a name like Rockula, it’s got
to be worth reviewing.
point of fact, Rockula is
probably the best vampire farce you’ve never seen.
It also has the distinction of being possibly the last of the
Golan-Globus Cannon films. In
fact, according to some of the information I’ve found, it was made in
1988, but not released until 1990. Part
of the cause of this was that during the filming, Cannon was going through
the bankruptcy that brought them into the control of corrupt financier
Giancarlo Parretti, whose revamped film company, renamed Pathe
Communications, was not nearly as interested in making money off films, as
the company was, to my understanding, being used to launder Parretti’s
money. Pathe had to fulfill
the contractual obligations for release in the theaters and on video, and
even a limited laserdisc pressing, but didn’t intend to take it one
single step farther. Which is
why you sometimes have to look pretty hard to find it these days,
particularly in large chain video stores that remove seldom-rented films
from the shelves (yet another reason to support your local independent
any case, as a result of the financial free-for-all, this film got almost
no exposure, and hardly anyone seems to know about it.
Which is really a shame, because where else are you going to find a
vampire-musical-romance-comedy with such an affable cast, including Bo
Diddley in a spandex unitard? (Yes,
you read that correctly.)
what I’ve heard, Rockula was
originally written as a “serious” vampire movie, dealing with a true
love’s reincarnation and the vampire’s pursuit of said true love in
the face of fated tragedy (ho-hum). Apparently,
the filmmakers got a hold of it, and realized it would work much better as
a comedy. However, I’m not
at all certain they had a lot of time to do a proper adaptation, which
shows in some of the gags. A
few of them are predictable, others are so arcane you’re not sure what
you’re supposed to be laughing at (but it’s weird enough, you
half-laugh anyway at the absurdity), and a small number are so inspired in
their oddness that they might just “make” the movie for you.
It’s the occasional freshness, the spontaneity, that leads me to
believe the story that they were improvising a lot of the comedy on the
set. Granted, I could be
misinformed about a lot of this, but I do like the story I’ve heard.
a word of warning, this film is deeply, deeply rooted in the 1980’s, but
yet manages to not be limited by its firm grounding.
The examples of its origins are clear in the musical numbers, the
costumes, and some
of the casting. On
the other hand, a few of the gags are willing to go well outside the
typical ‘80’s pop culture in order to make the joke.
If you’ve got an MST3K
mind, that could contribute to whether or not you like this film.
title character, Ralph Le Vie (sounds like Levine, so I thought for a
while that they were Jewish vampires), is played by Dean Cameron, who most
of our readers will remember as the dark-haired horror film fan, Chainsaw,
in Summer School. He’s
been in two Ski School movies, and continues to do good work in
small roles, in both film and TV. Cameron
appears to be a reliable Hollywood every-man; it’s surprising he
hasn’t raised his profile more. It’s
interesting that his most notable recent activity has been documented on
his web page, where he’s been attempting to scam one of the “Nigerian
Bank Account” scammers. This
activity, begun in a fit of creative revenge, has led to not only an
amusing exchange of mail, but has led to a speaking engagement at a police
Bunco squad convention, here in Chicago.
You never know where your hobbies will take you.
any case, we first see Ralph practicing his harpsichord in the appropriate
spooky manner, soon undercut by comedy just before his mom comes in to
make sure she’s looking sexy before she goes out on her date.
This is almost guaranteed, as Ralph’s mother, Phoebe, is played
by Toni Basil. Toni is a real treat as an actress: she’s been in scads
of interesting flicks from 1964 on up (notables: Head, Easy
Rider, Greaser’s Palace, Mother, Jugs & Speed, Slaughterhouse
Rock). In fact, Rockula
is listed as her last movie as an actress, but she’s continued working
as a choreographer since then, on up to Legally Blonde.
I tell you, as Phoebe, she’s hot; immensely hotter than our
youth-obsessed culture would imagine a 47-year-old could be (or 45 or 46,
however old she was when this movie was shot).
Yeah, she looked a little scary in the “Mickey” video, with all
those cheerleaders and such, but she’s just so full of manic energy and
sexiness in this film, she’s hard to resist.
