In the summer of 1984, while the world's attention was focused squarely on the L.A.-hosted Olympic games, Greg Travis and his friend Steve Bishart decided to make a movie about lesbian vampires.
The concept was a compromise, really. Bishart had already been working on a script about a pair of sapphic bloodsuckers in the throes of a feeding frenzy when Travis signed on, determined to make a classic, hardboiled detective picture, except funny. What they came up with was Dark Seduction, part film noir pastiche, part sexy supernatural 1980s post-punk thriller-slash-comedy.
“We battled back and forth creatively about what kind of movie we were going to make,” Travis recently told me. “That's why [the movie is] so weird, because he wanted to make a lesbian vampire film, I wanted to make a detective movie that was a comedy, and so it was kind of this hybrid of both. It makes it interesting, you know?”
Besides an additional scene they filmed the following year, the movie wrapped in just 12 days. Travis recalls the shoot being somewhat chaotic, but otherwise pretty smooth, particularly for a low-budget movie being filmed on the less-than-sanitized streets of Hollywood in the mid-'80s. It was the last time anything having to do with Dark Seduction could be described as going smoothly.
Repeatedly foiled by misplaced negatives, a missing soundtrack, a lack of funding and, as time plodded on, the increasingly obsolete technology with which the film was produced, it took Travis 30 years — working in fits and starts — to complete Dark Seduction (which became available on VOD today).
Three decades of delayed gratification look good on Dark Seduction. It's like a newly unearthed time capsule filled to the brim with images of a gritty, bygone L.A., from now-defunct Culver City dive bars (Big Ed's has been replaced by the Pieology on Culver and Main) to an almost unrecognizable Hollywood Boulevard. It's this old but ageless thing, not unlike a vampire itself.
Earlier this year, I met with Greg Travis over coffee and afternoon breakfast at Swingers on Beverly. Travis was 25 when they began work on the film; he's a bit older now. His hair is pulled back in a short ponytail. A few weeks earlier, the film had premiered at a well-attended midnight screening at the Nuart, which is part of what Travis has envisioned for the film. “I really think it'd be a great midnight movie,” he says. “I think if it's promoted right, the word'll eventually get out, and people will see it on video. If I can make it a party experience and a fun time … I've had visions of guys dressed up like Dic Jones and the girls dressed up like the vampire women, winding around the block. I've had visions of that, you know?”
In the film, Dic Jones is a hard-drinking, hardboiled detective trying to solve the mystery of a disembodied vampire fang, one that belongs to Vera, the gentler, greener half of a same-gendered vampire love affair. In the process of solving the case, Jones is bitten by Vera, and descends slowly into vampirism, a long sweaty fever dream. There's also a pimp named the King, a tooth expert called the Rat, a villain called the Fatman and a love-interest called Laura.
“It's about him wanting to go back with his ex-wife, but yet he's been bit by this new woman and he's slowly turning into a vampire while he's trying to find the vampire,” Travis explains. “It's more of this love triangle thing that he's emotionally going through, that's representative of being bitten by a vampire.”
Really, the plot, while totally entertaining, is secondary to the retro quality of the film, and tertiary even to the epic tale of what it took to complete it. In an hour-long companion documentary, Travis visits old filming locations, interviews cast members (including his sister, actress Stacey Travis, and Rick Overton, who's probably best known for playing the Drake on Seinfeld) and traces the dizzying timeline of Dark Seduction's post-production.
After shooting had wrapped, Bishart took the footage and soundtrack and they assembled a rough cut from their office on Hollywood Boulevard. They screened the rough cut for friends; no one was impressed. “They just sort of smiled and slowly walked out,” Travis recalled. When they lost the office in Hollywood — the landlord was apparently murdered — Bishart attempted to continue working on a cut from his place in Studio City, while Travis went on tour as a stand-up comedian. At the dawn of the '90s, Travis arranged to get the footage from Bishart and began working on a final cut with an editor named Guy Pohlman, and then made a deal to have post-production sound handled by a small operation using the very first version of Pro Tools, which had only just begun being used in the film industry. What he ended up with was a data storage tape that would sit unopened until 2003, when the sound guy on another one of Travis' films — a thriller called Night Creep — put the data on a hard drive, which he then inadvertently absconded with. In the meantime, the cutter Travis had entrusted with the negative completely fell off the radar. Travis managed to track down the guy's family and discovered that he'd had a stroke; his daughter and son-in-law had no idea where the negative was.
In 2012, at loose ends, Travis consulted with his psychic. She told him the negative was hidden in a cabinet in the negative cutter's garage. He successfully convinced the guy's daughter and son-in-law to search one last time, and sure enough, there it was. So Dark Seduction was rescued by a psychic, a deus ex machina any screenwriting professor would deem taboo.
The midnight screening earlier this year, it's safe to say, went significantly better than the rough-cut screening back in the '80s. The final product is funny, sexy and ambitious. It's hard to resist the temptation to call it campy — but Travis would prefer if people did.
“A lot of people go, 'Oh, it's campy, it's this and that.' Campy to me is like a John Waters film, where everybody's prissing around and posing for the camera and acting like they're in a movie, and rolling their eyes and being all over the top,” Travis says. “I didn't want any of that. I wanted it to be played straight down the line. These people believe they're in this situation, not that they're looking at the camera acting like it's all a fun movie. To me, that's campy. I don't think it's that. I don't think it's campy.”
He adds, “I don't like campy because to me, [that means] it has a cheapness about it, and I don't think there is a cheapness about it. Even though it was a low-budget film, it feels much bigger … at least to me.”