Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

No Sex Please, We're British... from Space: DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS, FIRE MAIDENS FROM OUTER SPACE


Watched the amazing GLOW on Netflix this weekend, great stuff, man. I got some advice though, if you're going to watch the show don't watch the documentary, it's depressing - the cheap video they shot on has not aged well, and they talk about bad gym smells and have food fights. Don't sully the beauty and amazingness of the 10 episode series with the brutalism that is reality.... in Vegas... on home video quality tape. Go instead to CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON, GHOSTS OF MARS, or STAR MAIDENS, or THE RUNAWAYS (and, presumably, the new WONDER WOMAN) and bask in how progressive and rockin' chicks can be when they start wisin' up to the limits they've let reproduction and the hetero-pair bond inflict on them, and take back the Matriarchal council from hammy elder 'fathers' and dogmatic scientists. 

BUT, if you're a bunch of space women from unfertilized matriarchies, who've (wisely) long ago killed your men (they deserved it, baby), and you're looking to raise your gene pool water line, come to America! Don't go to Britain, at least not in the 50s, where men are reserved under the cold tea-and-crumpet heel of something worse than fog, marriage, or censorship, that cold Brit upper lipped-stiffness so resolute they even wrote a show 'bout it. 

The following is based on something of mine originally published in the print zine Van Helsing's Journal, which focused on all British horror and sci-fi and a jolly good rag it was, too, with me providing a very British blend of gallows' humor and urbane drollery in covering these two films. My grandmother was a daughter of the Revolution with several descendants fighting in that war, the war of 1812 and two hung in Salem (two escaped to less bonkers towns) as witches in the late 1600s so I guess I can 'pass' in a Darby pinch, and right now--flash forward--Hammer's black-and-white 1063 Bloch-chip NIGHTMARE plays behind me while I write this; the pained screaming of the heroine in the madhouse dovetails perfectly with some looney lady screaming like a possessed women on the stairs below my apartment. I love those kind of bonkers coincidences--they're absolutely mad, utterly bonkers. The film itself's rubbish (NIGHTMARE, I mean), as far as I can glean --the heroine's head is too wide. But Hammer's vampire stuff is good, in full-throated color, as seen in the other film on the disc, KISS OF THE VAMPIRE. You'd think being so good with that end of the fantasy spectrum, the Brits could handle sci-fi. But if I was queen of Mars and looking for willing earthmen to save my stale race, I wouldn’t look to England. A little 1953 sci-fi cheapie called CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON (in 3-D) once proved America to be an ideal place from which a lusty moon matriarchy might order fit specimens. In fact, that film’s central theme, not exactly new in itself (a popular motif in pulps), prompted a slew of copycats: MISSILE TO THE MOON (1958), QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE (1958), ABBOTT AND COSTELLO GO TO MARS (1953), even INVASION OF THE STAR CREATURES (1963). All of them are classics, worth repeat viewings, except for... well, any of them. I do love CAT though, for all the wrong reasons (see: The Moon, Cat-Women, and Thou). After all, the sexy insinuations inherent in the formula are nigh irresistible and more or less write themselves: phallic rocket ships, sexy cat ladies in curvaceous craters, underground lairs represented by some cushions and a statue of the dancing Shiva, a giant spider, sandwich it betwixt some stock rocket shots and some hopeful young starlets willing to dress up in funny tiaras or black leotards with painted eyebrows - and then either raid the stock cue library or hire a newcomer kid like Elmer Bernstein, then just starting out, to score it.   

With all the remakes and rehashes of the formula, it’s no wonder that even the British would timidly try and climb aboard. And yet, it seems that the material is just not all that suited to the British nature. The two versions, of the tale--such as they are--addressed in this post, both fall into traps even the worst of the Yank versions avoid. As we shall see, the reason may be Britain’s shyness in the face of the almighty British Censors, or sex itself. But hang it all, why even start the grille if all you’re serving are the same old chips?


