Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Blood Trails from Drakulon: Hammer's Unmade Vampirella


"The failure of VAMPIRELLA is a great sadness in my life. I really loved the material. I had spent quite a bit of Hammer's money on it. Sam [Arkoff] and I mutually agreed we couldn't get it together." -- Michael Carreras in 1987. Fangoria #63, p62 

In 1969 Forrest J. Ackerman, editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, envisioned one of the most unique comic book heroines ever created. Vampirella (a bloodsucking version of BARBARELLA) was a moderately adult themed comic magazine character that was wildly popular with the male demographic throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s. After Warren Publishing's various magazine lines ceased to exist in 1983, the title was resurrected in the 1990s, and has been luring readers into her periodical fold ever since.

Largely a cult item, interest was high enough that certain parties were attracted to the cinematic potential inherent in the property and its merchandising. Much of that interest in capturing Vampirella's exploits on the big screen came from a company proficient in tales of nocturnal neck nibblers. 

By the mid 1970s, Hammer Films was on shaky ground financially. They'd tried adding more blood and gore to their movies, experimented with co-productions that cross-bred differing genres, and made plans for a slew of pictures that never developed. From the late 50s throughout the 1960s they'd been successful at home and abroad for their unique style of atmospheric horror. In the 70s, audiences tastes had drastically changed, gravitating towards a more visceral approach to screen violence that made Hammer's style seem quaint by comparison. With several back-to-back domestic failures, problematic productions, and loss of major international distribution, Hammer turned to James Warren and Forry Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine for a solution.

The brass at Hammer figured their biggest consensus of fans would be the readers of what was then the most popular monster magazine in the world. In the September 1975 issue of FMOFM, Hammer Films reached out to their base with an ad that screamed, "What will Hammer do next?" The advertisement asked readers to come up with ideas as to what the company's next production should be. With proclamations of "Hammer needs help to scare you to death", the ad itself hinted at desperation from a company struggling to find its way in a market that was rapidly changing around them. Considering Hammer was in the midst of financial woes -- in addition to difficulties in getting certain pictures made at this point -- the conundrum was whether or not this last ditch effort would pay off in the long run.

"No matter what the trend in moviegoing, there will always be room for a good horror film." -- Michael Carreras in Famous Monsters of Filmland #123, p41; January 1976

In November of that year, Hammer was coming to the second Famous Monsters Convention in New York. There, the name of the prestigious British company's next potential movie would be revealed to a showroom full of interested parties.

Hammer president Michael Carreras was there, along with Peter Cushing, Ingrid Pitt and Playboy model Barbara Leigh. Some 4,000 monster movie fans showed up to the Hotel Commodore on the weekend of the 7th through the 9th. Not only were fans eager to meet up with like-minded Hammer-heads, but also to come into contact with some of the company's notable personalities; and also to learn just what sort of concoction Hammer was intending to make.

When Barbara Leigh walked across the stage and tossed away a vampires cloak showcasing a revealing Vampirella costume, the number of photographers flashbulbs exploding in unison was indicative of fan interest -- at least among the some 4,000 fans in attendance. A big screen, live action version of VAMPIRELLA was to be Hammer's next feature film. Peter Cushing (who was also in attendance) was signed to play Vampy's sidekick Pendragon. The script was written by Christopher Wicking and John Hough (TWINS OF EVIL) was attached as director.

The comic itself was very popular, so making a movie out of the sexy, scantily clad vampire agent from outer space seemed a viable prospect. 

Out of all of Hammer's advertised productions that never came to fruition up to that time, a Silver Screen version of VAMPIRELLA is one of the company's great missed opportunities. A number of actors and directors were considered for the picture, or attached to it at various points. Caroline Munro (see photo at left) was one of the ladies originally sought to portray the curvacious Drakulonian vampire. Due to the level of nudity required, she dropped out. Munro would have been a luscious Vampirella, but Leigh was an equally splendid choice for the role. 

She wasn't a Hammer girl, but Leigh had some choice exploitation features to her credit by the time the proposed VAMPIRELLA movie was in its planning stages. These included THE STUDENT NURSES (1970), TERMINAL ISLAND (1973) and BOSS NIGGER (1975). Barbara Leigh had the look, and there was no question she had the right figure and curves to fill out the 'barely there' costume. Unfortunately, after a lot of ballyhoo and promotion in Warren's publications, the film never managed to get off the ground.

