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Revisiting Grace Jones' majestic performance in Richard Wenk film 'Vamp'

“Life isn’t about finding yourself, it’s about creating yourself.” – Grace Jones

Wandering the wet, murky streets of downtown Los Angeles, a strange atmospheric presence bubbles beneath the concrete surface. It’s the same presence that fuel’s Martin Scorsese’s crazed comedy caper, After Hours, as well as the more sinister sleaze that underlines Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Bringing a bizarre underworld to life, Richard Wenk’s Vamp takes inspiration from these films’ bubbling ambience and throws in a dose of From Dusk Till Dawn for good measure to create a cocktail of surrealism brought to life by Grace Jones.

Illustrating a coming-of-age naivety, Wenk’s film follows two fraternity pledges sprawling the streets searching for a stripper, only to stumble into a sleazy bar occupied by vampires. It’s a strange, stylised journey shot in an expressionistic perspective by cinematographer Elliot Davis, providing a distinct otherworldly barrier between the known streets of LA and the weird verdant green of the bar’s interior. Who better to lead the clutch of vampires than the iconic eccentric Grace Jones as Katrina, an uncanny figure covered in white paint, turquoise contact lenses and a large red bobbed wig. 

Sporting enigmatic monochrome body paint applied by legendary American pop-artist Keith Haring, Jones’ initial appearance is truly captivating, forcing a stunned silence as she performs a writhing titillating dance. Recalling the stature of an icon from an ancient civilisation due to the presence of her spiralling metal chest piece and spiked headdress, Jones’ Katrina is a majestic being as she contorts her way through her initial performance to the tune of ‘Seduction Surrender’ by the singer herself. 

After gyrating atop a headless mannequin to complete her dance, the camera pans across to an astounded audience mentally situated somewhere between aroused and terrified. This speaks volumes to Grace Jones’ enchanting silent performance that both magnetises the audience closer and repels them in fear. Her sensual, physical presence invites spectacle, not least as her image is the summation of the eclectic imaginations of Keith Haring, as well as pioneering fashion designers Azzedine Alaïa and Issei Miyake. 

This was also the situation behind the scenes, with Grace Jones often dominating the proceedings of the production with consistent tardiness and frequent requests for a sexual vibrator on set. In addition to this, she also turned up to a post-production ADR session in an outfit made largely of jangling metal, creating distorted recordings before she was requested to remove the outfit and proceeded to work the rest of the day naked. Such adds to the enduring legacy of the iconic monolith of late 20th-century fashion, illustrated by Kyle Munzenrieder of W magazine, who wrote that “everyone from Madonna to Björk to Beyoncé to Lady Gaga has taken more than a few pages from her playbook”.

Vamp typifies the cultural stature of Grace Jones, a champion of pop, fashion, cinema and the LGBTQ+ community. Continuing to tour around the world, at 73-years-old she remains ever-captivating, with Richard Wenk’s 1986 dreamlike journey into the subterranean underbelly of LA being one of her finest ever screen endeavours. In the plethora of cinematic vampires, her eclectic, illusory figure sucks you into a dark nightmare and abandons you in a dazed, tranquilised state.  

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