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Plot: vampire from out of space avenges the death of her stepfather

You gotta feel for Puerto-Rican model-turned-actress Talisa Soto. She almost made it. She was so close. She went off with a flying start as Bond girl Lupe Lamora in Licence to Kill (1989) and followed it up with in the Johnny Depp rom-com Don Juan DeMarco (1994) before spoofing herself in Spy Hard (1996). Mortal Kombat (1995) was an entertaining popcorn flick but hardly anything to legitimize an actress’ career. In 1997 Soto married actor Costas Mandylor but divorced from him in 2000. Talisa married actor Benjamin Bratt in 2002 and the two have been together since. It was the double-whammy of the absolutely cringeworthy Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997) and the Lucy Liu videogame adaptation Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever (2002) that in all likelihood permanently killed any chances of Talisa’s career ever recovering. The lowest la Soto was forced to sink must have been the ill-fated comic book adaptation Vampirella. After two decades in development hell Vampirella was produced as a direct-to-video feature from Concorde Pictures by legendary exploitation pillar Roger Corman. It was directed by low-budget action/erotica specialist and frequent Fred Olen Ray collaborator Jim Wynorski who makes Albert Pyun and Andy Sidaris look like John McTiernan in comparison. In the credits it’s announced that “Vampirella will return in Death's Dark Avenger” – but that proposed sequel, thankfully, would never come to fruition.

In 1969 Forrest J. Ackerman and Trina Robbins created Vampirella for Warren Publishing. The James Warren company had already released two horror magazines with Eerie and Creepy. Warren saw the potential for Vampirella to make the leap to the big screen in the same way Jean-Claude Forest’s famous Barbarella had done. The Dino De Laurentiis adaptation of Barbarella (1968), the fumetti by Roger Vadim and starring Jane Fonda, set the multiplexes alight. At its most potent Hammer Films helmed excellent reimaginings of classic Universal monsters.

VAMPIRELLA AND THE HOUSE OF HAMMER

By the mid-1970s Hammer Films was deeply ailing. After having dominated the domestic horror landscape for a good decade and a half the company had trouble keeping up with the flavors du jour. The early seventies gave rise to a spate of erotic fantastiques from France, Spain and Italy and although the company valiantly tried to tap the market with the likes of The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust For A Vampire (1971), and Twins Of Evil (1971) it was hopelessly struggling to keep up with the changing times. Head of Hammer Films Michael Carreras – who was sinking a lot of funds into his Nessie, a large-scale take on the Loch Ness monster, in co-production with Toho Studios from Japan - had a thing for properties with strong female leads and ran an ad in Warren’s magazines what the public wanted to see. The answer was Vampirella. Hammer optioned the rights to the character in 1975 and pre-production began and so started the search to find Vampirella.

Hammer Films considered Caroline Munro, Valerie Leon and Barbara Leigh for the starring role

Caroline Munro was steadily on the rise with her appearances in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), Dracula AD 1972 (1972) and Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter (1974). Once Munro read the screenplay she politely declined the role based upon the amount of nudity it required. Next on Carreras’ shortlist was bodacious belle Valerie Leon – famous for her turns in The Italian Job (1969) and Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (1971) - who turned down the part for the same reason as Munro did. Down on his luck to find his Vampirella Carreras took the screenplay to half Irish Cherokee Native American model-actress Barbara Leigh, who had made an impression in Sam Peckinpah's rodeo tale Junior Bonner (1972) where she starred opposite of Steve McQueen. Leigh was famous for being a one-time girlfriend of Elvis Presley. Carreras contracted Leigh for a six-picture deal. Leigh on her part was so excited for the part that she paid the "Western Costume" Couturier department for Hammer Films a reported $7,000 to make her costume and $2,000 for the boots out of her own pocket. In 1975 Carreras took Leigh and Cushing to the Famous Monsters Convention in New York City to promote Vampirella. On the convention Leigh met Forrest J. Ackerman and American International Pictures (AIP) vice-president Samuel Z. Arkoff. Ads and posters were printed and distributed. Leigh was the cover model for various issues of the Vampirella comic book. Hammer Films was serious in its commitment in bringing Vampirella to the screen. Plus, they had the support from Arkoff and AIP. The only stipulation on AIP’s end was that Vampirella had to have an American star. Leigh was American.