Barbara Leigh was undoubtedly excited about playing the part; and devastated when she never got to fulfill the dream of playing Vampy in a movie. Others had worn the costume before her at conventions, but Leigh is the first model to appear on the magazine cover, and the one most popularly associated with the characters cinematic possibilities. Between 1977 and 1979, Leigh appeared on eight VAMPIRELLA comic magazine covers.

"It's very difficult to figure out what went wrong. I spent so much time, energy and money, and ended up with nothing to show for it." -- Michael Carreras in 1992. Fangoria magazine #110, p57 

The plot of Hammer's VAMPIRELLA was a re-telling of the Vampirella origin story. A basic summation of Wicking's script saw the Drakulonian lovely end up on Earth after her planet is destroyed by aliens. Suffering temporary Amnesia, Vampy becomes part of a nightclub act of a drunken magician named Pendragon. She later meets up with members of a secret agent organization called SODS (Space Operatives for Defense and Security) to foil an alien invasion of Earth by the same race of creatures that destroyed her home planet of Drakulon. The ending featured a bizarre coda wherein Vampirella and Pendragon are walking along the beach when a horse and buggy(?) pulls up beside them and a hunchbacked coachman offers them a ride to a castle (in Bermuda?!). Inside the carriage lies a coffin that houses Count Dracula himself!

As scripted, the proposed VAMPIRELLA Hammer movie sounded disastrous on paper with its mishmash of genre conventions and absurd camp potential. Hammer had previously tried melding quirky elements in such movies as CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER (1972), and the results were anemic to say the least. Furthermore, there was seemingly little interest at the time in making the picture outside of Hammer Films and Warren Publishing; yet the film attracted a good deal of publicity that all added up to nothing. 

Reportedly, the prospect of such a risque picture shooting in Bermuda upset a lot of its residents that led to protests against the production shooting there -- if and when that would begin.

After some of the majors passed on it, American International was interested, but that deal fell through over casting choices. Warren himself eventually abandoned the project when Hammer couldn't fulfill certain aspects of their agreement and the film was cancelled. 

Despite never actually owning the rights to the character, Carreras was obviously anxious to try and get VAMPIRELLA made. According to Carreras in a 1992 Fangoria interview, he had made a deal in principle with an American network that was prepared to finance two pilot movies after the theatrical feature was completed. Mind you, this was around the time Spiderman swung into action in his own TV series beginning in 1977.

Even with all this attention and controversy, it's surprising this popular comic character couldn't secure much interest, or even the financing required to get the ball rolling. It's also saddening that those who were actually involved couldn't come to agreement over the property. With a couple other potential pictures falling apart around him, the collapse of the VAMPIRELLA project cost Carreras and Hammer a lot of money; so much so it was a defining factor in the company going bankrupt. 

In 1996 a VAMPIRELLA movie finally got made, but as an awful Made for Video movie via Roger Corman's Concorde-New Horizons company and the Showtime Network. A miscast Talisa Soto played the title role and didn't even fill out the mightily shabby costume, so to speak. Directed by Jim Wynorski, Vampy's first, and so far last movie remains an unmitigated disaster.

It's debatable just how well the 70s film would have been received had it been made. It's also questionable that it would have revitalized Hammer's place in the market while injecting new blood into their by then tired formula. With an enormous camp factor, it possibly would have ended up looking like something akin to Luigi Cozzi's STARCRASH from 1978 (which did star Caroline Munro)

By 1977 the tomb was more or less sealed on Vampirella's big screen adventure. STAR WARS (1977) was released and the market was yet again changed by this large scale science fiction spectacular. One can speculate whether or not Hammer would have been able to compete with (much less match) the Lucas juggernaut; or even bring wider, more mainstream attention to the decidedly more adult Vampirella character. However, the height of STAR WARS mania could have been the best time to bring VAMPIRELLA to theaters, even if it was a low budget, adult oriented, R rated effort. All these years later, it's intriguing to wonder what Hammer would have done with the property had they been able to make a movie out of it. But then, some things are better off laid to rest.

For more on Vampirella, there's a superb site on the character HERE.

***Vampirella ads, Hammer ads, and Monster Con Vampirella pics with captions from Famous Monsters #123, #124, #127***

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