Showgirls, Paul Verhoeven's 1995 tawdry tale of strippers and nude dancers in Las Vegas, was widely maligned by the critics and a box office flop for MGM, earning $20 million in the U.S. So why would anyone want to make a sequel 16 years later? Or, for that matter, watch it?
Rena Riffel, who played a stripper in the original and produced, wrote, directed and takes the lead role in Showgirls 2: Penny's From Heaven, has a good answer for the first question. As to the second, the sequel has played in numerous cinemas around the US and last week was released on DVD at Family Video, the country's largest family owned chain.
The low-budget film screened last Saturday night at the Brisbane Underground Film Festival at the Brisbane Powerhouse, its first ever fest engagement. Spartan Bay has signed on as the international sales agent and it's being spruiked to buyers at the American Film Market in Los Angeles, which runs until November 7.
As to what motivated her to make a sequel, that goes back 10 years when she heard there were a lot of midnight screenings of Verhoeven's sleazefest in various US cities and she was invited to host Q&A sessions at these cinemas. There, to her surprise, she discovered the movie had developed a sizable cult following, particularly among gay men, as audiences laughed merrily and quoted lines of dialogue written by Joe Eszterhas.
Rena was thus inspired to write a follow-up in which her character, Penny Slot, sets out to become the star dancer on a TV dance show and gets embroiled in a dangerous live triangle. Via email she asked Verhoeven if he'd like to direct and he demurred, not surprisingly, saying he doesn't do sequels. To be fair, he did show up at the Golden Raspberry Awards in 1996 to accept the worst picture and worst director awards for Showgirls. Verhoeven “encouraged me and was very nice, very sweet,” she tells SBS Film on the line from a friend's house in Los Angeles.
The enterprising filmmaker raised a small amount of money via crowd-funding site Kickstarter and started shooting two years ago, enlisting several actors from the first movie: Glenn Plummer, Greg Travis and Dewey Weber. Taking on the directing role wasn't difficult, she found, after directing, writing and starring in the 2009 crime comedy/fantasy Trasharella. It took a year to complete the film with the help of two investors, and she edited it herself.
During the shoot she caught up with Verhoeven and the original cast at a Showgirls 15th anniversary party thrown by Playboy Radio. She describes her film as both an homage and parody of the original in the vein of “Andy Warhol or an early John Waters vibe”.
Among the mostly positive reviews, Crave Online opined, “The film itself is a daunting and swirling phantasmagoria of storylines, weird back-and-forths, and just as much bizarro character vacillation as its predecessor… The sequel plays like a bizarro fever dream of the original, where dialogue is rejiggered, but is now being spoken by a team of amateurish (but ceaselessly game) actors who range from the weird to the outright grotesque.”
Handling distribution herself, she booked the film into cinemas around the US including the Castro Theatre in San Francisco where a drag queen named Peaches Christ still hosts midnight screenings of Showgirls, and it's available on Amazon.
While Riffel is keen to continue directing she's in steady demand as an actress, and is a favourite of Philippe Mora, the LA-based filmmaker who started his career in Australia. Mora first cast the actress in his 1994 comedy-thriller Art Deco Detective as twins – an evil one and good one.
She played a spy named Agnes in Mora's 2010 documentary The Gertrude Stein Mystery or Some Like It Art (pictured, with co-stars Jonathan Ball, Mora, and Hoyt Richards). Then she played a time-travelling character named Bardot (not Brigitte) in Mora's Continuity, a comedy-thriller about what goes wrong when an intelligence agency tries to prove God exists so that atheism and Communism can be destroyed once and for all.
In his current film Absolutely Modern, the saga of a ménage a trois involving Australian painter Sidney Nolan, his wife and his mistress Sunday Reed, she plays a character known as Regina the Muse as well as Sunday and artist Joy Hester in a fantasy sequence.
Mora says, “Rena is great and turning into a very talented director. She'll make a lot of movies.” She's also starred in low-budget genre movies Noirland, Spreading Darkness and Sickle and later this month starts shooting The Trouble with Barry.
Currently Rena is directing, writing and starring in Astrid's Self Portrait, which she describes as an improvised, avant-garde mystery which breaks a lot of rules, about a jaded film critic who sets out to make her own movie. And she promises there'll be yet another sequel to Showgirls for which she's written the screenplay, which veers into the horror/thriller genre.