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Vampirella (1996)

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.

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