From The Oxford American, 2001
© 2001 George Bishop
PROSTITUTE VAMPIRE: Well, Murphy, what did you have in mind tonight?
MURPHY: Oh, I don’t know. Something a little different maybe. . . . Ow, that hurts! Ow, stop it, you’re biting me!

You won’t find the movie Teen Vamp in video stores anymore, which is probably a good thing for everyone. In the film, a 1988 New World Pictures release, I play the part of “Murphy Gilcrease,” a high school nerd who gets bitten by an evil prostitute vampire and becomes a super-cool, sexy young vampire with magic vampire powers. In the movie, I am Teen Vamp.

I had moved West to Los Angeles after college, pretty much on a whim, pretty much because I had a degree in English Lit and didn’t know what else to do. Becoming an actor, it seemed, would be a good way to make an awful lot of money in a short amount of time without too much work. Along the way, I would become famous, loved and admired by people I didn’t even know. I would get to meet lots of actresses.

One of my first professional acting jobs in Los Angeles was as an extra in a Judas Priest music video. It was a night shoot, in the abandoned zoo in Griffith Park. My hair was teased out and painted gray, and I wore yellow body makeup and a loincloth. Before the filming, two women sprayed me with a sticky aerosol substance and threw handfuls of dirt over me. This was special hygienic makeup dirt, they told me; no need to worry.

In the video, the band members are pursued by Amazon women wearing bikinis made of clear, plastic tubing and animal skins; these women want to capture the members of the band and suck their body fluids. The band runs through the ruins of the old zoo, singing, while the Amazon women crawl and dance on the rocks of the monkey mound. Jets of fire shoot into the air. Then there’s a tracking shot of the band hurrying past small cages, where the Amazon women keep their emaciated prisoners. That’s me squatting down in a foul, wet animal cage with my hair teased out, clutching the bars and looking really pissed off. I walked away from the shoot early that night, before it was finished, swearing that I would never again, no matter how much I was paid, wear yellow body makeup and a loincloth.

I soon began auditioning for TV commercials and managed to score a few hits. I was Man in the Booth in a Firestone ad, Young Monk in a Rice-a-Roni ad, Counter Boy for Taco Bell. These gigs were usually just enough to allow me to eke out a living, though, and enough to keep me trying.

At night I attended classes at Playhouse West, an acting studio in Van Nuys. Playhouse West taught an acting method based on the teachings of Sanford Meisner, one of the original founders, along with Lee Strasberg, of the Actors Studio in New York. Think Marlon Brando, think James Dean. Think ripped t-shirt intense. In their lectures on acting, our teachers would say things like, “When you smoke a cigarette, smoke a cigarette.”

During onstage exercises, students would actually punch each other in the face and pull each other’s hair; less-sturdy actresses would run from the room crying and never return. “Good, good,” our teachers would say. At Playhouse West, we were nothing if not serious.

So when a notice for a film called Teen Vamp went up on the school bulletin board, likely no one thought it even worth phoning about. But I called. What did I care? By making commercials, I’d already done worse according to the school’s standards.

I shaved twice and dressed youthfully for the audition, which was held at a rented office space in Burbank, in front of a lone video camera on a tripod. It looked like someplace you’d solicit players for roles in adult films. I was twenty-seven but had told them I was twenty-five. I tried to seem upbeat, like I imagined a teenager would act.

The producer was a big Texan in a sheepskin coat. After my reading, he huddled with the cameraman. They talked, then the producer turned to me.

“Have you got a minute?” he said.

“Sure, sure,” I said. “Of course.” He held out more pages of script.

They were pretty tied up there, he said. Could I run down the street and make some photocopies for them?

I thought: Would Marlon Brando run and make photocopies? Would James Dean? I considered my teachers at Playhouse West, and the Screen Actors Guild. What would they say to this?

I took the pages. “How many?” I said.