She manages to just about steal every scene she’s in, and it’s
worth it all when she finally has a dance number.
is, of course, a loveable doofus. That
is necessary in these types of stories; we all seem to relate to a
well-meaning, nice person who’s a little bit dorky, a little bit funny.
In order to make a vampire character thus likeable, they give him
braces, a friendly but overbearing mother, and a wisecracking mirror
vampires do not have reflections, as Phoebe was sure to point out.
But Ralph apparently has some sort of curse, or perhaps the person
in the mirror has a curse. Anyway, Ralph’s reflection is a separate entity, and
manages to impart a good deal of exposition while browbeating Ralph into
getting out of the house. Which
he does, heading out to a little bar, where he tells his story to Chuck
the Bartender (Susan Tyrrell, of Cry Baby fame), a drunk (Kevin
Hunter, I think, in his first film role), and Axman, played by Bo Diddley.
Yes, Bo Diddley. He’s
remarkably underutilized in this film, believe it or not.
But then again, perhaps he had a boat payment, or just wanted to
visit L.A. for a bit, get some relief from that Florida humidity.
Hey, he’s earned it.
apparently there’s a recurrent curse from 200 years ago: every 22 years,
he meets the current reincarnation of his true love, Mona, on Friday,
October 13. They always fall
in love. Then, on Halloween,
a pirate with a rhinestone peg leg always kills her with a ham bone. This happened in France in the 18th century, and
has been recurring ever since. And
his reflection is trapped until the curse is broken. But this year is different; he swears he’s not going to
meet her, he’s going to get on with his life.
He leaves the bar at exactly midnight, and at 12:01 a.m., Friday
the 13th, he gets hit by a car driven by Mona (Tawny Fere, who
has since done Night Children and a stint on “General Hospital”
as Dominique Straton) and her proto-Goth friend Robin (Nancye Ferguson).
Ferguson is an interesting case: she’s Mark Mothersbaugh’s spouse, and
rather looks like Devo material. She
also enlisted her daughter Alex into the film, as one of the three little
blonde girls collectively called the Visiting Kids.
Now, I was told that all three of the visiting kids were offspring
from Devo band members, but I don’t personally have the data to back
that up. Anyway, Nancye’s
been working occasionally as an actress for some time; she even played a
“singer” in Mystery Men, and a “dancer” in The Wizard of
Speed and Time! She has
her own abbreviated number late in Rockula, with the Visiting Kids
singing backup while she gyrates around like an epileptic gazelle.
Not that gazelles gyrate all that much.
Still, she’s so darn cute in those glasses, I can’t be harsh
with her. And she plays the
mostly straight role pretty well; it suits her acting approach.
and Robin are apparently a musical act.
We see Robin at the center of a ring of keyboards (naturally), and
we see Mona with a guitar, though in fact that’s the only indication of
any instrumental talent – she’s just a singer, the rest of the movie.
In barges self-involved producer, Stanley, owner of and top shill
for Stanley’s Death Park, the only coffin and gravestone place I’ve
ever heard of that advertises their newest inventions on the TV. And dabbles in cryogenics, we later learn.
Anyway, Stanley appears and shows one of his commercials (with an
immensely catchy jingle) to a Japanese businessman, and basically
interferes with the girls, setting up his personality and the essential
character conflict of the film.
thing that really grabs your attention is the fact that Stanley is being
played by Thomas Dolby. Ol’
Tom is certainly not without a sense of humor.
His songs indicate this, his videos show better clues, and if
you’ve seen an interview, you know it to be true.
I can’t really say that he’s a good actor, per se, but you have
to give him credit for his massive enthusiasm and his decent comic timing.
And boy, is he willing to go the full distance for a joke.
see a bit of the daily life of the vampire when Ralph comes home and picks
up the daily blood delivery (they don’t even deliver milk that way
anymore, much less blood, but that’s all beside the point).
He goes upstairs and finds Phoebe in a bubble bath with a midget
(actor, stuntman, and occasional grip Tony Cox – read his IMDB entry,
it’s very impressive). I
have to say, that family is way too comfortable with each other.
