Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Wendigo Meets VAMPIRELLA (1996)

The most money that my friend Wendigo has ever spent on a DVD is the $59.95 he dropped on the film adaptation of the famous Warren comic magazine, produced by Roger Corman and directed by Jim Wynorski for an original broadcast on Showtime. That's a markdown from the $79.95 list price he used to see in stores. When he found it available at a discount last year, he swallowed his pride and put the money down. He didn't get the cable channel back in the day and had never seen the film before. He had high hopes for it.

Wendigo has met Vampirella many times before, of course, in many forms, -- most of them really hot. Created by famous monster man Forrest J. Ackerman, she inspired many great cover artists of the day and remains a magnet for good-girl artists in our own time. Those artists set a standard that was probably impossible for any mortal female to match, though Caroline Munro, proposed for the role back in the 1970s when Hammer was contemplating the project, would have come damn close.

"Vampi," as her friends know her, is a native of the planet Drakulon, where water has the same components and consistency as human blood. Drakulon is a dying planet when an Earth expedition lands there, and Vampirella, attempting to fight off the invaders, discovers that they have "water" flowing through their veins. Taking the humans' ship and going to Earth, she finds herself reluctant to kill people, becoming a model instead. Eventually a nice doctor invents a blood-substitute she can drink, and she becomes a hero and defender of humanity against various dark forces. None of this is in the film.

Instead, Wynorski and writer Gary Gerani (sole prior screen credit: Pumpkinhead) present us with the eminently civilized world of Drakulon, where Ella (Talisa Soto) is the white-clad scholarly stepdaughter of one of the planetary elders (Angus Scrimm). Drakulon has a sort of shopping-mall quality to it, but its people are high-minded, mostly, and very conscious of their dark past:

Elder: Dear daughter, that's they way we vampires used to behave in ages long past. Our ancestors would drain each other's blood instead of drinking it from Drakulon's organic rivers and streams.

Ella: How barbaric!

But there are barbarians still in their midst. Their leader is Vlad, a self-styled man of action who enjoys being a predator. He's played by Roger Daltrey, and if you wonder why The Who still tours and plays shows like the Super Bowl, I like to think its a conscientious, charitable decision on Pete Townshend's part to prevent his mate from embarrassing himself like this ever again.

Once upon a time, Roger Daltrey hoped to die before he got old. He seems to have found a middle ground.

Vlad's flunkies break into the courtroom and slaughter the elders before hijacking a spaceship and heading for that promising planet, ours. Ella embarks after them on a mission of revenge, but her spaceship conks out in an ion storm and our heroine has to put herself in suspended animation on Mars, losing 30,000 years of precious time while Vlad & Co. hit earth and give birth to the race of vampires. It's not until the space shuttle (!) co-piloted by John Landis (!!) reaches Mars that Ella can reboot her revenge scheme. So instead of the original origin, imagine if General Zod had hopped out of those spinning rings, done a Limey on Jor-El, and high-tailed it for Terra, leaving a technically-inept Kal-El to give chase.

"Dang! I shouldn't have lent those spare parts to Eros and Tana. And I shouldn't have lent my interocitor to Lattis and Krobar."

"Can you use a computer, Missus Vampire Lady Person? It's got Windows 3.1!"

Ella exits the shuttle as a bat, only to end up in an alley in time to prevent the mugging of earnest young nerd Forry Ackerman, who gives her a new name ("Ella?...Vampire?...") and gratefully provides her first clue toward tracking down Vlad's crew. Somewhere along the long trail she learned to kickbox, a skill that serves her well later. Her path is destined to cross with that of Operation Purge, a vampire-hunting operation of global sweep based beneath a nondescript gift shop. In a touch that's actually ahead of its time, we see Purge capturing vampires and torturing them in order to learn the whereabouts of Vlad, the master vampire. Threatening to inject holy water into their veins is very effective. Had they not resorted to these extreme measures, they might never have learned Vlad's alias. Until then, they had no clue whatsoever as to what identity their longtime enemy was working under.

Jamie Blood never really caught on in the age of grunge, but he still had his fans.