DELBERT: What happened to you back there?
MURPHY: I don’t know. I think I was bitten by a vampire.
DELBERT: How do you feel?
MURPHY: Weird.
DELBERT: You look like you feel weird.
MURPHY: Do you know what this means, Delbert? If everything I’ve read in books and seen in magazines and seen in movies about vampires is true. . . .
DELBERT: Then you’re a vampire.
MURPHY: (Slowly) Then. . .I’m. . .a vampire.

My agent phoned me after the audition, not exactly overjoyed, to tell me I’d won the part of Murphy. I would be paid about five thousand dollars for four weeks’ work—way below union scale. Teen Vamp would shoot in Shreveport, Louisiana, because that was the home of the film’s producer, an ex-oil man called Jim Sr., and his son, the writer and director of the film, Jim Jr. Filming fell between Thanksgiving and Christmas of 1987, and as I hadn’t worked in some time, I was happy to have the gig. And who knew, the film could turn out to be a hit. Dustin Hoffman, I reminded myself, was already thirty when he had his big break in another low budget film, The Graduate. “Yep, flying to location,” I told all my malcontent waiter/actor friends.

A production assistant, Mike, met me at the airport in Dallas and led me to his white Econoline van outside. He didn’t offer to carry my bags.

“You like Whitesnake?” he asked me.

“Who’s that? A band?” I said.

“Man!” he said.

Mike was short and stocky, with a moustache and long, curly black hair. Crossing into Louisiana, he bent forward, reached under his driver’s seat and took out a pistol. It’d been knocking around under there. He set it up on the dash.

“What’s that for?” I said. You couldn’t be too careful, he said. Somebody he knew, his sister-in-law, somebody, had been held up.

Niggers—if you don’t mind my saying,” he said. You had to watch out for them, he said.

CONNIE: Where are we going, Murphy?
MURPHY: I don’t know. Where would you like to go?
CONNIE: Someplace where we can be alone.
MURPHY: Me too.
CONNIE: I’ve got a great idea. Why don’t we go to the old Hillary house?
MURPHY: Where those murders happened a few years ago? Nobody’s been at that place for ten years!
CONNIE: I know. But don’t you want to be alone with me, Murphy?

Once In Shreveport, we drove directly to the production office, a boarded-up, two-story house set on a gloomy back street. Jim Sr. had rented the place for cheap. Besides serving as a production office and storage space, the house would be used as a setting for scenes in the movie. Mike slept in a bedroom upstairs, with the pistol under his pillow, to watch over the place at night.

I was introduced around the makeshift office, then right away sent to be fitted for special vampire teeth and contact lenses. A local dentist took the plaster mold for the fangs; a local optometrist measured my eyes. Afterwards, I got set up at the hotel. They had planned to let me stay in the rented house with Mike, but Jim Sr. had finagled some rooms from the Radisson in exchange for a film credit. Across the hallway from me was where Richard, the cameraman from Burbank, was staying. He told me he’d worked with this group before, on a Stories from the Bible video series. “They’re all right,” he said. “Just try to take it easy. Don’t stress.” I settled into my room to study the script.

I worked on memorizing my part. I broke down the scenes line by line, word by word, as we’d been taught at the Playhouse. I wanted to believe that this film, my first, would turn out to be all right. The script moved along quickly, at least, and Jim Jr. seemed to have a light touch with dialogue. Jack Nicholson, I knew, got his start in low-budget horror films with Roger Corman, and look at him now: seated at the Academy Awards, grinning in his tuxedo and sunglasses.

As they’d taught us at the Playhouse, I learned not just my own lines but also the lines that came before and after mine. I came up with some good sense-memories and an entire personal history for my character—Murphy at five, Murphy at ten, Murphy at his thirteenth birthday party, dressed in a cowboy suit and blowing out the candles on his cake. Before I turned off the light, I’d convinced myself that Teen Vamp could—if necessary—be read as an allegory for AIDS in America.