Then again, they’re French.
I mean, hey, let’s face it – sexual mores, slightly different
over there. Still, even being
French can’t excuse a midget with a snorkel.
Anyway, so Ralph’s reflection gives him hassle for being such a
wimp with Mona. For some reason, Ralph’s reflection gets a lot of mirror women.
The heck is up with that? I
mean, I know the mirror guy is independent from Ralph, but what about
everyone else’s reflection? At
one point, the reflection does comment that everything is backwards in the
mirror world, but that doesn’t explain the presence of people where
there are none reflected.
Ralph goes to bed in his clothes, has an 80s music video dream with its
own jokes and a good deal of foreshadowing, and then wakes up in these
nifty pajamas, brown with yellow stick-figure bats on them.
They looked so comfortable. If
I had pajamas like that, I might bother wearing the full set.
The best I could do, design-wise, was scorpion-pattern boxers at
Target, but at least I got a pair for both me and my wife.
Matching boxers – it must be love!
I’m not sure what the attraction is with sleeping clothes with
the artful images of dangerous wild animals; you’d think it would make
it harder to get to sleep. Or maybe it’s protective coloration, or a threat defense,
much like the plastic owl you can post in your garden to keep the crows
away. Don’t attack me in my sleep, I’m covered with scorpions! But I’m way out on a tangent.
Back to the movie.
next day, despite his misgivings, Ralph decides to go find Mona, knowing
only that she’s a musician, with the intention to at least to save her
life. Then he puts on a
striped sweater with a plaid vest. The
hell was he thinking? Oh,
right, this was the ‘80s. Late
‘80s, but still… Apparently,
with the proper sun block, Ralph can go out in the daylight.
So, between that and the blood delivery, there’s basically no
drawbacks to being a vampire any more; take that, Anne Rice!
Well, no drawbacks except for those teeth, which nobody seems to
notice. But then again it’s
California, despite Ralph’s reflection talking about the “tri-state
area.” Do people in Cali
actually talk about a tri-state area?
Regardless, it’s obviously placed squarely in L.A.; the
“searching” montage that follows (set to Bo Diddley music, one of the
few times he is effectively used in the film, surprisingly) would tip
that, if nothing else.
know, I grew up during the ‘80s. ‘80s
Pop and New Wave tunes remain close to my heart, and I cut my musical
teeth on the pop Metal of the time before moving on.
However, even though I was there for the genesis of the trend, even
I cannot explain what our attraction was to hair bands.
There’s a group of hair metal rockers that Ralph goes and talks
to early on in his montage, and looking at them, and realizing they’re
representative of oh, so many bands of my youth, who collectively propped
up the hairspray industry and contributed to the collapse of the ozone
layer, I just have to think – why?
Why did it ever seem like that was cool?
And no, it’s not just jealousy for the long hair, I’m quite
happy with my no-maintenance no-length coif, thank you very much.
I just look at those hair rockers and I think, man, imagine the
shower drain on that tour bus!
Ralph and his reflection have a charming public discussion utilizing a
couple of fun-house mirrors; I’m surprised they didn’t make more Wizard
of Oz jokes, though they did manage to drop the taste level with a
reference and a couple of sound effects (not as bad as a Farrelly Brothers
film, but still effective). So
they discuss the vagaries of fate and its effect on a deterministic
universe, and then they finally get directed to Mona, who is to sing at
Club Hell that very night.
the movie’s single nightclub venue is Club Hell, which has a heck of a
stage. Maybe that’s just
how they do it in California; it’s a far cry from the dinky little
raised platforms you get in the clubs around here.
You’ve got to go to a major, dedicated venue, like the Riviera or
the Aragon or the Metro, to get stage capability like that, and even then,
you’re still limited in the space you have to play with.
But they go all-out in Club Hell.
Why Club Hell, exactly? I
mean, it’s not like it’s got a devils-and-fire theme going on, nor
does it appear to be a barb directed at the music industry.