Caroline Munro as Vampirella, a role she declined on ground of her aversion to nudity

Carreras tasked Jimmy Sangster with writing an outline with input from John Starr and Lew Davidson. Chris Wicking was commissioned to produce the screenplay and allegedly was to be a zany mix of horror, comedy and science fiction involving the mythical Bermuda Triangle, a subject of great speculation and human interest at the time. Directing would be either John Hough and Gordon Hessler with location shooting in both London and Vienna and with an all-star cast including Peter Cushing, Gene Kelly and Sir John Gielgud. The Wicking treatment was forwarded to the Bermuda Department of Tourism for approval with location shooting on the island to commence in the summer of 1976. A lead story in the Bermuda Sun led to widespread protests from tourism-related businesses and church groups who feared that the association with Vampirella would be to the detriment of the reputation of the island and its business community. According to James Warren, Hammer failed to pay for Leigh’s screentest and for use of the character. Carreras relayed that Warren would not give up merchandising rights and allegedly stormed off the studio lot at Bray. American International Pictures never committed to the project and the agreement went sour. In 1978, after two years of fervent campaigning and marketing, Hammer Films was unable to secure the funds and the deal collapsed, along with Barbara Leigh’s nascent career. Warren Publishing went bankrupt in 1983 and with them the rights to Vampirella were up for the taking.

VAMPIRELLA AND THE BOYS FROM POLYGRAM

Barbara Leigh as Vampirella on the Famous Monsters Convention in New York, 1975

In the eighties the rights to Vampirella came in possession of the dynamic duo Peter Guber and Jon Peters from PolyGram. Guber started at Columbia Pictures Entertainment in 1965 and during his tenure the company released The Way We Were (1973), Shampoo (1975), Tommy (1975), and Taxi Driver (1976) before he made his exit in 1975. As an independent producer Guber released The Deep (1977) and the seven time Academy Award nominated Midnight Express (1978). In 1979 Guber formed PolyGram's motion picture and television division as well as the Guber-Peters Company (GPC) along with producer Jon Peters, a one-time hairdresser in California and a paramour of Barbra Streisand. The two managed to produce a string of bigger and smaller hits, despite having no hands-on filmmaking experience whatsoever to speak of. In 1989 Guber became CEO for Sony Pictures Entertainment. As the head of Columbia Pictures Guber and Peters left parent company Sony with a massive $3.2 billion in debt.

VAMPI, ROGER CORMAN AND JIM WYNORSKI

Understandably the rights to Vampirella expired and eventually came they into the hands of another famous duo, exploitation kings Roger Corman and Jim Wynorski. When Corman set to producing Vampirella with his Concorde-New Horizons Pictures in association with Sunset Films International he only had a brief 6 month period before the rights were to expire. Jim Wynorski was chosen to direct and he brought in Vampirella aficionado Gary Gerani to write the screenplay. According to Barbara Leigh Wynorski wanted to cast singer/dancer Paula Abdul in the role and Wynorski had since come out and said that he would have liked Andy Sidaris muse Julie Strain but the studio insisted on Talisa Soto. Soto had just appeared in Mortal Kombat (1995), a medium-budget supernatural take on the Bruce Lee classic Enter the Dragon (1973). In his voluminous body of work Wynorski would later confess that he should have declined on making Vampirella.

