David Edelstein: Boffo Summer Blockbuster

High Stakes! Blood, guts, and a sexy blonde — film critic writes the recipe for a big Hollywood win

Credit: David McNew/Getty Images

Editor's Note: Two months ago, Rolling Stone asked film critic David Edelstein to write an article on the theory of summer movies. A week later, he phoned to say he'd had a better idea. He wished instead to submit an outline for his own summer movie, which would combine elements from scores of previous hits in one ingenious whole. Thus, the reader would have an inside view of the creative process and Edelstein would have, as he put it, "a $100 million property, babe."

For several weeks he phoned us regularly, crowing he'd found a place for Eddie Murphy or added a plot twist from Gremlins. In addition, he promised to host a Rolling Stone weekend at his future Beverly Hills mansion, and was generous with invitations aboard his soon-to-be-purchased yacht. As Edelstein's deadline approached, however, the calls stopped, and he failed to respond to messages. An intern dispatched to his apartment found him dazed and hollow-eyed, answering all queries with, "Beautiful, baby. You're a superstar. I'm very excited about this project!"

According to friends, Edelstein became unhinged when he couldn't find a place in his story for a talking robot. Then he claimed Sylvester Stallone was reading his mail. Abruptly, he boarded a plane for the Grand Canyon, leaving behind the following manuscript and a letter of introduction to an unnamed studio head.

Dear Major Hollywood Studio Person: When was the last time a movie script whispered, "Make me! Make me!"?

Put your ear to the page and listen.

Ghostbusters. . .Star Wars. . .WarGames. . .Raiders of the Lost Ark. . .The Karate Kid. . .Flashdance. . .Purple Rain. . .Risky Business. . .Revenge of the Nerds. . .Rambo. . .Gremlins. . .Back to the Future. . . 

Warm and soothing words, aren't they? And now, in your hands, you hold the latest and greatest summer blockbuster: High Stakes!

How do I know it's summer gold? Year after year, I've combed the beaches, haunted the theaters and prowled among the love-mobiles at drive-in movies — watching, listening, taking notes. I've bought the soundtracks, danced the High Stakes! dances, dreamed the dreams. I am Summer Fun.

I have constructed High Stakes! for maximum wantsee. It's high-tech, high-touch and high-concept. It's in the great tradition of every summer blockbuster of the last 10 years, only more so. Without further vamping, then, I give you — High Stakes! (The Beach-Blanket Bloodsucker Romp!)

We begin on a campus at year's end feel the heat. It's finals week, and long-limbed lovelies spread themselves out on library steps with textbooks cracked. Along comes Jimmy, a kid with more than Shakespeare on his brain. Straight ahead: a knockout blonde in a sun dress hiked to her panties. Cowabunga! A wink, a flash of tongue, and it's off to her boudoir. A hand strokes her knee, a pair of lips caresses her neck, but the fox does not respond; she's cold as an alimony check.

"Hey," says Jimmy, "I got nothin' against empty sex, but where's the flesh and blood?" And now we hit 'em with the first big scream in the movie. Jimmy looks over his shoulder to a blur of red eyes and white teeth that blows him off the bed. A bloodcurdling wail! The blonde, who hasn't budged, stares blankly. [What a grabber! Bloody Coed Death Plot. Bimbo ManTrap: How Many More Will Die?]

The next day, the blonde bounces out of an exam, past Our Heroes: Will, a poor but honest kid with a big yokel's grin [I'm thinking Tom Cruise], and Veg, his buddy [like Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Bill Murray in Ghostbusters]. "She could sleep with me," the generous Veg announces. "She could." Will, on the other hand, has eyes for only one, his ex, the one that got away: Mike, a girl with huge peepers and a willowy dancer's bod.

[Mike has a masculine name, but that's, of course, part of her charm: remember Charlie in Top Gun, Andi in Goonies, Willie in Indiana Jones, Alex in Flashdance. Between you and me, it turns guys on to watch women with long legs, small butts and boy's names — though they'd lynch a few producers if they knew what it was that made their little Elvises pop.]

