The Cult of Janie du Plessis in Alien from L.A. and its “Sequel”

*contains spoilers

If it weren’t for the fact that the two English language films Janie du Plessis (1962-) featured in were dumped on the market and failed… and the fact she married a loser who more or less tortured her for nearly a decade, the South African model and actress may have had a successful international film career.

A relatively recent photo of former actress and model Janie du Plessis

Her small and yet possible breakout roles in Alien from L.A. (1988) and its kind-of sequel Journey to the Center/Centre of the Earth (1988) were apparently shot in 1986 but weren’t released until its production company Cannon Pictures more or less was on its knees and about to go bust around 1988. They had made a slew of movies which were deemed un-releasable. Why not release a few of them!

Alien from L.A. poster

The two films were shot in South Africa and were originally probably unrelated except for that fact. The first, Alien from L.A., was directed by Albert Pyun (1953-) and the second originally had Rusty Lemorande (1954-) at the helm. Lemorande won a Golden Globe for producing Yentl (1983) with Barbra Streisand and was responsible for the gopher appearing in the Caddyshack (1980) movie.

Director Albert Pyun

Journey to the Centre of the Earth would have possibly been his big break as a director with a cast of young, if relatively unknown, actors. But production was shut down while the film was largely incomplete, probably to do with a Cannon cash flow problem, something which Lemorande described in the end as “heartbreaking”. Pyun was then given the task to reshoot footage with the actors which would end up being melded with what Pyun was working on and that was the sequel to Alien from L.A.

Rusty Lemorande was responsible for the gopher in Caddyshack (1980) appearing

The result is Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Lemorande said that only seven or eight minutes of footage he shot was used in the movie, while Pyun hated it because it was no longer the Alien from L.A. sequel he had envisaged. It is for all intents and purposes a mishmash of footage which without opening and closing credits barely runs for seventy minutes. Both directors hate it and it could be called a fiasco for all… except to me!

A poster or home release advertisement for Journey to the Center of the Earth (1988)

I discovered the VHS in a one-dollar bin and was fascinated by the fact I had never heard of it before. It didn’t appear in Leonard Maltin’s guide which back in the early 1990s I took as pre-internet gospel. While I hadn’t seen Alien from L.A, when I finally did view it, I could see it was a close relative. When I put two and two together years later, I still couldn’t work out and still don’t quite grasp how the films fit together.

Alien from L.A. is described by Maltin as “silly” and he gives it one and a half stars out of four while fellow portable film bible scribe Steven Scheuer gave it one star and called it “inane”. But the film must have had a brief cinema run to appear in Maltin’s book at all. It stars former model and one of the most successful businesswomen in the world Kathy Ireland (1963-) who has a lucrative line in home furnishings.

Model Kathy Ireland is made up to look like an ugly duckling. Pretty hard to do!

Kathy plays an ugly duckling California Valley Girl spurned by her surfer boyfriend. Her name is Wanda Saknussemm and she is the daughter of the explorer Arnold or Arnie Saknussemm, the same name used by the famed missing explorer in Jules Verne’s (1828-1905 complications of diabetes) classic 1864 novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

Janie du Plessis as General Rykov

Anyway, Wanda’s father falls down a bottomless pit somewhere in North Africa and Wanda follows as well after learning from her father’s notes that she may possibly be descended from aliens who arrived in a spacecraft which then sank to the centre of the earth. She ends up deep underground on the outskirts of the city of Atlantis, a dystopian city where Big Brother-like television screens proclaim there is no surface world and to conform… and they eat worms on toast at the local restaurants! Delicious according to the patrons!!

Janie du Plessis plays two roles in Alien from L.A., one of which is Shank, a dentally-challenged derelict with flaring black nostrils and who seems to be having a shocking bad hair day with a large black spiked wig which matches her black clothing.

Janie as Shank in Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1988)

To skip the entire plot, Shank kidnaps Kathy/Wanda and takes her to Deep Ray (1949-), who played every Oompa-Loompa in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), for a reward.

Meanwhile Janie also plays General Rykov, one of the commanders in Atlantis. You wouldn’t know that Shank and Rykov are played by the same actress as the characters couldn’t be more different. I didn’t realise it for years!

