Planet of the Vampire Women (2011) Planet of the Vampire Women (2011) **½

     I watched Planet of the Vampire Women because I was in the mood for something dumb and sleazy, and there’s no denying that it fit the bill. The last thing I expected from it, however, was that it would be dumb like the lyrics to a Dictators song— the kind of dumb that you have to be pretty fucking smart to pull off. In stark contrast to the median 21st-century, direct-to-video, sub-B exploitation flick, Planet of the Vampire Women was made by people who weren’t just inspired by the junk cinema of yore, but cared enough to figure out what really made those movies tick. They cared enough to devise a workable plan to reproduce as much of that underlying machinery as their resources would allow, and they cared enough, too, to identify those areas where they might be able to reach beyond their grasp and be respected for it instead of mocked. It’s the kind of movie that I’ll have to make a conscious effort not to oversell, because it rose so far above my abyssal starting assumptions that I’m more than a little infatuated with it now.

     We begin with the kind of space heist that the villains might pull in a Dirty Pair cartoon, except that the perps here are our protagonists. Onboard a massive orbital station on the “stacks of built-up, contra-rotating rings surrounding an irregular cylinder” model that replaced “gleaming space doughnut” as the standard pattern for such things in the 1970’s, there is a casino called Lord Baldwin’s Opium Den. While topless clone-dancers gyrate and small fortunes change hands at the gaming tables and arrogant fuckos angle futilely to lure unimpressed girls back to their rooms in the adjoining space hotel, a team of security guards led by interstellar police officer Val Falco (Bad Ass Monster Killer’s Jawara Duncan) escort the Brinks Dalek on its latest visit to take custody of the casino’s revenues for the Galactic Standard Week (or whatever the relevant interval of time may be). What neither guards nor customers nor rank-and-file casino employees realize is that a shift manager by the name of Pepper Vance (Ashley Marino) has been suborned by the notorious space pirate, Captain Trix Richards (Paquita Estrada). Members of Richards’s crew are scattered throughout the crowd, along with other conspirators loyal to Vance herself, and as soon as the cash has been loaded into the armored courier droid, the criminals spring into action.

     The objective was to cow the guards immediately with overwhelmingly superior force, so that the pirates escape without a fight, but one of Vance’s agents (Curse of the Golden Skull’s Miles Miniaci), unfortunately, is a gun-toting psycho who’s been waiting his entire life for such a perfect opportunity to pop off. The psycho opens fire; the guards open fire; the pirates open fire— and before you know it, Richards’s painless grab-and-go raid has descended into a bloodbath guaranteed to bring every law-enforcement officer in the sector to Lord Baldwin’s Opium Den on the double-quick. Still, the pirates do get away with the money, bringing Pepper and her surviving partner, a Corvair-series pleasure clone called Astrid (Stephanie Hyden, from Twinsanity and Alleluia! The Devil’s Carnival), along with them. For that matter, the escape is a secondary heist in itself, for the pirates flee aboard a restored, vintage Camaro-class transatmospheric bomber, the keys to which Doc Calaveras (The Bill Collector’s Stephen Vargo) and Candy Miranda (Danielle Williams) bamboozled out of the ship’s boastful owner (John Douglas Ayers, of Bloodline and Deer Season) earlier.

     Counting herself, Pepper, and Astrid, Captain Richards operates with a crew of eight. We’ve already met Doc Calaveras, the bionic surgeon turned drug-addled, pill-pushing medic, and the similarly doped-up Candy Miranda, who used to be a fighter pilot before she succumbed to the allure of hard drugs. The captain’s right-hand woman is Ginger Maladondo (Liesel Hanson, from Happy Hunting and Tales of Halloween), a former space marine who was drummed out of the service for incorrigible insubordination. She’s nearly as good a pilot as Miranda used to be, and she’s as deadly with a knife as she is with a blaster. The navigator and ship’s engineer, when the pirates are fortunate enough to have a ship, is a cyborg known as Automatic Jones (Keith Letl, of Monster from Bikini Beach— indeed, most of this cast was also in that movie). Jones is probably the crew’s second-most formidable fighter, too, thanks to his bionic arm, leg, and eye. (Now where have I heard that before…?) And then there’s Vette Van Vanderzander (Emily Vernon, from Mondo Sacramento 2), debutante turned communist revolutionary. Space piracy might seem like an odd occupation for someone of her convictions, but Richards is certainly in the business of expropriating the bourgeoisie, even if she doesn’t exactly make a habit of redistributing the stolen wealth among the galactic proletariat. Amusingly, the names and backgrounds of all the pirates are dumped on us in succession by the all-points bulletin going out over hyperspace satellite radio while they make their getaway. It’s a crude gambit, but an effective one.