Maybe it’s an inside joke of some sort.
does her pop song lip synch on a stage with these huge cage bars. I half-expected a “chicken wire?” type moment, but it’s
apparently part of the stage dressing.
All the same, they’re strong enough to hold the weight of several
grown men; when Mona recognizes Ralph in the crowd, and he inexplicably
does the “vanishing from sight” routine that Batman seems so good at
(even though she was looking right at him the whole time), the audience
covers up for her pause in her lip synch performance by climbing up the
bars of the set, for no readily apparent reason.
Anyway, after the performance, Ralph is visible again – doubly
so, apparently, as Mona spots him all the way down a crowded hallway.
They have a few moments of conversation, wherein he lies to impress
her, saying he’s got a band, but he has no name or particular music
style to tell her. To me,
that would seem like a bad lie, but she buys it.
Pretentious Stanley Dolby pulls Mona away to meet some people, and
apparently arranged for Ralph to get thrown out, because otherwise,
there’s no reason why the bouncers would mess with a well-behaved,
adequately-attired club patron. And I have to question whether bouncers actually throw people
through the air like that. Seems
like it’s law-suit fodder, not to mention worker’s compensation if one
of those bouncers throws his back out.
at the bar we saw before at the beginning of the film, Ralph tells his
story in between blues riffs on the piano, accompanied by Bo Diddley.
I just can’t get over what a guitar legend like Bo Diddley is
doing in this silly little movie. He’s
game for just about anything though, as he proves when Ralph realizes he
has to actually create a band to make his lie true, and recruits his only
three friends as band members. It’s
a funny montage; I particularly like the costumes, and Ralph’s
impression of a Bing Crosby-esque crooner.
You know, you’d think any band with Bo Diddley in it would pretty
much have its theme picked out, but it doesn’t work that way in the
movie. Still, despite having
a plethora of options, they can’t settle on a single direction, until
Ralph’s reflection sarcastically suggests both a theme and a name:
have movie title, folks. I
say again, we have movie title.
naturally, Rockula manages to get a gig at Club Hell.
They’ve got to: any other location would put the film way over
budget. Mona and Robin and
Stanley are all in attendance (having driven up in Stanley’s car, which
looks like it’s out of the Munsters garage) when Ralph plays his title
track, “Rockula.” He’s
in this interesting little outfit, too – where the heck did he get a
belt buckle in the shape of a K on such short notice?
He’s got his friends from the bar playing instruments, but I
don’t see how they get the sound that’s playing from my TV out of the
instruments shown on the stage. Well, heck, it’s a movie musical; you make do with what
you’ve got handy, and they’ll fix it in post.
his way off the stage, he has to pass a line of people, each with
something to say to represent themselves.
You’ve got the surfer, the business guy, two groupies, the punk
(I swear, he looks just like a Ramone), the promoter, etc.
Mona waits at the other end, having been somehow completely won
over by the amusing but mediocre song.
I know it’s a movie, and all, but please, can we at least have
the illusion that they have an actual full set to play?
So Ralph and Mona hit it off, and are spied upon by a jealous
Stanley, parked in his oh-so-unobtrusive Munster-mobile across the street.
Only in L.A. would he go unnoticed.
the next night. Ralph’s
going to an art show or something with Mona, and his reflection is dressed
completely differently. What’s
up with that? It’s just
strange, and a little nonsensical. In
any case, Phoebe comes in dressed like some ultra-sexy Lucille Ball with
pointy canines. I missed what
she was saying because I was distracted by her hat.
So, later, after the art show, Ralph starts showing his age,
revealing he’s a very strange person.
Eventually, he’s going to have to tell Mona what’s up, but
until then, he’s trying to play it normal, and not always succeeding.
goes to a veiled gypsy fortune-teller, Madame Benoir (it sounds like
Madame Ben-Wa when dear Mr. Dolby says it, which sparked off a host of
other associations in my head and made me think this was a much dirtier
movie than it really is) to get advice as to what to do about this
interloper trying to steal Mona. Unlike
many psychics, she has hard and concrete information about the situation.
