In honor of BIRDS OF PREY coming out this week, we are having a week-long theme of looking at some under-appreciated, overlooked, or really just bizarre superhero and comic book-based films. Daily Grindhouse presents…Lost In The Gutters: Odd Superhero and Comic Book Films Week.
For the 1993-1994 TV season, the Fox Network wanted to try superheroes. They’d had some luck with genre elements with the previous year’s The X-Files, and the idea of tapping into the current BATMAN movie series to get some of that sweet masked cash that was burning a hole in the pockets of American youth.
But Fox was a young network and wanted to stand out—they didn’t want to just do Manimal again and be done with it. Two feature-length pilots were shot. The more successful of the two, the Sam Raimi-produced M.A.N.T.I.S., aired in January and featured an African-American lead in Carl Lumbly, and went on (after some retooling) to become a series that lasted a season and gathered a cult reputation. The other one, which aired on October 12, 1993, was MODEL BY DAY.
The title and the fact that this piece refers to a superhero series should tell you exactly what you’d need to know about MODEL BY DAY. Played by Famke Janssen six years before she’d get a genuinely major comic book role as Jean Grey in X-MEN (and even before she’d assaulted James Bond in GOLDENEYE), Janssen plays Lex, who is, you guessed it, a model. But only by day. Except during night shoots, probably, but those are extra.
After her photojournalist roommate Jae (Traci Lind of MY BOYFRIEND’S BACK and 1988’s FRIGHT NIGHT PART 2) is injured in a carjacking, damaging her photo-taking eye, Lex, who’s been taking Tae Kwon Do lessons with a wheelchair-using trainer named Chang (played by the not-Asian Clark Johnson), has had enough. Inspired by a mask she needs to wear at a fashion shoot, Lex dons a costume and begins patrolling the streets as a vigilante, given the name “Lady X” by the press.
But will another distaff costumed vigilante that’s actually killing the Russian mob that controls some important stuff cause Lady X’s career to be cut short? And if so, who will stop the crimes directed at, and/or adjacent to, the fashion industry?
Based on an insanely obscure 1990 comic book from Kevin J. Taylor that ran two issues, MODEL BY DAY isn’t a “good” film, but when you realize the inspiration is the “Good Girl Art” of pulp magazine and comic book covers, it makes a hell of a lot more sense and becomes a fun ride. As directed by Christian Duguay (SCANNERS II: THE NEW ORDER, SCANNERS III: THE TAKEDOWN, SCREAMERS) and written by Jeph Loeb & Matthew Weisman (TEEN WOLF, and a few years before Loeb wrote the iconic Batman storyline “Hush”), MODEL BY DAY revs up the camp factor in ways only a mid-’90s television movie in which Toronto plays New York can do. The creators are clearly in on the joke, lending hyperdrama to archetypes and bathing everything in a multi-colored neon glow in which danger and glamour are lurking around every corner.
From the opening credits, which appear in reverse-image black & white as Famke delivers Blue Steel in perfume ad realness, to the apartment Lex and Jae share that resembles Pee-Wee’s Playhouse re-envisioned as a softcore porn set, MODEL BY DAY is exactly what one would hope for in a movie based on pulpy artwork featuring ass-kicking women intended for the hetero male gaze, but ironically embraced by pretty much every other type of person.
This is Bettie Page meets Models, Inc. in a superhero motif, and it’s an ethos that continues to the casting, featuring not only Janssen and an eyepatched Lind, but Shannon Tweed as a martial arts instructor for women that says “If you let them hurt you, it’s your fault” and Sean Young as Lex’s boss, who turns in a ridiculous performance in some amazing shoes. The male lead is a cop played by Stephen Shellen, who was basically Nathan Fillion before we realized what to do with Nathan Fillion, and Shellen’s performance relies mostly on being slack-jawed by the fabulousness around him. In the big romantic scene, there’s a slow motion montage of Lex and her would-be beau getting to know each other over fast food.
MODEL BY DAY continues to amaze through its 87-minute running time, even tossing in a couple moments of background nudity that could be easily edited out for the Fox broadcast. Jae’s hospital room is an entirely-white, mostly-vacant space that looks more like an art piece than a set. Lady X accessorizes her costume with a coat and hat. Lex is so famous as a lipstick model (for “Prison” lipstick!?) that the entire police department becomes silent the moment she walks in. (I’m presuming the record scratch was edited out at the last moment for being too campy)
Her big fashion runway consists of an insane amount of strobe lights and models walking through a curtain containing a boxer’s legs, so it looks as through they’re walking into his crotch. The soundtrack is the smoothest of jazz that sounds as though Sade and “Careless Whisper” had a child. Lady X’s main weapon is handcuffs, for God’s sake, just to emphasize the fetishism of the whole thing.
On top of all of this, there’s an embrace of a queerness to Lex’s character. Even beyond the “male” name and her questionable relationship with her roommate (On the phone at the beginning of the film, Jae has to correct someone in thinking that she’s canceling a date), Lex is given the men’s locker room key by mistake and club owner Kim Coates calls her a “lipstick lesbian,” which she doesn’t dispute. Add a foppish designer and Lex’s gay-coded makeup assistant, and MODEL BY DAY bends so far from the realm of the “good girl art” designed to titillate to the “good girl art” of camp that it serves as a wildly entertaining bridge between the two.
Janssen has said that she’d rather forget this film, but MODEL BY DAY is a perfectly affable way to kill an hour and a half, especially if you know what you’re getting into. Apparently, though, the ‘90s weren’t quite ready for a female superhero story that both embraced and satirized the archetype of the “badass lady vigilante” (they didn’t take to BARB WIRE either) so it never went to series, but honestly, that’s just fine. A series would have likely stripped out what makes MODEL BY DAY so charming, and I’m happy that we got what we did.
- JIM WYNORSKI RETURNS WITH THE CREATURE FEATURE ‘GILA’ - May 1, 2014
Tags: '90s, 1990s, Christian Duguay, Clark Johnson, Comic book, Famke Janssen, fashion, Fashion Model, Fox, Jeph Loeb, Kevin J. Taylor, Kim Coates, Made for Television, Made for TV, made-for-television movies, Matthew Weisman, Sean Young, Shannon Tweed, Stephen Shellen, Superhero, Traci Lind