Sunday, October 27, 2013
HubrisWeen Day 22: Vampirella (1996)
Written by Gary Gerani, based on the Warren Publications comic book
Directed by Jim Wynorski
Talisa Soto: Vampirella
Roger Daltrey: Vlad / Jamie Blood
Richard Joseph Paul: Adam Van Helsing
How did I feel going in to this one? Well, there's an anecdote floating around that Roger Corman would tell people working for him for the first time that it was going to be tougher than they thought, but that it would be invaluable experience and a foot in the door for moviemaking that was impossible to get anywhere else. He'd sum it up in one sentence: "If you do a good enough job on this movie, you'll never have to work for me again".
Jim Wynorski has been making movies for Corman for almost thirty years.
Then you get into the fact that it's a superhero movie made before the current cycle of Marvel and DC adaptations--that would be my choice for Genre of the Damned if it weren't for movies based on video games. And what do you know? The lead in this one was one of the main actors in the Mortal Kombat movies, so she's been in both contemplate-this-on-the-Tree-of-Woe genres as well. Ah well. It was nice knowing everyone.
The film starts 3000 years ago on Drakulon, a planet full of vampires that get their nourishment from the "organic rivers" of the planet; in the past, they used to feed on each other but now that's considered barbaric by the more enlightened, robe-wearing, science fiction utopian civilization kind of vampire. We get this history lesson from Ella's stepfather as they take a stroll down what certainly isn't an airport moving walkway with some neon near it to show it's the futuristic ancient past on another planet. He also mentions Vlad, a cult leader who wants to go back to the bad old good old days of vampires predating on each other and drinking fresh blood rather than just river water full of organic schmutz.
Vlad is hauled out of his jail cell so he can get chastised by the council of elders (the establishing shot of this scene shows that the big stone pillars on the set only go up about five feet past the actors' heads) for establishing his eat-other-vampires-to-make-yourself-stronger cult but before they can pass sentence three of his hench show up and murder the council to death. Vlad drains the Grand High Muckety-Muck of the council of vampires, then he and his hench flee in stock footage of a spaceship from some other Corman production and land on Earth.
We then skip ahead to "the present", where a skinny dude in a zip up vest reenacts the Get Smart opening title sequence at thrift shop; the wardrobe elevator doesn't take him to Narnia, though. It's the entrance to the secret base of a vampire-tracking organization. He's introduced as Adam Van Helsing by the perfectly natural expository method of someone calling him by his first name as soon as he walks through the door. He and another vampire hunter look over footage of a space shuttle landing from a Mars mission, where a huge bat flew out of the open door. They realize they've got some kind of space vampire to look for while the audience realizes that apparently vampires don't burst into flame from sunlight in this movie and do show up on videotape.
Later that night, Vampirella shows up to foil a mugging and do the "I have just arrived here and speak English but don't understand colloquialisms" alien routine. She beats the muggers down in a lethargically choreographed action scene (I'm guessing that even the physically possible version of Vampirella's costume doesn't offer much freedom of movement) and the victim invites her back to his apartment, which is full of science-fiction memorabilia and immaculately clean. The mugging victim introduces himself as Forry Ackerman and seems to immediately realize that Vampirella is a blood-drinking monster. She does a brief vengeance spiel and Ackerman points her towards a Berkeley professor that debunks the supernatural via the internet of 1996--which was only available on beige PCs the size of breadboxes.
Meanwhile, a team of guys from that vampire tracking organization breaks in on Demos, Vlad's main henchman, wrapping up a vampire gang war by killing the other gang. Sunlight burns those vampires, so I guess they are vulnerable to sunlight. Or maybe they are and Vampirella isn't, or it could be that nobody thought the implications of "flew away from the Space Shuttle in broad daylight" when they were dropping the exposition earlier.
Vampirella finds one of the four cult members who killed her stepfather; in the past 3000 years he has reformed completely, found a human family to love (his dialogue implies that it's one of many that he's lived with over the course of the centuries), genuinely regrets his actions from the distant past and can't help her find Vlad. So she beats the shit out of him and kicks him out an (open) window to be impaled on a wooden fencepost, then goes to murder his adopted family. She sees a poster for "Jaimie Blood", a vampire rock star that Vlad is using as his cover, and probably lets the family live now that she knows who she's looking for.
Demos, under torture, reveals that Vlad is Jaimie Blood and in Las Vegas; the vampire exterminators let him live--and that seems like a terrible idea. Meanwhile in Sin City the audience is treated to a film-padding Roger Daltrey musical number that he's probably going to be leaving off his resume for the foreseeable future. The sparse crowd of extras in the nightclub seems to dig it, though.
Both Vampirella and Vlad are captured by the vampire hunters seconds before they can kill each other in the Las Vegas desert. The evil vamp believes that the hot vinyl outfit groupie that brought him outside was a double agent; both he and Van Helsing were surprised to see her there. Vlad winds up escaping custody of "Operation: Purge" like every supercriminal in the back of a transport van in cinema history has done. Vampirella keeps him from killing Van Helsing but Vlad escapes by turning into a badly animated bat and flapping away.
