Over the last few decades, comic book movies have reached heights of storytelling and spectacle that readers could never have DREAMED of. But for every triumphant high—The Dark Knight, The Avengers—there have always been a good number of stinkers… some bad enough to become punchlines or talking points, but most mediocre and ultimately forgotten…
Until they end up here.
The Discount Spinner Rack is where you’ll find the worst, the weirdest, and the most puzzling of comic book movie misfires. We’ll take a look at the things that actually work and the parts that absolutely don’t, and decide whether it’s worth your time and your dime. In the end, movies will be marked down on a scale from $1.00 (a surprise gem) to $0.05 (better used for kindling). In this special HALLOWEEN SPOOK-TACLUAR EDITION, we’ll have to dig through the darkest trenches of the comic-movie graveyard to take a look at forgotten direct-to-video exploitation fodder Vampirella, starring Talisa Soto!
If you cracked open a single issue of Wizard magazine in the ‘90s, you’re probably at least peripherally aware of Vampirella. The sultry vampire pin-up girl with the black hair and the skimpiest one-piece bathing suit imaginable was pretty popular in the era of “bad girl” artwork—fitting in nicely alongside Lady Death, Dawn, and Witchblade in the category of “borderline spank material for lonely shut-ins”. And she DID have a cool aesthetic, admittedly; the bangs, the bright-red “costume” with the kitsch-y Dracula collar, and the bat logo (on the only spot wide enough to FIT a logo) make for a striking splash page (at the very least, it’s a passable “sexy” Halloween costume). But how much do you actually KNOW about Vampirella? What kind of character is she? What’s her story?
Well, unsurprisingly, the character is actually a product of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s1, first appearing in a self-titled comic magazine in 1969. Originally conceived as a horror-story hostess–a la television character Vampira (who would go on to inspire Elvira, Mistress of the Dark) or the Crypt Keeper—it wasn’t long before Vampirella was made the lead of her OWN stories. In those tales, it was revealed that the character was actually… (drumroll, please)… an ALIEN for the planet Drakulon2, where blood flows in rivers and all of her species drink it to survive. After a global drought decimates the population, Vampirella discovers a planet where the natives have blood flowing through their veins (that’d be Earth, mind you), and journeys here to survive… and to protect humankind from the OTHER survivors of Drakulon3, whose thirst has turned them into vicious monsters.
So you see, Vampirella is doubly creepy, because she’s both a vampire AND an alien!
Over time, though, her origins would be rewritten frequently—most of them ditching the “alien from another planet” bit. Probably the most lasting change was the revelation that she was the daughter of Lillith, the mythological first wife of Adam, who was cast from the garden of Eden and birthed all manner of demons, only to return to goodness and bear a child to battle the evils she unleashed into the world—this being Vampirella. But then later it would turn out that Lillith actually WAS still evil, and that Drakulon4 was actually a place in Hell rather than a planet, and that Vampi was working for the Vatican, and then she was flung into the far future, and she absorbed all the memories from Vampirellas of a hundred alternate universes, and…
Look. The only thing that matters is that she’s wearing a swimsuit, okay? And that swimsuit is probably the only reason anybody decided to make a movie about her.
In fact, people had been trying to get a Vampirella movie off the ground since the ‘70s. Hammer Films (yes, THE Hammer Films) was all set to produce a film starring an actress named Barbara Leigh; a script was in place, a director was ready to go, but the studio’s head of production balked at the last moment, and the film never happened. John Peters and Peter Guber grabbed up with the rights in the ‘80s during their tenure at Polygram Pictures, but ultimately did nothing with them… and eventually, they ended up in the hands of Roger Corman and Jim Wynorski. Corman, of course, is the masterful schlock-meister whose cheap productions and lightning-fast shooting schedules had made him one of the most prolific filmmakers in Hollywood history—so if ANYONE was gonna get this movie made, it was him. Taking the reins in the director’s chair was Wynorski, a protégé of Corman’s whose decades-long career would transition from theatrical B-movies, to direct-to-video B-movies, to cable-channel skin-flicks.
By all accounts, the shoot was a disaster. Shooting took place in Las Vegas, Nevada, and the average temperature during production was 112 degrees. Actors and crew were gambling and partying on their off hours, leaving them tired during the shoot; a thief was also apparently lurking on set and stealing money. Wynorski would later confess in an interview that Vampirella was the one and only film he regretted making… and mind you, this is coming from the man who directed “The Bare Wench Project” (one, two, AND three), “Para-Knockers Activity”, and “House on Hooter Hill”.5
… So let’s check it out, shall we?