The production was fraught with problems to say in the very least. Vampirella suffered everything from wage strikes, union problems in Las Vegas, theft, accidents and studio interference to a sweltering 112 degree heat and the wrong choice for lead. To spare expenses the production reused footage from Corman’s Not of This Earth (1995). That Vampirella was destined for failure in the light of the troubled production was all but certain. Then there’s also the fact that Soto barely can act and doesn’t have the right body type for the part. Vampirella is Amazonesque and curvaceous. Talisa Soto on the other hand is… sort of mousy. This Vampirella simply isn’t near sexy enough than Vampirella ought to be. Soto doesn’t get to wear the famous skimpy red slingshot bikini, mostly out of practical considerations. If only Julie Strain, Samantha Phillips, Tai Collins or Shae Marks were given the chance to be Vampirella in her signature costume.

In the far-flung future the planet Drakulon is inhabited by a highly advanced society of pacifist vampires who have renounced the olden hematic hunting ways. They feed their sanguinary needs from the rivers and streams that are virtually identical to blood. An underground sect of wayward vampires led by hardened criminal Vlad (Roger Daltrey) is hellbent on restoring the ancient ways of predatory feeding. The Council has captured Vlad and is preparing to hand down sentence on the cultleader. Before they can do so three of Vlad’s partners - Demos (Brian Bloom), Sallah (Corinna Harney), and Traxx (Tom Deters) – come bursting into the halls, freeing their leader from captivity and killing the High Elder (Angus Scrimm) in the process. Vlad escapes to the distant planet Earth and births a race of vampires.

Sworn to avenge the death of her stepfather Ella (Talisa Soto) immediately sets to tracking Vlad down but en route to Earth is caught in an ion storm and is shipwrecked for centuries on Mars. One day she’s able to make her escape to Earth as a stowaway on a manned expedition. On present-day earth Adam (Richard Joseph Paul), a descendant of the famous Van Helsing bloodline, is part of PURGE, a globetrotting, high-tech paramilitary unit fighting against the vampire threat. Along the way Ella meets clumsy computer geek Forry Ackerman (David B. Katz) who helps her remain inconspicuous in her quest and comes up with her name by deducting “vampire… Ella… Vampirella!” Forry knows that Traxx is posing as a university professor famous for debunking the supernatural and unexplained. In Las Vegas Vlad has reinvented himself as famous rockstar Jaimie Blood. In a race against time Vampirella and fearless vampire hunter Adam must stop at nothing to foil Vlad’s plan for world domination that will throw humanity into an eternity of darkness.

It’s sort of ironic that Munro and Leon declined Vampirella on part of the nudity and that the Corman adaptation of Vampirella ends up with practically none of it. What little nudity that does appear doesn’t concern Talisa Soto and by Wynorski standards it isn’t as as gratuitous as you’d expect given his body of work. Wynorski started out semi-legitimately with directing everything from Chopping Mall (1986), Deathstalker II (1987), The Haunting of Morella (1990) to 976-Evil II (1991) and Ghoulies IV (1994). Productions like Hard to Die (1990) - a combination between a slasher and Die Hard (1988) with Melissa Moore, among others - were clear indication of where Wynorski’s career was heading.

By the mid-nineties he was churning out late night and direct-to-video erotic thrillers en masse and the turn of the new millennium saw him directing digital video shlock with titles as The Bare Wench Project (2000), Alabama Jones and the Busty Crusade (2005), Lust Connection (2005), The Witches of Breastwick (2005), The Breastford Wives (2007), House on Hooter Hill (2007) and Scared Topless (2015). Over a career lasting three decades and counting no one has come close to good old Jim’s adoration and adulation of large breasts and no other filmmaker outside of Russ Meyer has surpassed Wynorski in facilitating voluptuous women with career options in cinema. Jim Wynorski makes late, great Hawaiian T&A specialist Andy Sidaris look like a man of sophistication and finesse in comparison.