     Anyway, Richards and company now need someplace nice and quiet to pause, catch their breath, and count their loot, to which end the captain has Automatic Jones plot a course for a certain moon she’s heard about that’s far enough out of the way not to attract official attention, yet also close enough to the space lanes to serve as a viable base of operations for future raids. It’s an inhospitable place, with an atmosphere wracked by electromagnetic storms, and a surface corrugated with craggy cliffs and labyrinthine canyons, but that’s just what makes it attractive from Richards’s point of view. Lots of places for a smallish spacecraft to hide, you know? Upon arrival, the captain dispatches Miranda on an air scooter to reconnoiter for suitable landing sites while the Camaro remains aloft in the narrow band of altitude free from the hazards of ground and air alike. Richards hasn’t figured on Val Falco, though. Not long after Miranda sets out, he arrives on the scene with a trio of transatmospheric fighters, intent on bringing the pirates in. His vessels are faster, more maneuverable, and more heavily armed for air-to-air combat than the old Camaro, and the fight quickly turns against Richards and her crew. The pirates attempt to hide in one of those electromagnetic storms, and at first it looks like that desperate gambit might be successful. Falco’s wingmen knock each other out of the sky when one of them brushes a mountaintop with his wingtip, and Falco himself is forced to land when one of the storm’s energy discharges shorts out all of his fighter’s electronics. The Camaro takes several lightning strikes too, however, incapacitating the bridge crew one by one. Richards is finally left flying the bomber all by herself, and that’s when something very strange happens. The clouds ahead coalesce to form a vague suggestion of a face, which shoots a pair of lightning bolts from the hollows standing in for its eyes, straight through the walls of the Camaro’s bridge to strike Richards personally and directly.

     Somehow or other, though, the Camaro sets itself down for a soft landing atop a broad mesa, without any help from the eight unconscious people onboard. Soon after it does, the crew begin coming around (Automatic Jones requires a reboot of his positronic cortex), and quickly notice that the captain isn’t breathing. Taking charge, Maladondo sends Astrid Corvair to summon the doctor to the bridge, then takes Automatic Jones with her to have a look at the engines. That leaves Pepper Vance the only one on the scene when Richards revives as a vampire, and by the time anyone else returns to the bridge, Vance is much too close to death to explain either the cause of her own injuries, or why she’s slumping moribund in the captain’s chair instead of the absent Richards. Maladondo leaves Vance in Doc Calaveras’s care and the engines to Automatic Jones, then leads Astrid and Vette Van Vanderzander out onto the unforgiving surface of the moon to search for the missing captain.

     Much to the ex-marine’s surprise, the canyons and peaks surrounding their landing site are filled with ancient ruins— and even more to her surprise, Astrid knows all about them. (“There’s a lot of downtime in between all the sucking and fucking. I read a lot.”) The beings that created them, believed to be akin to the similarly extinct Martian civilization of Yoh Vombis, were wiped out 40,000 years ago, although xenoarcheologists are still debating whether they fell victim to an asteroid strike or industrial climate change. In any case, the beings on this world turn out not to be quite extinct after all— it’s just that they’ve degenerated into savage, six-eyed dinosaur things of little more than animal intelligence. The local fauna also include aggressive flying whatsits a bit like a cross between a dragonfly and an actual dragon, which attack in swarms, apparently seeking the blood of creatures larger than themselves. And most inconveniently, all the organisms on this world seem to have a natural immunity to directed-energy weapons. Were it not for Captain Richards’s hobby of collecting antique projectile firearms, the pirates would be functionally unarmed. In any case, the native monsters keep the search party very busy, even before they run into Val Falco, still seeking to arrest them in spite of everything. Maladondo and Astrid thus don’t notice until it’s too late that Vette has wandered off and gotten herself exsanguinated by the undead Richards.