Let’s work backwards, getting the worst out of the way first: the 1956 Cy Roth opus FIRE MAIDENS FROM OUTER SPACE, a title is bandied about in discerning circles, as of the same mettle as ROBOT MONSTER or PLAN NINE (or my new favorite,  the 1957 gem ASTOUNDING SHE MONSTER). But it is nowhere near in their league; I suggest it's earned a spit purely because it's been so hard to find for so damned long. It seemed as if Michael Medved--who 'praised' it in THE FIFTY WORST FILMS OF ALL TIME was the only one who'd ever seen it. I personally was on the look out for it for decades, both on TV and video.

Once seen, it is untenable to even mention it in the same breath as ROBOT MONSTER, CAT WOMEN and PLAN NINE--those may be gaudy messes but are nonetheless compulsively fascinating, thanks to a reasonably brisk tempo and the courage of truly gonzo convictions. Neither one is dull and both manage to be quite sexy in their offhand manner---full of robust music and wild flights of imagination. The best thing one can find to get excited about with the FIRE MAIDENS is the orchestral passage from Borodin’s “Stranger in Paradise" which accompanies the many ceremonial dances, sounding not unlike someone's listening to the radio in another room. One does tire of it rawther fast, however.

One thing FIRE teaches us, is there are levels within the idea of "terrible" in films and that all sorts of cheap effects, from visible wires to visible folds in the 'night' sky curtain, are forgivable as long as you avoid being boring. Within the accidental Brechtianism induced by poverty row necessity, we see a whole range of tricks and tactics we can learn for our own films: narration over stock footage, for example, to eat up huge stretches of time without ever having to take off a lens cap. So you would think FIRE MAIDENS would make up for its badness by being a textbook example of how to cut corners and take advantage of what one does have, except the absent-minded Roth apparently threw the movie away and kept just the corners, the most boring of airport stock footage, and then a cheap sign to substitute for 'Heathrow.' We seem to following Luther Blair (Anthony Dexter)—an American—coming over to London to helm a space program. After a monotonous streak of London street stock footage, he and some cronies act smug and sexist to a cute secretary before heading in to plan a big space mission. The mission should be, well, maybe, important, though Luther and company really seem to be planning a night out on the town with some potential investors: “Let’s just hope there’s some form of life!” Blair says, almost grumpily. It would be funny if it weren't so tedious and vaguely offensive, this important event shrugged off as a waste of time unless aliens show up.
It does seem like a lot of bother: several miles of film are spent adrift in tediously repetitive montage to signify take-off: hands rest on levers, crew members look at instrument panels, people sit at their desks looking up at dials; consoles and flashing lights, buttons, hands on levers, crew members, dials, people reacting, desk surfaces, buttons, levers, instrument panels, button, flashing lights, buttons, etc. “All instruments check out; we’re approaching zero hour,” somebody says (I wrote it down, I was that bored). You begin to realize that you are now in zero hour yourself, the decision as to whether you should fast forward. Whether or not the intention was some state of surrealist semi-conscious trance, the slow boredom lulls us to semi-consciousness but with none of the awe, love, or even respect for either sex or God, as we might get from other boredom purveyors like Franco or Tarkovsky. Time to go.  As one of the disgruntled Earthlings says later, when a gaggle of women keep trying to fondle him, "OK - beat it, vamoose, skedaddle! Hit the road! Get lost!"

The sublimated sex of the film reaches its pinnacle much earlier than this scene --I skipped ahead.
In fact the sex seems to have happened when the ship finally lands on Jupiter's 13th moon (in a shot lifted from Bert I. Gordon’s King Dinosaur). The way the stressed-out astronauts sit around for minutes just smoking their pipes contentedly, looking at each other like a bunch of cats who swallowed the canary, well, they hammer the point home, hard. The surface is as manicured and pastoral as Kensington Gardens and there are actual women, so the astronauts exit the craft and spot--about a mile away--some cute bird in a short skirt getting mauled by some spastic janitor in a plastic mask. Even from that range, one of the astronauts is confident he could “rescue” the girl with a shot from his pistol. (It should be noted that, in order to capture the astronauts’ perspective, we never see a close-up of the girl or monster, they stay way in the distance throughout the scene.) The captain--brilliant as he is—notes they might miss and hit the girl, so they wait and let maiden and monster slug it out. After about half an hour, one of the men hits on the happy idea of trotting over there to see what’s what. The monster runs off and we’re headed to the “ahem” palace.

