Director: Luca Bercovici

USA - 1990

  Hoff! Hoff!  


With a name like Rockula, it’s got to be worth reviewing.

In point of fact, Rockula is probably the best vampire farce you’ve never seen.  It also has the distinction of being possiblI can't say anything about science, but that ensemble is fairly blinding...y 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 store).

In 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 DiddleSlumming.y in a spandex unitard?  (Yes, you read that correctly.)

From 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.

As 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 someWow! A hot vampire in the tub! Nothing can get better than... 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.

The 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.

In 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....AAAAAHHHHH!!!!!, 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.

Ralph 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 reflection.

Yes, 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.  WhiRockula looks to his friends Britny Fox for 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.

Anyway, 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).

Nancye 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 pl" sugar walls..."ayed 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.

Mona 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.

The 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.

We 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 re"...on the dark side, oh yeahhh..."ason, 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.

Anyway, 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.

The 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"I'm crushing your face! Crush! Crush!" 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.

You 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!

Anyway, 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.

So, 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.

Mona 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 "...push it, push it good..." 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.

Back 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: Rockula.

We have movie title, folks.  I say again, we have movie title.

So, 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.

On 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.

It’s 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.

Stanley 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.

Now 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 seeinBefore Marky Mark. Before Eminem. There was Dean Cameron.g Bo Diddley in a spandex body suit, with a cape and little springy deely-bob antennae.  The hell?

Mona 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!

Ralph 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 offspring!

Suffice 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 acting.  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.

Almost 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 feaScience! (One more for good measure.)tured zoot-suited hip-hop and scratching on a pair of gramophone turntables.  Word).  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 dance.

So, 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.

Then 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.

The 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.

Then 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.

The 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.  HI know what you're all thinking: Is that real fur?e’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.

Jefery 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?

All 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 there.  

In summary...




These are the times of which to cherish...

Ralph and his reflection are just strange.  There’s moments when they just stare at each other, for no other reason than, y’know, it’s supposed to be a mirror.  I don’t know what the heck is up with all that, but the very strangeness of it was deeply satisfying to me.

I still love the band-making montage.  Just the sheer lunacy of some of the options makes me giggle like a schoolgirl.

Nancye Ferguson and Thomas Dolby are both gems, in their own way.  Any time either one of them is on-screen, it’s a good scene.

My glee in viewing the final movie number should put to rest any question of which performer or performers owns the largest share of my heart (and I’ll give you a hint, it’s not the Mighty, Mighty Bosstones).




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-- Copyright © 2003 by E. Mark Mitchell





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