Nineteen-Ninety-one proved to be a remarkably bittersweet year for acclaimed San Francisco drag troupe Sluts-a-Go-Go. It was when they released their feature film Vegas in Space, a magnum opus nearly eight years in the making. But before the movie had its world premiere, two of its stars, drag icons Doris Fish and Tippi, would succumb to AIDS, leaving an indelible absence in the celebration that followed.
The film, a joint vision of Doris Fish and filmmaker Phillip R. Ford, would eventually traverse the globe, playing the likes of Sundance and Cannes. E! would broadcast images of Miss X, who plays Queen Veneer, Empress of Earth, marching the streets of France in support of the festival run, and the movie eventually became a staple of the once-popular late-night cable cult film showcase USA Up All Night.
For many, Vegas in Space was a cinematic revelation. A loving homage to B-movies and drive-in era sci-fi, the film follows a group of astronauts who "change their sex" (using drag) to infiltrate planet Clitoris, a pleasure world without men, investigate the disappearance of vital gems of Girlinium, and save the universe from certain peril. Campy, psychedelic, and utterly bizarre, Vegas in Space is one of the first truly queer midnight movies, and while it wasn't the first film to toy with gender-bending and drag (The Rocky Horror Picture Show being a noteworthy example), Vegas has the distinction of being the first—and possibly only—cult film to feature an all-drag cast.
Despite screening at venerable international film festivals and making it onto late-night cable, finding an audience for Vegas was difficult. While it's hard to imagine in a world without RuPaul's Drag Race embedded in the mainstream, back in 1991, drag culture was a black sheep of the LGBTQ community. It "was not the image [LGBTQ people] were trying to present when they were fighting for 'gays in the military,'" Ford has said in interviews.
It was a time when a new school of rising filmmakers, from Todd Haynes to Christine Vachon, sought to minimize camp influences and maximize mainstream legitimacy in gay filmmaking through subtler, fully realized on-screen characters.
But no one ever said that to blaze a trail was to be lauded for the journey, and Vegas in Space did eventually earn its stripes. Though distributors of the period shied away from acquiring outwardly gay films, Lloyd Kaufman's independent film studio and distributor Troma eventually purchased its distribution rights. Thanks to Troma, the company responsible for such classic midnight movie fare as The Toxic Avenger and Blood Sucking Freaks, Vegas found audiences both queer and fringe.
And in the 25 years since its initial release, fans have banded together to maintain its legacy. A quick internet search will reveal cult fandom for Vegas in Space is as strong as ever. But I would argue it's incorrect to conclude that Vegas was ahead of its time. Instead, the movie emerged at exactly the right moment.
Thanks in no small part to Vegas, 1991 would turn out to be a watershed year for queer cinema, one that hasn't been replicated since. It was the year that brought us Todd Haynes's Poison, Pedro Almodovar's High Heels, and Derek Jarman's Edward II, establishing each as visionary directors with new kinds of queer stories to tell. These narratives eschewed stereotypes and obvious morals for subtler characterizations of queer lives. It was also the same year that filmmaker, writer, and photographer Bruce LaBruce released his first feature, No Skin Off My Ass, a film about lust and skinheads that kicked off a lauded career, which continues to explore the intersection of pornography and cinema today. And Isaac Julien's Young Soul Rebels became one of the first major international releases to showcase queer romance between people of color.
The year kickstarted an era that came to be known as the New Queer Wave, and rightly so. As queer people pulled themselves up from the devastation wrought by the AIDS crisis throughout the 80s, LGBTQ artists found themselves ready to tell new kinds of queer stories. These were films that sought to show the world that a queer person could be more than a statistic. Within each of these narratives, one found radically different voices yearning to be heard.
And heard they were. With the onslaught of queer cinema that invaded film festivals, the New Queer Wave forever changed the landscape of LGBTQ film to follow. Movies like Tom Kalin's Swoon, Rose Troche's Go Fish, and the aforementioned Priscilla all have films released in 1991 to thank for their existence.
Not every film adored by horror nerds and cinema geeks can claim to be an important part of cultural history, let alone one populated with intergalactic drag queens. Vegas in Space and the New Queer Wave showed a generation of queer youth and aspiring filmmakers that it was OK to embrace their otherness, rather than bury what makes them unique—it taught us that it was all right to speak out, seek representation, and reach for the stars.
Michael Varrati co-produced a 25th anniversary screening and cast reunion of Vegas in Space for San Francisco's Frameline Film Festival. Follow him on Twitter.