Janie the Max Factor model

Janie’s Rykov walks around martinet-like or peacock-like while wearing a patch with a peacock feather on it. Peacock feathers are said to be bad luck to theatre performers as its shape is said to contain the evil eye… was wearing this accessory bad luck for poor Janie?! More later.

Both of Janie’s roles are relatively minor in Alien from L.A. but they are both striking. It is Shank who is the most memorable for being so totally unglamorous but in some way endearing. It’s Kathy Ireland’s film otherwise as she appears in much of it as she is pursued throughout because of her ‘alien’ status.

Janie du Plessis was a model who was the face of Max Factor for a couple of years. I don’t know if that was worldwide, but she was also one of the youngest television presenters in South Africa to ever work when she appeared between January 1981 and March 1986, which was just before Alien from L.A. and its sequel were filmed.

Janie as a presenter on South African tv

The University of Johannesburg graduate was a cover girl and it would appear she may have coveted a serious acting career. She had already appeared in two Afrikaans language movies in 1984 and 1985 which were related and starred Arnold Vosloo (1962-) and herself as the same characters. Vosloo had his greatest success in Hollywood in the first two Brendan Fraser The Mummy movies where he played the evil Imhotep. He even got nominated for some minor awards for the first one. Few Afrikaans language movies from this period crossed over to the States although Boetie Gaan Border Toe! from 1984 is on YouTube without subtitles. Janie looks as she does in that film as the tv presenter pictured above, although her hair is shorter, but her performance isn’t as inspired as she was in Alien from L.A. and Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

A young Arnold Vosloo in the Afrikaans movie Boetie Gaan Border Toe! (1984)

It may have been her appearance in these Afrikaans movies that proved Janie could act and led to her being cast in Alien from L.A. and then the “sequel”, which possibly was why she gave up her day job as a presenter.

I guess there were incentives for Cannon Pictures to film in South Africa as well.

Anyway, Janie only appeared in a minor role in a 1986 tv movie and that was her acting career. The delay in the release of the Cannon films and Journey to the Centre of the Earth’s unceremonious dumping on videocassette in its final form can’t have been too encouraging for Janie. The timing was all wrong along with the critical panning.

Vosloo made The Mummy movies in the United States. Janie could have crossed over too!

I am guessing that Alien to L.A.’s planned sequel may have been shot almost back to back, although Kathy Ireland’s real failure to appear in the finished product kind of scuppers this. Both films share the same footage of crowd scenes in Atlantis as well as the Big Brother like screen footage. The sets are similar, although they are built from what appears to be generic junk and so would be easy to match. They share some of the same Atlantis actors – particularly du Plessis and there must have been some audience polling of the first movie where Shank must have rated highly because they built up her character for the “sequel”.

The epic cave shot at the beginning of Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1988). Oh, what might have been!

Cannon’s interest in Africa as a location had peaked around 1985 with the two Alan Quatermain films shot back to back in Zimbabwe and South Africa. They were King Solomon’s Mines (1985) and Alan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold (1986) which were both cash-ins on Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Both Alien from L.A. and Journey are apparently scripted by the same writers Debra Ricci and Sandra Berg under the pen name Regina Davis. Albert Pyun also wrote on both films but had his name removed from Journey, while Rusty Lemorande’s name still appears as a writer on Journey.

Cannon’s King Solomon’s Mines (1985) trailer

Both Ricci and Berg never prospered as feature film writers, although Berg now has several tv movies added to her resume in recent years.

As General Rykov in the first movie, Janie has such lines as: “We all discuss the fact that he dyes his hair” about one of Atlantis’s leading politicians. But it is her arrogance which I love about Rykov and her strutting makes her all the more enjoyable. You just want to see her get her just desserts which she does at the end of Alien from L.A. and in the abrupt ending to Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

Epic monsters in a short dream sequence in Journey. Another aborted scene.