IN THIS ISSUE: There are a lot of bad comic book movies out there, but this is the first I’ve seen that felt like it belonged on Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Rather than going with the character’s more Gothic, revamped origin story, the film indeed opens on the planet Drakulon6 30 centuries ago, which looks suspiciously like Zordon’s headquarters from Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. We get a nice, neat monologue from a kindly older gentleman (played by Phantasm’s Angus Scrimm) to his daughter Ella about Vlad, an evil vampire who drinks blood from others rather than from the blood rivers that occur naturally on their planet. The old man, a High Elder in Drakulon society, is on his way to judge Vlad at tribunal; he says a heartfelt goodbye to his daughter and departs for the trial, where absolutely nothing goes horribly, horribly wrong.
Vlad escapes to Earth and lives through the centuries spreading vampirism throughout the world7, building a base of power with his cronies; Ella, driven by vengence, follows after him, but ends up stranded on Mars for thirty centuries, only making it to Earth when she’s discovered by a NASA Mars expedition (which is inexplicably piloted by JOHN FREAKING LANDIS)—and arriving just in time to foil a master plan by Vlad to use satellites to block out the sun all over the planet8. All of that is just delivered as act-two backstory, though; fact is, once Ella’s father is killed and Vlad escapes to Earth, we jump forward to the present day, where the movie turns into a gangster revenge flick—the vampires operating like mob goombahs, chased by a government agency called PURGE (I’m… actually not sure if that’s an acronym or not) who all wear crosses on their hats9 and act like hardboiled FBI agents.
It’s hard to say if actress Talisa Soto is at fault here for the utter failure of Vampirella as a hero, or if the entire production simply let her down. To begin with, director Jim Wynorski felt that she was all wrong for the part… entirely because she couldn’t fill out the costume. He wanted to bring in B-movie queen Julie Strain as the vampy heroine, which tells you where his priorities were; but the production had already landed Soto (fresh from her role as Kitana in Mortal Kombat), and he was forced to go with her.
Soto’s Vampirella is definitely wooden, forced to deliver some truly PAINFUL dialogue with utmost sincerity… but of all the cast, she’s also the only one who demonstrates glimmers of real, empathetic humanity, as opposed to shamelessly hamming it up. She also tries to project regality and power as the heroine (there are clear shades of Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman at play here)… but man, that costume is doing her NO favors. I’m guessing the comic book swimsuit outfit just wasn’t practical for use in fight choreography, so instead they outfitted her with a latex bra and trunks, connected by awkward straps that hang loosely for most of the film.
On the other end of things, there’s Roger Daltrey (that is, founding member of The WHO and legendary rock star Roger Daltrey) just… just DEVOURING the film as Vlad, the leader of the evil vampires and the target of both Vampirella and PURGE. Daltrey’s performance is so hammy you can smell bacon when you watch it. He hisses and snarls and gnashes his teeth with every single line, having an absolute BALL just being in this movie. His take on the Prince of Darkness has been around for thirty centuries, amassing power under various alter-egos and building a worldwide network of loyal vampires, but his CURRENT alias is as Jaimie Blood… a rock-‘n-roll frontman with bleach-blonde hair and lipstick, doing nightclub shows in Vegas. (How very creative.) They even give him an entire MUSICAL number, as he and his band perform the oh-so-subtle vampire jam “Bleed For Me” for a solid two-and-a-half minutes. But obvious rock-pandering aside, Daltrey basically runs away with the movie… even if Vlad is pathetically ineffectual (at one point he starts boasting about how much more powerful he is than Vampirella, and that he will destroy her “… in my own time!”, before turning tail and running for his life).
And then there’s Richard Joseph Paul as the film’s love interest… Adam Van Helsing (ugh). Adam is one of the top agents of PURGE, and the last in a long line of vampire-hunting Van Helsings (which apparently makes him special and indispensable, thought the movie never bothers to explain WHY). Once he meets Vampirella, he immediately trusts her and introduces her to PURGE and his Gruff Commanding Officer with a Heart of Gold (standard issue). Basically, he’s a convenient conduit for the delivery or absorption of expositional dialogue. But as far as his performance goes, Richard Joseph Paul is… a void. A cypher. This man is a walking black hole where charisma goes to die. Had this film a slightly higher budget, I’d almost suspect that he was an animatronic puppet. Vampirella ditches him before the final fight and we never check in with him after that; the man’s not even worthy of an epilogue.
