Richard Wenk was having one of those nights. The bouncer at Stringfellow's, a trendy Manhattan nightclub, wouldn't let him in, even though his name was on the list. "What's your name?"
"What's the first name?"
The bouncer, flipping through his clipboard, finally shrugged and grunted, "That's good enough. Go ahead."
Inside, a cashier asked Wenk for the $25 cover charge.
"But I'm with the party. You see the poster behind you?" he asked, pointing to the huge ad for the movie "Vamp" hanging on the wall for the occasion. "Where it says 'written and directed by . . . ' "
"Oh. You're Richard Wenk? Do you have any ID?"
Upon producing a driver's license, the unknown director was granted admission to the premiere party for his first feature film, a comical vampire thriller. Wenk walked to the back of the bar, where his lead vampire, Grace Jones, was talking with actors Christopher Walken and Eric Roberts. He promptly spilled a drink on the exotically dressed Jones, who said, "Don't worry -- my outfit's made of rubber."
Wenk's evening at Stringfellow's, while not off to a great start, was certainly not as nightmarish as the one spent by his main characters at the After Dark Club, "Vamp's" combination strip joint and vampire den.
The $2 million New World Pictures production recently opened on more than 1,000 screens across the country. Critics were not, for the most part, impressed; to the moviegoing public, "Vamp" will likely be perceived as a minor, offbeat summer entertainment, a film to be seen, perhaps, if the lines for "Aliens" are too long.
But for its 29-year-old director, "Vamp" is a major career breakthrough. Making this type of B-movie is like having a tryout in the minor leagues. Directors like Francis Coppola ("Tonight for Sure"), Martin Scorsese ("Boxcar Bertha") and Jonathan Demme ("Caged Heat") began their careers working in genres more suited to exploitation films than cinematic masterpieces.
Given shoestring budgets but creative freedom by their producers, these directors demonstrated their skill and imagination while making movies filled with the always marketable ingredients of sex and violence.
Richard Wenk, a graduate of New York University's film school, the chance came in 1984 with a phone call from producer Donald Borchers.
As Wenk recalls, "Don told me, 'I've got a title -- "Vamp" -- and I know it should have a vampire in it, and I'd like to have some strippers and some college kids. Other than that, you're free to direct it.' 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 script in three days."
In the resulting story, three college kids head into Los Angeles one night in search of a stripper for a fraternity show. They stumble into a mysterious nightclub where stripper-vampires lure customers to their doom. Grace Jones plays the exotic, animalistic Katrina, who performs a mesmerizing dance wearing virtually nothing but body paint.
While it may have the trappings of a soft-core exploitation film, "Vamp" is, instead, a comedy, with clever touches and a cast that includes Chris Makepeace ("My Bodyguard"), Robert Rusler ("Nightmare on Elm Street"), Gedde Watanabe ("Gung Ho", "Volunteers"), Sandy Baron ("Broadway Danny Rose") and newcomer Dedee Pfeiffer, the younger sister of actress Michelle Pfeiffer.
The presence of Grace Jones, the avant-garde performer who appeared in "Conan the Destroyer" and "A View to a Kill," was central to "Vamp's" commercial viability. She also set the proper tone for the film. "As long as Katrina was really threatening," says 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."
It took more than five years for Wenk to get the break that would allow him to work with such big-name stars. Born and raised in Metuchen, N.J. (his father is an electrical contractor), he graduated from NYU in 1979, and went to Los Angeles with his thesis film, a half-hour musical vampire comedy titled "Dracula Bites the Big Apple."
Before making "Vamp," he did a number of odd jobs, including writing children's books, directing short videos for the Showtime cable channel, writing comedy for Gallagher and working as an assistant to director John Huston on "Annie."
"I was watching a great filmmaker ply his trade," says Wenk of working with Huston. "This gave me enough knowledge to say 'I can do that.' I wasn't intimidated by the filmmaking process."
Which is fortunate, for in mid-1984, Wenk received his fateful phone call from Borchers, a producer for New World who had been impressed by his "Dracula" film. Borchers had already tried, unsuccessfully, to get another of Wenk's projects off the ground, a horror spoof he wrote with two friends (with a title unprintable in a family newspaper).
There was one problem with the script of "Vamp." New World wanted a straight horror film and was reluctant to finance a comedy. "I kept saying that vampires aren't scary today. You've got aliens, guys with machetes . . . Bela Lugosi doesn't scare anymore. You've got to add an edge to it."
One of the keys to setting the proper tone was a scene that used the song "Volare" on a jukebox. The inclusion of the Bobby Rydell recording was possible only after the producer mortgaged his house and put up his own money to pay for the music rights.
"My only real fight was over this song," says Wenk. "The editor put it into a scene in a coffee shop before the characters go into the After Dark Club. It was great. It changed the attitude of the movie and told the audience, 'You're not going to see what you expect.' I told Don that we had to get that song. But the music company wanted a lot more than New World was willing to pay for what they thought was a joke. I told them it wasn't a joke, that it sets the tone and style. Don stepped in and paid a large sum of money out of his own pocket for the song."
Don't get the impression, though, that his producer gave Wenk carte blanche. "There are a few compromises in the movie. I disagreed with Don in that I didn't want the film to start at the college. The expository scenes work, but the film doesn't really start until it gets to the nightclub. Also, Don felt very strongly that we should see all the vampires die to put the audience at ease. There is a scene towards the end that I didn't want to put in."
But overall, says Wenk, "the only real pressure in this kind of film is to meet the schedule. I didn't have time to do all the things I wanted to. We had a 3 1/2-week shooting schedule, and it rained solidly for the first eight days of filming."
How did Wenk handle the combination of such a tight schedule, a script filled with time-consuming special effects and stunts, and the pressure of making one's first feature film?
*"I remember the first day of filming. What amazed me was that I was not nervous. This was my lifelong dream, to finally make a 'major motion picture,' and when I got out there I wasn't nervous, I was happy. It never really overwhelmed me. What did get to me was all the long days. We'd four or five 18-hour days in a row, and we were working six days a week. You become like a walking zombie, and the enthusiasm is dampened. It becomes work."
It was work, though, that Wenk hopes will lead to more work. "I have an agent now, and a lot of people in the industry have seen 'Vamp' and responded to it well," he says.
One thing Wenk will try to avoid is being typecast as a director. "I've been sent a lot of scripts recently and they're all terrible horror movies. I feel confident that I can do bigger films and tackle more difficult subjects."
David Schwartz is a free-lance writer based in Queens, N.Y.