Dressed like Maria Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, Yasmine Bleeth runs screaming through the mountains, chased by a scrappy-looking character who pins her down and attempts to rape her. A knight on a white horse rides by, he extends his hand to her. CUT TO Bleeth in the back of a car at night with some guy on top of her, screwing away, while she looks blankly out the window at the glare of neon light. This is how Heaven or Vegas begins...
From the opening scene, I knew this film might be something different than most of the straight-to-video product being dumped on the market at a time when people still rented movies, Blockbuster was king, and it was kind to rewind.
I came across Heaven or Vegas accidentally while picking through VCDs at an Asian super store. Seeing that Heaven or Vegas also stars Richard Grieco, I feared that the film might mirror his other poor choices of scripts from the forgettable Mobsters to the unwatchable Sean Young biker flick Rebel Run. Heaven or Vegas could have been another wash in Grieco and Bleeth’s filmographies. I was wrong. Very wrong.
There is no easy way to describe Gregory C. Haynes’s film. In simplest terms it’s an adult fairy tale mixed with a Utah travelogue. It’s an unknowing nod to films like Last House on the Left but steeped in Mormon values. The film also contains drug use, attempted water sports, child molestation, and attempted (gang) rape.
Bleeth plays Mary Jo, a Lolita-dressed stripper/hooker/drug addict with a penchant for fairy tales. After a John attempts to piss on her during a failed drug/sex transaction, she is rescued by another sex worker, Navy (Richard Grieco), who is ready to escape to Montana. Mary Jo (who confesses her real name is Rachel) and Navy go on a road trip as the battered sex workers attempt to bond. Think Thelma and Louise, but with characters who have fucked most of Vegas.
During the bonding, Rachel persuades Navy to make a stop in Logan City, Utah. There the film takes a 180 when Rachel visits her estranged father, who has since remarried in the Temple, and gained a cut and paste Mormon family to boot. Navy becomes comfortable, but Rachel struggles with her new Norman Rockwell stepsisters. The relationship between Navy and Rachel nearly comes to an end when she’s almost gang raped in a pool hall to the Samantha Fox classic "Do Ya Do Ya (Wanna Please Me)" by a bunch of nomadic hillbilly type ravers, known to the locals as "tenters." Shortly after Navy saves her (again), their worlds come crashing around them showing that Utah is far from heaven as events go from bad to worse.
Just like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz can the former sex workers ever find their way over the rainbow to Montana?
Shot in 1996 but not released until 1999, Heaven or Vegas was the third feature directed by Gregory C. Haynes. Once the script was created, there was a buzz about it. Original contenders to play the parts of Rachel and Navy included Juliette Lewis and Matt Dillon. After seeing an episode of Baywatch, Haynes submitted the script to Yasmine Bleeth’s agent. She agreed to do the film the next day. It would take another year for Richard Grieco to sign onto the project and for financing to fall into place.
With a budget a little over a million dollars, the production was shot in seventeen days. Cinematographer Stephen Douglas Smith shows the beauty of the Utah setting with the damaged characters playing well with and against it. On questioning Haynes about letting some scenes play out in medium long shots, he confesses it had just as much to do with time constrictions as careful planning. Feeling along the lines of, and giving a nod to, the film works of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, many felt this work would fit along the lines of his contemporaries. "I wanted it to be [a] chick flick... A beautiful fairy tale in a dark experience," he says.
The film had its premiere on the Paramount lot to a packed house. The audience seemed to enjoy the screening but, after the gala, key participants (including Bleeth and Grieco) said it was not the film they hoped for. Only Monica Potter, who played Rachel’s step-sister Lilli, stood by the film while others turned their backs.
When questioned what type of theatrical release the film had, Haynes admits there wasn’t one. Film festival audiences didn’t even get a chance to pass judgment on the film; it wasn’t submitted to any. Storm Entertainment, who owned the film, dumped it to home video (via Sony) and pre-sold European countries. Key players of the development of Heaven or Vegas didn’t want to roll the dice at the crap tables of a theatrical-going public, stayed safe, and released it to home video with little fanfare.
Director Greg Haynes didn’t see his work premiered at Sundance but at a Blockbuster Video in Utah.
LIFE IMITATES ART
Heaven or Vegas deals with the hardship of the two main characters which, at the beginning of the film, shows Rachel’s coke abuse. Shortly afterwards, Grieco and Bleeth’s life would mirror some of their characters’ actions within the film. "I can say it was very painful in the lives of those involved with the film, myself included," says Haynes.
Regardless, Heaven or Vegas is the only work that featured the one-time couple with both giving their best cinematic performances. Grieco plays his character down and introspective while Bleeth attempts to be upbeat in the shadow of a character that has severe emotional issues which remain unchallenged.
Perhaps Grieco and Bleeth were hoping for more of a Pretty Woman type film instead of a dark, dirty contemporary fairy tale. This would have made Heaven or Vegas more of a knock off instead of a beautiful piece that tells the story of lost souls in search of a holy grail. Heaven or Vegas is easily is one of the top ten sleeper films of the ’90s.
MY SEARCH FOR HEAVEN
From the moment I saw Heaven or Vegas, I became convinced that the film deserves to have a theatrical screening with an audience. I was set on seeing if, or where, I could locate a 35mm film print to screen this lost classic. "I can answer that for you," says Haynes, "I had a print which was used in making a coffee table." That was until two years ago, when it went into storage. Then Haynes lost the contents of the storage locker, including possibly an un-spooled film print of Heaven or Vegas. My heart broke.
Richard Grieco’s comment about the film is simple yet true, "If [the film] was promoted correctly it would have done really well." Let’s hope the Nevada odds eventually play in favor of this contemporary classic and Heaven or Vegas can hit the jackpot of new viewers it so richly deserves.