     The hostile environment presented by the moon— to say nothing of the unseen vampire stalking it— forces cop and pirates into an uneasy alliance so long as both sides are stranded there. Naturally, matters become still worse as Richards’s victims turn undead themselves, and begin claiming victims of their own. Eventually, though, Maladondo, Jones, Miranda, and Falco stumble upon just the right ancient artifact in the ruins— some kind of vast computer with a gynoid user interface, which informs them that their vampire problems are the work of the same species of incorporeal, body-stealing aliens that brought down the moon’s native civilization all those millennia ago. The good news is, the ancients developed a surefire means of destroying the vampire parasites, although they were prevented from implementing it due to their total societal collapse, and simply by switching the gynoid computer on, the offworlders have activated that ultimate countermeasure. The bad news is that the system in question is a giant bomb designed to burrow its way to the moon’s core at supersonic speed, which will destroy the entire place in rather less time than Maladondo and what’s left of her crew are likely to need in order to get either the Camaro or Falco’s fighter spaceworthy again. And that’s without factoring in the distracting effect of continued vampire, reptoid, and dragonbug attacks!

     If that conversation with the ancients’ atomic bombshell had led into the endgame the way it seemed to be promising, I’d probably have no hesitation about recommending Planet of the Vampire Women to any fan New World Pictures’ early-80’s sci-fi movies. It is, after all, about the closest thing to one of those that could realistically be made in the 21st century, given the movie industry’s current economic and structural realities. Unfortunately, the film has a totally unnecessary fourth act up its sleeve, which not only slams on the narrative brakes at the worst possible moment, but also redirects Planet of the Vampire Women into emphasizing all the things its creators weren’t good at. Although a handful of the human castaways do escape the explosion of the moon, so do Richards and her vampires, resulting in a hugely ambitious showdown back at Lord Baldwin’s Opium Den: a frenetic shootout that’s also a martial arts free-for-all that’s also (because this is in some sense a pirate movie) a swashbuckling sword fight. The trouble, above and beyond the point that Planet of the Vampire Women had already set up one perfectly satisfying conclusion a few minutes before, is that there isn’t a single person in the cast or crew with the skills required by such a set piece. In a film with neither stunt doubles nor stunt coordinators, not one of the actors knows how to throw a punch, how to sell a hit, or how to grapple like they’re trying to accomplish anything. No one in the cast can dodge, block, parry, thrust, or guard, either with a rapier or with a knife. No one has a clue how to take cover, how to lay down suppressing fire, or how to outflank an enemy position. And most of all, nobody behind the camera has it in them to film or to choreograph this sort of action so that it looks like anything more impressive than a bunch of school kids playing war at recess, even making allowances for how far beyond the production’s material resources this whole sequence inherently is. All told, there was no wrap-up that writer/director Darin Wood could possibly have given Planet of the Vampire Women that would have reflected worse on him or his fellows.

     That’s exasperating, because they were doing so well up to then! I can’t remember the last time a saw a recent-ish movie that reminded me of Galaxy of Terror or Forbidden World, as opposed to reminding me, in an increasingly attenuated way, of the more famous film on which those two were made to cash in. The difference there is mainly tonal. Like New World’s Alien rip-offs (and, for that matter, like their Star Wars rip-off, Battle Beyond the Stars), Planet of the Vampire Women is scrappy and horny, but also playful and weird in ways that seem authentically rooted in the New Wave literary sci-fi of the 60’s and 70’s. If the climactic battle concentrates all the movie’s weaknesses and failures, then the counterbalancing concentration of everything it gets right can be found in the scene where Maladondo and company get a lesson in xenohistory from a topless robot girl with a giant, six-eyed head, who happens also to be the quasi-sentient detonator for a 40,000-year-old apocalypse bomb. Can’t you just see the Roger Dean painting illustrating that scene for the cover of a DAW paperback circa 1974? And to Wood’s immense credit, that looks to have been what he was thinking about, too, as he shot the version that actually exists. The same goes for both the sets representing the ancient reptoid ruins and the endearingly crude CGI space-flight sequences. The designs for the spacecraft, on a distinct but related note, recall a certain coke-snorting breed of pop-art sci-fi Eurocomics. The pirates’ stolen vessel, for instance, suggests a winged Dodge Charger with the superstructure of a Japanese battleship rising from its rear windshield, while the police fighters are quite literally Shelby Cobras fitted with the wings and twin tail-booms of a De Havilland Vampire. And let’s be honest here, okay? I was always going to be the easiest lay in the world for a movie that knowingly riffs on Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis,” H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Nameless City,” and Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires all at the same time, while also featuring an unexpectedly erudite replicant prostitute with Cutie Honey’s power to access different suites of special abilities with each change of her holographic outfit.



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