To be fair, Jaimie Blood doesn't keep that high of a profile. His lounge rock act attracts a few dozen people, including that incorrigible camera hog, the real Forrest J. Ackerman. Daltrey's vocal performance here would be sad if he weren't completely committed to grimacing up a store and working his ridiculous costumes, which are far from the most ridiculous costumes on display here. Daltrey is a terrible actor, but also the only one with the right sense of what to do in these impoverished circumstances, which is to camp up a storm while Soto and the rest of the cast plod woodenly through their paces.

There's a plot that has to do with a "Judgment Night" that Vlad is orchestrating, and a subplot dealing with Operation Purge's initial distrust of Vampirella, but it all tends to blur in the memory. It couldn't be much of a plot, anyway, when Vampi smashing one machine in the middle of a western ghost town can cause all your satellites of doom to disintegrate in orbit. Little about this movie makes much of an impression. This is a film about which Wendigo has little good to say. "What did it get right?" I asked him. "It ended," he said.

Part of the problem was the low budget, of course, which forced Wynorski to use stock footage from older Corman productions for outer space scenes. Wendigo says there's no way they were going to be able to do a more faithful origin story for Vampi with the budget they had here, but they might have gotten away with doing a typical Vampirella story on earth if they didn't bother with an origin. Wynorski has pulled off near-miracles of silliness in his impoverished past (e.g. the hilarious Deathstalker 2), but his economy-sized inspiration fails him here.

A better Vampirella could still have elevated this film, but Talisa Soto ends up a poor choice for the role. She's handicaped from the start by the poor costume she wears. Maybe nothing possible in the 1990s could have lived up to those magazine covers, but Soto's outfit reminds Wendigo too much of vinyl garbage bags rather than anything more arousing. You can see better looking Vampirellas in almost any comic book convention, and that was probably true even at the time of the movie.

Wendigo thinks that Soto acquits herself adequately in the fight scenes (she'd just done Mortal Kombat, after all) but she can't act, or at least can't put life in Gerani's glum lines, and her athleticism has its limits. In one scene she has to chase Daltrey on foot (why either transforms from bat form for this purpose is unclear), and she makes the old man look spry as she trudges after him in her modest boots. Wendigo tells me he's tempted to say I could have made a better Vampi, but I insist on assuring readers otherwise. He's also less forgiving of Daltrey than I am, and I can't blame him. He's even less forgiving of the film's poor excuses for special effects, including the worst bat transformations of modern times and the poorest imitation of a hologram we may ever see.

"Ve are Nihilists. Ve believe in nothing."
The worst failing of the Vampirella movie may be its misrepresentation of the character's personality. The comic-book Vampi may have her poignant moments, but she often displays a more vibrant personality, and the drawn character has an indisputable charisma that Talisa Soto misses almost completely. Given the popularity of vampires now and the ease with which the character could fit into the milieu of "urban fantasy," Wendigo thinks there's an opportunity for someone to make a more genuine Vampirella movie, or at least the first good one.
Here's the trailer, uploaded to YouTube by batmandingo007:

As a bonus, here's a clip from Vampi's little known career as a professional wrestler, uploaded by gohwave.


Rev. Phantom said...

I remember seeing this on video store shelves back in the day and writing it off, although I love Vampirella. Though based on the screenshots and your review, as bad as it sounds/looks, I think I may check this out at some point.

hobbyfan said...

I'm stunned that no one has tried to give Vampi another shot. After all, Corman was the first one to try a Fantastic Four movie (which never saw the light of day in the theatres), and if that iconic franchise was able to survive Corman's el cheapo business sense, so should Vampirella. A major studio like, say, Universal, could make a play here.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Hilarious stuff--I think I actually *did* watch this one at one point, but as you say it fails to make much of an impression. I never read much of the Vampi comics (the whole "Drakulon" angle was something I could never really get past, despite appreciating Ackerman's monster-kid, gee-whiz enthusiasm--you can tell by the story her really never did grow up, which is not at all a bad thing), but of course I loved looking at those great drawings. I wonder if the "Superman" echoes in this were intentional? It seems too imitative not to be.

Samuel Wilson said...

I was never a fan of the Vampirella magazine itself though I appreciate the art in retrospect. It could definitely stand another try on film, though they might have to rethink the origin. Wendigo tells me that the comics writers did try to make it more palatable by explaining that Vampi was the reincarnation of Cleopatra (!) who had herself been vampirized and cursed to said extraterrestrial rebirth. That's something to work with, I guess.