CONNIE: You’ve been watching me for a long time, haven’t you? And I bet you’ve thought about what it would be like to be with me. Well, I’ll tell you what. If you do something for me, I’ll do something for you.
MURPHY: Like what?
CONNIE: Make your eyes change.
MURPHY: You want to get bitten?
MURPHY: No! Then you would be a vampire, too!
CONNIE: I know.

The vampire contact lenses were ready the next day, and I went to the production office to try them out. We were scheduled to begin shooting later that evening. The contacts were yellow hard lenses, made to match my regular prescription. I put them on. Everything became yellow. When I tried to take them out, I couldn’t. They hurt my eyes horribly. Crew members crowded around. I put my head in the sink and ran water over my eyes to try to flush them out, but they were stuck. My eyes were red and swelling up around the contacts—it looked like I was being strangled to death. “They hurt!” I said. The director’s wife took me to the emergency room of the local hospital, where the doctor on duty removed the lenses with a tiny suction cup. Then he put ointment in my eyes and bandaged the one that had been scratched worse. I was lying on the hospital gurney, one eye bandaged, when a man wearing a buckskin Indian suit and carrying a feathered headdress rushed in. He put his hand on my shoulder, “Are you all right?” This was the director, Jim Jr. He’d been at an Indian Princess ceremony with his daughter and had hurried right over. Jim Jr. had a large face and a beak of a nose; altogether he was like a smaller, sharper version of his father. Don’t worry about insurance, Jim Jr. said. They’d take care of everything, whatever I needed. I could tell he was genuinely worried; after all, they’d already paid for my plane ticket, flown me here, and now, not even the first day into filming, I—their main vampire guy—was in the hospital.

They would drive me back to the hotel. I should just rest up and take it easy. Try not to use my eyes. I heard Jim Jr. muttering as he turned away from the gurney, swatting the Indian headdress against his leg, “Shit. Shit!”

REVEREND THEESUL: Then there’s a legend. And according to the legend, the only way we can kill a vampire is with a wooden stake driven right straight through that sucker’s heart!
MARTHA GILCREASE: You’re talking about my son!
REVEREND THEESUL: No, I’m not talking about Murphy! Come on, Martha. We’re talking about a vampire. A real vampire!

My mother in the film was played by Karen Carlson. Karen was originally from Shreveport and had moved to Los Angeles after winning first runner-up Miss America in 1965. She’d had an impressive career: she’d played Robert Redford’s wife in 1972’s The Candidate and had had regular roles on Dallas and Days of Our Lives, along with dozens of other credits. She’d since returned to Shreveport to settle down to family life and was content picking up the occasional part now and then when asked.

Clu Gulager played the priest, the one who must take on and battle the evil vampires. Clu got his start in the ’50s, starring as Billy the Kid on TV’s The Tall Man, and as Deputy Emmett Ryker in The Virginian. He earned his reputation as a respectable film actor with his role in The Last Picture Show. Although you might not know him, Clu worked constantly, appearing in several films and TV shows a year. In 1985 he acted in The Return of the Living Dead and Nightmare On Elm Street, Part Two before coming to Teen Vamp. As he says in the film, “Luckily, I’ve had experience with this kind of thing before.”

My feeling on meeting these two veteran actors was, My god, what are you doing here? I mean, I was only starting out; I was only paying my dues with this film, which, it was becoming clear to me, would not turn out to be another The Graduate.

But to my surprise, Karen and Clu—both of them real actors with long careers and admirable credits behind them–were thoroughly good-natured during the whole cheap Teen Vamp production. They did their jobs well, and never once did I hear either of them complain about anything. Was this, I wondered, what it meant to be a professional actor? And if so—oh, no—is this what I had to look forward to for the rest of my career? Wasn’t it supposed to get better after this?

CONNIE: Oh, yes! You don’t know what that does to me! Now, Murphy! Give it to me now! Bite me! Bite me!

