Vicious Lips (1986)

I love Z-grade exploitation cinema as an artform.  The Roger Corman method of cranking out low-budget, high-concept features over a single weekend with a sleep-starved crew is the exact kind of behind-the-scenes underdog story that always wins my heart.  All you really need to make a successful genre picture is a good marketing hook, some pocket change, and enough film-geek enthusiasm to power through a hectic shoot.  At least, that’s the fantasy.  The reality is that making movies is almost impossibly hard no matter the scale of production, and it’s a miracle that any movie reaches completion.  While Corman can pen a memoir titled How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime with a straight face, there are plenty filmmakers who’ve adopted his same run-and-gun shooting style and fallen flat on theirs.  From what I’ve already seen, Albert Pyun is totally capable of completing quick-shoot pictures on the cheap, at one point whisking rappers like Silkk the Shocker & Ice-T off to Slovakia for one-week productions like the urban crime drama Corrupt.  His career is also littered with what-could’ve-been near misses, though, like the 80s new wave space opera Vicious Lips.

Vicious Lips is the exact kind of underdog story I love to champion.  Shot in seven days on an outstretched $100,000 budget, it fits snugly in the Roger Corman exploitation mold.  Except, Corman always finds a way to package his most chaotic productions (Blood Bath & The Raven most notorious among them) into something resembling coherence, reportedly never losing a dime. Pyun completely biffs it here.  Dream sequences, flashbacks, and an extensive second-act hangout all reek of financial & creative desperation in the editing booth, struggling to mold Vicious Lips into a complete feature.  It’s a shame, too, since the movie has a killer hook.  The titular Vicious Lips are a space-traveling New Wave band (performing the songs of real-life New Wavers Sue Saad and the Next) who go on an intergalactic road trip for the gig of a lifetime, with only a stowaway rubber-mask monster to get in their way.  It’s impossible to describe without making it sound more fun than it is.  Despite the band’s bubbly 80s mallrat aesthetics and the much-needed adrenaline injection from Milo the Venusian Manbeast, the movie barely drags itself across the finish line.  It’s barely a movie at all.

Vicious Lips starts with almost enough manic MTV editing to distract from its overall incoherence.  Unfortunately, on the band’s journey to their career-making gig at The Radioactive Dream, the film literally crash-lands on a desert planet and rots in the sun.  All of the drag makeup, glitter, pleather, and teased wigs of the music video opening are still on full display, but the band essentially just hangs around a cardboard spaceship set waiting for more production funds to come through.  Those funds never arrive.  Milo and a few thriller-video zombies chase the girls around the spaceship’s “hallways” for a bit to burn off some pent-up energy, but we’re stuck in that sunlit sandpit for a really long time without much to do except wait.  It’s a hack observation to say any Z-grade schlock resembles a sexless porno, but this particular low-budget novelty does have an exact porno corollary in New Wave Hookers – a film that, despite its own myriad of faults, at least maintains a sense of momentum & purpose from scene to scene.  Once The Vicious Lips finally get back on “the road”, the movie cruelly cuts back to earlier scenes of their impromptu desert vacation in wistful montage, dragging us back into total sunburnt stasis for a second near-eternity.  Vicious Lips should be an inspiring story of a renegade film shoot pushing beyond near-impossible conditions to make gorgeously transcendent schlock. Instead, it plays as a cautionary tale about not going into production if you don’t have all the time & funding you need to complete a picture.

There’s no reason to be too hard on Pyun here.  It’s not his fault he was working with scraps.  Besides, he’s already been punished harshly enough for his hubris.  Vicious Lips failed in theaters, was dumped direct-to-VHS outside the US, and was essentially considered “lost” until Shout Factory released it on Blu-Ray in 2017.  There’s a lot to be charmed by in its 80s MTV revision of 50s Space Age kitsch, from the main character’s birthname Judy Jetson to the half-baked futurism of its three-tittied bar wenches, “sonic bloomers” lingerie, zig-zag shaped cigars, and glowing guitars. It’s cute; it’s just also inert.  It’s probably less useful for me to drag this already little-known film’s name through the mud that it would be to recommend watching its more successful equivalent Voyage of the Rock Aliens instead.  Still, it does help illustrate the limitations of the one-week-shoot Corman model.  Those run-and-gun schlock productions are the stuff of legends when they’re pulled off well, but they are frustratingly dull when they fail to cohere.

-Brandon Ledet

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