Amy Heckerling directed two of the most iconic teen comedies of all time, Clueless & Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and yet she hasn’t been afforded much leeway as a filmmaker. Outside her work on television there’s a dispiritingly low number of titles to her name and while I’m not willing to fully go to bat for either Look Who’s Talking or Johnny Dangerously, I will say Heckerling does have at least one credit to her name that’s criminally overlooked: Vamps. A madcap romcom about two party girl vampires trying to survive the afterlife in the big scity, Vamps is wildly fun & immediately endearing, recalling Herckerling’s best work to date in the high school satire Clueless. The two films’ connection runs much deeper than the directer reuniting with actors Alicia Silverstone & Wallace Shawn, however. They both have a genuine empathy for all of their characters, even the high school mean girls & bloodsucking undead (as well as their respective “enemies”), and they both find plenty of room for personality & biting wit within the rigid romcom formula. Vamps is Heckerling at the top of her endearing-but-satirical game and every time I revisit it I become more baffled that it has yet to cultivate a solid cult audience.
An ultra-feminine precursor to What We Do in the Shadows, Vamps follows two NYC roommates as they navigate big city nightlife & supplant their thirst for blood (held at bay by feeding on rats) with an endless eternity of clubbing & casual sex. Silverstone more or less reprises her role as an all-growed-up Cher “Clueless” Horowitz & her bestie is played by Krysten Ritter, who’s essentially a much-less vicious version of her Don’t Trust the B character Tall Slut No Panties, uhh, I mean Chloe. Except, you know, they’re vampires. Injecting a little horror movie fantasy into this Sex and the City worldscape of trying to find the right guy by sleeping with all the wrong ones livens up the format a great deal. It’s amusing to watch these women lie about their age by hundreds of years, attend Sanguines Anonymous meetings, find work modeling clothes for other vampires who can’t use a mirror, and check out hot guys’ jugulars as they, in turn, check out their cleavage. That’s not where Vamps gets the most mileage out of its vampire genre gimmick, though. Its combination of sisterly camaraderie with old world nostalgia is its true undead heart. Silverstone’s character in particular struggles with memory of a world before cellphone addiction & cancer-causing sugar substitutes and it’s her combination of Luddite philosophy & aggressive femininity that affords this film it’s own unique voice.
Vamps feels a little like an entire sitcom’s run conveniently contained at a romcom’s length. It’s by no means breaking any molds in terms of genre or humor, especially recalling other feminine horror comedy genre mashups like Hocus Pocus, Death Becomes Her, and Sabrina The Teenage Witch. Its playful mix of bloodlust, fashion, cute guys, and immortality might not feel entirely fresh in the 2010s, but Heckerling keeps the mood consistently light, endearing, and bizarre. Besides, the movie delights in feeling outdated in a modern world it has little reverence for. Big time supporting players like Sigourney Weaver, Maclolm McDowell, and Dan Stevens are all just as charming & effective as the main cast and a few inspired gags like a rat blood spit take & a vampire’s hideous spray-on tan find some unexpected, as-yet unexplored territory in a genre that’s been mined beyond death. It’s Heckerling’s specific, unmistakable comedic voice that makes Vamps feel remarkable despite what you’d expect from it’s genre trappings & modern age griping. Unfortunately, because that voice is so rarely heard these days it’s a sound for sore ears.If Herckerling has any other projects cooking that are half as charming as Vamps we’d be lucky to have them in our grotesque modern world. I’m afraid they’d also go noticed & unappreciated, though. There’s little evidence in the last twenty years of her work’s public reception that would make me think otherwise.