Interview with the Grampire: David Blyth Talks Working with Al Lewis and More
I was totally unaware when I sent a message to Karen Ingenthron Lewis on Facebook (after she accepted my friend request) with questions about her role in the bizarro Frederic Hobbs western/horror film Godmonster of Indian Flats that I was also messaging the widow of iconic vampire character actor Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis, who passed away in 2006. Prior to this realization I was fixated on learning more about the film that brought the world a gigantic, mutant sheep terrorizing a western town (appropriately stuck in the 1800s).
Upon connecting the dots, however, I realized that this article (which is not about a mutant sheep; sorry, you’ll have to go elsewhere for that one), about the New Zealand children’s vampire movie My Grandpa is a Vampire (known also as Grampire as well as Moonrise), quickly took on a deeper, more significant purpose.
(Note: The author will be referring to the film by its original distribution title of Grampire throughout the remainder of the article and interview.)
That production [Grampire] is a highlight of my life. My memoir, called, funnily enough, I Married a Munster, My Life with “Grandpa” Al Lewis, is now in print. A large section is dedicated to the time Al and I spent together in New Zealand. -Karen Lewis, 2016
There was a brief period during my youth when I began getting really interested in horror films but wasn’t quite brave enough to take the plunge. As a result, I began seeking out films that were – at their heart – for young adults but that possessed some horror elements: Little Monsters; The Witches; Gremlins 2: The New Batch (the first Gremlins film came out before my time); and, of course, Grampire. I have a vivid memory of seeing the VHS box in the local video store and being both intrigued and a little scared of the bright purple and white moon on the front with Al Lewis’ grinning face on it. I’m assuming because it wasn’t rated R, my parents took a chance and rented it for a family movie night.
Lonny (played by the late Justin Gocke) journeys from sunny California to New Zealand in order to pay his Aunt Leah and Grandfather Vernon (played by Lewis) a visit. While getting reacquainted with each other, Lonny and his Kiwi pal (played by Milan Borich) begin to suspect that grandpa’s odd behavior (keeping curtains drawn, sleeping during the day, his aversion to garlic, etc.) may be signs that he’s actually a bloodsucker! Sadly, and before finding any real proof to confirm their suspicions, granddaddy bites the dust – leaving a wake of bereaved family members in his wake.
Immediately following the funeral, however, their suspicions are confirmed as Grandpa rises from his coffin, pleased to see his grandson and full of promises that he’s not dangerous or at all like other dead risers. All is well until Aunt Leah’s boyfriend gets wind of their vampiric relative and sets out – stake in hand – to catch and do away with our the beloved grampire.
What happens next, you ask!? You’ll have to track down a copy and see for yourself. (The film has yet to receive the DVD or Blu-ray treatment, so you’ll have to look for a copy on VHS). Overall, Lewis looks and sounds comfortable in his familiar role of the vampire, cackling and flying about in a way that is actually somewhat spooky and even a little demented at times. There are some really interesting scenes, like the one where the two boys and grandpa are hiding out in some caves near a beach. While out flying around, these three musketeers even make a pit stop at a McDonald’s so Grandpa can sip a pint of cow’s blood. Delicious!
Themes of death and losing loved ones aside, Grampire toys with the viewer’s senses in intriguing, confusing, and even nostalgic ways. It’s intriguing due to some really effective and atmospheric cinematography (there’s lots of lush blue lighting, for example). It’s also, at times, confusing almost exclusively because of the oddly placed funeral scene where we see a woman performing erotic acts on her food directed at our two lead boys during grandpa’s funeral. And I find it nostalgic because director David Blyth is effective at conjuring memories of some classic 1980s monster movie fare, like Fright Night and The Lost Boys — other attempts at diluting the vampire and making him more accessible to children.
Upon revisiting Grampire, I began to wonder whether Lewis loathed assuming the image that had brought him fame three decades earlier. “Unlike Al’s best friend, Fred Gwynne, who was tired of being typecast as a horror show character,” Karen Lewis told me in an email, “Al continued to be grateful for and enjoy the celebrity his fans had given him. He loved to interact with people and kept on entertaining them as Grandpa Munster.” Clearly, I had assumed wrong!
She continued to explain how Lewis’ role in Grampire had a greater significance for him than maybe even his co-stars realized. “When he was cast in My Grandpa is a Vampire, he felt as if everything he’d done as an actor had gone full circle and he was totally committed to the part.” Admittedly I felt infinitely better learning that Lewis had not only accepted this role with pleasure but that it, for him, signified a kind of exclamation mark on what was an unforgettable career.