My love interest in the film was played by a drama student at Shreveport’s Centenary College named Angie Brown. Jim Jr. introduced us, patted us on our backs, and told us we should get to know each other. This was after my eyes were better. We went out to dinner, and afterward she took me to a local dance club. Angie was dangerously cute; she wore a red leather miniskirt and held her blond hair up over her head and whooped and slapped her thigh while she danced the Pony. We drank a lot, and much later Angie drove me back to the hotel. She turned off the motor, and we sat together in her car at the edge of the parking lot under a yellow streetlight.

We had only just met, but I assumed that, being the romantic leads in the film, we would want to have an affair. I figured Angie was thinking the same thing. This was how it was done, after all, in the movies.

“Hey, Angie—” I said.

“Shh! Wait a minute. Don’t talk,” she said.


“Have you ever done this? Just sat real quiet and listened?”

“No. Hey, Angie—” I said.

“Shh! Don’t talk. Don’t say anything. Just listen.”

Angie rested her hands, her shiny red nails, on the steering wheel. She put her head a little forward, turned her eyes up, and listened. I sat forward, too, and did what she did.

After a while, when we’d settled, there was just the sound of our breathing. And then, slowly, other sounds began to rise around us. There was the street noise and a distant hum, like the one from the streetlight; but there seemed to be music, too, far away and crystalline, like harpsicords playing, and maybe snatches of conversation, like long-lost radio broadcasts drifting in the air; spun around it all was a steady, white, washing noise, like the sea. We turned to each other. The yellow light fell through the windshield.

“Wow,” I whispered.

Angie had a brilliant smile.

“Neat, huh?” she whispered back.

COACH: Do you know who it was that bit you?
COACH: Was it a kid named Murphy Gilcrease?
POLICEMAN: I’ll put in a call.

We moved fast on the film. Everyday, downstairs in the production office, Jim Sr. would fold over the pages of script that we had finished. PAs ran in and out of the house hauling lights and cables. The sound guy, Pat, had gotten his Nagra recorder and boom mike out of hock to work on the film; he was particular when it came to setting up his equipment. Richard, the cameraman, often became impatient with him.

“Pat? Are you ready?”

“Wait. Checking. Still checking.”

“Pat! I’m filming! I’m going to start filming now!”

Pat would throw up his hands. “Okay, fine, Richard! Have it your way! Film! Go ahead! But I’m not going to make any promises about the sound!”

The weather turned frosty. We shivered our way through the long night shoots. An old RV—our dressing room/mobile production office/equipment truck—was usually parked at the edge of the muddy field where we were filming, and we’d dash inside between scenes to warm ourselves. A retired couple from the church, Mrs. and Mr. Perkins, brought around hot coffee and cookies. After each scene was filmed, Jim Jr. would check with all the tech people:

“Pat? Sound?”

“Got it. Whatever.”

“Richard? How’d it look?”

“Okay. Somebody’s shadow was back there on the wall.”

“Was it big?”


“Fine. Next setup!”

As for the acting, I don’t believe we stopped once to go back and redo anything. But this slapdash way of working was also liberating. No time here to become fretful about complicated motives or subtexts. Meisner Technique, see you later. In the bedroom scenes with Angie, we made spit-bubbles at one another until Jim Jr. got mad and shoved my leg with his boot and said, “Hey! Come on now, cut that out.”

Back at the hotel, Richard would light up, put on his Walkman, and lie back in bed to visualize the scenes for the next day’s shoot. “I have to see the shots in my mind,” he explained to me. Passing his room, I’d smell the sweet, acrid odor of pot seeping out from under his door into the hallway. I kept phoning Angie to ask her out, but she was always busy with exams and papers at the college. On my days off, I’d wander back down behind the hotel to the edge of the Red River and sit on its banks, looking out over the choppy, gray water, wondering if I had arrived and whether this counted as success and, if so, why I only felt the way that I always felt: that my life itself was like an amateur production, and the real show, the well-made movie with the glamour and the stars in the penthouse suites, would always be elsewhere.

