Vampirella (1996) -½
In 1964, Jim Warren, the publisher of Famous Monsters of Filmland and its sister magazine, Monster World, decided to break into the comic book business with a quarterly (later bimonthly) horror anthology series on the model of the long-extinct EC line. In an effort to dodge the censors at the Comics Code Authority (the EC horror comics were long-extinct for a reason, after all), Warren published Creepy in a magazine-sized format and printed all the interior art in black and white. Since Creepy didn’t look like a comic book, and wouldn’t fit in the same spinner racks as the output of Marvel and DC, Warren was in a plausible position to tell anyone who might object to his newest venture that it was a magazine aimed at an adult audience; that he would have been lying through his teeth in doing so was beside the point. Creepy was a huge success, and Warren quickly launched a companion magazine, Eerie, which would hit the newsstands during Creepy’s off-months. The main difference between the two titles was that Creepy ran nothing but one-off stories, while Eerie featured the exploits of a number of continuing characters. Then, in 1969, came what might be the most notorious of the Warren horror comics— Vampirella. The advent of Vampirella took Warren into new territory in two senses. First of all, Vampirella was completely devoted to a single central character, like the majority of mainstream comics. Secondly, and more importantly, Vampirella spiked its horror with sex. The title character’s name was a nod to the French import Barbarella (which, not coincidentally, had been turned into a wildly popular movie the year before Vampirella appeared), and one look at her as painted by Frank Frazetta on the cover of the first issue would have been enough to send any fifteen-year-old geek-boy into hormonal overload. It isn’t for nothing that virtually every fantasy pinup artist of the past 30 years has tried his or her hand at drawing or painting Vampirella, nor was it an accident that Vampirella was the only Warren character to retain her popularity (if only in cult circles) after the company self-destructed in 1983. The first half of the 90’s in particular were very good to Vampirella, with licensed comic book miniseries popping up all over the place, and that, at last, brings me to Vampirella the movie.
To the surprise of absolutely nobody, it was under the auspices of Roger Corman that Vampirella finally made it to the screen, but Concorde-New Horizons, his post-New World production company, had evolved by that time in a direction that proved extremely detrimental to the quality of its product, and the Vampirella movie we actually got was but a pale shadow of the film it could have been. Concorde-New Horizons had been founded after the demise of the drive-in, just as it was becoming clear that home video would soon be the primary market for low-budget, independently produced movies. It was also abundantly clear to Corman that his new company’s stiffest competition was going to come not from other small production houses, but from the major Hollywood studios, which were colonizing the traditional B-picture genres at an ever-increasing rate. As a result, Corman adopted a volume-based strategy, in which Concorde-New Horizons would make its money by flooding the home video market with huge numbers of the cheapest possible movies, frequently bypassing theatrical release altogether. With his studio cranking out twenty or more movies every year (New World had averaged about half that while Corman was in charge), it was no longer possible for him to maintain the sort of hands-on involvement in each that had characterized his work as a producer earlier in his career. Simple economics dictated that he would continue to employ mostly novice actors, writers, and directors, but the frantic Concorde-New Horizons production schedule dictated that they would now be left mainly to fend for themselves. Vampirella is a sterling example of just how badly awry things could go without Corman’s direct involvement.
We begin 3000 years ago, on the planet Drakulon. It is a world peopled completely with vampires, but because its rivers and streams are so heavily freighted with organic matter that their waters are virtually indistinguishable from blood, there is no need for the sort of mass mutual depredation which a vampires-only society would seem to imply. There are, however, a few vampires on Drakulon who prefer to do things in the manner of their savage ancestors, and who will settle for nothing less than the real thing. Vlad (ex-Who lead singer Roger Daltrey, in a performance that is the very definition of “washed-up”) is one such miscreant, and the High Elder of Drakulon (Angus Scrimm, from Phantasm and Subspecies) is even now on his way to the council hall in the capital to pass sentence upon him. Vlad’s condemnation is interrupted, however, when his three top flunkies— Demos (The Stuff’s Brian Bloom), Sallah (Corinna Harney, of Beach House), and Traxx (Tom Deters)— burst in with guns blazing, and mow down the whole Elders’ Council. (One assumes that assault rifles on Drakulon fire wooden or silver bullets.) The criminals then pile aboard some stock spaceship footage from the Concorde-New Horizons remake of Not of This Earth and flee to a distant star system, where the third planet out seems serviceable enough as a new home.
