My Grandpa is a Vampire (1992): Kiwi Fruit(bat)

Dave checks out the time The Munsters’ Al Lewis took a break from the role he was best known for and went to New Zealand to play, erm, an elderly vampire living in suburbia.

When New Zealand director David Blyth turned in Death Warmed Up (1984) – a fine piece of pioneering, proto-Peter Jackson Kiwi splatterpunk – you might have thought that an open-armed invitation to Hollywood would follow. Well, that was almost the case – because in August 1988, Blyth was indeed on set in Los Angeles, having been hired by Friday the 13th (1980) impresario Sean S. Cunningham to call ‘action!’ on occasional House (1986) franchisee, The Horror Show (1989).

Blyth’s employment lasted a week.

“I came up with this ten-minute opening that was all done on a Steadicam,” remembered Blyth. “But it got me into trouble with Cunningham. He wanted to cut it all up. Things just started to go downhill from there.” [1]

Fired from the production, Blyth took the reins of an interesting Canadian vampire picture called Red Blooded American Girl (1990) before returning to his native Auckland. It was while back on his home turf that he began to consider turning another bloodsucker-based property, Moonrise, a radio play by frequent collaborator Michael Heath, into a feature called MY GRANDPA IS A VAMPIRE. As Blyth told Dread Central in 2016:

“It completely subverted the vampire genre, and that really appealed to me. The feature script grew from that source. After making movies with adult censor restrictions, I decided to attempt a more family-orientated movie. We were always interested in Al Lewis, and we had heard stories from travellers visiting New York that he was often seen at a restaurant he owned in town. So we knew he was alive and managed to track him down, and thankfully he jumped at the opportunity to come to New Zealand!” [2]

Lewis, forever typecast (agreeably, it must be noted) as a kindly kook in the wake of his role of Grandpa Munsters, is the ideal person to take on Vernon Cooger: a centuries old vampire who resides with his daughter, Leah (Pat Evison), in rural New Zealand. Eschewing the popular myths of blood drinking and neck-biting, Cooger instead prefers to spend his time dancing to Mozart and sneaking onto the funfair ghost train to scare the local kids. Oblivious to his grandfather’s nocturnal behaviour is young Lonny (Justin Gocke), who’s just flown in from California to spend a few weeks with his elderly patriarch. Hooking up with his childhood buddy, Kanziora (Milan Borich), the two boys revel in the company of the eccentric gent – but after a casual polaroid shows a vacant seat where Cooger was sitting, these inquisitive kids begin to wonder just who the pensioner really is.

It would be a stonyhearted individual who doesn’t glean some element of joy from this enchanting Antipodean adventure. Admittedly, My Grandpa is a Vampire comes with its imperfections, notably a pitch that finds it not juvenile enough for kids, and perhaps a little jejune for adults. Looking past that, Lewis clearly revels in a starring role, and the storied socialist sinks his teeth into every facet of Heath’s slight-but-affectionate script.

Justin Gocke is fine as Lonny. He’d been a child actor since the age of five and was just coming off the back of a two-hundred episode run in the soap Santa Barbara. This endeavour proved to be his final screen role before he was awarded a master’s in business administration and launched a career as a consultant. Sadly, in 2014, at the age of thirty-six, Gocke took his own life with a gunshot to the head.

It’s Milan Borich who’s the real surprise of the picture, taking on a kind of Edgar Frog role. His bedroom is adorned with vampire-themed paraphernalia, and there’s stacks of books at his disposal to feed his fertile imagination. He plays Kanziora with a real confidence, even if he’s almost overshadowed by Aunt Leah’s midnight trysts with neighbour Ernie (Noel Appleby) – especially given the sight of the latter sharpening stakes in his woodshed, in readiness for the reanimation of his fancy-woman’s fanged father.

Debuting at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June 1992, Blyth’s film bagged a nomination for Best International Fantasy the following year at Portugal’s Fantasporto under its original radio play title of ‘Moonrise’. It reverted to My Grandpa is a Vampire when it hit U.S. rental stores via Republic Pictures, while the film’s Canadian distributor, Astral, christened it ‘Grampire’. Here in the U.K., however, Medusa tweaked the name slightly, anglicising its Stateside moniker to the infinitely more British-sounding ‘My Grandad’s a Vampire‘.

New Zealand ● 1992 ● Family, Comedy, Horror ● 91mins

Al Lewis, Justin Gocke, Milan Borich, Pat Evison ● Dir. David Blyth ● Wri. Michael Heath

[1] Interview with David Blyth, Never Repeats Podcast, 2017
[2] Interview with the Grampire: David Blyth Talks Working with Al Lewis and More by John Campopiano, Dread Central, 31st March 2016

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