POLICEMAN: I can’t believe it! I mean, I shot him right between the eyes! He ought to be dead!

A stunt crew drove in from Texas to work on the film. My double was a girl named Laura, who rode horses for the rodeo circuit. The big effect in the film is when one of the vampires gets thrown through a window. The window was that special breakaway Hollywood sugar glass. Jim Sr., naturally, had only ordered one sheet of it. I was there the night they filmed the stunt. The crew rigged Laura up with a harness, tied her to a rope, fed the rope through the trick window, and looped it over a pulley that was fastened to a tree branch outside the house. Mike and the other PAs lined up along the end of the rope. They readied their hands on the rope and dug their heels into the dirt. “Pull!” they shouted, heaving back on the rope, snapping Laura off her feet, and flying her backward through the window. The breakaway glass splintered into the air, like stars flung up against the night sky. Laura dangled in her harness from the tree branch.

“How’d it look?” Jim Jr. asked.

“A little off center,” Richard said. “It’ll do.”

The film’s other special effects:

(1) The Disappearing Vampire Trick. This one’s easy. Richard locks down the camera, films a bit, then stops it. The vampire steps out of the frame, and Richard resumes filming. Poof! He’s gone!

(2) The Wooden-Stake-in-the-Gut Trick. Also easy. Mike saws the stake in half, you wedge the piece of it up under your belt, smear fake blood around it, then hold it in place with your hands while you lurch around and make faces.

(3) Sucking-Blood-from-the-Neck Trick. We had those blood capsules that you hide in your mouth. You chomp down on the capsule, which is filled with a dry red dye, work up some saliva, and drool it out onto the other person’s neck. One take.

(4) The Driving-at-Night Trick. For the nighttime driving scenes, an old car was propped up on blocks in the grass behind the rented house. Angie and I sat in the front seat, doing our lines, while PAs rocked the car by pumping up and down on long two-by-fours wedged under the chassis. Two other guys swept yellow spotlights back and forth across the windshield. On film, this looks pretty much like a car propped up on blocks with guys waving yellow lights back and forth across it.

Angie and I were sitting in this car when one night, after turning down another of my invitations, she finally told me about her boyfriend. We sat in the front seat between takes as the PA’s leaned on their two-by-fours.

He was a forty-year-old Shreveport businessman, Angie said. They’d met one day at a filling station. She smiled at him over the gas pumps, and he instantly rebuked her. “Don’t pull that crap on me!” he’d said.

“Nobody’s ever talked to me that way before,” she explained, sitting up and adjusting her blouse for the next shot. It was like he had some kind of mysterious power over her, she said. Whatever he told her to do, she had to do. Alone at his house, he would gag and tie her up with rope. “He never hurts me, of course,” Angie said. They were careful about that; they had hand signals.

DOCTOR: I’m not a religious man, Reverend. But I think we’re dealing with something evil here.

Since the first ones obviously hadn’t worked out, Jim Sr. ordered a new pair of vampire contact lenses from Los Angeles. The new ones were non-prescription, white flexible discs with a small hole in the center for me to see through. They were fine, but Jim Sr. had only ordered the one pair, and by the end of the film, five different people become vampires so we had to trade off the one set of contacts between all of us. If two vampires were in the same scene together, for instance, only one vampire could look at the camera. When two vampires are locked together in a vampire fight, as happens near the end of the film, Richard would shoot first one angle, stop, let the vampires switch the lenses, and then shoot the reverse angle.

At the end of the movie, my character’s high school buddy, Delbert, puts a stake in the heart of the evil Prostitute Vampire. Thanks to some little-known precept of the vampire lore, this act magically restores all the vampires to their former, good, human selves. Mother and son are reunited, black and white reconciled, and the world made safe again. At the end, of the movie at least, I get the girl.

