Monday, April 10, 2017

“I hate to break the news to ya…but I think you’re a vampire!”


There’s a straight-to-video feature film—released in 1996—entitled Star Hunter…which I will charitably describe as a homage (French for “rip-off”) to Star Wars and Predator.  The presence of Roddy McDowall and Stella Stevens does not mean that this is a good movie, but what may be of interest to the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear faithful is that the direction of this cheesy opus is credited to B-movie maven Sam Newfield—an impressive achievement when you realize that Sam left this world for a better one in 1964.  (It’s comforting to know that even as a dead movie director, Newfield’s films still suck.)

Fred Olen Ray
As you may have guessed, it was not the real Sam Newfield who helmed Star Hunter…but a man who appropriated his name (not to mention other Newfield pseuds like “Sherman Scott” and “Peter Stewart”) as a tribute to Sam’s formidable B-moviemaking prowess.  He’s Fred Olen Ray, a Florida-based filmmaker (though born in Ohio) who established himself in the motion picture bidness as a low-budget horror/science-fiction director of such stirring sagas as Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (1988) and Alienator (1989).  At the risk of pigeon-holing Fred, his oeuvre is also dotted with cheapy action flicks like Armed Response (1986) and Commando Squad (1987) …though nowadays, his output leans to the kind of soft-core skin flicks you’ll most likely bump into on Cinemax or Showtime in the middle of the night.

When you pop a film entitled, say, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers into the DVD player…you kind of know going in that it’s not going to be Grand Illusion (1937) or Children of Paradise (1945).  So why, I’m sure you’ll be asking, would I sit down with Olen Ray’s Beverly Hills Vamp (1989)?  Well, the premise kind of amused me…and noted film guide author Leonard “I only gave Taxi Driver two stars” Maltin describes it in his book as a “cheerfully cheap little film” and “an entertaining vampire comedy.”  (He’s got the first part right.)  Furthermore, I spotted it among the offerings on Epix Vault during our “freeview” …and I thought to myself: “This is not a DVD I would want to invest in…but I would kick myself if I passed up a chance to check it out for curiosity sake.”

Michelle Bauer, Debra Lamb, and Jillian Kesner
You have three aspiring filmmakers—Brock (Tim Conway, Jr.), Russell (Tom Shell), and Kyle (Eddie Deezen—King of the Movie Nerds)—who approach Brock’s uncle Austin (John Henry Richardson), a “successful” Hollywood mogul, into looking at their script.  While in Hollywood, the three horny auteurs decide—since they’ve exhausted the sightseeing thing—to avail themselves of the services at a bordello run by Madame Cassandra (Britt Ekland).  Our heroes are being entertained by Cassandra’s employees—Kristina (Michelle Bauer), Claudia (Jillian Kesner), and Jessica (Debra Lamb)—when they discover the startling news that Cassandra and her “girls” …are bloodsucking courtesans from the depths of Hell!

Kyle manages to escape the Cathouse of the Undead…and eventually informs Austin that his nephew will soon adopt a diet that involves the drinking of blood.  With the advice of Father Ferraro (Robert Quarry), a priest with an extensive background in vampire hunting, the two men return to Cassandra’s to vanquish the vampiric horde and rescue Kyle’s friends…which now includes his girlfriend Molly (Brigitte Burdine), who’s followed her beau to Hollywood, concerned about his safety.  (He could be susceptible to appearing in terrible films like this one.)

Robert Quarry
One of the hallmarks of Fred Olen Ray films is that he casts a lot of his features with big-name movie stars that are, for one reason or another, in desperate need of work to pay the rent that month or resume eating regularly.  This explains the presence of Ekland in Beverly Hills Vamp, as well as one-time movie vampire Quarry—who, as Ferraro, jokingly makes a “Count Yorga” reference at one point in the film.  (Quarry also appears in the director’s Cyclone [1987], a genuine hunk of cinematic fromage co-starring Heather Thomas, Martine Beswick, and Martin Landau…with cameos from Huntz Hall, Troy Donahue, and Russ Tamblyn.)  The “Yorga” gag is one of the few laugh-out-loud moments in Vamp, though I will give props to Dawn Wildsmith (an Olen Ray regular), who made me giggle at a few points in the movie as Austin’s vapid secretary.  (Austin manages to redeem himself—he’s really an obnoxious character—when after being propositioned by one the vamps he turns to the camera at one point and declares: “I always wondered who you had to f**k to get off this movie.”)

Pat McCormick
Here’s a pro-tip: when most of the laughs in your movie come from an amusing prologue courtesy of veteran comedy writer/performer Pat McCormick (as “Professor Somerset”) …it does not bode well for the rest of the film:

SOMERSET: Vampires...fact?  Or lurid, dime-novel fiction?  Reality?  Or the stuff of twisted imaginations?  Created by filmmakers seeking excuses to photograph women with breasts larger than their head... (Snaps book shut)

I really wanted to like Beverly Hills Vamp because of Eddie Deezen (I’m friends with Eddie on Facebook; he shares with myself and others an enormous enthusiasm for movie comedy legends), who has demonstrated his ability in the past to commit grand cinematic larceny in vehicles like 1941 (1979) and WarGames (1983).  (His finest hour onscreen remains his Beatles obsessive in the delightful I Wanna Hold Your Hand [1978].)  If there are any chortles to be found in Vamp, he manages to mine them.  I cannot be as charitable towards Tim Conway, Jr., who probably took the smarter show business route and went into talk radio (he hosts a show on L.A.’s KFI); I looked for signs that he inherited his famous father’s comedic brilliance and found bupkis.  (Tim, Sr. once told Tim, Jr. “Comedy is in your blood...too bad it's not on your show.”  He might have been joking, though I remain skeptical.)  Fans of cheesy cinema will probably think more of Vamp than I did…but in my defense, I think I’ve demonstrated in this space in the blogosphere time and time again that I’ve built up a high tolerance for this kind of fare—so if I wasn’t amused by the film, you should be looking at a neon sign blinking “Caveat emptor.”

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