The sort-of official, sort-of opportunist sequel to Paul Verhoeven’s cult classic is an extraordinary work of outsider cinema.
I love Showgirls. Not in some post-modern ironic way, either. I thought the film was brilliant when it was first released, and would’ve been baffled by the critical lambasting had I not entirely expected it – once the film proudly went for an NC-17 rating on the grounds of eroticism, it was clear that the mainstream American press would tear it apart, and the sheep-like British critics, having read those reviews, would have their sneering dismissals already writing before they sat down in screening rooms to giggle their way through the sex scenes like a bunch of excited schoolboys. The trashing of the film was so utterly misguided, you have to question the ability of critics to actually understand things like subtext, satire and social commentary. To slam the film as gaudy, trashy and tasteless seemed to ignore the fact that it was about a world that was gaudy, trashy and tasteless – how the hell was it supposed to appear? Grim and gritty?
So the love for the film that has developed in the last two decades is gratifying. Showgirls is one of the few genuine cult movies of the last twenty years, a commercial and critical bomb that has found a devoted fan base. Sure, some of the people are smug hipsters keep to see the film on a ‘so bad it’s good basis’, but a lot are people who realise that it’s so good it’s great.
Still, much as I love the film, the emergence of this sequel was enough to make me gasp in disbelief. Of course, it was obviously not an official sequel – while that’s been mooted from time to time, it still seems a way away from happening. But this does have the approval of Paul Verhoeven. At least, he gave the production his blessing. His opinion on the finished film is unrecorded.
Written, produced, directed, edited by and starring Rena Riffel, who played the supporting part of Penny in the original film, this new film follows the adventures of her character, fifteen years on. It’s clearly a labour of love for the actress. It’s also one of the most deliriously bizarre films I’ve ever seen. It’s not good by any conventional standards, but it is endlessly fascinating as it riffs on the original movie – there are plenty of references, verbally and visually, to the first film – and spirals so far off the deep end that you find yourself wondering just what the hell you are actually watching.
There are two things you immediately notice about Showgirls 2. First off, it’s shot on video with the comparative production values of The Room or Birdemic*. Secondly, it’s two and a half hours long. These two things do not make for an immediately appealing viewing experience. But stick with it. In the end, this is to Showgirls what Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was to Valley of the Dolls – a deranged, frenetic, cranked up interpretation of the original themes. It’s utterly insane.
The opening scene, with Riffel as an ageing stripper (“I’m not a stripper, I’m a dancer” is her repeated claim) in a relationship with Glen Plummer (one of several returning cast members / characters from the first film) who sets out to go to Hollywood to make her fortune. This involves her getting picked up by Dewey Weber, the same guy who picked up Nomi in the original, as she hitches her way to stardom. I’ll admit that at this point, it felt as though I was watching an amateur hour rehash of the original movie, and I was ready to give up. But then it starts to get strange. David Lynch strange. Penny runs into a purple-wigged Marilyn Monroe lookalike who kills a couple of guys and gets into a tussle with our heroine, who then accidentally kills her. Naturally, Penny ‘disguises’ herself by changing into the bloodstained dress and wig. Then, suddenly and inexplicably, she is in a part of California called Seven Sisters, where she hooks up with a younger guy Godhardt Brandt (Peter Stickles) who turns out to be a pimp and possible snuff movie producer. She is desperate to be part of a popular TV dance show called ‘Star Dancer’, which is hyped as being the ultimate in sophistication despite being a handful of clumsy dancers performing in an entirely black room. I’ve seen rehearsal studios with more class. Then again, popular cabaret shows and nightclubs seem to be held in people’s living rooms in this film. We’re clearly in a parallel universe of some sort and it just gets stranger and stranger.
Penny finds out that her boyfriend is in fact engaged to the even older Katya (Shelly Michelle, aka the world’s most famous body double), and is pimping her out without her realising (she thinks a Count has fallen in love with her, but in fact he’s just hired her for the night). She also starts calling herself Helga for some reason, possibly because she is wanted for murder, although the film doesn’t really make this clear. Anyway, she becomes fixated on Katya, who we are told is a former prima ballerina and top dancer in one of the film’s most unconvincing moments. Katya blows hot and cold, one minute dismissing Penny as ‘trash’ and the next cosying up to her as best buddies. They share a long and uncomfortable scene cooking and eating hotdogs seductively, and recreate the famous pool sex scene of the first film together. Michelle is so crassly made-up and so clearly past the first flush of youth that she looks like a drag queen (Riffel, incidentally, never takes off the sparkly, silvery eye-liner she wears, even at her lowest points).
Anyway, a lot happens in the film, little of it actually propelling the plot forward in any way. There are dancers injured by understudies, a foursome, lots of angst and a great deal that makes no sense, like the dwarf who appears in a dream to tell Penny to “seek the Black Madonna”. Oh, and Penny has a cleaner (Paula LaBaredas) who for some reason is always dressed in lingerie or fetish gear and is a part-time law student. There’s a lot of nudity (much of it from Riffel herself, who clearly stays in shape) but little sex and zero eroticism.
Watching the film is a constant mind fuck, as everything you know about conventional cinema is continually challenged. The film is so long that it becomes a weird, dream-like experience after a while, with a lot of incident but very little actually happening. I sorta want to see the original four-hour cut, and I hope Riffel resists the urge to further edit this down – whatever the film has depends on its delirious absurdity. Chop it to 90 minutes and you might simply end up with a regular bad movie.
As it is, the whole thing is just bizarre. The performances are not so much bad as weird, as if the art of acting is being reinvented right in front of you. At times, it feels like a John Waters film, being so glaringly tasteless and against normality that it defies you not to be fascinated. It might sometimes feel like a freak show, but my God, it’s never less than amazing. The characters are wildly inconsistent, the people playing them often so astonishingly miscast and the dialogue so ludicrous and overwrought that you have to hope that this really is self-consciously camp. And that’s the weird thing here – you just can’t tell how much of this is a self-aware, determinedly trashy film and how much is just cack-handed, James Nguyen-style obliviousness. Maybe a line of dialogue towards the end, when Penny is told “you’re not dumb, you just play dumb” is a clue. Riffel might well be quite deliberately giving us the Showgirls sequel of our dreams – overblown, hysterical, trashy and camp. It seems likely that the production limitations (a $30,000 budget for one) have been turned to the film’s advantage, as it embraces outsider cinema techniques.
Certainly, it’s awash with ripe dialogue that you hope is firmly tongue in cheek. “you’re more than a whore… you’re a goddess”, Penny gushes to Katya at one point, while she also tells Weber “it’s better to be a star fucker than a not-star fucker”. No one could write this stuff seriously, surely? And I suspect the fact that Riffel is very much in on the joke is eventually confirmed in the absurdist final moments. But this doesn’t feel like a Troma film, all smugness and knowing badness. The film might be aware of its inherent absurdity but that doesn’t make it any less weird. It’s a film of long, awkward takes and entire scenes where nothing happens, combined with the bizarre sense of reconstructed reality that low-budget movies often have, where the viewer is almost challenged to re-imagine the minimalist sets as opulent stages and ageing performers like Michelle as the height of glamour. It’s just about the strangest film that I’ve seen for a very long time, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it for two days. That fact alone suggests it has something – I just don’t know what. I may never know. I do think the world is a better place for this film existing though.
* According to the closing credits, the film was shot on 35mm, 8mm and Canon 7D, which is a heady mix by any standards.