Hammer’s Vampirella -The Pioneering Comic Book Movie That Never Was

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By the mid-1970s, Hammer Films were struggling with changing tastes and a flooded market that meant their traditional gothic horrors were losing their appeal – especially in America – and several attempts to catch up with the times had failed at the box office. The once prolific studio had almost ground to a halt, with just one film a year from 1974 on, and while 1975’s To The Devil – A Daughter had been a valiant effort at updating their horror style to the decade of The Exorcist and The Omen, and had – contrary to popular belief – been a box office success, a complex co-production and financing deal meant that few of the profits came Hammer’s way.

Still, Hammer’s new head Michael Carreras had big ideas. His biggest was Nessie, a giant monster movie co-production with Japan’s Toho that was budgeted at an impressive $6/7 million, making it the most expensive Hammer project by far, and which would be an on-off project until the company finally collapsed under its debts in 1979. But equally ambitious was Vampirella, based on the Warren comic book character created by Forrest J. Ackerman, which also dragged on through various incarnations for a few years before everything imploded.

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Vampirella, for those not in the know, is the story of a sexy alien who crashes on earth and needs blood to survive – but once a substitute serum has been developed, she is able to take on a superhero persona, battling evil doers – usually with a horror bent – while being pursued by those who still believe her to be a traditional vampire.

Hammer’s plans to film this story was ahead of the curve. While a Superman movie was already in development, it would be the end of the decade before it appeared, and so this could have been the first of the comic book adaptation boom. Alternatively, it could have crashed and burned like several comic book movies beforehand, from Barbarella and Modesty Blaise, through to Baba Yaga and Danger: Diabolik. Many of these are great movies, but they failed to connect to the public. More significantly, the big budget, high camp Doc Savage: Man of Bronze, based on the pulp novel series, had just bombed badly, crushing plans for a series based on the character. High camp was not, it seemed, what audiences were looking for in the mind-Seventies. Of course, we have no idea how Hammer planned to approach Vampirella – the screenplay has yet to enter the public domain. It might have been cartoonish and camp, or as defiantly serious as the comic book movies of today.

A lot has been written about Hammer’s Vampirella, and little of it is accurate. The perceived wisdom seems to be that this would be another low-budget affair, with Caroline Munro originally lined up to take the lead role, only to turn it down because of extensive nudity. Indeed, Munro has been quoted as saying:

“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.”

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Well, perhaps this was true at some point (though Munro’s time with Hammer was long over by the time the film entered the planned stage), but I’ve seen the Hammer files on this film, and it’s clear that not only did Carreras have big plans for the movie, but that it was conceived as a PG / ‘A’ certificate film that could reach the extensive family audience. Just how that could be achieved with Vampirella’s skimpy outfit is hard to tell, but I guess Hammer had achieved that balance a decade early, with Rachel Welch in her furry bikini in One Million Years BC. In any case, Hammer were eagerly anticipating all manner of merchandise that included cosmetics (“fuchsia fang and horrible orange lipstick”), toys like dolls that would be fed with a bottle of blood, children’s and adult’s costumes, ice lollies and a child’s toothbrush. This does not, in fairness, sound like the sort of thing that would be considered for a film that was “all nudity and not much else”.

More to the point, Hammer’s budget in October 1975, when the film began pre-production, was $2 million, with shooting in London and Bermuda. This was clearly seen as a big production.

The casting options are fascinating. For the title role, Hammer seem to have considered just about every famous actress around. On their list of possibilities are Jacqueline Bisset, Gayle Hunnicutt, Diane Keaton, Ali McGraw, Yvette Mimieux, Julie Newmar, Michelle Phillips, Paula Prentiss, Charlotte Rampling, Katherine Ross, Susan Saint James, Lindsay Wagner, Tuesday Weld and Natalie Wood. The mind rather boggles at the idea of some of these actresses squeezing into the Vampirella costume, frankly (and the likelihood of most of them signing on to a film that was wall-to-wall nudity seems even more unlikely). Not mentioned at this time was Caroline Munro, though both she and fellow Hammer starlet Valerie Leon were apparently considered later, alongside a Soho stripper, as ambitions apparently dwindled. Eventually, the part would seem to have gone to not-so-famous Playboy model Barbara Leigh, who appeared on the cover of several editions of the Vampirella comic book to promote the film. Leigh was signed to a multi-film deal, again suggesting that Hammer clearly had high hopes for this project.

In the role of Vampirella’s mentor Pendragon, Hammer regular Peter Cushing seems to have been the first choice – and indeed, in the British reprints of Vampirella, his likeness is blatantly used as the character. But other actors were considered – Ray Bolger, Ron Moody and  – astonishingly – Bruce Forsyth are named as options. Meanwhile, Orson Welles was pegged as the villainous Kruger, while other possible cast members included Ringo Starr, John Phillip Law, Tim Curry, Donald Pleasance, Dahlia Lavi, John Gielgud, Toshiro Mifune and Ryan O’Neal. The notes don’t make it clear how far Hammer got in their negotiations with any of these performers, but we can probably guess the answer.

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With a Chris Wicking screenplay based on a Jimmy Sangster outline, both Gordon Hessler and John Hough attached as director at various times and planned special effects from Zoran Perisic who would later go on to win an Academy Award for Superman – The Movie, the film went through the usual trials and tribulations of pre-production. As well as the Barbara Leigh magazine covers and convention appearances, there was a series of Vampirella novels by Ron Goulart, the first of which proudly boasted that it was “soon to be a major film”.

At one point, there was even a start date for shooting listed, but Hammer’s films all seemed doomed at this time. Only their remake of The Lady Vanishes managed to get off the ground, and was so badly received by audiences that it probably put the final nail in the coffin of the studio. As late as 1978, Carreras was still touting the Vampirella project, but James Warren – publisher of the comic book – was growing weary, and arguments over merchandising rights didn’t help the situation. But the real problem was the one that dogged Hammer throughout their final years – an inability to secure financing. Eventually, Vampirella died as Hammer, in the incarnation that it had existed since the 1950s, also died.

In 1996, the comic book would be finally adapted as a low-budget, deeply unpopular Jim Wynorski film. There was no merchandising.

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