Vampirella joins "Operation: Purge" after a flashback (including John Landis as an astronaut!) explains that she was stranded on Mars after the stock footage of her ship ran into an ion cloud; she was in suspended animation for 3000 years until NASA sent people to Mars who picked up her iron lung and brought her back to Earth. She hypnotized them into forgetting her existence and went on the hunt for Vlad. Van Helsing is shaken by this revelation to the extent the actor is capable of portraying it, since he believed in magic instead of aliens. Van Helsing gives her the Megaforce base tour and shows off the stake guns and a chintzy looking "sun gun" that their Q just whipped up to burn through vampires (and not injure humans). During the base tour Vampirella says that Vlad and his hench have a contagious form of vampirism now, and that she does not.
Adam gets kidnapped by Vlad's operatives and the Adam-for-Demos hostage swap goes badly; Purge kills a couple vampires but the important ones get away and still have Van Helsing stored for later bargaining. Vlad's plan is some gibberish about using shielded satellites to block sunlight from reaching Earth in order to remove the vampires' chief weakness and take over the planet.
Vampirella breaks in to Vlad's compound, gets captured and locked in a room with Van Helsing and her synthetic blood substitute stolen--Vlad plans to use her as a murder weapon in order to get her on his side and remove the Van Helsing threat completely. She manages to keep her self control and not drain Van Helsing completely. The Purge forces attack Vlad's ghost-town compound in a low budget action sequence, shooting the satellite control bank makes the satellites dematerialize (...huh?) and Vampirella takes on her ancient foe at Hoover Dam, treating us to the sight of Roger Daltrey running around the dam's control center in a black frilly pirate shirt and cape. Also available in this fight scene: Talisa Soto's stunt double, obviously a man, wearing her vinyl outlet for the beatdown. A sequel was promised, but never delivered.
Man, this was not any good at all. Overlong, badly paced, obviously written to take advantage of existing locations and stock footage and full of acting that ranges from the "I am standing in your movie" to Talisa Soto literally unable to say "No!" convincingly. Roger Daltrey does manage to leave fang marks in the scenery as the bad guy, but mostly this is the kind of film that reminds people comic book movies used to be stupid as all hell. Remember that before The Avengers and The Dark Knight made superhero adaptations into billion-dollar paydays for Marvel and Time/Warner, the main recognizable other-media presence of superheroes would have been Tim Burton's take on Batman (or possibly the 20-years-before-that Adam West series). Mainstream audiences would have likely seen superheroes as silly out-of-shape guys in ugly tights delivering stilted dialogue and making a small payday for the studios that released the movies.
But when Tim Burton's Batman film set the box office on fire in 1989, everyone wanted in on the act. Marvel Comics didn't retain control of their other-media rights particularly well; bottom-feeding filmmakers like Albert Pyun and Jim Wynorski managed to get the rights to make comic book movies (and Roger Corman made a film of The Fantastic Four around this time that was never meant to be released--in a legendary piece of Hollywood swindling he didn't tell the actors at the time--the only reason for the movie's existence was for the studio to retain the rights to the property until it could make a proper film). James Cameron tried to make a Spider-Man film as his followup to Terminator 2; the rights situation was so tortuous that he gave up and made Titanic, because building a replica of an ocean liner and exploring the actual wreck of the legendary ship was easier.
The unique confluence of events--money there for the taking for films willing to ride on Bruce Wayne's coattails and the unavailability of the big name comics properties--led to smaller studios taking a chance on more obscure properties (remember--or learn, if you didn't already know--that before The Mask was Jim Carrey's launch pad to superstardom it was a horror comic from Dark Horse about a psychotic with a big green head that couldn't be killed). Into this vacuum came the hustlers and the promise artists who more than likely told Harris Publishers that the movie would bring more exposure to their comics while making them a ton of money. I doubt that anyone involved in the movie's finance or production saw it as anything other than late-night cable fodder but probably didn't want to look too mercenary while negotiating the rights to make the film.
The aura of bone-deep semi-competent laziness suffuses the entire film. Nobody seems to be trying all that hard and the screenplay just lurches from episode to episode hitting all the obligatory story marks before wrapping it up with the promise of a sequel at the end of the credits. That went on to not happen. For that matter, Harris no longer publishes the Vampirella comics; instead, it's Dynamite Entertainment who does that now. And neither one were the original publishers--that was Warren Publications back in the Seventies.
While looking for the poster image at the top of the review, I saw a teaser from the Warren days that promised Hammer Studios was going to make a Vampirella film in the seventies--I really wish that was the movie we got instead of a tepid action film. Even at its most impoverished and nonsensical Hammer was a studio with more than a touch of British class to it. I would have much rather seen their take on the character than the one we got.