Vampirella (1996 video)

Posted: October 19, 2016 in Guest Column
Tags: ,

**Author Brian C. Baer braved the world of 90’s direct-to-video horror to review this adaptation of horror vixen Vampirella. The things he does for you people…**

Compared to most of her four-color competition, the classic horror heroine Vampirella is perfectly suited for the big screen. She debuted in Warren Publishing’s Vampirella #1 in 1969 as a jokey, Crypt Keeper-style host for various short stories, but she was also featured in solo adventures to explain her origin and power-set.
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Though her backstory would go through many revamps and revisions over time, she was introduced as a denizen of the planet Drakulon, a world of vampires who were sustained by naturally occurring rivers of blood. She would then travel to Earth to hunt evil vampires (who were actually renegade Drakulonians) with the Van Helsing family, become a magician’s assistant, travel through time, and all sorts of fun stuff.

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Which was, interestingly, designed by a woman: Trina Robbins.

Though impervious to the effects of sunlight and crosses, Vampirella possesses the traditional super-powers of a vampire, such as super-strength and speed, general immortality, and the ability to transform into a bat. She is, however, best known for her costume. I’m sure you can understand why.

However impractical the costume would be, Vampirella was still all but born for a live-action adaptation. She was created by Forrest J. Ackerman in response to 1968’s rather explicit cult film Barbarella (itself a comic adaptation), but Ackerman also paired his creation’s pulpy sci-fi roots with trashy horror B-movie imagery – everything the character needed to guarantee a successful high-concept exploitation movie.

It’s only fitting that the character was optioned by the masters of trashy, pulpy, high-concept, and all-around fun horror B-movies: Hammer Films.

vampi hammer.jpgHammer was on a downhill slide by the mid-70s, when they began work on a Vampirella film. They had long dominated the horror film market in their native UK and abroad, but with advances in technology, it was becoming possible for even scrappier little companies to make even cheaper films. Vampirella was seen as a strong possibility for reversing the company’s decline with a real crowd-pleaser.

The script was completed in 1975, and it called for the character to play the assistant of London stage magician, who was actually a wizard named Pendragon. By night, she would work with Britain’s top secret organization Space Operatives for Defense and Security (SODS) to battle aliens. Along the way, she would slay both vampires and annoying humans, and encounter the modern day descendants of the Van Helsings. All in all, it was fairly faithful to the Warren stories and seemed like it would fit right in with Hammer Film’s other output.

Vampirella became a passion project for producer Michael Carreras, and he worked to fast-track production. Hammer stalwart Peter Cushing was cast, though not to reprise his role as Van Helsing from the company’s Dracula films. Instead, he was set to play the wizard Pendragon.

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Almost Vampi

Casting Vampirella herself, however, proved much more difficult. Carreras first approached former Bond girl Caroline Munro (The Spy Who Loved Me). Though Munro was under contract with Hammer, she turned the role down due to the astronomical amount of nudity is was set to require. The next candidate was Valerie Leon, a Bond girl twice over (The Spy Who Loved Me and Never Say Never Again), though she also passed. The nudity did not seem to bother model Barbara Leigh, who signed on. She wore the signature Vampirella “slingsuit” with gusto, appearing in publicity photos for the cover of comics, and even on a fundraising visit to American International Pictures (AIP). Both she and Cushing made a trip to New York’s Monstercon horror convention in late 1975 to talk up the project.

Still, Hammer Film’s Vampirella was not meant to be. Funding was difficult to come by, as AIP had insisted on an American actor cast as the male lead, and Jim Warren of Warren Publishing refused to sign over all merchandising rights. No one was interested in funding a movie if those rights weren’t all owned by the filmmakers. Hammer’s options were further hampered by its slow descent into bankruptcy. Carreras continued pushing for the film until 1977, when it finally died. Hammer died shortly thereafter.

The company was clearly onto something, though. Barbarella was re-released theatrically in 1977 to an even warmer response than it had gotten a decade earlier. Even if the world was ready for a sexy, campy, bloody sci-fi / horror flick, they would not get it just yet.

When Warren Publishing went under in 1983, legal uncertainties kept Vampirella out of print and off of movie screens for over a decade. Just before she made her return to comics in the pages of Harris Publications, she finally made her cinematic debut.

vampidvdIn 1996, infamous B-movie producer Roger Corman brought the character to life in a TV movie on his Showtime series Roger Corman Presents. The low-budget film was directed by frequent Corman collaborator Jim Wynorski (Return of the Swamp Thing). Vampirella would be played by a Bond girl after all, in the form of Talisa Soto (License to Kill), and though her acting left plenty to be desired, the rest of the casting decisions were far more odd. Her Drakulonian nemesis Vlad was played by Roger Daltrey, lead singer of The Who, and there was even a cameo by director John Landis for some reason.

The TV movie opened on peaceful and futuristic planet Drakulon, brought to life by the use of stock footage from previous Corman fare. Its interiors seemed to have been filmed in an airport. The planet’s worst criminal, Vlad, kills bookish Ella’s step-father and escapes to Earth with his henchmen. After swearing an oath to the dying man she wouldn’t spend her whole life seeking vengeance, she follows Vlad to Earth, which takes her about 3,000 years longer than it took the thanks to some sort of space cloud.

Arriving on Earth she meets a nerdy stock character named “Forry Ackerman” (see paragraph four). Ackerman doesn’t see her do anything overly vampiric, and after she says her name is Ella and gets out of earshot, he called her “Vampirella.” Somehow, for the rest of the movie as she hunts down Vlad, this is how she introduces herself.
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It seems pointless to mock the plot holes or incomprehensible storytelling in a movie featuring Drakulon, planet of space vampires, but it’s impossible not to. Even for the likes of Corman and Wynorski, the movie is lazy, inept, and halfhearted. None of the actors seem invested, but only Daltrey bothers to over-act. While certain issues, like the near non-existent special effects budget, are excusable, the too-serious tone is not. At one point, for example, our heroine threatens to kill the young human children of one of Vlad’s henchmen. For a property made to be silly and sexy in a cartoonish, absurd way, Vampirella is made with very little self-awareness.

vampidaltreyThe end credits promise Vampirella will return in a sequel called “Death’s Dark Avenger,” but this never happened. There was a resurgence in comics in 1997, and the character has been in print fairly consistently between Harris Publications and the newer series at Dynamite Comics. As she is one of the more recognizable independent comic characters of that era, there are occasional rumblings of a new Vampirella movie. So far, nothing has come to pass.

As the Vampirella TV movie is so forgettable and the would-be Hammer version from 1975 is little more than a myth, the character is still primed for a proper movie adaptation. Given a decent budget, a fun script, and a director who will take the right approach (for this kind of mix of horror and comedy, Krampus’s Michael Dougherty comes to mind), Vampirella could still get the kind of big screen escapade she was created for.

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