Vegas in Space is an early 90s sci-fi cheapie distributed by Troma in which all characters are played by either drag queens or women. It took almost a decade to complete, was partially fueled by sex work & meth, and was filmed entirely in its star performer’s San Francisco apartment. You can feel all of those qualities in every shoddy fiber of what’s essentially a glorified home movie and, yet, there’s enough artistry in the film’s set & costume design and its central B-movie sendup gimmick to make for a fun, fascinating watch. Filmed in full glory Glamourama & staged on entirely hand-built sets, Vegas in Space looks the way a B-52s song sounds (“Planet Claire”, especially) & recalls a drag routine version of either Corman’s unreleased Fantastic Four adaptation or the cult television series Pee-wee’s Playhouse. It’s very rough around the edges, but it has style to spare as it lives by its pronounced motto “Glamour first, glamour last, glamor always!”
An all-male (including women in male drag) crew fly their space ship to the Planet Clitoris in The Beaver System in order to help solve a diamond heist caper. This proves to be a dangerous mission since “No males are allowed to touch down on Clitoris”, so the men disguise their gender by taking sex change pills, a transformation process that looks & sounds a lot like the female orgasm. Newly feminized & disguised as 20th Century showgirls, the men infiltrate the city of Vegas on the Planet Clitoris, “an oasis of glamor in a Universe of mediocrity.” They set themselves on saving the planet by entertaining for a slumber party and keeping their eyes peeled for a jewel thief who has stolen a precious object that keeps Clitoris from suffering dangerous earthquakes. The whole plot feels like something out of erotic fiction, but does serve as a loving tribute to real-life titles of 1950s space epics like Cat-Women of the Moon. There’s no sexual energy to its women-only “pleasure planet’ premise, despite what you might expect from a film written & performed by drag queens & there’s really no point to the space crew starting the film as men at all, really, except for pointing to its own central drag queen gimmick, since they readily adapt to the change & suffer no conflict because of it. For the most part, even the sci-fi aspect of the story doesn’t feel all-that necessary or fully-explored. Outside some cardboard spaceship & a few goofy ideas (like swapping out the term “warp speed” for “ultra space jumps”), the sci-fi setting is mostly an excuse for the film’s true bread & butter: outrageous costume & set design. Those aspects far outweigh any petty concerns like plot structure or a command of pacing, so you have to love their charms to ignore the film’s blindspots & land yourself on its wavelength.
Obviously, it would help if you love drag as an artform for you to appreciate Vegas in Space as art. Starring San Francisco personalities like Doris Fish, Miss X, and Ginger Quest, the film is billed as being “based on the party by Ginger Quest” in its opening credits and “the first ever all-drag queen sci-fi musical” in its liner notes. Now that latter point is up for debate, not only because it might not be the first ever, but because it features cis women among its many drag performers and doesn’t feel at all like a musical besides the fact that it does feature some music (as most films do), most notably the deliciously cheesy lounge number “Love Theme from Vegas in Space.” It may very well be, however, the first film adapted from a drag queen’s party theme (can you name another?), which is much more of an accomplishment in my book anyway. Vegas in Space mostly serves as a Doris Fish showcase, as the performer wrote, co-produced, starred, built the sets (including the miniature outer space cityscapes), did the makeup for her fellow crew members, and (if director Phillip R Ford is to be believed) partially funding the picture by turning tricks. Fish is a delightful personality to helm the picture as the once-male space crew’s captain, but I actually think she’s upstaged by fellow drag queen Miss X, who boasts a kind a gothy, bitchy, Violet Chachki vibe as the film’s would-be villain, The Queen of Police. Miss X‘s cruelty in forcing imprisoned shoplifters to harvest cotton candy and her palace on ”The dark side of the planet” show in glorious black & white) a choice that feels truer to the film’s drive-in era source of inspiration) are where Vegas in Space finds its groove, even if those moments were birthed by Fish’s work on the page. The film features some classic moments of painfully corny drag queen humor, like when The Queen of Police answers the question “Are there crimes here?” with a deadpan “Only crimes of fashion,” or when Doris Fish comments on the mission at hand “sounds like a cinch.” The all-female pleasure planet setting also affords the film plenty of opportunities to do what drag does best in the first place (besides showcasing killer costuming & makeup): poke fun at femininity as a social construct. In this particular case, it helps that here are “real” woman there who are in on the joke, too, especially at sillier moments like when the crew war using their “feminine intuition” to navigate their ship. In some ways Vegas in Space plays its premise a little too, for lack of a better word, straight, (I really cannot believe there is no lesbianism or any sexuality at all in this film), but it’s still delightfully corny & transgressive in the way most drag performances are by nature.
In a lot of ways Vegas in Space feels like what might happen if I tried to make a movie, from its dedication to bad taste to its overwhelming cheapness to its painfully troubled production history. Even if the film sounds exhausting to you or just not really your thing, I’d still encourage you to read director Phillip R. Ford’s lengthy making-of account of this film’s production, because it’s a fascinating mess. Vegas in Space required two years of filming & seven years of post-production, meaning Ford & his drag scene buddies more or less worked on the film for the entirety of the 1980s. Besides the behind-the scenes meth & sex work that color the film’s already plenty colorful aesthetic, there’s also a tragic air to its history as many of the performers involved didn’t live to see the final product due to its lengthy post-production period & the horror of the AIDS crisis in the gay community of that era. As a director, Ford brings a few interesting ideas to the table I especially appreciated: an opening credits scroll that mixed B-movie worthy shots of outer space with Vegas strip light bulbs, a psychedelic dream sequence that intentionally evokes the early stirrings of MTV, and his inclusion of earthquakes in the film’s central crisis that reflected the San Francisco scene where the film was produced (although I suspect that Doris Fish had enough input on all three points to deserve a co-director credit among her endless list of other duties). However, I think Ford’s greatest accomplishment here is in completing the project in the first place. As indicated in his account of the film’s production, this was a sprawling mess of a collaboration that’s nothing short of miracle to ever have been released at all (even if it means suffering through a disturbingly transphobic “bit” from Troma madman/cretin Lloyd Kaufman in its intro). I could see Vegas in Space maybe gaining traction as a cult-adored object or maybe a RuPauls’ Drag Race runway category (Vegas in Space Realness does have certain ring to it), but I think the film’s greatest accomplishment might be that it simply exists in the first place. Well, that and the glorious makeup & costume designs, especially the ones sported by one Miss X. They’re the film’s true artistry, as it should be in what’s essentially a drag queen’s unusually expensive home movie.