Structurally and thematically, there’s some weird overlap between this film and Blade, which wouldn’t come out for two more years. First is the idea of the lone, good vampire with unique abilities against an underground society of evil vampires… there’s the fact that our hero takes a special blood serum to quench her thirst for blood10… then, of course, there’s a scene where her serum is TAKEN from her, and she has to feed on a love interest to survive… hell, there’s even a henchman named “Quinn” in it! But while Blade was a genre reinvention, blending horror with sci-fi and kung-fu elements, Vampirella is just exploitation in cheap horror drag—with two separate instances of women taking off their tops for no logical reason, while the main villain spends the third act in a Dracula cape worthy of Spencer’s Gifts.
The movie DOES attempt to explore the “vampire as sci-fi creature” angle at times, though… even if the manner it does so is pretty stupid. See, the vampires in the film may be aliens, but they really CAN turn into bats, and they’re repelled by things like crosses and holy water (hell, one of the better scenes in the film is an interrogation of Vlad’s lieutenant Demos, where Van Helsing threatens to inject him with a syringe full of holy water unless he cooperates). That’s because they were mutated upon entering Earth’s atmosphere… but when VAMPIRELLA arrives, the atmosphere is apparently different enough that she isn’t mutated—so SHE can walk in sunlight, and is unaffected by garlic, crosses, holy water, etc.11 In the end, though, the sci-fi elements simply end up being an excuse for budget-saving conceits like the stake gun—an M-16 that fires 9mm wooden stakes with silver tips, allowing the filmmakers to use regular gun props in action scenes—and for goofy concepts like “Sun Suits”—full-body coverings which allow the vampires to be active during the day.
… Incidentally, get a load of these bat transformation effects:
… Plus, there’s this entire protracted set-up of one of PURGE’s scientists creating a “Sun Gun”, a weapon capable of generating a beam of artificial sunlight, which pays off with exactly ONE shot of the scientist killing some generic goon with it that could have just as easily been cut from the movie, and… sorry, sorry. There’s a lot of stuff like that.
In the end, it may not be fair to give the filmmakers so much grief when they were working with such an intentionally campy character. Vampirella was never much more than an excuse for artists to draw sexy pin-up posters of a girl in a salaciously revealing bathing suit; her Drakulon origins and backstory the invention of writers who probably didn’t care about building any kind of deep, meaningful story or mythology. She’s a vampire pastiche, a hodgepodge of clichés with no real identity of her own. So what more could you expect from a MOVIE about her than a mess of similar clichés, played out in as goofy and cheap a manner as possible, as little more than excuse to put some cleavage on the screen?
Still… even with standards as low as that, they could have done a lot better.
IS IT WORTH YOUR DIME?: NO! No. HELL no. This movie is like a porno that’s had all the naughty bits cut out: cheap, lazy, and pointless. It could make for a good party movie, sure—sit around and heckle it with your friends! But basically, this is the comic book equivalent of The Room or Troll 2.
DISCOUNT PRICE: $0.05 (RUN!!!)
- Vampirella’s Big Intro: In the tradition of every other superhero movie EVER, Vampirella makes her big debut by putting a stop to a mugging in a dark alleyway. She appears from out of nowhere in her terrible, terrible costume with no explanation whatsoever12, saving a nerdy guy getting roughed up for… the full-sized computer and monitor he’s carrying?
- Professor Traxx: After confiding in her new nerd friend (who is never seen again for the rest of the film), Vampirella learns that one of Vlad’s henchmen has infiltrated human society… as a professor at U.C. Berkeley, under his actual Drakulonian name (the accompanying photo of Traxx in a turtleneck with wire-rimmed glasses is priceless). She tracks him down only to discover that he’s given up his violent ways, and has legitimately gone straight, even settling down with a wife and kids… and then she kicks the crap out of him ANYWAY and chucks him out a window, where he’s impaled on a flagpole!
- One-Hit K.O.: At the start of the big final showdown, Vampirella takes aim at the single computer console that’s controlling Vlad’s villainous satellites, shoots it… and the satellites just EVAPORATE, as if they couldn’t maintain cohesion without a computer uplink! Seriously, it looks like Scotty must have swooped in and beamed them out.
- The Chase: So Vlad escapes from his compound as a bat. He lands at the Hoover Dam, rushing inside with his Dracula cape fluttering behind him, and Vampirella is hot on his heels. After an extended chase—running through corridors, up stairwells, past turbines, Vlad biting a technician that gets in his way and then throwing him down a staircase—they finally emerge OUTSIDE the dam once again, having gone in a complete circle, and have their big climactic fight! So why the hell did Vlad even run inside in the FIRST place?!
- Vlad’s Death: … This one, you just have to see.
NEXT ISSUE: I promised a look at the very first bad comic book movie13, and I meant it. Coming soon: a look at the worst Superman movie ever made… Superman III!