Vice Girls (1996): Be They Angels?!

Matty can’t get enough of Richard Gabai’s comedic and character-driven thriller.

In his sales pitch at the 1995 American Film Market, where it was packaged alongside Sunset Films International stablemates Demolition High (1996) and then-upcoming comic book adap Vampirella (1996), exec producer and Sunset chieftain Jim Wynorski described VICE GIRLS as “Charlie’s Angels meets Pulp Fiction (1994)”. A great bit of spin to be sure — however, the idiosyncrasies of Richard Gabai’s striking little thriller are much more offbeat. Yes, the shades of both are obvious. At its most basic level, Vice Girls is about a trio of assertive, arse-kicking women who’re surrounded by an assortment of colourful, highly quotable supporting characters — one of whom, in the most flagrant allusion imaginable, happens to be called Quentin, is obsessed with cinema, works in a video store, and dresses like a Reservoir Dog (and, for bonus meta points, is played by Gabai himself) [1]. But there’s a dark and seductively lurid edge to Vice Girls that positions it closer to Paul Schrader’s Hardcore (1979) or those wild Katt Shea flicks that Roger Corman used to pump out — Stripped to Kill (1987) and Streets (1990) et al. Mixing surreal black comedy with outright camp, bleak kitchen sink drama with a surprisingly moving splodge of sweetness, and wrapping it all up in an engrossing murder-mystery package, Gabai is in fine form. His skillful juggling of such seemingly disparate elements — none ever coming at the expense of the others — transcends the film’s occasionally lo-fi tech credentials. 

Aiding the B-movie renaissance man (in addition to directing and acting, Gabai’s talents also extend to music, and a couple of his tracks, including the ubiquitous ‘Big Black Cadillac’ [2], appear here) is a snappy, well-paced script penned by Phantasm series star A. Michael Baldwin. The whodunnit at the story’s centre grips, with the identity of the snuff-peddling psycho that the titular crime-busters are tracking successfully kept hidden until the final, ‘wait a damn minute!’ reveal, and the whole thing sports a nice line in wry, dialogue-driven humour and zany non-sequiturs (among the highlights are a stock red herring-type that the V.G.s pull in for questioning called “Mr. Trope”, and the surveillance bras). As mentioned, though, it’s character that’s key.

From Baldwin’s own tongue-in-cheek portrayal of a pretentious porn baron, to Peter Spellos’ husky, disco-dancing stool pigeon, and Hoke Howell’s soulful turn as a wisened barkeep — by and large, Vice Girls offers a wealth of richly drawn individuals teeming with depth. Where it drops a mark is in the slightly less stellar depiction of two thirds of its eponymous detectives. The stunning Kimberley Roberts and Liat Goodson look lovely and do what they can, but their roles are noticeably thinner and one-note compared to everyone else’s.  That said, such a minor issue is excusable when Roberts and Goodson are essentially second fiddle to the mighty Lana Clarkson anyway. Barbarian Queen (1985) has the cult cool, but don’t be fooled: Vice Girls sits alongside The Haunting of Morella (1990) in terms of the sorely missed starlet’s best performances. Deservedly bagging top billing as the Vice Girls’ hard-drinking leader, Coop, Clarkson is wonderful and vividly brings to life the part’s complexities and contradictions — tough, vulnerable, ambitious, broken.

USA ● 1996 ● Thriller, Comedy ● 83mins

Lana Clarkson, Kimberley Roberts, Liat Goodson ● Dir. Richard Gabai ● Wri. A. Michael Baldwin, additional material by Matthew Rose

[1] Appropriately, Tarantino is a fan of the film. As Gabai told Movievine in 2011: “I ran into Quentin Tarantino at a bar in Hollywood one night and he recognized me and told me he loved Vice Girls — that was a good night.”
[2] The song also features in Fred Olen Ray’s Bikini Drive-In (1995), Rolf Kanefsky’s Pretty Cool (2002), Gabai’s Virtual Voyeur (2001), and a shedload more.

2 thoughts on “Vice Girls (1996): Be They Angels?!

  1. Thanks for the great write up, finally somebody who get it! Do you know who else got it? Quentin Tarantino himself. Ran into him at a bar he bought me a drink and went off on how much he loves this movie. No joke 🙂


    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Richard. I cannot stress enough how much I love the movie — and as suspected, Tarantino is clearly a man of excellent taste.

      Liked by 1 person

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