Wow! Where does the time go? Can you believe it's been 10 years since we've inherited the precooked canned meat product that is Showgirls 2: Penny's From Heaven? Me neither. And so, I'm commemorating this double-digit anniversary with some superficial meanderings mixed with deep thoughts regarding this largely overlooked sequel. Some of you may ask "Why?" Some of you may even ask "Huh?" Don't worry, I'll tell you -- but you might not like the answers.
Actually, there's only ever been one singular answer, and that's Rena Riffel.
I can't give you a number of the countless character actors I've charted over the years, cheering them on as they'd crop up in bigger & better things, building their resumes, flexing their range, watching their star rise. Ms. Riffel was one such performer. From an adolescent point of view, she was difficult to miss in stuff like Showgirls, Striptease, and Married... With Children (credited, predictably, as Stripper #1). In Candyman 3: Day of the Dead, she smears honey on her bare breasts before being devoured by the slasher's swarms of vengeful bees, and I thought "Ahh, this is it. She's made it." I thought playing a victim in one of the few (but better) 90s Horror franchises was a sealed deal for mainstream stardom -- and for a minute, it kinda was; her brief but prominent scene in Mulholland Drive was, for me, as startling and confounding as anything else in that movie. Lynch's ode to the horrors of Hollywood - beautifully personified right there on the screen by a struggling actress who'd relied on her sexuality to make it to this very moment.
And so she was, and will now and forever be the bright red cherry atop your Criterion collection, and mine. And then that was kinda it for a while; not a lot worth mentioning outside of some weird TV stuff and tame DTV Erotica that was more dull than sexy. But it didn't matter, because all the while Rena was spearheading a Kickstarter campaign to produce a sorta spinoff feature about her character from Showgirls - then simply titled Showgirl. I got word of it directly through her own YouTube channel back in 2009, and I was elated to find that not only was she still an artist, but that she was entirely in control of her art, and that this was the project she chose. I followed its progress very closely until things seemed to go quiet, and I thought it'd died. Then, miraculously, years later, I came across the finished product on DVD - and as that journey ended, a new one began...
Showgirls 2: Penny's From Heaven (note the clever contraction) was written, produced, edited, and directed by Rena Riffel, starring Rena Riffel, released by Rena Riffel Films. On a budget of $30,000, this barely-supporting actress pulled together a passion project based on one of the most notorious turkeys of the 20th century, shamelessly (though admirably) reprising and repositioning her character into the lead.
The most readily-available comparison I can make is to Bill Hinzman's Flesh Eater: a movie he himself cowrote, produced, edited, and directed as a vehicle to return in his role as Zombie #1 from 1968's Night of the Living Dead. But certainly there's no shortage of B-movie superstars who've sorta "understood the joke" and have embraced and utilized their cult status in fun ways. And Showgirls 2 is many things - chief amongst them is "fun."
So, for the millionth time, let's talk about "bad movies." I don't wanna get into my defensive mode again or reaffirm my exhaustive examination of the verbiage, but we're in that territory, so let's get dirty and come clean... Showgirls (1995) was universally panned and underperformed in theaters, but was a complete financial success on home video as audience's curiosity predictably generated a cult. And still, people watch it ironically, people watch it because they legitimately love it, people watch it for the nostalgia, people watch it for the nudity. It has its "following" or whatever, not solely because of its incompetence, but also its overpowering narcissism and general disregard for subtlety. In other words, it's loud and jiggly and dumb and tasteless (which was intentional) and funny (which, sadly, was mostly unintentional). Obviously there are plenty of people who didn't respond to any of this (neither ironically or seriously) and weren't able to get past the movie's shortcomings. Rena Riffel (like myself and so many others) is not one of those people. Sequelizing this pop culture phenomenon not only made her a clever opportunist, but an almost-brilliant satirist.
Showgirls 2 does take place in the same universe as its predecessor, but it's a very different kinda Showgirls movie. The biggest and immediately-noticeable change of pace is that it's shot on video, which demands an entirely different approach than, say, a $40 million MGM picture. And while this format is typically exploited to convey "gritty realism," there's nothing too realistic going on here. The cheap aesthetic and clunky compositions and disorienting momentum add to the strength of its woozy charm -- but make no mistake: the truly, truly bad audio mix (dialogue and score) falls way out of the realm of any "so bad it's good"-type crap.
To describe the plot would not only cheapen whatever powers the movie has, but is also nearly impossible, because a.) there are too many abstractions to get a firm grip on a cohesive thread, b.) the rhythm of sequences and how they're cut are actually working against the odds of any traditional storytelling cognition, and c.) any spoken plot points are drowned out with overpowering ambient sound. Apart from the latter, she may've very well taken inspiration from Mulholland Drive - she does, after all, make a forthright visual reference to it early on in the movie.
Here's the gist: Penny wants to be a famous dancer, happens upon a bag of cash (like the one that appears in most movies), and struggles to climb her way to the middle - navigating friends who become enemies and vice versa. The "stardom" subgenre has been around for some time - from A Star is Born to Boogie Nights (to Showgirls, to Mulholland Drive) - but this tale is built upon firsthand experience by someone who seems pleased with her place in the pantheon of pulp fiction, and the journey is so surreal that it's probably true. The movie is peppered with cast members from "Part 1" - possibly for continuity, but more likely a gimmick, as there are many references to the original Showgirls: some subtle, some honest, all mockery.
Unlike the original, this movie is entirely self-aware (one doesn't accidentally make a movie called Showgirls 2), but ultimately, it's not a parody; it is its own thing. But, like the original, it's not quite as clever, fun, or sexy as it thinks it is. Its best moments are when it spirals into the truly bizarre, and that's when it most resembles the Trashploitation/Something Weird camp of the 1960s. It could've really worked under that label, and the major thing preventing it from simply being that is its 145 minute runtime. That's right: 2 hours and 25 minutes. I really have no problem with long films (obviously), but a movie of this scope severely suffers from this much space; the passion of this indie filmmaker and her love of each scene/shot/take is visceral, but its pointed humor starts to drown as sequences go on and on and on until we start laughing at it, not with it (like the first one).
Yes, it's totally a Texas Chainsaw 2-type sequel; not in terms of budget or subject matter, but in style and attitude and tonal distance from the first one. It's an intentional "Midnite Movie," which is a dark path to follow because nothing's more obnoxious than a movie that thinks it's "hip." But, because of what it is and how it is (and especially who it is), it earned its self-appointed absurdity.