Dir: Rena Riffel
Star: Rena Riffel, Count Smokula, Tom Challis, Mary Carey

Helena Beestrom (Riffel) in an aspiring actress, out in California to make it big. There, she comes to the attention of the Hollywood Vampire (Smokula), who preys on those seeking fame and fortune, seeking to suck the independent life out, turning them back into 'normal' women. However, with the help of some magic lipstick and a pair of Sue Lyon's shoes, Beestrom transforms into... Trasherella! Can she defeat the fanged one, and solve the mystery of missing starlet Becky Bardot? Writer-director-star Riffel is best known for her role as Penny in Paul Verhoeven's criminally-underrated Showgirls [Ok: I think it's underrated, the rest of the world...not so much], but you might also recognise her from Mulholland Drive or Candyman 3. This is her first stab at a feature, on a budget of only a thousand dollars, albeit that being possible thanks to donations of time, equipment and locations.

The approach here is certainly different: Riffel started off by getting the actors to improvise scenes, then wrote the script around those, which helps explains the somewhat random nature of much of the plot. However, improvization is difficult to pull off, and even experts [think Whose Line] shoot much more than they use. Blair Witch shot 18 hours of footage in the woods, and maybe one-twentieth made the final film: here, the ratio seems closer to...well, all of it. Not to say there aren't some gems, such as ex-porn star [and ex-candidate for California governor] Carey's revelation that "They don't have presidents in France, they have people", as she attempts to entice our heroine onto her private jet, with the lure of "Anna-Nicole Smith paparazzi videos".

'Surreal' would certainly be a good word to describe this, or the where Helena bursts into musical numbers. I certainly see what the aim is here, and can tick off the influences as they come to the front: Bettie Page, Marilyn Monroe, etc. Yet, too often, the results sink into self-indulgence, for example, the scene where Riffel channels Lolita by the pool serves no real purpose at all, and there are a number of others that go on beyond what is in any way useful or interesting. The term 'vanity project' would be harsh, since it's clear her time and effort was the most used. Still, while it's laudable she did almost all the work on this herself, I suspect having another, neutral hand involved might have helped counter the obviously "Riffelcentric" tendency, shall we say.

The film in this cut runs 102 minutes, and would certainly be better cut down by twenty, perhaps to concentrate on Trasharella and her activities. There's something endearing about a grumpy superheroine, going to therapy sessions in her secret identity, with a psychiatrist (Challis) who might be even more disturbed than she is. The look on her face when she demands a new garbage bag to fix her costume, and he returns with a white one, is priceless. This, or when she fends off the vampire with a Barbie doll, its arms outstretched to form a crucifix, hint at largely-unexplored potential. The supporting characters, too, have a quirky charm in their brief appearances, and if this is far from the cult classic it desperately wants to be, there are enough moments to leave me curious where Riffel may go from here.

[November 2008]

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