Mike is poor but ambitious. She dances in clubs to pay for college, and it's scorching stuff! We see for ourselves in the next scene, a Flashdance strut to the movie's HIT SINGLE #1, "Throbbing Goddess (Feel the Beat)."

Dirk is all eyes, too. He's her beau. Tall. Wavy hair. President of Phi Beta Sucka, the most exclusive fraternity on campus, famous for all-night parties and members too "cool" to go to classes during the day.

He kisses Mike as Will looks on, burning. "Mike wants the man with the best and bluest blood," says Dirk to Will, as she leaves to peel off her leotards. "Given your father, I'd say you're short a few transfusions. Take my point?"

Will takes a swing and gets soundly pummeled.

Down on the floor, he recalls his dad in a misty flashback: proud and erect, an engineer until the accident that crumpled his tram when it was halfway through a tunnel; crippled thereafter, bereft of will. The broken man's hands clutch a rifle, aimed at his own head; a little boy yells, "No, daddy!!!" BLAMMM!!

A door slams to signal Mike's return.

"Mmmmm, darling," Dirk coos to her, "you were so erotic on the stage tonight when you poured that tub of water on yourself and pretended I was stroking you. But I can't give you what you crave right now, I've a vital engagement at Sucka house. Study hard for your finals, my fragrant little truffle."

And so we follow Dirk to his vital engagement and learn the bone-chilling secret of Phi Beta Sucka: Coffins. Female slaves. Hunchbacked retainers. Vampires. A-woooooo!

[Last summer's boffo Fright Night proved there's a sucker born every minute. Kids will go batshit for the paraphernalia — the basic black wardrobe, the stakes through the heart, and most of all, those bitchin' crucifixes. Bless you, Madonna.] What's devilish about this coven is their Communist ties. [Transylvania, I must point out, is red these days, and not with spilt blood.] The Suckas have a plot. See, Soviets always say Capitalists are bloodsuckers. Now they want to prove it: turn the whole country into vampires and launch a full-scale nuclear strike. During the day, when everybody's asleep!

Tonight, Dr. Mole, a Commie scientist, tests a serum that would let the Suckas walk in sunlight. Musclebound guards drag in Jimmy, now manacled, his fangs protruding — he's become a vampire guinea pig! Mole sticks a needle into the boy, zaps him with ultraviolet sun rays and Arrrgh!!! The first gross-out. Jimmy's eyes flame out and his feet shrivel into stumps. He screams, screams, screams!

[And so do the kids. Always give the 10-year-olds something yechy to tell their buddies. Like the giant worm the hero barfs up in Poltergeist II — good for half the ticket sales!]

"He's alive, alive, alive!" cries Mole.

"He's a blind, footless dwarf," says Dirk. "But I promise you, comrade, the Suckas will soon walk in sunlight. Then the Marxist Red Tide shall be UNSTOPPABLE!"

School's out!!

Cut to a swanky beach town for the very, very rich, and yo! — it's time to pitch some products. Volleyball. String bikinis. Surfboards. Coppertone. Diet Coke. Twinkies. Anyone who'll fork out for a plug. Summer Tie-In Fever!

The Suckas have a manse stuffed with swimsuit slaves. At dusk, the vampires emerge, bronzed! Dr. Mole has made a Super Instant Tanning Gel, which brings us to a MAJOR TIE-IN. Hear it on radio! See it on banners flown past teeming beaches: "The gel that gives even vampires a deep, rich, tropical tan!"

A far cry from our heroes, Will and Veg, installed in a shack beside the dump. Eternal underdogs, lurching through town in a wreck of a car like Eddie Murphy's in Beverly Hills Cop, sneaking past the doorman at the trendiest club on the beach. Inside: Dirk with Mike on his arm, sipping a suspect Bloody Mary. Vampire Chic.