Recently New Zealand director David Blyth was generous enough to talk with me about everything from the origins of Grampire to his time with Al Lewis, his darker cinematic side as director of such horror films as Death Warmed Up and Red Blooded American Girl, and finally, his thoughts on what it actually means for a film to look and feel “Kiwi.”
John Campopiano: Before jumping right into vampires, I want to briefly ask you about a horror film you made in 1984 called Death Warmed Up. Fans of 1980s cult horror may remember this one (thanks, in part, to the fantastic VHS cover featuring a scalpel-wielding skeleton). How did that project come about?
David Blyth: I met screenwriter Michael Heath (writer of the 1982 horror film Next of Kin) at a party hosted by Vincent Ward (director of What Dreams May Come, which featured Robin Williams). Michael revealed to me the outline of a story involving cryogenics and the science of bringing dead bodies back to life — both of which had fascinated me, in a science fiction sort of way. From that outline the script for Death Warmed Up emerged!
JC: How did the idea for Grampire originally come about?
DB: Michael Heath years earlier had written a children’s radio play called Moonrise, which completely subverted the vampire genre, and this really appealed to me. The feature script grew from that source. After making movies with adult censor restrictions, I decided to attempt a more family orientated movie — a vampire genre story with a twist. The original script had more entertaining special effects sequences, which unfortunately were never shot, as in the end an investor did not deliver and we proceeded with shooting a lower budget version of the film than was written.
JC: This film has been known by a few different titles, yes?
DB: The film started out being called Moonrise. The local distributor in New Zealand decided that a name change was in order and came up with the title Grampire. It changed again when the distributor in the US decided to go with the title My Grandpa is a Vampire. We were not party to the decision to change the name in the US. We weren’t really consulted in New Zealand either. To this day the New Zealand Film Commission uses both titles (Moonrise/Grampire) in correspondence with us.
JC: Did you always have Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis in mind to play the role of Vernon Cooger?
DB: Yes, we were always interested in Al Lewis. “The Munsters” television series had always been a personal favourite and we had heard stories from travelers visiting New York that Al was often seen at a restaurant he owned in town. So we knew he was alive and decided to track him down. Al jumped at the opportunity to come to New Zealand!
JC: What are some of your most vivid memories from working with Al?
DB: Al was a fascinating man, telling stories of his vaudeville days going far back to the 1940s and 1950s. One of his favourite things to say to me regarding the entertainment industry was, “It’s not show business; it’s business show!”
Everywhere Al went, he engaged with people. He loved to entertain! On set he was very easy to work with and he brought a generosity of spirit that swept the cast and crew up into a magical world. He was happy to play a mischievous vampire who hated blood as it was a continuation of his own “outside the box” (almost vaudeville-like) depiction of a vampire character. Al embraced life. He came to New Zealand with his long nails especially grown for the movie!
The big issue on set was not bloodsucking at all — but sugar! Al, Pat Evison (New Zealand actress who played Aunt Leah), and Noel Appleby (also a Kiwi, starring here as Ernie) were all elderly and had to watch their sugar intake (on doctors orders). None of them were immune to breaking this rule on set. Likewise for Milan Borich and Justin Gocke, who were both barely into their teens. We had to watch them around the chocolate cake as the sugar sent them wild!!
JC: Several critics have commented over the years that Grampire feels quintessentially “Kiwi.” What does this characterization mean to you?
DB: Grampire is New Zealand Gothic, utilising Auckland’s wild west coast with its black sand beaches and larger-than-life characters and locations. This backdrop gives the film its unique Kiwi charm. Despite its low budget the film had some very high production values. Two of Grampire’s crew (from the design and costume departments) went on to have successful careers that included Academy Award wins in both of those fields!
JC: In 2014 Justin Gocke (the actor who portrayed “Lonny” in the film) died at the young age of 36. When did you learn of his death and what was your reaction?
DB: I did not know that Justin Gocke had died ‘til our recent correspondence. I was really shocked to hear the sad news. Justin was a professional actor even at such a young age. He had a maturity about him that amazed me at the time. RIP, Justin Gocke.
JC: Just a couple of years prior to Grampire, you directed the Canadian horror/fantasy film Red Blooded American Girl, starring Kim Coates and Christopher Plummer. Was it merely coincidence that your next project would again involve vampiric characters, or was this subject matter of interest to you back in those days?
DB: In terms of vampire films I was particularly fond of Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983) and Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987). When the opportunity came along to work with Allan Moyle (writer and director of the 1990 film Pump up the Volume) on the script of Red Blooded American Girl with its vampire/AIDS twist, as a director I was hooked. I’m still passionate about the horror/thriller genre, as evidenced by my recent features, Wound (2010) and Ghost Bride (2013). I’m currently working on several horror orientated scripts.