Vicious Lips (1986) dir. Albert Pyun.
Written: Albert Pyun.
Starring: Dru-Anne Perry, Gina Calabrese, Linda Kerridge, Shayne Farris.
A new wave band from outer space! A gig at the other end of the galaxy! An alien beast aboard their ship! Can four kickin’ vixens save the day with the power of rock ‘n’ roll? Of course they can…they’re not just any band, they’re the Vicious Lips! In this 1986 cult flick by Albert Pyun, the eponymous girl band and their colleagues stumble from scene to scene in a clumsily written, abysmally edited, and given the concept, unforgivably boring attempt at a sci-fi monster movie. The film as a whole actively sabotages every opportunity it has to be interesting, and as a result it’s an incoherent mess of gloriously absurd camp.
The plot, as it exists, is that the Vicious Lips are an intergalactic new wave band managed by the sleazy Matty Asher (Anthony Kentz). When their lead singer Ace Lucas dies in an accident, Matty hurriedly finds a replacement in Judy Jetson (Dru-Anne Perry), who he plucks from a convenient local talent show, and yes, Judy Jetson is her actual name. Judy meets the other members of the band – Bree Syn, Wynzi Krodo, and Mandoa (Gina Calabrese, Linda Kerridge, and Shayne Farris) – and after Matty broadcasts their performance via video phone to nightclub owner Maxine Mortogo (Mary-Anne Graves), they’re invited to perform at her nightclub, Maxine’s Radioactive Dream. The band steals a spaceship to make the gig, but one asteroid later, they crash on a deserted planet, stranding themselves with a murderous Venusian beast (Chris Andrews) that happens to have been imprisoned in the holding cell of their downed vessel.
If that sounds like a lot to take in, it is, because all of this happens in the first thirty minutes of the movie. The film blows its load on expository and the second something happens to actually kick off the plot, the momentum crash lands along with the ship, grinding to a screeching halt. The next forty minutes of the film are totally desolate, with no character development or genuinely captivating action to speak of. Instead, there are several scenes of the Vicious Lips talking about unimportant or inconsequential things while cutting every ten seconds and back to something maybe marginally less unimportant in an attempt to build suspense. By jumping back and forth like a metronome, every single scene goes on for either far too long by being split in two, or far too short by having been forced uncomfortably into another. There’s no satisfying pay-off to anything, ever. This movie must have been a scientific experiment designed to discover the most efficient possible way to instill apathy in an audience, because, by Jove, they found it.
If the onslaught of jump cuts disengages the viewer, then the sound effects – oh god, the sound effects – simply bewilder. Not only is dialogue often drowned out by the ruckus of the characters, but certain sound effects and music cues are so egregious or repetitive that they write their own drinking game. I am fully confident that the sound editor was someone who has just never been told “no” about anything, ever, in his life.
While most of the dialogue is either over-the-top whining from Matty or banal conversations from the band members, there’s some hilariously cliché jargon like “the forbidden zone” that occasionally slips out. It almost makes you wish that more time could have been spent exploring the astropunk world of the Vicious Lips. I say “almost” because the space travel effects are laughable. I understand that this didn’t have the budget of Star Wars, but what space action you do see looks like cheap cardboard, and may very well be. These sequences are so exceptionally cheesy in an already dangerously cheesy flick that it’s disorienting.
One would expect the acting in such a ludicrous film to be over-the-top and energized, but the band members mumble through their scenes like teenagers who just woke up, and when they do occasionally raise their voice you can almost see the light go on in their heads as they remember “oh, I’m supposed to be shouting here.” The cast’s performances are unfocused and lethargic, and for a movie that has such a long stretch of inactivity, they’re unbearable. Due to how little time is actually spent developing the characters, the band members aside from Judy are virtually indistinguishable. When the Venusian beast comes into play, he’s monstrous enough, and his design is pretty cool in a low-budget way, but aside from forcing the plot out of its standstill he doesn’t do anything particularly memorable. He also lacks the kind of bodily performance that can really characterize a monster, like Hodder, Trautman, and Jones can give. Instead, the Venusian beast just romps mechanically around the set like a dollar store Wolfman, jumping from behind walls and snarling or swiping when he feels like it. Special recognition on the acting front goes to Anthony Kentz as the band’s manager, though, who despite being capable of only neurotic panic, going “nyeh heh heh,” and sweating profusely, carries the film with the sheer amount of energy he singlehandedly injects into an otherwise lukewarm cast. The quality of his performance aside, he deserves a medal. Quality of his performance considered, maybe a participation trophy.
You may have surmised by now that I absolutely abhorred this film and that I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. Buddy, let me be clear: I loved this film. Speaking as someone who appreciates the hell out of all things camp and cheesy, I greatly enjoyed Vicious Lips. Even if it was executed with the grace of a train wreck, it has a captivating concept and a stylish aesthetic – despite taking place in outer space in what I presume to be the distant future, everything is so unabashedly 80s that it looks more like an alternate universe story where glam rock just went interstellar. The Venusian beast may be a monster, but he’s not even the fourth hairiest character in the film. The production designer, Bob Ziembicki, was clearly the most talented act attached to this film, and as an early career effort, his work on Vicious Lips is excellent. The downside is that the neon-lit clubs, alien instruments, and altar-esque offices are tragically underutilized because half the film takes place in drab crashed spaceship downed in a featureless desert. Vicious Lips reads like an audition for Bob’s later and probably most famous work, 1997’s Boogie Nights, which let him toy with a similar aesthetic at greater length. He’s also been production designer on Scream 2, Annabelle, Hot Tub Time Machine, and much, much more. Go Bob!
