Exclusive: Dread Central Revisits Vamp with Co-Star Robert Rusler
Anyone who knows me knows that I have some seriously mad love for the 1986 horror comedy cult classic Vamp, directed by Richard Wenk and starring Chris Makepeace, Robert Rusler, Gedde Watanabe, Sandy Baron, Grace Jones and the delightful Dedee Pfeiffer.
While I'm still unsure of just how I talked my mom into renting Vamp for me in the first place, I can distinctly remember every single moment of the very first time I took this often overlooked gem home from the video store. While there had been several vampire movies in that era of genre filmmaking that I really loved as a kid, I always felt like Vamp was something totally different and weird- and I liked that.
For those of you who've never seen Vamp (last time I checked, it was on Netflix Instant), the movie follows two college kids named Keith (Makepeace) and AJ (Rusler), who have to secure an exotic dancer for a frat house party and happen upon The After Dark Club, a mysterious night club which promises an experience unlike any other. Curiosities piqued, the guys set off with an unlikely friend (Watanabe) in tow to a seedy part of town and get far more than they bargained for when it turns out the dancers are actually vampires who prey on their patrons.
Distributed by Roger Corman's New World Pictures in the mid-80's, Vamp was a financial success but never quite earned the audience that many of its vampire-themed peers of that time did, making it a movie that only began to gain a true following on VHS and eventually on DVD. And as a lifelong sucker for horror comedies, Vamp has always been one of my go-to movies when I needed a good laugh or, as a kid, wanted a good scare or wanted to get freaked out by an albino version of Billy Drago.
Suffice to say, I was ridiculously stoked to have the opportunity to chat in-depth with Vamp co-star Robert Rusler recently about his experiences working on the film, which were apparently just as surreal as the tone of Wenk's movie. Rusler reflected on working with iconic comedian Baron as well as Jones, who introduced him into a world of fashionistas, mega celebrities, Timothy Leary and Andy Warhol.
Dread Central: Thanks so much for taking time to chat with me today; I grew up loving Vamp and always wished it was a movie that got more respect at the time. I think it's cool though that the movie seems to continue to live on now as a cult classic and still seems to find new fans even after all these years.
Robert Rusler: I think we're all kind of pleased now looking back that Vamp became a cult classic like it has; I think we all pretty much knew that was the kind of movie we were making at the time too. I always knew it was going to be a completely different kind of movie just because of Richard and because of the cast he put together for Vamp.
Sandy Baron was absolute perfection in this- he was always perfection in anything, but I think Vamp was one of my favorite roles of his just because of the level of class he brought to such a wonderfully strange role, if I can borrow from his character for a moment (laughs). And Grace was just something else altogether; at the time she was this completely underground persona so it was interesting that Richard chose her for the role. There were a lot of traditionally sexy women in Hollywood back then, and to go with someone so unconventional really took things to an entirely different place in the story and explored some new sexual taboos at the time too, I think.
But I love that Vamp is still building an audience even though it came out like 26 to 27 years ago; there seem to be new fans of the movie all the time and that's really cool. That's when you know you've made something special. We weren't a blockbuster by any means but we did fine and I'm happier with being involved in a great movie that continues to get discovered over time than if I had done a movie that was HUGE in its day but ended up being ultimately forgettable.
Dread Central: In your opinion, why do you think Vamp has been able to keep living on as it has then?
Robert Rusler: I think it came down to the storytelling; Richard had a knack for balancing humor and horror that I think is still something you see in his work now, even though he's doing more action-type stuff now. He just knew how to get audiences to care about these characters because they were so well-written and well-developed and then as a director gave all of us (the cast) the space to make these roles our own and have some fun with the material too.
Dread Central: I think part of the reason I gravitated towards it was just how weird and surreal it was, especially considering other horror movies at that time. It has such a different vibe to it.
Robert Rusler: For me, there were two key moments of surrealism that changed the tides in Vamp; the first was the car spinning out and us inside the diner sequence. I think of them as the same because we slid pretty much right into that diner scene. Everything about those moments were so heightened, from the colors to the way Richard shot it to the scene with Billy- it completely sets the tone for the rest of the movie. We were basically showing audiences what was in store for them, and then once we reveal Grace's true nature, that's when things get even more surreal.
That moment was so violent and terrifying because Grace was so animalistic in her performance. It was shocking- her vampire look was startling, and I think that really threw people off at that time because it was such a gut-punch moment. You knew things were about to get messy (laughs).
Dread Central: Something else I always enjoyed about Vamp was the relationship between you and Chris, including the ending which was a really fun twist. Was that a huge appeal to taking on the role at the time, that these guys were so relatable and likable?
Robert Rusler: For sure; what I thought was great about Vamp is that Richard really got you to like and empathize with these two college kids who just want nothing more than to live in a decent place, and along the way they get a lot more than they bargained for. The mosquito line that I say to Chris after he realizes what's happened to me was so powerful, I thought, and gave a new dimension to their relationship as friends. It's a funny line but it's kind of sad at the same time too. It's hard to balance emotion and humor like that in a horror movie.