Vampirella is memorable for several reasons. First, there’s Talisa Soto in a PVC two-piece with suspenders and former The Who singer Roger Daltrey in a plotline straight out of Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat novel. For the cult – and pulp cinema fans there are Angus Scrimm from Phantasm (1979), Tyde Kierney from I Drink Your Blood (1970), John Terlesky from Chopping Mall (1986) and Deathstalker II (1987) and Lee de Broux from Terence Young’s critically savaged historic drama Klansman (1974), RoboCop (1987) and Geronimo: An American Legend (1993). To top things off there’s Playboy’s Playmate of the Month (August, 1991) and Playmate of the Year 1992 Corinna Harney and Wynorski regular warm bodies Peggy Trentini and Antonia Dorian. It has score from Joel Goldsmith, son of Jerry. Vampirella references the Corman classic It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) and there’s a Captain Stryker. The only thing given Vampirella any production value is footage lifted from Corman’s Not of This Earth (1995) and PURGE’s sun-gun is a prop about as cheap as the invisible ray gun Jess Franco’s The Girl From Rio (1969). It remains a mystery why Talisa Soto ever thought this was a good idea to advance her post-Mortal Kombat (1995) career. Soto might not have been much of an actress but even she deserved better than this. At least she can be glad that she didn’t end up working with Albert Pyun and Fred Olen Ray. Which was in the realm of possibility after this flaming trainwreck. In hindsight Vampirella is one of those movies that would have improved had Pyun sat in the director's chair.

Plot: lesbian hitwomen face off against each other. A cop is caught in the crossfire.

Every director needs a muse. Roger Vadim had Brigitte Bardot and Jane Fonda. Mario Imperoli and Silvio Amadio shared a muse in Gloria Guida. Luciano Ercoli had Nieves Navarro. Sergio Martino had Edwige Fenech. Lucio Fulci had Catriona MacColl. Jess Franco had Soledad Miranda and later Lina Romay. Joe D’Amato had Laura Gemser. Hong Kong exploitation mogul Jing Wong on the other hand had Chingmy Yau, who was not only his muse but also his mistress. Yau had been starring in various capacity in Wong movies since 1988 but it wasn’t until Naked Killer that she was given her own production. While it never quite reaches the pomp of God Of Gambers (1989) and its sequel nor channeling the sheer derivative efficacy of High Risk (1996), Naked Killer is every bit as much a valentine to Yau as it is a preamble to have Chingmy entangled in various risqué positions and flattering outfits. Naked Killer might not be Jing Wong’s best offering, but in the English-speaking world it’s certainly his most remembered.

Allegedly made in response to Yukio Noda’s Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs (1974) with Miki Sugimoto, Jing Wong conceived Naked Killer as a Hong Kong action take on the Paul Verhoeven erotic thriller Basic Instinct (1992) while director Clarence Ford aimed for a contemporary take on Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972), itself a HK variant of The French Sex Murders (1972). What Naked Killer actually looks like, at least most of the time, is a stylish erotic take on Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita (1990). If Jess Franco’s psychtronic sleaze epic Vampyros Lesbos (1971) was reimagined as a ‘90s HK action movie it would probably look something like this. Naked Killer ostensibly spawned an unrelated parallel franchise with Raped By An Angel (1993) (passed off as Naked Killer 2 in some territories, despite having no connections to the original) carrying over various cast and crew, and becoming a lucrative franchise of its own, spawning 5 installments from 1993 to 2003. Wong, ever the philistine, would revisit the lesbian hitwomen concept to increasing diminishing returns again in Naked Weapon (2002) with Maggie Q and Naked Soldier (2012) with Jenn Tse but neither came close to the enduring cult appeal of Naked Killer. For better or worse Naked Killer brought Category III to Europe and North America at large.