Shank’s build-up in the sequel has her befriended – well, kind of – by one of the original cast of Lemorande’s Journey footage. That film, or this film, starts off on the surface and has its cast of teenagers or 20-somethings fall down to Atlantis where all the reshoots were made and that cast were blended into the Alien from L.A. sequel. What the film might have been like if Lemorande had been able to complete his vision we shall never know, but there are hints in the dream sequence of actor Ilan Miitchell-Smith (1969-) from Weird Science (1985) as well as the water cave sequence near the beginning which is rather epic.

Mitchell-Smith in another aborted scene in Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1988)

Fascinated by Journey, I watched it several times and for some reason liked it probably because of its opening epic-ness and then its mixture of the cheap and tawdry post-Apocalyptic – and then Janie… and then some. I think it’s a better movie than Alien from L.A. in some respects, despite its problems, although few would agree. It takes almost half the movie to get to Atlantis… and then there’s some odd business of remodelling the citizens into the image of Wanda Saknussemm before all thanks to Shank, they reach the surface again. Rykov returns in the “sequel” only to be defeated again and Shank is seen in the final scene to be eating popcorn and we suspect girlfriend to an unwilling Mitchell-Smith.

Janie passes muster as an actress. Here as Rykov again.

As for the peacock feathers and bad luck in terms of Janie. In November 1989, shortly after the total failure of both films, she married an Italian by the name of Massimo Beltrami who took her away to live in Italy and Portugal.

It was reportedly a ten-year marriage which left her deeply disillusioned, a “heartbreaking, tragic” marriage according to Janie’s book which was published in Afrikaans entitled Choose Life. The end of the marriage was punctuated by Janie’s diagnosis of breast cancer.

“For years I told my breast cancer story but I never spoke about the stuff that was going on inside me,” she said in her tale.

Janie’s book cover

She said of the marriage, shortly before she left it in the late 1990s, that she was so isolated with her husband Massimo in their house in Portugal that not even her family knew the demons she was wrestling with. She had two sons and so made decisions for their sake.

Her husband liked drugs and peculiar sex games Janie told in her book. Desperate to save the marriage, Janie made an agreement with him: He could indulge his hobby every three months and she would join him. She would use cocaine with him and participate in the sex games as long as he didn’t look for partners on the street.

“You don’t make those kinds of choices because you’re weak. You’re so powerless to change the situation you get involved in things you otherwise never would,” said Janie.

Alien from L.A. (1987) trailer

“It’s true (cocaine) suddenly makes you feel good but it’s horrible afterwards.”

Apparently, Massimo had a low libido and the drugs would help him conjure up raunchy images to heighten his sex drive. Janie admitted to parading around in her underwear in front of friends in their Milan apartment. He would call her a “whore” and encourage her to engage in sexual acts.

Once Massimo urged her to have sex with a young male visitor and when they both refused Massimo whipped out a pistol and threatened to shoot them.

Mitchell-Smith and Janie in the Alien from L.A “sequel” Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Yet there were happy moments in the household in the past, thus she wanted to save the marriage. The couple divorced in 2004. A few years later in 2007, Janie booked a flight to visit him in Portugal but a month before she was meant to leave, Massimo choked on a sandwich and died in a bar.

She had formed a friendship in the meantime with the golfer Sally Little and there were rumours it was a lesbian relationship. Little lived at Janie’s house for a time and befriended the former model’s sons and brought a feeling of normalcy back to her home life.

One more shot of Rykov. Note the peacock feather over the eye-patch.

The book which was written in collaboration with journalist Martie Relief Meiring said: “The friendship got tongues wagging. Would Janie be in a lesbian relationship?” Anyway, the relationship, whatever it was, ended.

Janie is a celebrity in South Africa to this day for her work in the field of people living with cancer and for at one stage being a talk show host. She is a motivational speaker of high repute in South Africa and has since remarried to a millionaire.

Janie du Plessis as Shank at the end of Journey to the Center of the Earth. She’s a classic!

If only this talented actress had made the jump to Hollywood, we may have seen some other interesting performances and not only in character roles. She was a beauty as well as gifted and may have even gone further. We will never know. But Janie du Plessis made an impression on me both as General Rykov and Shank and she is the reason why those near forgotten Cannon movies kind of shine!

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