Plus, our characters get caught up in all kinds of naughtiness, and I think that's something people of any age can relate to- either you've done it yourself or you're going to one day. Everyone enjoys teenage shenanigans (laughs).
And how I ended up being cast in Vamp all revolved around that relationship too- Richard knew me and my performance style from Nightmare 2 and so he said he knew I was definitely going to be the guy playing AJ. I guess a lot of my performances back then had a certain charisma to them, and Richard saw that. Somehow he knew that I was going to be able to balance out Chris in a way that would really make these likable guys you wanted to hang out with.
At that time Chris was always playing the meek and awkward guy, and I think I was able to bring something out in him that people hadn't really seen from him onscreen before Vamp. I definitely think that Chris came into his own as Keith, and I've always enjoyed that role because of that rare confidence he displayed in it. He was an easy guy to like; I think we chatted for like 15 minutes the first time we met, and by the end of that conversation it was like we were old friends.
Dread Central: Can you talk a bit about where you guys shot Vamp- I always thought Richard did an incredible job of making such a crappy part of town look so vibrant with the way he lit everything.
Robert Rusler: Oh, I know- right? Richard put so much thought into the look of Vamp; it was incredible just how precise he was with the way it was shot and all the vivid colors he infused into the picture. Those pinks and blues and greens were great juxtapositions against each other and that decrepit city landscape we were shooting in.
We shot that in downtown LA, and if you've heard stories about downtown in the 80's, they're probably all true (laughs). It was by far one of the craziest places I've ever made a movie, undoubtedly. One night when we were shooting late, we were having lunch at like 3 am, and as we're sitting there, this homeless guy wanders onto our set, in the middle of where we're eating like he's Gary Cooper in High Noon. He's just standing there, looking around at all of us, not saying a word; without missing a beat, he immediately squats down and takes a shit in the middle of the street and then walks away.
Can you believe that? It was insane (laughs); I've never experienced anything like that ever. And it definitely ruined our appetites that night; I think lunch wrapped pretty quickly after that too (laughs).
But that was just one of many crazy moments we had on Vamp; there was also Grace and her entourage, who were just so incredible to hang around with, especially being a young guy at the time. There were always celebrities around because of Grace. We even had Timothy Leary show up on set one day- how surreal is that, to have the guy who introduced the world to LSD, show up on a movie like Vamp? There were just so many unforgettable moments.
Dread Central: So how was it working with Grace?
Robert Rusler: You know, being 19 at the time and being introduced into Grace's world was something so different than anything I had ever experienced, or probably will ever experience. Hanging out with these fashionistas and artists was beyond me- I had no idea what I was doing. Grace even introduced me to people like Robert De Niro and Mick Jagger, which was incredible. I remember at the Vamp premiere in NYC I took Brooke Shields, and afterwards we ended up at an Andy Warhol party because of Grace. I had a blast too- I think a lot of those artsy people really liked me because I wasn't the typical California kid or anything like that. I was always just myself, and I think they appreciated that I wasn't trying to be someone else to fit in their world.
What's really surreal though is that the next day after the premiere, I was sitting in my hotel room and my phone rang- it was Andy. He asked me to come over so he could paint me, and to be honest, I think I was totally taken aback at the time so I stupidly gave him some lame reason I couldn't come over. I told him I'd come and visit him the next time I was in New York, but he died only a few months later. I missed such an incredibly opportunity; looking back, I think I'd definitely do it differently if I could because that was a huge mistake. I didn't realize what I was passing up at the time.
Dread Central: I don’t know if you'd be able to pick just one thing, but what was your favorite part of Vamp, either about the movie or your experiences working on it?.
Robert Rusler: Hmmmm, well I definitely love the music and all the characters in Vamp, but for me my favorite thing about that movie and my experiences making it was Sandy Baron. I was such a huge fan of his and he was such an amazing person to know. I don’t think a lot of people realize just how much he contributed to the comedy world; people forget that Sandy was before Jackie Mason even and a lot of guys owe their career to guys like Sandy and Jackie. Because he was older, I'd often drive him to and from set and he'd tell the most incredible stories; we became friends because of Vamp, and to have been able to work with someone like Sandy AND to be able to call him a friend was so special.
Dread Central: One last question- how incredible was it sitting there for Grace's dance number? It's still such a powerful moment in the movie.
Robert Rusler: Man, that scene STILL holds up; it was so artistic, so innovative and totally unexpected. None of us knew what Grace was going to do before she shot that scene, and that probably includes Richard. I think he just gave her some guidelines and trusted in her vision for the scene, and it worked. When Grace performed in that scene, I don’t think there was a single person on that set, cast or crew, who didn't go "WHOA" when she finished dancing.
And I really don't think any one of us were expecting that kind of intensity either, but she just nailed it- we even shot that sequence in one take. That's how good Grace was on Vamp- Richard just had three cameras rolling the whole time and let her do her thing; he never needed to go back and get anything else because she didn't miss a single beat. It was incredible.
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