Film-makers and censors rarely agree on the cutting and rating of movies that feature sex and violence. To explore that often tempestuous relationship, Maclean’s interviewed the makers of the New World Pictures movie Vamp, its star,
Chris Makepeace, critics who reviewed it and members of the film review boards across the country.
Richard Wenk says that he still does not like horror movies—even after writing and directing one. But in January,
1985, the New York screenwriter overcame his distaste when New World Pictures producer Donald Borchers presented him with a title,
Vamp, and some plot ingredients: vampires, strippers and college students. After Wenk wrote the script,
Borchers gave him a $2.7-million budget, 30 days in which to shoot his first feature film,
3V2 weeks to edit it and five days to add the music and special effects.
And together they cast rock star Grace Jones as the vampire-owner of a macabre strip club and Canadian actor Chris Makepeace as a cleancut college student. The resulting mixture of sex and gore was, Wenk said, “one of those things that was really whipped out to meet the summer crowd.” But a month after its July 18 opening at 44 theatres across Canada, Vamp was a commercial failure. By Aug. 22 only six Canadian theatres were still showing the film, which was the victim of mixed reviews and indifferent audiences.
Initially, the Ontario Film Review Board rejected Vamp, a decision that should have increased the film’s popularity as a curiosity alone. But Vamp, which boards elsewhere in Canada passed with little comment, emerged uncut following its distributor’s appeal-then it suffered a lingering death in the theatres. And the whole
experience left the star actor and the fledgling director feeling that they had seen enough horror. Wenk says he found himself in the unusual position of wishing that he had made some cuts to tone down certain scenes of graphic violence.
Cuts: On July 8, five members of the 25-member Ontario film board had gathered in a screening room in suburban Toronto to view the 93-minute film. As the five reels played, they jotted observations on review forms, not-
ing the time of the incident in the margin. According to panel member James Coombs, a 59-year-old consultant in the food industry, everyone scribbled following what he called “some pretty horrific scenes.” When the lights came up, the panel ruled that Vamp would receive a Restricted rating (18 and over), but only after five cuts, or what the board calls “eliminations.”
Graphic: One of the scenes the panel wanted cut was what three of the five members called the “gratuitous graphic bloodletting” when the Grace Jones vampire enthusiastically and noisily feeds on the neck of a freshly bitten victim. Another cut demanded was the “gratuitous burning of bodies” near the end of the film. But according to Coombs, the panel was most disturbed by two scenes involving a minor —a young girl who plays a vampire. New World img mediately appealed the § decision, and three days s later a new panel gave ü Vamp a Restricted rating with a “horror” warning, but it did not demand eliminations. Said Coombs, who was an interested observer the second time: “The role of the Ontario Film Review Board is not to be critics. We look at what we see.”
Elsewhere in Canada, Vamp received milder treatment (although it has not been released in the Atlantic provinces). The four-member Alberta Board of Censors designated it as Restricted but did not call for cuts. After that, it played for only a week at Edmonton’s 400-seat Jasper Cinema, where manager Heather O’Grady said, “People seemed bored by it.” And the six-member Saskatchewan Film Classification Board passed Vamp as Restricted with a warning of “horror.” In British Columbia the three members of the Film Classification Branch of the ministry of the attorney general passed the film uncut with the classification “14 years or older.”
But B.C. film classification will likely change once the new Motion Picture Act 1986 takes effect, probably within three months. That legislation explicitly prohibits a wide range of sexual and violent portrayals on film, from necrophilia to overly realistic torture and dismemberment. In Quebec films are never cut, although some are rejected outright each year for portraying sexually violent acts or endangering public order and good morals. After its screening by two of the seven members of the Régie du Cinéma, Vamp received a “14 and over” rating. According to Régie president André Guérin, censorship is no longer an issue in that province. Said Guérin:
“It is not our responsibility to correct Quebec society.”
Strange: In Manitoba, where films may be classified but not cut, the 16member Film Classification Board designated the film “parental accompaniment”—children under 15 may attend with a parent. The board said the film contained elements of violence, degradation and horror. It also offered a capsule version of Vamp’s strange story line: “Three college boys try to hire a stripper for a fraternity party as a task to gain entry. One is killed by a stripper vampire, and the other two are pursued by the vampire’s assistant to hide the death, helped by an oblivious and innocent apprentice stripper who knows one of them from childhood. Formerly dead buddy reappears as vampire and reveals all, then suicides on a wooden stake. The three escape only by setting fire to the club (vampires can’t stand light/fire), but one of the three is also ‘infected’ and is dispatched in flaming car. Remaining two still pursued by vampires use fire, stakes, arrows and daylight to escape.”
Although Canadian film boards generally agreed on their classifications, the critics either liked the film or disliked it intensely. Peter Giffen of Maclean’s called it a glorious satire of the horror film form, unleashing as much laughter as blood.” But Paul McKie of the Winnipeg Free Press wrote that it was “a real bow wow of a picture.” In The Edmonton Sun, John Charles said Vamp was “mostly formula stuff” and he criticized the film’s slick rock-video look. But Jay Scott of the Toronto
Globe and Mail said the film was “Bgrade horror” and “tacky, exultantly ghoulish, design-conscious, campy, dumb and outright enjoyable.”
Bloody: Wenk now says that if he had the opportunity, he would shorten the bloody feeding scene and completely remove the burning bodies at the
end—two of the cuts demanded by the first Ontario Film Review Board panel. Said Wenk: “It did go a bit too far, certainly for my taste. I can understand people having problems with the
neck scene.” Because the producers wanted a horrific movie instead of a comic nightmare, Wenk says that the result was “a strange mixture of comedy and horror and violence.”
Even before the cameras rolled on a Los Angeles sound stage last January, 22-year-old Toronto actor Makepeace says that he was worried. His concern was the story. Said Makepeace: “You’re dealing with a strip joint and vampires, so right away you’re set up for nudity and violence.” And on the set, while makeup artists applied fake blood to actors’ necks, he wondered about the eventual product. “It’s really hard to tell,” he said about acting in a horror film. “It’s not real because you know it’s not real.” When he saw the final version he was relieved that it had not gone too far, although he did not like some of the more graphic touches.
Gory: But Vamp producer Borchers says that he loved the picture and had no trouble with the gory vampire scenes. And he accused film review boards of favoring big Hollywood studio productions including Friday The 13th, Part VI— Ontario gave that a Restricted rating with three eliminations—over small studios like New World. Said Borchers, who also produced the 1984 film Crimes of Passion: “Whenever a lot of people pay to see a movie, that carries weight with the censors. That’s the way it really works.” Ultimately, Borchers blamed Vamp’s poor showing at the box office on competition from another horror film, Aliens, which opened the same day. Aliens, this summer’s runaway hit movie, made $51.8 million in its first 17 days in Canada and the United States, while Vamp pulled in only $6.5 million.
With Vamp behind him, Makepeace now says he looks forward to acting in the kind of film he likes—drama, romance or comedy. Said Makepeace with a laugh: “Horror films are not at the top of my list.” And in New York, the film’s director said he is reading scripts but has no firm plans. Said Wenk: “The only thing I told my agent was ‘No more horror movies.’ ”
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