Friday, 25 October 2019

Vampirella - Lost Hammer Performance

Fang About The House

Vampirella -
The Lost Hammer Script Performance

UK 2019 Directed by Jonathan Rigby
Performed at the Regent Street Cinema
Thursday 17th October 2019

Vampirella is a pretty iconic character these days. I think my father refused to get me a comic when I pointed to one when I was about 4, wanting to read it, because he said I was too young. She was created, along with artist Trina Robbins, by the driving force behind the much loved Famous Monsters Of Filmland magazine, Forrest J Ackerman... and she was originally, for a few issues at least, just another one in a long line of comic book horror hostesses there to introduce the stories. However, she was also given her own short strip as part of the comic and things soon began to look up for the young, vampiric alien from the planet Drakulon. After the Warren Publications Magazine finished in the 1980s, she found herself on hold for a bit but never absent for too long, finding a new lease of life in full colour comic adventures from the likes of, first Harris Publications and then Dynamite, who are still putting out a lot of stories with the character to this day. And I’ve never gotten around to reading any, alas... although earlier in the year I acquired a complete run of the Warren Magazines and I’m hoping to get through them sometime in the next year or two, so I can put a review up here.

Now, back in the early to mid 1970s, Hammer Films needed to rejuvenate their flagging company in an age where films like The Exorcist and other sophisticated horror movies were making their once very successful films seem very old fashioned and not that sustainable at the box office. So one of the directions they were going to go down was an movie based on the Vampirella comic strip which would hopefully take their stock-in-trade of Hammer vampire films and blend it with the science fiction genre (which was only a couple of years away before it exploded like never before at the box office) to see if this would get them out of a hole, so to speak. I’ve heard various names come up who were considered for the title role over the years, who either refused or didn’t get the job, including the wonderful Caroline Munro, the fantastic Valerie Leon and Barbara Leigh. Alas, the movie was never made and Hammer failed as a company soon after... there were several  ‘lost’ intriguing projects in their portfolio ready to roll and people still lament the fact that these didn’t get made.

However, like any good vampire and much like her comic book incarnation, who tended to hop from company to company, Vampirella refused to stay down for long... although as far as the Hammer version goes, it’s been a bit of a wait to even see what they had in store for her on-screen equivalent (there was a movie made by another company from another script in the 1990s which I still haven’t got around to watching... need to dig that old DVD out from under the pile.. but my understanding was that it was far from successful). Luckily, the original Christopher Wicking script surfaced back in 2017, according to Kieran Foster who, along with Hammer expert, actor and writer Jonathan Rigby, is one of the driving forces behind this particular project in its most recent form. So Jonathan Rigby adapted the script and got people like Caroline Munro involved to give what they modestly describe as ‘a live script reading’ of the unfilmed screenplay... although in the hands of this wonderful cast and crew, it seemed like so much more than just ‘a reading’ when I saw it performed.

The production opened with an animation set to music where a brief intro was given about the Vampirella character. The artwork on this ‘cartoon’ was extremely stylised and perhaps a little jarringly angular for a character who is, frankly, as much about curves as anything else on a visual level but it was really nicely done and somehow fitted the subject like a glove. Next, Kieran Foster came out to introduce the production before handing over to a cast of ten, very talented actors. Then came a lovely opening credits sequence involving a ‘montage in motion’ of panels from the old Warren Comics version of the character (which would have been the only version of the character when Hammer were trying to produce the movie) where various cast and crew’s names were placed into the descriptor boxes of some of the panels (this was very nicely done). This was followed by approximately two hours of the ‘dramatised’ reading. Jonathan Rigby started off with the narrative of the script but also played Pendragon, a down on his luck magician until he met Vampirella. The great lady herself, Caroline Munro, also had a couple of roles and many of the actors here had several. The nice thing about it was that Rigby had divided up the narrative sections between various performers to keep things varied and interesting and this worked a treat.

It was a great performance of the thing with the occasional visual flourish by way of an accompanying graphic and a nice musical score by Luke Jackson. Alas, Georgina Dugdale, who I believe is one of Caroline Munro’s daughters, didn’t wear the iconic red outfit sported by Vampirella in the comics and on the beautifully rendered poster by Graham Humphries (designed and illustrated for the event) but she was wearing a lovely red dress to keep in spirit with the character. Either way though, she was absolutely brilliant in the title role and it was a really strong and friendly performance. And pretty much the same can be said of all the people up on stage. Special mentions to Claire Louise Amias and Francesca Anderson for their wonderfully hilarious turns in this and a big shout out to lady whose face I couldn’t quite place... Peyvand Sadeghian... but then discovered she was the person I had singled out in my review of The Numbers (you can read that here) which I’d watched a couple of weeks before. Also, Jason Morell, son of the famous Hammer stalwart Andre Morell (who was once a Quatermass), did some marvellous voice work but nothing... nothing... could compare to his scream as one of his characters was ‘rolled’ to his death.

I had a really good time with this production and I really got a picture in my minds eye about how this could have played out as a film, thanks to the wonderful vocal characterisations on display. I tend to gravitate sometimes to films which were... let’s say were not always hugely loved in their time... as well as some of the more camp or interesting films of the 1960s and early 1970s. I can imagine, from the way the script came across, that this would have stood head and shoulders with such fun classics as Modesty Blaise, Barbarella, The Final Programme and even, perhaps, Casino Royale (yeah... you know the version I mean). In other words... something which might not have caught the imagination of its time but something we would all be happily devouring on Blu Ray releases to this day.

And, because of this, it just makes me really sad that this didn’t happen as a movie, although I’m pretty sure that some of the quirks of the script were, possibly, just a little bit too quirky to have stayed in the final filmed version. And by that I mean there’s a fair degree of post-modernistic reference to other works outside of the Vampirella canon itself... such as a boat named Dirty Harry. Or, at one point, I’m pretty sure I caught a reference specifically name checking Commander Straker from Gerry Anderson’s UFO. So, in a way, as I put the picture together in my head, I couldn’t help but think we were maybe ‘seeing’ how an uncut version of the movie might have played out.

The script did some nice stuff, too, with unpacking the information at an energetic and interesting pace. For example, it kind of reminded me of a 1960s Marvel comic as Vampirella’s back story was told through ‘hypnotic flashbacks’ at dramatic points rather than going at it in a more linear format and it really did bring home how well crafted these scripts were and whether that kind of structure would have been employed if it were filmed today (possibly making for a duller movie). The minimalistic stage direction, so to speak, that Mr. Rigby so empowered the production with, where little special vocal effects like the ‘hubbub of the crowd’ or Morell’s fatalistic scream, punctuating the text with little moments, seemed to really go down well with the audience too and I did find myself totally immersed in the thing... which is rarely the case these days.

And that’s me done with the unfilmed Vampirella. I would love to see this again so it’s a shame it’s only a one off performance but I was very pleased to take home a limited edition poster marking the event, along with a small programme, so I’m very pleased I came. An absolutely brilliant production and Mr. Rigby and his cast and crew did a really exceptional job. This will be one of my more treasured memories, for sure.

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