Richard Wenk’s 1986 comedy-horror, Vamp, follows two college students (Chris Makepeace and Robert Rusler) who try to weasel their way into a fraternity by hiring a stripper who turns out to be the vampire, Queen Katrina, played by the elusive triple threat, Grace Jones. In spite of receiving top billing, Jones has not a line of dialogue in the film, instead relying on body movements and facial expressions to convey herself, “a standard practice of “Othering” in Hollywood that dates to the 1910s” (Hudson 134).
Katrina utilizes her sexual prowess in an unusual vampiric seduction game that resembles that of a werewolf: hissing, growling, and licking Rusler’s character A.J, a young white male.
This blatant animalism works in conjunction with the documentation of black bodies exhibited as animals for the white gaze, none more famously than South African captive, Saartjie Baartman. To escape slavery in Cape Town in the late 19th century, Baartman traveled to London and then to Paris as a one-woman freak show exhibition for white audiences who were unaccustomed to African people. Nicknamed, Hottentot Venus, Baartman’s large buttocks and wide hips were ogled at as a first hand look at the “wonders of the natural world”.
With her body turned into a commercial enterprise her humanity was further devalued when after her death at 25 years old, Baartman’s brain and genetilia were removed and put on display in a Parisian museum for fifty years and then shelved with alcohol as a preservative only to be returned to her native homeland in 2002 when a group of South African medical students demanded her return. Baartman’s labia was used as physical evidence to prove that African women had “primitive sexual appetite”, the fact that she didn’t speak English or French was used as a tool of humiliation, her voice silenced as a caged animal for European entertainment.
Underneath the 1980’s camp factor, Vamp represents a world where white men are helpless when in the grip of a black woman, despite the centuries of sexual violence that has been inflicted on black women throughout the diaspora by white men. In cinema, the gaze is still in full effect and can be seen in Vamp: “although reaction shots of Katrina’s audience are inserted into the performance sequence, none adopts her point of view. Katrina is always on-screen, always under someone else’s gaze, even when she attacks her victims (Hudson 135). As a silent unusual femme fatale, Katrina is the embodiment of foreign eroticism, a creature of the night marked by exotic tribal marks and a penchant for human blood. Katrina’s monstrous-feminine is laced in her dual identity of blackness and womanhood, a feminine mystique that is the sight of imitation and percussion.
Sanders, Barry. Unsuspecting Souls: The Disappearance of the Human Being. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2009. Print.
Hudson, Dale M. "Vampires of Color And the Performance of Multicultural Whiteness." Border Crossings and Multicultural Whiteness: Nationalism in the Global Production and US Reception of Vampire Films. 2004. Print.
Written by Rooney Elmi, founding editor of SVLLY(wood) Magazine