Up, front, and center of Naked Killer is Chingmy Yau Suk-Ching, the fairer half of one of HK cinema’s most recognizable power couples, who competed in the 1987 Miss Hong Kong beauty pageant, but withdrew under the guise of health issues after controversial allegations of plastic surgery on her chin arose. The veracity of the allegations seem to have never been substantiated. Yau was one of the leading ladies of Hong Kong cinema in the 1980s and early 1990s. She frequently worked with exploitation mogul Jing Wong. Having played good girl roles prior to her excursion into trash with Wong, Yau became one of the Hong Kong’s biggest sex symbols of the decade. There’s something strangely poetic (or romantic) about Wong, then a married man, casting his mistress in many of his productions of the time. Yau might have been the decade’s HK sex symbol but she refused, like her contemporary Amy Yip, to do full nudity as to not limit her career options. Wong on his part goes to ridiculous lengths to show as much of Yau as possible but also goes out on a limb to never fully expose her. Over the course of a decade-long career, spanning 55 movies, Yau was nominated three times for Best Actress at the Hong Kong Film Awards. Not just for respectable fare as I'm Your Birthday Cake (1995) and Hold You Tight (1998), but also for Naked Killer. In 1999 Chingmy Yau retired from acting and married Hong Kong fashion designer Shum Ka Wai, founder of fashion manufacturer I.T, with whom she has three children. Yau has been known for her charitable work and her eldest daughter Shen Yue recently modeled for UNICEF and has expressed no interest in entering showbusiness.

A recent string of random castration murders has the Hong Kong Police Force puzzled and detective Tinam (Simon Yam Tat-Wah) is assigned the latest of such cases. With results not forthcoming and Tinam still prone to projectile vomiting after accidently killing his police officer brother and unable to handle a gun, his commanding officer (Louis Roth) orders him to get a haircut. In the salon the HKPF detective witnesses a violent altercation between a particularly aggressive hairdresser and a flirty, scandily clad female client who identifies herself as Kitty (Chingmy Yau Suk-Ching) that ends with the hairdresser being repeatedly stabbed in the groin with a pair of shears. Kitty is able to flee the premises and Tinam gives chase. Kitty uses her ample womanly charms (and the detective’s gun) to convince him to let her go without questioning or making an arrest. A courtship between the two ensues as Kitty uses his pager to remain in contact. One day Kitty comes home to find her father (Chang Tseng), a food stand owner, killed by his wife’s lover Bee (Ken Lo Wai-Kwong). Kitty retaliates by infiltrating Bee’s Triad offices and killing absolutely everybody in sight before finally putting her crosshairs on the man she chose as target all along. On her way out she takes an older businesswoman hostage to facilitate her escape. As Bee’s henchmen close in on Kitty her hostage reveals herself to be Sister Cindy (Yiu Wai, as Kelly Yao), a retired special operative, and in the 70 second shoot-out that follows both women lay waste to all of the enemy agents as well as pretty much the entirety of the parking garage.

Recognizing Kitty’s penchant for casual mass slaughter and her appetite for wanton destruction Sister Cindy offers the young woman a deal. Either she will kill her or she can hand her over to law enforcement authorities which in no uncertain terms will mean life imprisonment. Kitty reluctantly agrees to become her disciple and before long she’s knee-deep into a regiment of martial arts - and special weapons training. On the side Sister Cindy instructs Kitty in the ways of seduction and destruction. Upon completion of her training she’s given a new identity and ordered to kill a high-ranking Yakuza target in a seedy nightclub. In retribution the Yakuza hire a pair of lesbian hitwomen Princess (Carrie Ng Ka-Lai) and Baby (Sugawara Madoka). Princess and Baby are revealed to be former disciples of Sister Cindy and will kill absolutely anybody for the right price, be they family or former mentors. Princess and Baby also happen to be lovers who don’t take kind to Sister Cindy having a new disciple. As the passion between Kitty and Tinam intensifies, the heat of the affair starts to spill over into their professional lives. In fact Kitty not only offers a solution of Tinam’s gun trauma but also solves his erectile problems at the same time. Princess and Baby are not amused by the male interloper as they secretly lust after Kitty. In the explosive finale Princess and Baby engage Kitty in battle to prove who gets to call herself the Naked Killer.

