Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Vampirella - Hammer's Lost Movie


Vampirella is a comic strip heroine of some 40+years standing, having first appeared as the above image suggests in Warren Publishing's comic of the same name in Sept 1969.

Vampirella was created by Forrest J Ackerman as a sci fi/horror Barbarella type for the US comic book market. The story was that she was an alien from the planet Drakulon; a world populated by a race of superhuman vampires capable of all the traditional vampire abilities such as morphing into a bat, having super strength etc. On Drakulon, the necessary blood supply flows via natural resources like rivers until the twin suns the planet orbits create a drought causing the near extinction of its inhabitants. One of the few surviving of her kind, Vampirella is sent to investigate when a spaceship crashlands on her planet from Earth. Realising the humans have blood in their veins, Vampirella pilots the ship back to our planet, but becomes a force for good, fighting the evil vampires who stalk the Earth, spawn of Dracula, who also hailed from Drakulon.

My own personal interest in Vampirella is in the mooted 1976 Hammer film which, despite much advertising, sadly never came to fruition. 


The brain child of studio producer Michael Carreras, the project was subsequently shelved for good in 1978. It remains an extremely tantalising prospect, one which may (or may not) have kept the Hammer flame burning into the 1980s. 

John Hough and/or Gordon Hessler were both earmarked for directing the big screen adaptation on location in London and Vienna. An interesting storyline was drafted by, amongst others, Hammer legend Jimmy Sangster and went thus; Vampirella travels to Earth and sets up home in Chelsea, befriending Pendragon, the wizard. The pair operate as a mind reading and magic act in the London hot spots, but by night Vampirella pledges her allegiance to the Space Operatives for Defence and Security aka SODs (yeah, really!) to defend the Earth from hostile alien life and the legion of vampires who live in our midst. Unfortunately not all humans believe Vampirella's good naturedness, and the descendants of Van Helsing hunt her down as prey - she must stay one step ahead and persuade them of her intentions.


The casting of this lost movie is most intriguing. Hammer legend Peter Cushing was inevitably pencilled in to star but surprisingly not as a Van Helsing, but as Pendragon - the kindly old accident prone wizard Vampirella treats like close family, known to her as 'Pendy dearest'. 





As you can see from the strip likeness above, Cushing would be obvious casting. But weirdly another name was also mooted for this part, primarily to appeal to the mass US box office potential, and that name was none other than Gene Kelly! 



Lending a touch of class to the proceedings, Carreras suggested knight of the realm Sir John Gielgud to portray the Commander of the SODs who would keep the Earth safe, operating from an anonymous office situated in London's Harley Street



But of course the big story was, who was to play Vampirella?

Well, the original choice was Caroline Munro, the only Hammer girl to ever sign a long term contract. That fact alone proved that Carreras et al had BIG plans for Ms Munro so, after impressing them in their previous Dracula AD 1972 and Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter, they offered her this plum role...only for her to turn it down flat.



Why?

Because the film required a good deal of nudity, something that Caroline had qualms about. She had form in this field too, having previously turned down a vast amount of money from Playboy Magazine to disrobe for them too. She could not be swayed or tempted by Mr Hefner, not even when her dear old grandmother advised her to go for it! So naturally she was unmovable re the prize role also

"During my time with Hammer there was talk of me playing the lady herself, Vampirella, and there was a publicity shoot I did for Hammer films with long black boots, large leather belt and a small white tight outfit - very Vampy. They produced a script which was all nudity and not much else, so I declined the part. Shame about all the nudity because what a great character it would have been to play. Kind of my own Modesty Blaise"

- Caroline Munro on Vampirella

The next choice proved to be just as reluctant, the divine Valerie Leon. Valerie had previously been the star of Blood From The Mummy's Tomb, Hammer's adaptation of Dracula author Bram Stoker's story Jewel Of The Seven Stars. It was a role in which Valerie was originally due to star opposite Cushing, but the death of his wife forced him to withdraw to be replaced by Quatermass and The Pit star Andrew Keir. Valerie is on record at expressing her regret to never having starred opposite Cushing, so it's doubly a shame that nothing could be achieved here either.


Valerie opted for a body double for a brief nude scene shot from behind in Blood From The Mummy's Tomb so it's not surprising she turned down the prospect of more on screen nudity from Hammer. However, she has said since that she regretted properly capturing her body for posterity in the film, as it was quite something!!



Finally, Carreras settled on Barbara Leigh, the half Irish Cherokee Native American actress and fashion model. The nudity was no issue for Leigh, she had form (fnar fnar) having bared her 5'7" 35C-22-35 figure for Playboy in 1973. Her breakthrough film role was in Sam Peckinpah's rodeo tale Junior Bonner the previous year, starring opposite her then boyfriend Steve McQueen (The King himself, Elvis Presley, having also been one of her squeezes)


Hammer's hopes were clearly riding high for Vampirella and Leigh was provisionally signed to a 6 picture deal. This was to be their Bond franchise and Leigh was a star in the making. 

She quickly proved to be a great marketing asset for the film, posing as Vampirella on comic book and magazine covers and attending conventions to publicise the forthcoming movie to the delight of fans and would be cinema goers.


She even posed with 'her creator'  Forrest J Ackerman, the man behind the comics at the 1975 convention MonsterCon ...



Alas Warren Publishing began to quibble about the merchandising right likely to arise from the movie and Hammer, already struggling with the budget for another planned movie that fell by the wayside -  Euan Lloyd and the Japanese studio Toho's ambitious Loch Ness Monster co-production Nessie - were unable to secure the relevant backing.

By 1978, after two years of fervent marketing,  Vampirella (and Nessie) were officially dropped. Leigh, mortified, firmly believes her career was subsequently thrown off course by the non-realisation of her dream role.

However a film was eventually made, though not be Hammer, in the shape of a 1996 straight to video cheapo, just two years after Carreras' death. It was a decidedly B movie American affair and starred former Licence To Kill Bond girl Talisa Soto as Vampirella (dressed in the most ridiculously cheap outfit possible - seriously it looks like something you could rent for a hen night!) alongside The Who frontman Roger Daltrey as the villain Vlad (his casting must surely have been based on his brief vampire moment in Ken Russell's wonderfully absurd biopic Lisztomania! right?)






Much that is written online claims the movie more or less kept to the general plot outline that Hammer envisioned, but as far as I can see they excised Pendragon so I'm not sure how true that is. I do know that the film will be devoid of any of the wonderful Hammer touches, even though I haven't got around to seeing it, and I'm not sure I can bring myself to do so to be honest! It was naturally mauled by the critics for being ridiculous and despised by the fans who hated the cheap look the film possessed.

Here's a trailer



Shocking eh?

Still, I can't help but thinking what might have been had Hammer got to realise its potential.



2 comments:

  1. The '96 movie was unbelievably bad, despite having a couple of decent scenes. I would love to see a Vampi movie done *right*, but if another film was ever done, it likely wouldn't be any better, so I guess leaving bad enough alone is the best we can hope for.

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  2. One of filmland's finest tragedies. Sigh...

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