On stage: Count, a rock star. Wears a cape over his bare chest and makes the girlies squishy wet. He sings HIT SINGLE #2:

We're locked away in our own minds, baby
It's just so hard to get through
But once you taste me you will know me, baby
Come up and sample my brew
Go ahead, suck!
(Suck!)
Suck, baby!
Baby, my heart bleeds so true!
Stop talking and suck!
(Suck!)
Suck, baby!
Oh baby, this blood's for you!

The guitarist riffs meanly; Count pulls a screaming fan onstage and presses her mouth to his throat. She swoons. He winks at the crowd, then gathers up the girl and whisks her off.

"So that's how you break the ice," says Veg.

Backstage, Count lays the girl out as she sings, "Oh baby, this blood's for you. . . "

"Thank you, sweets. I'll just help myself."

Fangs. Neck. Fade to black.

Veg and Will slump in their hovel, contemplating failure. Ring. Veg's dad. "Yo, dad, what's up, dude? My grades? Hey, no kidding, four for four? [To Will] Four Ds, man, I passed! [Will slaps him fire; Veg returns to the phone.] What's the matter with it, man? Oh, fuck you. What were your grades? You're a joke, okay? Mom's fucking the milkman. I know where you keep your bondage magazines. Dad? [To Will] He hung up. My dad's kinda weak, but he's not a bad guy."

Weak dads, as we know, breed delinquent children, and sure enough, at 4:00 a.m., Veg goes outside to the dump to smoke a joint.

[I know — you're thinking an automatic PG-13 for Substance Abuse, but a case can be made to the bluestockings on the Ratings Board that vampires are, for all intents and purposes, addicts, and it's clear that we're showing the youth of America the negative effects of drugs because, my God, the Suckas are all Commie subversives.] But Veg doesn't light the joint, because —

A flash goes off behind a garbage pile! White light and wind pour on Veg — like in E.T. and Close Encounters — as an old man walks forward. [I see Obi-Wan Kenobi or the professor in Back to the Future.]

"Are you the Narc from Planet Arous?" Veg asks.

"Tell me, what year is this?"

"Ho! Brain teaser," says Veg.

The old man is Dr. Van Helsing, the famous Vampire Hunter. He heard a gypsy prophecy that vampires would overrun America, so he built a time machine to come help us out. He's a 19th-century guy in a 20th-century place, which makes him a Fish Out of Water, the #1 concept of the decade [cf. Splash!, Back to the Future, E.T.].

But wait, there's more. In a cage, Doc carries — well, let's take a look [camera moves in]: gurgling, singing, little paws, a monkeylike fur ball with bat wings and rolling saucer eyes. Adorable!

"He's a vambam, " Doc explains, "bred from bats and monkeys by 16th-century Mongolians to halt a plague of vampirism. If he comes within 50 feet of a vampire — hoo-ha! — it's enough to wake the dead." [The vambam can generate millions in huggie dolls and Saturday-morning cartoon shows: Space Vambam; The Vambam Family; Vambam, Thank You, Ma'am.]

In the morning, Will wakes up [in his skivvies, lookin' Nautilus good] and sees the Doc and vambam sacked out. Golly, he thinks, Veg already found a dealer. Will flicks on the tube: it's Christopher Lee in Taste the Blood of Dracula, fangs first. EEEEK!! EEEEK!! EEEEK!! the vambam shrieks as booom!! Doc drives a stake into the screen and sparks shower the room!

"Did I get him?" Doc asks, picking himself up.

Sure did. But he'll get the hang of things. In a bouncy montage to Hit Single #3, "Baking Buns (in the Hot Summer Sun)," Doc strolls to the beach in shades, Bermuda shorts and a loud Hawaiian shirt. The old duffer can't believe the bodies on these women; he swivels in the street to catch an awesome tush and screeeech! It's Dr. Mole in a sports car, cussing him in Transylvanian. EEEEK!!! EEEEK!!! EEEEK!!!