Unlike installments from the following decades Naked Killer has style to spare and will take every opportunity to relish in it. Its pop-art deco excesses easily match Jess Franco’s The Girl From Rio (1969) and The Devil Came From Akasava (1971) and Chingmy Yau gets to wear, and take off, some high-end fashion. The palette is vibrant and lively in its smattering pastel colors. During the final confrontation the rival hitwomen even don Phantom Of the Opera masks. The action direction by Lau Shung-Fung is up to par but it never reaches the creativity of the best work from Yuen Wo-Ping or Corey Yuen Kwai. 1992 was a particularly important year for Chingmy Yau as she would star in both Naked Killer and the manga adaptation City Hunter alongside Jackie Chan and Joey Wong. Yau had played a number of romantic and comedic roles by this point but Naked Killer was her first venture into something more erotic. Jing Wong was the subject of some controversy as he was engaged in a tryst with Yau while he was married. Hower, Wong always had a talent for spotting new talent and brought the world everybody from Sharla Cheung, Joey Wong, and Chingmy Yau to more recent belles as Valerie Chow, Charlie Yeung, Maggie Q, Jenn Tse and Candy Yuen Ka-Man.

The cast is as attractive as they come. Chingmy Yau is the obvious showstealer as the titular sexy assassin. Leading man Simon Yam, a model and Yau’s on-screen partner for much of the decade, is a strapping hunk. Sugawara Madoka, the only of the female cast to actually do any nudity, was Playmate Japan 1992. In fact if Naked Killer has a signature pose it is the crossing of one arm covering the chest. A pose that Chingmy Yau immortalized and etched in the memory of Hong Kong cinema fans worldwide, but that Sugawara Madoka also can be seen doing. Kelly Yao was both a singer and an actress but in recent years has found faith and now is an evangelical Christian. Carrie Ng on the other hand remains clothed through out while Sugawara does not. Ng had been acting for a decade by that point, while Sugawara acted in only a grand total of two movies in 1992-93. Wong’s juvenile humor is in full swing with Tinam’s partner (a cameo by Wong) mistaking a severed manhood for a sausage and T!nam’s tendency to projectile vomit. As always is Wong’s idea of humor far from sophisticated, crass, and wildly hit-and-miss. Category III movies had been around since the 1980s but it wasn’t until the explicit war atrocity expose Men Behind The Sun (1988) that directors and producers sought to capitalize on the taboo-prohibiliting rating. As far as Category III movies and the genre goes, Naked Killer is an extremely mild example of the form.

While Chingmy Yau has played a variety of roles for Wong over the years she remains the most identified with Naked Killer. Clearly it’s Wong’s valentine to his beloved mistress. Yau would make appearances in plenty of other Wong productions in the following years, including Future Cops (1993), City Hunter (1993), God of Gamblers Return (1994), and High Risk (1995). Jing Wong has returned to the lesbian hitwomen concept once every decade since Naked Killer. The episodes since have no connections to the original and as the productions became slicker much, if not all, of the mad frenetic energy that was present here has been increasingly sapped from the series. Naked Killer realizes just how ridiculous it is and continues to pile on until the entire thing threatens to collapse. That thankfully never happens, and whenever it does Wong throws in another shot of Chingmy Yau or Sugawara Madoka leering seductively at the camera. The Naked franchise has lost a lot of its luster over the ensuing two decades and Naked Killer remains by far the best of the bunch. Not only because it was the first but because it brims with style, oozes with excess and never takes itself too seriously. Perhaps God Of Gamblers (1989) is a much better title to get acquainted with Jing Wong’s deranged, mass audience antics – but there’s something about Naked Killer that he was never quite able to harness again. Naked Killer embodies the best of HK action cinema, although you shouldn’t take it too seriously. It certainly never does.