Embrace of the Vampire's creative exploitation of extras
By Thomas M. Sipos
Embrace of the Vampire (1995) is both soft-core porn and a ripoff of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992). Both films have a vampire pursuing the reincarnation of his long dead lover. Both films aspire to a sort of "vampire romance." At the end of Embrace of the Vampire, Martin Kemp's tearful bloodthirsty angst, Alyssa Milano's tearful rediscovery of her love, the "tragic" star-crossed finale, and the Christian iconography, all mirror Bram Stoker's Dracula. One senses that director Anne Goursaud was trying to rise above her porn material.
But Embrace of the Vampire is no poor woman's Bram Stoker's Dracula. Milano is no Winona Ryder and Kemp is no Gary Oldman. For that matter, none of the other talent on this film compare to their counterparts. And the budget just isn't there. The strength of low-budget horror is a gritty authenticity, which this film tries to hide rather than utilize.
How low was the budget?
I worked one day as an extra on Embrace of the Vampire. Don't look for me. I ended up on the cutting room floor, and extras are rarely mentioned in credits. But here's an "inside story" on the making of this film.
We were shooting in a nightclub on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. The extras were divided into three camps: union, nonunion, and Modesto extras. Union extras earn the most, especially once overtime kicks in, so they were wrapped after eight hours. (They were only hired in the first place to fill a union quota.) This was during my nonunion days, so I put in a full 14 hours, after which we were paid in cash and wrapped. The Modesto extras were still working when I left.
Now what, you may ask, is a Modesto extra? I also wondered, and so I asked one. I was told that they were from an acting class in Modesto, California. They had been bussed in to work on the film as part of a "class assignment." In other words, they were paying to come to work.
There's not a whole lot to learn about being an extra. It's neither glamorous nor difficult. And nonunion extra jobs for twentysomethings are very easy to come by. Back in the Nineties, the lampposts in Los Angeles were covered with flyers seeking extras. (Of course, today it's all internet.)
Never pay for the "chance" to be an extra, not in Los Angeles. I made the mistake of volunteering (i.e., working for free) to be an extra when I started out, but I soon wised up. I certainly never paid.
My guess is the producers paid the acting teacher to bus down some cattle, paying far less than even nonunion extras cost. I know this teacher was getting paid by the students, and the students were not getting paid to work on the film. So the teacher was double-dipping, getting paid by both the film and the students.
Having the teacher on set was important. It's illegal to hire someone at below minimum wage. But there are creative workarounds. If a teacher lectures to the "student extras" between takes -- "Did you notice how the cinematographer did so-and-so?" -- then you can maintain the ruse that the extras are being "paid" with training. Sort of like an intern.
When I advised one "Modesto extra" that he was getting a raw deal, he grew indignant, saying, "Well, that's easy for you to say, but we don't have the same opportunities to be an extra in Modesto that you have in Los Angeles."
I suppose I can understand his feelings. I loved working on Bram Stoker's Dracula. But there you had Francis Ford Coppola and Winona Ryder. I saw Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins. And we worked on the Universal and Sony studio lots. And still we got paid.
By comparison, Embrace of the Vampire was a low-budget job, shot in a dingy nightclub. Nothing wrong with that, but you shouldn't do it for free. You certainly shouldn't pay for the chance to sit in a dingy nightclub with B-list "stars."
In Los Angeles, actors sometimes pay to perform in plays, in what are called showcase productions. While (a scant few) tickets are sold, showcase productions are mostly done for the benefit of managers, agents, and casting directors, all of whom receive free invites. The purpose is to "showcase" the actor's talent to talent buyers. Showcase productions are theater's answer to vanity publishing.
Okay, I can understand actors investing in their own play, to perform speaking roles before casting directors. But paying to be an extra? If paying to be an actor is like paying to be published, then paying to be an extra is like paying to run the copier at a publishing house.
Another inside story from Embrace of the Vampire. Someone stole a silver wolf pin belonging to a crew member. She was near tears because it had sentimental value. Never leave anything of value lying around on a set.
Oh yes, about my scene. We were in a smoky room. I was supposed to cross with a lady on my arm. But in that scene, two people (Milano and Kemp, I suppose), were making out. I and my lady were watching. Only after the scene ended did she and I notice the A.D. frantically signaling for us to cross the room.
We had missed our cue. But it was okay, because many of us missed our cues. The extras, the crew, everyone had been gawking at the actors' hot, steamy makeout. Tense laughter ensued.
That was the first take. No missed cues after that.
Embrace of the Vampire is no Bram Stoker's Dracula, but I enjoyed the job. I spent most of the time on the club's second floor, hanging out with other extras between takes, talking Monty Python and stuff. Someone played a piano. We were served a good meal of Domino's Pizza. (One woman complained that Domino's was "anti-choice" on abortion.) And I added to my colorful roster of experiences that would inform my novel, Hollywood Witches.
Embrace of the Vampire was released in 1995. Despite its poor critical reception (John Stanley in his Creature Features movie guide refers to its "meandering, almost formless script."), it attained enough cult status to be remade in 2013.
Thomas M. Sipos writes satirical novels and film criticism. His website is CommunistVampires.com.