And oh! Given that the main characters are a band, how could I go this long in the review without mentioning the music? While not particularly unique or innovative, the music of the Vicious Lips is enjoyable enough. Dreamy new wave dots the film either far too frequently or not nearly enough, depending on how much you would enjoy the drawn-out performance scenes. Every song – there’s three “big” songs – is performed in full and shot like a music video, occasionally recycling footage to pad it out. The best song is the finale, which finally gives the viewer the attitude and energy that is missing from the rest of the movie. Too little too late, but a great note to go out on. What’s funny is that I’ve seen the film synopsized as being about a punk band, but if you’re expecting something like the soundtrack to The Return of the Living Dead, well, just go watch The Return of the Living Dead.
Another surprisingly good thing about Vicious Lips is its message. You have to really pay attention to pick up on it through the clumsily delivered dialogue, but just prior to the climax of the film is an argument about Judy’s place in the band. It boils down to the idea that it’s not enough to want to do something, you have to care about it. And it’s not enough to care about something, you have to want it. If you shirk on one side of this scale, you’re on the road to either misery or apathy. For all of the film’s schlock, it’s a rather poignant message that adds a bit of complexity to the often over-simplified moral of “follow your dreams.” If this interests you, stay tuned, as I’ll have a very in-depth article exploring the film’s symbolism in this regard out next week.
On paper, the film sounds great, and if the concept grabs you then you might enjoy the ride. But viewer beware: Vicious Lips is for certified fans of schlocky cult films and gratuitous camp only! Anyone expecting a film of actual quality will be sorely disappointed, because “quality” isn’t in the film’s vocabulary. A floundering cast, uninteresting dialogue, and a complete lack of action make this one a deplorable dud that even its slick and spacey set design couldn’t save. Recommended exclusively for those who will love the film not despite, but by virtue of its new wave cheese. One star out of five.
When writing a review, I avoid describing the whole film scene by scene. To that end, that means that there are sometimes stray observations, specific reactions, and noted reflections that just can’t make it into the review proper, for the sake of either efficiency or so as not to spoil it. That said, a spoiler alert is in full effect for the various hot takes listed below…
- This film is only one participant in the proud tradition of sci-fi films signifying “the future” and/or “outer space” with three-breasted women. It’s hardly the first, having been around as early as Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924) and it’s not the last, appearing prominently in Total Recall six years later. I’m so curiously interested in this trope because on all levels, it’s so stupid, but has somehow become sci-fi shorthand for the future of human sexuality and I long for someone smarter than I to really dive deep into its history.
- I got a real giggle out of the fact that not only is there a very convenient talent show going on when Matty is in search of a new lead singer for the Vicious Lips, but also from how Judy sings very mediocrely for all of ten seconds before he pulls her aside and recruits her.
- In the film’s first thirty minutes, the funniest character is the warning sign flashing on their stolen spaceship, sneaking in a shout-out to Lost in Space and also declaring that “a big fucking rock is coming.”
- If the Venusian beast is capable of escaping his cell by removing the grate from the floor, why had he not done that at any point prior to the events of the film?
- I cannot think of any reason why Matty encounters nude women in the desert other than the obligatory fulfillment of cult cinema’s bare breast quota.
- The “climactic” chase scene between Judy and the Venusian beast in the desert ruins near the crash site involves period music and lots of running through doors and hallways. I think that if what you’re trying to do has been done better by Scooby-Doo, then you should probably rethink what you’re trying to do.
- Scriptwriting 101: the last twenty minutes of your movie is not the best time to introduce a tribe of desert-wandering cannibals.
- Because of the poor sound mixing, you really have to concentrate to hear it, but when Judy finally arrives at Maxine’s Radioactive Dream, she meets the man that she hallucinated to be the Venusian beast. She tells him, “But you’re so ugly!” and as the camera follows her exit, you can hear the poor guy reply, “Frankly my dear, so are you.” Burn! “Beast” is right with comebacks like that.
- I have a lot of questions about that armadillo puppet that introduces the Vicious Lip’s gig at Maxine’s club. The first question is “what the hell is that.”
- Everything about this movie seems pulled from one of those fake sci-fi schlockfests occasionally mentioned in Calvin and Hobbes like “Venusian Vampire Vixens,” and if this is the closest I’ll ever get to that, I’ll take it.
- Between namedropping Alan Trautman (Tarman) and commenting on the soundtrack, I mentioned The Return of the Living Dead twice in this review. Maybe it’s because I had watched it immediately before watching Vicious Lips? Yeah, “maybe.” At the time of writing, I’ve really got it on the brain. Mmm…brains…