The vambam smells a nogoodnik. Time for French Connection action.

"Halt!" yells Doc to the schlub passing in the next car. "Let me have your vehicle! The fate of the world is at stake!" Vrroooom.

Now here's the krazy part: Doc can't drive. Where would he have learned? People flee for their lives as the car bounces down the sidewalk! Ice-cream carts upended! Awnings ripped down! A chicken truck swerves, a plate-glass window spills, and Doc rams into the side of the nightclub: staring him in the face, a poster of Count.

"I might have known: DRACULA!" Orchestra thunders. Wolves howl. A-woooooooo!!!

Will helps him search the club for clues and discovers Mike in short shorts and a T-shirt. Working out. [Hold the camera right there so they drool on their Milk Duds. A true summer movie dictates one thought: "I want to have sex. Anywhere. With anything. Now."]

Will creeps up behind her like Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, puts his arms around that slender waist, and —

"Will, you musn't. What we had was beautiful, but it's gone. I have different priorities now."

"Why do you stay with him? Because he's rich? [She nods.] Because he's handsome? [Ditto.] Because he's great in the sack? [See above.] Come on, what else? Lemme hear it, what else?"

Mike stares at him with fat, wet eyes.

Cut to the beach, under a dock, twilight, to Hit Single #4, "High Tide for Love (Love Theme from High Stakes!)" Will and Mike, their tongues in silhouette, blue light, roll her over, flash of tit, Mike on top, up and down like oil slicks, sand through fingers, Mike as she throws back her head and —

Waves crash. Fade to black.

Now we put the lass in jeopardy.

"Such a pity you betrayed me," says Dirk, waiting in her room when she returns. "And with that fatherless worm."

"Don't believe everything you hear."

"I have a videotape."

"How dare you!! I demand it now!"

"VHS or Beta?"

He seizes her roughly. Fangs pop out, neck vein bulges, pas de deux, penetration, slurping. Time for the moment all men dread.

The next day, Will trots up to his lover. "Hi, Mike! The big guy's back!' Member me [wink, wink]?" He gets a zombie stare.

"You bore me, little man. Shoo! Shoo!"

"Dude," says Veg to Will, as they watch her sashay off, "that girl's been sucked."

"Let's tail her."

"Won't be hard — nice tail."

As Mike drifts through the gates of Phi Beta Sucka, taking her place beside swimsuit slaves, the girl seems lost for all eternity. But what's this? A black man! [Code Name: Captain Crossover. Guarantees healthy box office in inner city.] Burly guards carry him out as he yells, "I have to talk to her! She's the last to see my buddy Jimmy alive! You people are crazy!"

"Save it for the lynching party, ya darkie," say the guards, pitching him over the fence like a sack of shit. [You have to make them racist so they die really good.]

"What's your name?" asks Will.

"Alex."

"That's a girl's name."

"Yo' mama."

"Really, what is it?"

"Carol."

"Right. Carol, we need a man like you on our team. Do you have any skills?"

"Apart from my foul mouth, slippery cunning and infuckingcredible box-office magnetism?"

"Those will do." "I'm also the hottest computer programmer in the state. If we can get inside, I can access Sucka's network. They got satellite shit, genetic simulations, Playboy Channel —"

"Fine," says Will.

"But first we go to the cops."

"The cops?" says Carol. "Don't you go to movies, Jack? You go to the cops, you won't get nothin' but the Bill of Rights!"

Maddeningly true, they find. "Who do you think I am? Dirty Harry?" says Officer Berkeley McGovem. "We need a warrant."

"There's no time for a warrant," says Will. "They're sucking out her blood!"

"Listen, you punk, I don't know what those people are up to, but I do know this. They're protected by the Constitution of the United States just like you are. They have rights."

"Rights? They're vampires."