REVEREND THEESUL: It’s gone. . . .it’s over. Glory, glory hallelujah! Amen!

There was no chauffeured-limousine premiere for Teen Vamp. To celebrate the end of filming, we held a wrap party in the rented house. The entire movie had been shot on time, in less than a month, had stayed within the budget, and with no serious injuries to speak of. Somebody drank too much at the party and slept with somebody else, but it wasn’t me. Angie went back to college and her scary boyfriend. Pat got to keep his Nagra recorder out of the pawnshop. Crew members shuffled back to their day jobs, and Clu flew to Los Angeles to resume his career.

The movie went straight to video stores around the country. My grandmother, watching it for the first time with family and friends gathered in my parents’ living room in Baton Rouge, became embarrassed for me and walked out. The movie then went overseas to the Asian market, where apparently people will buy anything made in America. Jim Jr. talked about doing a sequel, in which Murphy learns to play electric guitar and starts a rock band, a kind of Back to the Future meets Nosferatu, but this idea didn’t get past talk.

Here’s what Steven H. Scheuer in his Movies on TV and Videocassette guide has to say about Teen Vamp: “Stupid comedy makes I Was a Teenage Frankenstein look like Kurosawa by comparison.” Coming in at one star, our movie ranked half a star better than the 1960 Teenage Zombies and one and a half stars below the 1985 Teen Wolf, with its “earnest performance” by Michael J. Fox.

Back in Los Angeles, my teachers at Playhouse West promoted me to the Advanced Actor level. I kept auditioning, but when I turned thirty, it was harder to get cast as a teenager. I did lots of theater and landed more TV roles and commercials, some of which were okay, but mostly they were forgettable. For the better part of one flush year, I appeared as an office clerk who says, “Nuttin’, honey!” in a Kellogg’s cereal commercial.

And then one summer I volunteered to teach English overseas in the newly independent Czechoslovak Republic. This was in the early ’90s, when that part of the world was undergoing quick and surprising changes. I’d only signed on for two months but found that I enjoyed living overseas. After all the heart-wrenching ups and downs, the hopes and disappointments of Los Angeles, this life away felt like one long holiday. I kept putting off my return to Hollywood, and putting it off, until years had passed and I finally understood I wasn’t going back again.

You see, with just two barely noticeable scars to show for it, Murphy has been transformed into a full fledged vampire. . .and his life will NEVER be the same.
—Blurb from the Teen Vamp video box

I threw out my Rolodex and eight-by-ten headshots a long time ago, but the fanged teeth, I know, are still there, tucked away in a drawer in my old bedroom at my parents’ house. Years later, and oceans removed from California, I found myself sitting in a movie theater in Bandung, Indonesia, eating sweet rice from a banana leaf, when one of my old acting buddies appeared on the screen in a bit part. I leaned over and whispered to my date, with her sandals off and her feet folded under her on the seat: “Hey, I knew her! I knew her!”

As late as 1998 I received a broadcast residual check in the mail for thirty-one cents from an “Entertainment Partners Svcs Gp.” I don’t know what this money is for; nine cents of it, though, went to Federal Income Tax, and two cents went to Social Security.

And not long ago, a friend in Europe sent me a clipping from a local television program guide: Teen Vamp was playing on late-night German cable, with all the voices dubbed. I couldn’t believe it was still around, much less that anybody would bother translating the whole goofy thing into German. And it made me wonder where it is now; maybe Teen Vamp is being broadcast in Russia, or China.

Imagine the movie beamed into space and bounced off satellites. We’re stuck inside it—me, Angie, the Prostitute Vampire. It goes spinning far, far away from here, up into the stratosphere. The transmission thins and disperses—there goes Clu’s laugh, a bit of Karen’s hair. Your neighbor’s dog from when you were five years old gets mixed up with it somehow. It floats into the deep blue and beyond the stars where, I can pretend at least, we are all young and brilliant and famous, not for a few years, not for a lifetime, but forever.