Bright Lights Film Journal

“An Oasis of Glamor in a Sea of Mediocrity”: <em>Vegas in Space</em> (1991)

John Waters, Zsa Zsa Gabor, The Bad Seed, Supermarionation – the late Doris Fish trawled through the lowest depths of culture for her homemade camp fairy tale.

Drag queen diva Doris Fish was a San Francisco institution before her death in 1991. Unlike most drag queens, who are quickly consigned to the dustbin of history when they die, Fish left a permanent camp legacy in the form of an 85-minute feature film, Vegas in Space (1991), produced and directed by Philip R. Ford. And, make no mistake, in spite of the presence of just about every ambulatory queen in San Francisco, this is as much her film as the director’s. Not only did she star in it, she also co-wrote it (with Ford), designed the sets, costumes, miniatures, makeup, and hair. While its merit as cinema is dubious, Vegas in Space is the perfect epitaph for Miss Fish, and one of the larger nails in the coffin of camp.

The film opens with a montage of gaudy images: a tinselly galaxy, neon marquees from Las Vegas, brightly colored miniature rocket ships on strings, and “the love theme from Vegas in Space.” Inside one of the ships is Captain Dan Tracey (Fish) and his two lieutenants. They’re headed for the all-woman planet Clitoris, but before they can land, they have to have sex changes. In the world of Vegas in Space, sex changes and radical beauty makeovers happen with the popping of a pill. So the Captain becomes the vixenish Tracey Daniels, and her male lieutenants (played by real women Ramona Fischer and Lori Naslund) become Sheila Shadows and Debbie Dane.

The trio lands in Clitoris’s capital, Vegas, where they’re greeted by Princess Angel (Tippi). Acting as a tour guide, she describes Vegas as “an oasis of glamor in a universe of mediocrity,” a phrase that also describes the aspirations of the film. (Viewers who remember 1960s kiddie TV will also see traces of “The Jetsons” and the British “Supermarionation” puppet shows like “Fireball XL5” in this “glamorous” town.) But all is not well. Vegas is dealing with earthquakes, skyrocketing crime, “beauty black markets,” and the theft of the all-important “girlinium” (“a rare crystal found only in the caverns of Girlina”). Tracey becomes friendly with the Queen of Police, Veneer (Miss X), who explains the importance of “girlinium”: “The atmosphere is so thin here it [the planet] just won’t hold the color by itself, so we use the color booster,” a cheesy ’50s-style sci-fidevice. The powerful Veneer gets in many of the best lines. When Tracey asks if there’s much crime in Vegas, Veneer wearily replies, “Only crimes of fashion . . . enough to keep me offended . . . and busy.”

The plot devolves into a cat-and-mouse game as Tracey and Veneer try to find the queen who stole the jewels. This skimpy structure allows for plenty of campy set-pieces, most notably Tracey and her “showgirls from Earth” reprising “a traditional mid-twentieth century lounge act” for the Clitorians. Makeup and hairos become increasingly more bizarre and outrageous, recalling the late Divine’s mohawk and eyebrows around her head in John Waters’ Female Trouble, and the atmosphere of mindless self-indulgence eventually capsizes this essentially upbeat, silly, good-natured film.

The major influence here is the Zsa Zsa Gabor sci-fi epic Queen of Outer Space(with a dash of Ed Wood), but fans of kitsch culture should play close attention to the lines, some of which are lifted directly from camp classics like The Bad Seed and Joan Crawford’s Mildred Pierce. The spirit of John Waters also hovers over the production, not only in the glitter walls and lime-green fleece doors of the interiors, but also in the actors’ noisy, declamatory style. Careful listeners will hear echoes of Divine in some of the dialogue. While Vegas in Space lacks the bite of Waters’ work, Miss Fish deserves belated credit for what looks like the ultimate in sleazy, overwrought camp glamour.