If they gave out Oscars for casting choices, you could reserve one right now for the makers of "Vamp" (citywide), who came up with the inspired notion of Grace Jones as a stripteasing vampire. The sleek, long-limbed pop star really does put the vamp back into vampire--with her heavy-lidded gaze and sinewy body, she's a night creature full of brooding, sexual malevolence. The bad news about "Vamp" is that the film makers seem to have put all their brainpower into selecting Jones' saber-toothed fangs and exotic wardrobe. Once she gets undressed, the movie starts to fall apart.
In all fairness, Jones is just one cog in this comic horror fable that comes off like a carefully calculated cross between "After Hours" and "Fright Night." Most of the film revolves around a trio of college kids who cruise down to Sin City in search of a stripper for a frat blast. They hit pay dirt at the After Dark Club, a shadowy, pink-spotlighted strip joint with a bevy of scantily clad B-girls and a scuzzy club owner (Sandy Baron) who chomps on cockroaches as if they were after-dinner mints. After the boys see Jones in action (she plays Katrina, the joint's first-string stripper), the leader of the expedition (Robert Rusler) heads backstage to make her a proposition.
When he mysteriously vanishes, we quickly realize that something is very amiss in this seductive dream world. Leaving his other buddy (Gedde Watanabe) at the bar, Keith (Chris Makepeace) rushes off in search of his friend, stumbling into a nightmarish series of strange, supernatural encounters.
Despite a few delightfully grim comic touches, "Vamp" never really captures the spirit of light-headed horror needed to propel this kind of macabre mayhem. Writer-director Richard Wenk has a real flair for offbeat humor (when Keith is trapped in a psycho elevator, "The Donna Reed Show" theme purrs in the background), but we find ourselves much more enchanted by the film's kooky peripheral characters than by its plodding storyline. Wenk gives us lots of off-kilter camera angles, but he hasn't created enough memorable villains or plot twists to generate any real suspense. Worse still, he never really capitalizes on Jones' steamy charms. Her strip scenes should give the movie an erotic charge, but they're shot at such a slow, laborious pace that they might as well be a Jell-O commercial--all wiggle with no wallop.
Best moments in the film belong to Baron, who with his bushy eyebrows and ill-fitting pink tux exudes an endearingly low-rent show-biz sleaziness. Spinning on a barstool, surveying his tacky domain, he's full of wistful daydreams about moving the club to Las Vegas, as if it were the Promised Land. Dedee Pfeiffer (as a waitress who befriends the boys) is also a treat. With unerring comic timing and a voice that rockets up and down like a roller coaster, she gives her character a goofy charm, especially when she glides around the club, gyrating abruptly as if she were stepping on tiny tacks.
Unfortunately, these engaging performances can't carry the film. "Vamp" (MPAA-rated R) has loads of tawdry underworld atmosphere, but it doesn't reverberate with the delirious obsessiveness that could have made a truly demented Grand Guignol. Plenty of blood, but not nearly enough bite.
A New World Pictures presentation in association with Balcor Film Investors. Producer Donald Borchers. Director Richard Wenk. Writer Wenk. Camera Elliot Davis. Music Jonathan Elias. Editor Marc Grossman. Production design Alan Roderick-Jones. Costume design Betty Pecha Madden. Special makeup effects Greg Cannon. With Chris Makepeace, Sandy Baron, Robert Rusler, Dedee Pfeiffer, Gedde Watanabe, Grace Jones, Billy Drago, Brad Logan, Lisa Lyon.
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.