Yep. It’s Earth, alright, and after some 30 centuries, Vlad and his companions have done a fair job of spreading vampirism across the globe. Very few people recognize this, of course (and nobody at all recognizes the extraterrestrial origins of the undead), but foremost among those in the know are the members of Operation P.U.R.G.E., the secret, international vampire-fighting agency created years before by the Van Helsing family. The current head of P.U.R.G.E. is Adam Van Helsing (Richard Joseph Paul, of Oblivion and Oblivion 2: Backlash), and his big project at the moment is looking for ways to turn an inter-vampire turf war in Brazil to human advantage. One of his subordinates, Lieutenant Walsh (Lee De Broux, from Coffy and Hunter’s Blood), has an interesting distraction for him, however. A NASA space shuttle has just returned from a mission to Mars, and in TV news footage of its landing, a large bat can be briefly seen flying out of the main airlock. What is this— vampires from space, now?
Why not ask college-age computer geek Forry Ackerman (David B. Katz) about that? Forry is rescued from a largely unexplained run-in with a gang of criminals when a great big bat flies down the alley toward him, and transforms into a beautiful young woman (Island of the Dead’s Talisa Soto) in an extremely revealing red vinyl costume. (The constraints of basic physics are such that the costume in question is slightly less revealing than the one familiar from the comics, however.) She makes short work of Forry’s attackers, and then accompanies him home to his apartment. The woman, obviously, is Vampirella. She had been the stepdaughter of the High Elder of Drakulon, and 3000 years ago, she flew off in pursuit of Vlad, bent on revenge. She encountered some kind of ion cloud on the way, however (an ion cloud which I’m sure was recycled from some earlier Corman production, although I currently have no idea which), and her ship crash-landed on Mars, where she spent the intervening ages in suspended animation. Vampirella was discovered by those astronauts we heard about earlier; she awoke on the trip to Earth, and hypnotized the crew of the shuttle into forgetting all about her. (Considering what happened to the last bunch of astronauts I saw stumble upon hibernating vampires from outer space, I’d say hypnotic amnesia is pretty close to a best-case scenario under the circumstances…) As for what she’s doing over at Forry’s place, it’s apparently because screenwriter Gary Gerani could think of no better way to bring her into contact with Vlad and his followers than to introduce her to an internerd who knows that Traxx is now posing as a university professor who made a name for himself debunking the paranormal. After Forry tells Vampirella where Traxx works, we’ll never see the boy again.
Vampirella kills Traxx with a remarkable lack of fanfare, even though he greets her by making a very convincing case for his repentance and rehabilitation. Then she heads over to his house to do the same to his wife and kids, but gets cold feet before she can completely blow her claim to be this movie’s heroine. In the children’s room, however, she notices an absolutely vital clue— a poster on the wall depicting over-the-hill rock star Jamie Blood. You got it, it’s our old buddy Vlad.
Van Helsing, meanwhile, leads a P.U.R.G.E. team down to Brazil, where they intervene in a face-off between the leaders of that turf war he was so interested in. Carlos (Lenny Juliano, from Chopping Mall and Sorceress) is nobody terribly important, but it turns out his foe in the feud is Vlad’s right-hand man, Demos. P.U.R.G.E. captures both vampires, and by threatening to inject Demos with holy water, Van Helsing extracts from him both Vlad’s secret identity and his present location. Thus it is that P.U.R.G.E. and Vampirella both end up in Las Vegas at the same time, each laying a trap for “Jamie Blood” in their own way. In fact, the two traps are sprung at the exact same moment, with P.U.R.G.E. surrounding Vlad just as Vampirella was closing in to kill him herself. Vampirella and Vlad end up locked in separate armored vans, which is a good thing for Van Helsing, as her continued presence on the scene enables Vampirella to come to his rescue when Vlad inevitably breaks free and massacres the rest of the P.U.R.G.E. field team. Vlad escapes, but at least Van Helsing lives to fight another day.
