Sunday, July 18, 2004

Suited for national exposure

The local indie-movie scene bites into a bigger audience, thanks to a 1995 vampire flick

By Margaret A. McGurk
Enquirer staff writer

Jeff Dunn, an original crew member on Vamps in 1995, is now working from his Columbia Tusculum studio on a feature-length sci-fi horror movie called Dead Cell.
In 1995, when a motley crew of spring-green volunteers and a few old pros carted lights, cameras and costumes into a defunct Newport strip club, their aim was to make a silly, sex-crazed vampire movie that might sell a few copies on video.

Nine years later, that Z-grade horror movie, Vamps: Deadly Dreamgirls, has scored more commercial success than any other local feature made since.

On July 27, a two-disc DVD of the original and its sequel, Vamps 2: Blood Sisters, will arrive in video outlets nationwide, including Best Buy, MediaPlay, Hollywood, Suncoast, Tower and Virgin stores.

More important to the local arts scene is the influence of Vamps veterans.

"It became a breeding ground for a lot of the indie production going on around here," said producer Mark Turner, who used a number of Vamps veterans on his feature April's Fool. "Not that they set out to do it, but they really started the whole make-your-movie-on-video-however-you-can-get-it-done scene here in Cincinnati."

"For me, it was a chance to work with some people who were ... serious about their project," said Vamps crew alumni Jeff Dunn, who went on to direct an award-winning educational film as well as his own horror film, Zombie Cult Massacre. "They tried to do something more than a lot of people in the B(-movie) market, the ones who simply want a nice-looking box and don't care too much about what's inside."

What: A launch party for the nationwide release of Vamps 2: Blood Sisters on DVD.
Who: Cast members Glori-Anne Gilbert, Amber Newman, Paul Morris and Rob Calvert are expected to be on hand to autograph copies of the DVD set, including the original Vamps: Deadly Dreamgirls.
When: 7 p.m. Monday. A screening of the movie begins at 8 p.m.
Where: 20th Century, 3021 Madison Road, Oakley.
Admission: $5; a portion of the proceeds will benefit the Southern Ohio Filmmakers Association (SOFA) and Freestore/Foodbank.
For directions, visit Web site.
Life after vampires

The minds behind the phenomenon are Mark Burchett and Michael D. Fox, old Lakota High School friends who shared writing and directing credits on Vamps and their 1996 project, Evil Ambitions. Burchett took sole responsibility for Vamps 2, while Fox created Live Nude Shakespeare (1997) and lent his talents to local features The Last Late Night and April's Fool.

"Whether you like the horror genre or not, you have to respect what they've managed to do," said Turner. "They've worked on incredibly small budgets and weird shooting schedules ... to accommodate all the people that are willing to invest their time and energy in the movies."

One of those people was director of photography Jeff Barklage. Fox and Burchett recruited him in person. "Here were these two crazy guys sitting in my living room. I thought, 'This is nuts. I'm in,' " said Barkalge. He also aimed to expand his booming commercial career into feature films. Said Turner, "He went from Vamps ... and within a couple years he was shooting a movie produced by the Coen brothers (The Naked Man)."

Even more connection

Other connections abound; composer Douglas Thornton already had a highly regarded commercial reputation when he volunteered for Vamps 2; he has since written music for the soon-to-debut Tattered Angel. Makeup artist J.D. Bower honed his skills on both Vamps, then worked on April's Fool and The Last Late Night; Lonzo Jones worked on Evil Ambitions and Zombie Cult Massacre, where he met Dunn and invited him to work with Dreamline, the educational film company he runs with Steve Grothaus.

Said Burchett, "I would rather be remembered for helping people get their start than for 'This was a better-than-average vampire-stripper movie.' "

As for quality, no one associated with the movies claims they are more than exploitation flicks, albeit with a sense of humor.

Both are loaded with wisecracks, puns and jokes, as well as fake blood and bare breasts.

"I don't think we have ever actually scared anybody," said Burchett. "Our tongue has always been very much in our cheek."

Even their publicity is self-mocking:

"The tender, often touching, cautionary tale of the dangers of fallen priests becoming romantically linked to vampire strippers!" "Tonight, Heather will be lap dancing for her soul!"

Formula made the movies valuable, said Jeffrey Faoro, director of acquisitions for EI Cinema, the firm releasing the new DVD. It specializes in titles like Mean Mother, Spiderbabe, Screaming Dead and Satan's School for Lust.

"I hate to say that there's certain formula, but over the history of B-movies, it has worked. Vampires are always popular. Beautiful girls are always popular, and naked beautiful girls, even better. It's shot well, ... it's campy. They're just fun stories."

The market for the movies, said Faoro, is made up of viewers who "don't want to see the high-gloss Hollywood attempt at making a horror film."

Such fans share their obsessions in publications with names like Fangoria, Scream Queens and Vamperotica, and sell homemade video wares at fan conventions.

It was at one such convention that Burchett and Fox met William Hinzman, a cameraman and on-screen zombie in George Romero's legendary low-budget horror film, The Night of the Living Dead.

He agreed to play a small part in their next film, Evil Ambitions (due for national DVD release soon, under its original title, Satanic Yuppies.)

Hinzman said then that Vamps "is a lot better than most of these kinds of movies," despite low-wattage production and unpolished acting.

"There are a lot of these films on the market," said Faoro. "We've gotten our hands on hundreds of low-budget (horror) films. A lot of them just aren't that good. Some of them, like Vamps ... they're done by real filmmakers."


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