“Stanley,” she says in an OUT-RAGE-OUS accent, “your business
is death. Your life is death!
Your destiny is death! You
must kill her!” Being, of
course, the owner of Stanley’s Death Park, he’s got some immediate
ideas. However, the gypsy has
specific instructions: it must happen on Halloween, he must be dressed as
a pirate with a rhinestone peg leg, and he must kill her with a ham bone.
Observant readers will note that this is a lot more straightforward
of an arrangement than most mystic destinies can usually manage.
Rest assured, all will come together by the end.
we go to Rockula’s next performance, which is a rap video shot in the
jerky-motion method used in an early Run/DMC video, I’m told. Apparently, he is the DJ, and I am the vampire.
Aren’t you glad we got that straight?
At least it’s not quite as forced as when Adam Ant tried his hand
at rap, but then again, what is? In
any case, the highlight of this sequence is seeing Bo Diddley in a spandex
body suit, with a cape and little springy deely-bob antennae.
is, of course, backstage, and she meets Ralph’s mom, who dropped by for
the show. A good mother does
try to support her son! She’s
also insistent on having Mona over to eat dinner the very next evening,
which Ralph resists, but Mona is happy to agree to.
Phoebe is not only full of scary energy, we also find out she’s
heavily armed. What a woman!
and Mona are doing all those sappy things you do in a movie. Getting their caricatures done on the boardwalk (hey, the
caricaturist noticed Ralph’s teeth, why won’t anyone else?), walking
hand in hand, getting matching tattoos… no wait, that’s Naked Gun.
They end up near Mona’s apartment, singing to each other, when
suddenly an out-of-control car hits Ralph, and carries him, pressed
against the windshield, several blocks to a cardboard village of homeless
people. Thus ensues a
“funny” sequence where they try to find each other while singing a
duet, aided by the Visiting Kids, three artfully besmudged blonde moppets
(all presumably related to Devo, as I’ve said).
Of course, why anyone would think such girls would be safe in a
homeless village, I don’t know. But
I guess it was easy to find the two singing people, and presume that
they’re together. And
knowing where to meet up would require them to be in communication, which,
since I see no cell-phones, might be accomplished by telepathy, which
explains their blondeness – they’re straight out of Village of the
Damned! Oh, you Devo
it to say, by the end of the song, or at least shortly thereafter, a much
more reasonable explanation becomes apparent, although it then begs the
question of when did all this happen.
But regardless, Stanley is there to try and spoil the mood, with
his so-broad self-importance. Tom
did a good job with this guy; makes me wonder why he didn’t do more
I guess there are few
parts that can be played as broad as he likes to play them.
In any case, Stanley takes the opportunity to show off another
Stanley’s Death Park commercial. As
ludicrous as it is, it still doesn’t make Mona laugh.
Instead, she gets mad, and grabs Ralph, and heads to the La Vie
house for dinner.
immediately upon their arrival, Phoebe begins talking about their past
home in France, which Ralph has to hurriedly explain as eccentric teasing.
It’s all the more surprising, then, when a giant man in a kilt
and silver-lamé wife-beater, toting a cigar, comes out of the kitchen.
Turns out it’s “Boom-Boom” Williams, a star on the
professional wrestling circuit and one of Phoebe’s many devoted
love-slaves (Rick Zumwalt, veteran of many nameless roles, like “Bully
in Bar” in The Presidio, and “Tattooed Strongman” in Batman
Returns). His presence is
simply… atmospheric. It
keeps the carnival feeling alive, particularly after dinner, when he MCs
Phoebe’s dance/rap number, and even performs a bit of scratching on the
gramophone record (if he hadn’t been in his costume, I would have been
reminded of Articolo 31’s video to “La Sidanzata” (The Fiancée),
which featured zoot-suited hip-hop and scratching on a pair of gramophone
Speaking of Phoebe’s dance/rap number, it’s enormously catchy,
and the choreography, you can’t hope to reproduce, it’s just too
varied and well-performed. You
can definitely tell a good chunk of Ms. Basil’s experience lies in
after dinner, Ralph has to come clean.