"Minorities are protected same as everyone else."

This leaves one course of action. Holy water rubbed like eau de Cologne on puffed-up pectorals. Crucifixes slipped around thick necks. Knives strapped to calves, guns cocked. Laser-sight crossbows.

"You see this crossbow?" says Carol to the boys. "When you go into that house, this is your dick. You lose this and say goodbye to the dick."

Doc and the three Vampirebusters, in long coats, trudge up to the predawn gates of Phi Beta Sucka. [By now, the good people who paid six bucks to get in here will be screaming for blood! So let's not leave them hungry. Righteous sadism! Torture! Mayhem! Zingers at the instant of staking!]

To the guards: "Suck on this!" THOCK! THOCK!

At a coffin: "Knock, knock." "Who's there?" "Room service." "What's on the menu?" "Stake au jus." THOCK!

In the control room: "You men are trespassing!" "Meet the new Zoning Board." THOCK!

Will surveys the video monitors. In one, a girl with huge breasts. In the next, Mike, catatonic — about to be married to Dirk!

Carol at the computer: tap tap tap. "I'm plugged into a satellite!" Tap tap. "Uh-oh." Tap tap. "Shit. I think I nuked Washington."

Cut to bells ringing in the Pentagon, tanks rolling out, guardsmen mobilized, F-14s taking off from the Indian Ocean.

Two minutes to nuclear war! The clock ticks down to the one-second mark before Carol explodes the satellite! But as the audience cheers —

Dr. Mole bursts in and riddles Veg with bullets! Will nails Mole in the neck with a stake, then kneels beside his bleeding buddy. "Just a flesh wound, dude," gasps Veg. "Don't get mad, get even — stake'em so it hurts. [Cough, cough] Tell my dad I forgive him for not being strong. . . . [Cough, cough.]"

Will seizes the crossbow, gives a savage cry of pain, and the Vampirebusters storm the chapel as Count's band ends a sizzling "Here Comes the Bride."

Doc steps into the open, crossbow raised. "You used to have better taste in music, Count."

"Ah — doctor! How true, but you can't bite off chicken heads during Bach cantatas."

Stakes fly! Scores of vampires get plugged in the heart, tumble end over end, disintegrate! But Count wrestles Doc into a choke hold and then, the floor his, engages Will in a thoughtful debate about the merits of vampirism.

"Vampires, my boy, are far less terrifying than women," he begins. "Do you know the expression 'Man and woman, one flesh'? Impossible. The only way to know someone — existentially speaking — is to ingest them. Partake of their most precious bodily fluids. If you don't, by the way, they'll partake of yours. It's suck or be sucked."

"I don't know, Count," says Will. "That seems sort of paranoid to me."

"Let me put it in a way that's closer to home. Aren't you frightened that one day you'll be streaking through a tunnel and find a wall where you thought there were tracks? And get your train busted to hell? Do you see what I'm driving at?"

"Use your will, Will!" cries Doc, hoarsely. "Don't give in to the dark side!"

"What happened when your girlfriend went off with Dirk today?" Count sneers. "Is that why you're impaling people with long rods? I can show you true power over women!"

"Believe in love, Will," gasps Doc "In 400 years, he hasn't had one meaningful relationship."

"What do you call 'meaningful'? These women are my slaves. Mike, I command you, flashdance for us."

Hit Single #5, "(Love Me Like a) Heart Wound," as Mike twirls and gyrates, spins around the chapel, cartwheels, somersaults, cartwheels and WHOMP!!! plants a drumstick deep into Count's heart.

"H-h-how?" he stammers.

"Love, Count," says Mike. "L-O-V-E. What a feeling!"

Dracula dissolves into a pile of sizzling ash.

"I can't believe it!" hollers Dirk. "Now I'm King of the Vampires!"

"You're the plague," snarls Will, lifting his crossbow. "Time for your shot." THOCK!

"Take my point?"