Van Helsing is fascinated by the notion of a vampire who claims to hail from another planet, who refuses to prey upon humans on moral grounds, and who exhibits a very different range of powers and weaknesses from the vampires on Earth. He brings her back to P.U.R.G.E. headquarters, and then it’s time for Expositionpalooza ‘96. Vampirella explains that the physiological differences between her and Earth’s vampires stem from a set of mutations which Vlad’s party underwent upon exposure to our planet’s atmosphere. (What she doesn’t explain is how our atmosphere fails to have the same effect on her— or are we meant to believe that the air was somehow fundamentally different in Homer’s time?) Van Helsing explains that his family has been hunting vampires since the 19th century, when his multiply-great grandfather first fought Vlad in England and Transylvania— although the vampire chief was calling himself “Dracula” in those days, the name obviously a bastardization of that of his homeworld. And though Walsh objects strenuously, Van Helsing essentially deputizes Vampirella into P.U.R.G.E. Vlad is up to something big and secret, you see, and Adam believes that an agent with the strength and shapeshifting abilities of the undead would be an enormous asset to his organization in putting a stop to it. But when Vlad’s old girlfriend, Sallah, kidnaps Van Helsing from his hotel in Las Vegas, Walsh and Vampirella must find some way to put aside their mutual mistrust and work together to rescue him and defeat Vlad’s master plan (which, by the way, will turn out to be the kind of thing Fu Manchu would dream up if somehow he got bitten by Count Dracula).
In much the same way that David DeCoteau was the bane of the Charles Band direct-to-video empire during the 1990’s, Jim Wynorski was the bane of Concorde-New Horizons. He did some okay work for Corman in the 80’s, but the more Corman came to trust him and leave him alone to run his own show, the worse Wynorski’s movies became. His sophomoric and corny sense of humor (imagine Abbott and Costello doing tit jokes, and you’ve got the thing nailed) helped render films like Dinosaur Island and Return of the Swamp Thing almost unbearable, while the steady and catastrophic shrinkage of the budgets he was given to work with finished the job. And Vampirella may in fact be the very worst Jim Wynorski movie I’ve seen yet. The Vampirella stories Warren published back in the 70’s were silly enough, but they’ve got nothing on the movie version, which plays rather like a cross between “The Avengers” without the wit and a vampire version of Superman 2. The special effects for such things as the vampire-to-bat transformations and the damage dealt by P.U.R.G.E.’s new experimental “sun gun” are so miserable that the reused footage from Not of This Earth looks like something out of Return of the Jedi in comparison. The stunt work in the fight scenes is inexcusably lazy— Talisa Soto’s stunt double is a man, for fuck’s sake!!!! (Goes some way toward explaining why the bottom half of Soto’s costume fits so poorly in the front, that does…) The three leads put in performances which can only be described as dire. Richard Joseph Paul pretty much just takes up space as Adam Van Helsing, but the rest of the cast makes him look almost respectable. Talisa Soto has absolutely nothing going for her save one of the truly magnificent asses of the 1990’s, and she is utterly defeated by the demands of carrying an entire movie. As for Roger Daltrey, he offers even Zandor Vorkov credible competition for sheer ridiculousness in the part of a master vampire. The only moment he ever manages to sell is the Las Vegas club scene, in which— as you might expect— he is perfectly credible as an embarrassingly past-his-prime rock-and-roller. The tragedy of all this is that there was a time not so long before, proportionately speaking, when a highly entertaining Vampirella movie might indeed have been made under Roger Corman’s leadership. Picture Mary Woronov in the title role sometime around 1979, and I think you’ll get some idea of just how big a waste this Vampirella really is.