger and in the fourteenth entry in the blockbuster James Bond franchise, A VIEW TO A KILL (1985), relished her latest in a series of extraordinary roles. She helped design Katrina’s makeup, hairstyle and costumes, creating a vaguely Egyptian look to suggest the character’s ancient origins.
Bringing on board a team of innovative designers and collaborators that included some of the most creative and innovative visionary artists of the 1980's such as costume designer Betty Pecha Madden as well as long-time Grace Jones collaborators and creative geniuses Keith Haring, Issei Miyake and Azzedine Alaïa.
New York based artist Haring created her body-art pattern using white body paint. The process reportedly took Haring nine hours to apply.
The now infamous strip-tease scene- in which Jones sports a $2000 silk wig, dyed cinnabar-red and a metal bikini designed by Manhattan jeweler David Spada whilst straddling a chair molded on the body of her then beau Dolph Lundgren- was a 20 hour day.
The presence of Jones was central to VAMP’s commercial viability.
She also set the proper tone for the film. “As long as Katrina was really threatening,” said Wenk, “the comedy could work. If people just start laughing at the vampire, then you’ve got Abbott and Costello. Grace Jones is exotic, and can be not only fascinating but truly
frightening as well.”
Borchers said that Jones’s involvement in the film greatly increased VAMP’s budget. “She’s one of the most expensive players they’ve ever had in a New World film,” he said. “And after you pay her salary, there are a lot of other costs, because she’ll only work with the greatest hair people, makeup people, wardrobe people. It was a major coup to get New World to come up with the money.” But both Borchers and Wenk feel Jones was worth it. “Katrina has to be mysterious and sensual and scary,” said Wenk. “And Jones pulls it off. She’s been real helpful, and great to work with. She brought a lot to the part.”
Jones would go on to be nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the 14th annual Saturn Awards in 1987 for her role as Katrina in VAMP.
With Jones now onboard, a versatile cast of players were brought in that included Chris Makepeace as Keith (MY BODYGUARD, MEATBALLS), Robert Rusler as AJ (WEIRD SCIENCE, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET: PART 2), Gedde Watanabe as Duncan (GUNG HO, VOLUNTEERS), Sandy Baron as Vic- a role originally written for comedic actor Jerry Lewis- (BROADWAY DANNY ROSE) and newcomer Dedee Pfeiffer as Amaretto (the younger sister of actress Michelle Pfeiffer) the project had an electric, youthful energy to it.
The addition of character actors such as Billy Drago (Snow), Brad Logan (Vlad), Simmy Bow, Hy Pike, Paunita Nichols and championship female bodybuilder Lisa Lyon only add an extra layer of sophistication and flavor to the project - the acting stakes now well and truly raised.
VAMP was the playground for many creative artists to develop their craft. Future five-times Academy Award winning Special Make-Up Effects Artist Greg Cannom was brought on board the New World production with the understanding that he would have to get the makeup effects done quickly and cheaply. Cannom would explain, “On VAMP, I just tried to do simple stuff because it’s a very low budget film. The producer and I knew that we couldn’t go with something never done before. We didn’t have the budget for anything truly elaborate, but we did come up with some interesting makeup effects.” Cannom’s VAMP FX workload included creating 26 pairs of “conventional” vampire teeth, a decomposing scene, and for Grace Jones’ vampire transformation, he provided growing toenails, protruding fangs, and finger extensions. The makeup artist also decided to keep Jones’ undead look somewhat less vampiric.
“Grace’s makeup is very demonic,” revealed Cannom. “The Exorcist is still one of my favorites. In that, Linda Blair didn’t wear that much makeup, but it was very scary. Grace has such an amazing face and bone structure that I kept the makeup subtle and demon inspired.
When she smiled on the set, it was very scary.”
Adding, “Grace was the best. You never know how an actor will react through everything. I even did a cast of her with her eyes open, plus she wore contact lens and had goop coming out of her mouth at times.
But Grace had a great deal of fun with it.”
Writer and director Richard Wenk would go on to pen some of the most successful action thrillers in recent years including 16 BLOCKS in 2006, THE MECHANIC in 2011, THE EXPENDABLES 2 in 2012, JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK in 2016 and the blockbuster Denzel Washington starrer THE EQUALIZER in 2014 and it's 2018 sequel, with a third movie in the series to be released in 2021, also written by Wenk. Award winning Cinematographer Elliot Davis
was Director of Photography on VAMP.
To contribute to the ghoulish atmosphere of the film,
Davis and his team brought in specially designed lighting
that emphasized magenta and green hues.
Providing VAMP with its unique signature look and style.