He takes her to a cemetery, and tells her he’s a vampire.
“All these people are dead, and I’m alive, but I’m older than
any of them.” Of course,
being a rational woman, she comes up with a plethora of excuses. “Lots of people start believing their own image,” she
says. Then comes the
movie’s worst case of exposition. “Remember
that box you saw back at the house, that you said looked familiar?” he
says, producing said box. This
is a prime example of something that should have been shown earlier, and
then brought up now. Explaining
it like that makes it seem amateurish, which this movie, for all its
comedy and wackiness, has avoided so far.
Naturally, there are odd things in the box that seem to lend
credence to his story, but he tries to explain.
“I’m not a bad vampire. I
am a bad vampire; I’m not very good at it.”
The clincher is when he tries to turn into a bat.
It’s not a very good bat, but it’s enough to scare Mona off.
comes the “sad break-up montage,” set to Thomas Dolby music.
I’m glad he’s contributing more than manic overacting to the
film. Not that his
contributions aren’t appreciated, mind you, but his greatest talents lie
in music, and it’s good that they’re used.
There’s a lot of little bits of mopeyness, along with Stanley’s
demented preparations. There’s
a dream sequence, which has a bit of an S&M theme to it which I’m
not sure where it came from, but hey, who am I to judge?
Also, when Mona’s suitcase falls open after the “limo” van
breaks down, the driver steals a pair of her underwear.
Not sure why they put that distracting detail in there, I guess to
point out that, among other things, the normal humans in L.A. are weirder
than Ralph the vampire.
movie starts to build to a climax during the Halloween concert at Club
Hell, with everyone being in costume.
The audience and most of the characters know what’s going to go
down, but the question is how. There
is time for a quick dance bit from Phoebe, and Robin and the Visiting Kids
have a chance to do that abbreviated musical number I mentioned, jerking
around on stage like Backstreet Boys with epilepsy.
The various girls are much cuter, though, at least in my opinion.
there’s an exciting fight scene, an emotional climax, and a closing
musical number. There are a
lot of things about the closing number that aren’t explained in the
least (where did those backup singers come from?), but hey, by this point,
are you really surprised by anything that happens?
I know I wasn’t.
writer, director, and the guy who played the pirate chieftain in the first
dream sequence, Luca Bercovici, has had a long and extremely varied
career, as an actor, writer, and director.
He is writing partners with Jefery Levy, or at least he was at the
time of this movie, and they wrote Ghoulies, Rockula, and Ghoulies
3: Ghoulies Go To College together.
Besides directing Ghoulies, he also played roles in Space
Raiders and Scanner Cop. He’d
done the occasional TV role, on series from “Simon & Simon”
through “Airwolf” and “Time Trax.”
Ah, “Time Trax,” we hardly knew ye.
He even did a movie with professional freaked-out maniac Gary Busey,
The Chain, which Bercovici wrote, directed, and played a role in.
Whatever you want to say about Bercovici, at least you can’t say
he’s not committed to his projects.
For a sophomore attempt, particularly following Ghoulies,
this wasn’t bad at all, though opinions will, no doubt, vary.
Levy, the co-writer and producer, has grown into quite the director,
himself, on TV. His touch
could be felt on “Secret Agent Man” (which he was also supervising
producer for), “Dark Angel,” “Freaky Links,” “C.S.I.,” “The
Dead Zone,” and, most recently, “Keen Eddie.”
He’s not as prolific a writer, but with the kind of respect they
get in Hollywood, can you blame him?
in all, Rockula is a lot of goofy, cheap fun.
It’s hardly a valuable addition to the history of film, or of
vampire legend, for that matter, but then again, neither was Dracula:
Dead and Loving It. It
will most likely never be released on DVD, what with the whole Pathe
Communications going down and all, but some enterprising folks have been
burning DVDs from the laserdisc copies, and you can find them for sale
here and there. Or you can
visit one of the local mom-and-pop video stores being pressured out of
business by the conglomerate chains, and see if you can pick up a copy
-- Copyright © 2003 by E. Mark Mitchell