Love has conquered! As our heroes and heroine flee the mansion, the F-14s arrive and bomb the place to hell, including the bimbo-slaves.

"We've got to go back for Veg!" announces Will as the inferno fills the sky.

"Bad move, dude!" comes a gladdeningly familiar voice. Veg! In a wheelchair pushed by a shapely blond nurse! "This is Frankie," says Veg. "She's from forty years in the future. I'm going to father the next great vampire hunter, and he wanted to make sure nothing happened to me!"

Carol decides to accompany Doc to the next outbreak of vampirism, forty years in the future. "Tell your son we're comin'!" says Carol.

"We'll get right on it!" says Veg, gazing into Frankie's eyes. The two happy couples wave a heartfelt goodbye as the time machine whirls into nothingness and six police cars converge.

"What was that?" yells a sergeant.

"A time machine."

"Oh. Sorry. We thought it was the talking robot that escaped from the base. Wait — there he is!"

Editor's Note: On this unresolved point, the manuscript ends. Just before going to press, Rolling Stone contacted Edelstein in a motel outside Flagstaff, Arizona, and interviewed him about his experiences.

What were you trying to achieve with High Stakes!?
Okay, it does need some explanation, but I wonder if I'm the guy to do it. Never trust an artist on his own work [laughs]. I think it's true to my state of mind when I wrote it. It's a picture of a person, in a way.

How so? Isn't it just a rip-off?
Well, that's how it began, that was the point. But, you know, a work of art has a way of growing larger than the artist, taking on a life of its own. When I started, I thought of the audience as things with buttons. Push this button, they laugh; push that button, they get mad. I guess you could say I was cynical about Hollywood. I had the names of every major summer film pinned to my wall — I wanted to get everything in.

You certainly did get a lot in.
I did, but at what cost? It took me forever to set up the plot, and once I did, I was stuck with all those characters! I had that ridiculous animal. And the robot — I'll never live the robot down!

You had places in the original manuscript where you just said, "Robot enters."
Yes, and I never found anything to do with him!

We cut most of them. We left the last reference.
Oh, good! Because, you know, it was just clutter. The point is, something happened while I wrote, something wonderful and awful — I felt a powerful need to write about my own life. You know that scene where the girl gives the hero the brushoff — "You're a bore. Shoo! Shoo!"? My girlfriend actually used those words.

You were quoting her?
It happened, I swear! The conversation between Veg and his dad, I went back and added that — it turned out to be key to the whole absent-father thing. Also, the debate with Dracula at the end. I wrote that to sum up the themes of the movie: love and faith.

Those scenes don't seem to have anything to do with the rest of the script.
But they're central! The script is about love and about the feelings children inherit from their fathers. Blood drinking becomes a metaphor for using someone — it's hassle-free sex, and though it's safer in the short run, over the long term it's disastrous. And we're seeing that now with the AIDS thing, which I hint at when the first guy gets emasculated. Flashdancing becomes a metaphor, too, because there's an attitude about one's own body implied — in Mike's case, a kind of defiant ownership. It's like Our Bodies, Ourselves, it's why she couldn't be a slave. This is a very feminist movie!

But you're always calling women "bimbos" and going on about their legs and breasts.
Well, that's kind of ironic. It's tongue in cheek, you know. I don't mean anything by it.

You sound very confident about the script. Why did you run away from it?
It all felt a bit like necrophilia. I don't understand. Having sex with a dead body. Yes, I know what it is, but I don't know what you mean. Well, Hollywood, Hollywood's ideas about how people act, that was the corpse. And I was trying to make love to it, and getting angry at it because it wouldn't respond, you know, and — it got kind of ugly. After a while I had problems breathing, so I came out here. To the Grand Canyon. And the desert, yes. They don't show movies here. For a while there, I didn't know what was me and what was movies.

Will you try to sell High Stakes!?
Why, do you know any producers [laughs]?