Naomi Shohan had a minor role playing a bartender at the club, she would go on to be one of the most sought after
Production Designers in Hollywood, being nominated for an
Academy Award in 1999 for Best Art Direction on AMERICAN BEAUTY.
Accompanying the distinctive visual style of VAMP is a pulsating, electronic score from composer Jonathan Elias (who also co-wrote the original titular song with performer Grace Jones, co-produced by the movies producer Don Borchers) creating a truly unique auditory experience that still resonates with fans, music collectors and horror critics today.
"The making of Vamp IS the story of Vamp!" Actress Dedee Pfeiffer has remarked on more than one occasion over the 35 years since the movie was released - and she would know - not only did the young actress discover, during a tense rooftop scene with a gang of bloodthirsty vampires in hot pursuit, that she suffers from vertigo- but Pfeiffer recalls having her 1982 Isuzu I-Mark stolen by a homeless person while she filmed scenes during the early hours in downtown LA, the car thief then proceeded to live in her vehicle for a week before it was returned
to her in a disordered state.
Downtown Los Angeles played host to the exterior night shoots where cast members lived like vampires, sleeping through the day with blacked out tarps covering the windows and working late into the night in some of the least desirable neighborhoods 1980's downtown LA
had to offer. With no covered sets to shelter cast and crew from the biting February rain.
On the first day of filming, Los Angeles Police Department officers provided traffic control in downtown Los Angeles for a complicated car sequence involving a spinning vehicle. When a major traffic jam broke out, the production’s film permits were revoked, and negotiations were needed to get them reinstated.
Tales from the VAMP set have become something of horror movie lore over the years. Among them, accounts of the incomparable Grace Jones being late to set or difficult to locate during filming becoming legendary.
A crew person being stabbed during a knife fight that spilled on to the grip truck used for carrying production gear, a public sidewalk caving in during filming of the car chase scene, Dedee Pfeiffer's hair stylist being fired half way through production after fighting with a production member, actor Robert Rusler requiring emergency medical support after Grace Jones got a little overzealous during his death scene.
Rusler also recalls a homeless man wandering on to set “like he’s Gary Cooper in High Noon” during a 3am cast and crew lunch break and promptly relieving himself then and there before
casually meandering away from set.
Actor Chris Makepeace jovially recounts the late-night shoot preparation for the scene where his character Keith- and Amaretto (Pfeiffer)- break into a pawn shop looking for weapons, when they are approached by a “7 foot transvestite” who proceeds to show the young actors how smashing a wire-mesh security gate with a garbage can should really be done! Subsequently the bespangled unofficial stunt person was led away in handcuffs by some of LAPD’s (very bemused) finest.
As well as shared long-standing anecdotes, lifelong friendships were also formed, director Richard Wenk still collaborates with producer Don Borchers and has a close friendship with actress Dedee Pfeiffer, he is regularly in contact with other cast and crew from the production. Actor Robert Rusler became firm friends with celebrated comedian Sandy Baron, even driving him to and from set during the filming of VAMP. Select cast and crew gather together intermittently to celebrate the film, be it for anniversary DVD commentaries or post-screening Q & A sessions and it is clear to any casual outside observer that those involved still hold a deep affection for the movie. Pfeiffer and actor Chris Makepeace even referring to VAMP as being their (film career) “baby” when discussing the film.
VAMP was released theatrically in the United States on July 18, 1986. Going up against James Cameron's colossal ALIENS, the sure-fire hit of that summer and
initially playing in 1,104 theaters, it earned $2,187,458 in its opening weekend.
In release for 167 days (23 weeks) the movie grossed $4,941,117 at the box office. VAMP was released internationally throughout 1986 and 1987, proving to be popular with European audiences who appreciated its avant-garde style and creativity. To date, VAMP has made more than $11 million in overseas theatrical releases, VHS sales, DVD and TV.
In 1987 VAMP was nominated for Best Film at the Fantasporto International Fantasy Awards Show, held in Portugal.
An obvious influence and precursor to the Robert Rodriguez directed, Quentin Tarantino scripted FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996), VAMP continues to inspire and motivate creative minds in the entertainment industry and outside of it. Social media sites like Instagram and Twitter are awash with VAMP fan art interpretations and “Katrina” cosplay.
VAMP continues to attract, unite and divide audiences and as we enter the 35th year of the movie's release, we salute and say thank you Mr. Wenk and to all those talented, creative minds involved both in-front and behind the camera on VAMP.
And yes, that Plasma Center shown in the final shot of the movie....
was very real.
By David Schwartz, July 27, 1986
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