Don't look at the camera, o fake George Sanders! (still from blu-ray.com)
We know we’re not in an American sex-and-space film when the next inhabitant of the moon who pops up is Prassus (Owen Berry) --a kind of Hugh Hefner meets Disney windbag--who proceeds to lay a lengthy spiel on the astronauts in a self-bemused elderly tour guide tone, explaining the presence of "American"-speaking humans on this moon so far from Devonshire; with enough slow hamming to put a high school theater director into an angry coma, he declares his 'daughters' to be from Atlantis. They are all daughters of Aphrodite, too, symbolically or other, and as we collectively wrestle with our feminist ire (all these hotties are--it's clearly stated--actually his real daughters, or Aphrodite's? Either way, he's the boss, not some queen, which is icky, and his way with them is patronizing, like they're all mentally-infirm scullery maids who must be humored but not allowed to slouch. They came over here way back when London was still just muddy druids and magical gnomes. Aphrodite's children must not perish from this 13th of all moons - that means these boys must be kept for inseminating duties for a new generation, to preserve the race (though even the most fervently creationist will feel their inner Darwin seethe at the thought, due to the imbecile-level behavior on both sides).

At this point in the story I confess I fell into a doze which I awoke from just in the nick of time to see the old man finally wrap it up and the fire maidens come in and do their magic dance. Now if you’ve seen CAT WOMEN you know that the far-out mating dance the kittens do is the highlight of that film; it’s a beatnik interpretive group slink set to a nicely melancholic and very hip Elmer Bernstein flute-led jazz ---it's sexy, melancholic and narcotizing all at once. The fire maidens on the other hand seem more like a Catholic School marching band who made the mistake of huffing solvents right before the big parade.


Confident that it could only get better now that the flaming maids were around, I still dozed off. I know it breaks all film writer ethics for me to write about it since I missed seconds--maybe hours--in my mix of boredom, feminist umbrage, and general irritation, yet I saw all that may become a man; Even the occasional appearance of the "monster" who--though always far away and keeping his distance-- is treated as a clear and present danger and fired upon by the astronauts--cannot lift it from the MAIDENS from its torpor. Lacking the wide-eyed enthusiasm for its genre present, in say, Ed Wood, or good scoring, ala Elmer Bernstein's in CAT, it might be bearable. Instead we get merely the juvenile sexual hostility of a bunch of preening high school idiots who'd rather high five than try to get laid. When one of the astronauts mentions another is "last in line" for the for a crack at one of the maidens, though it's clearly not meant that way, a grotesque SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE subtext bubbles up (these are boys who feel outnumbered in one-on-one sexual encounters).

In the end, the girl who tries to help them gets to leave with the men, like Alta at the end of FORBIDDEN PLANET; the rest stay behind; I forget what happened to Prasus after he's drugged, not that his sudden Tourettes'-like hails to Aphrodite will be missed. These weird male figurehead pimp types are outmoded anyway. The CAT WOMEN didn't need 'em. Though then again, to me and maybe you, the smart men are the ones who roll over and go back to their druggy bed rather than watch the endless dancing, the confusing editing and clumsiness that results from lots of actors but no sense of blocking or structure.

A rough ride, those MAIDENS, To expunge the blue-balled boredom from my psyche after finally finishing it the other day (I think I've now seen it all, though how can you really tell?), I put in Robert Siodmak's timeless 1944 classic COBRA WOMAN and lo--I was mightily healed. The restored Technicolor alone could restore faith even in a man who'd just seen MYRA BRECKINRIDGE. May it do so yours. Hail, Aphrodite!

"Giff me the Cobra Jool!"
---


Released two years earlier but leagues of ahead of FIRE in cultivated cool, DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS (1954) is still shitty but has its moments. Like the louts in FIRE MAIDENS (or the stuffed-lipper explorers in PREHISTORIC WOMEN, for that matter - not reviewed in this piece, but very similar), these tavern lads would rather die trying to escape than mate with alien women, but at least there's one cool dude, even if he is only a wee lad.

 PREHISTORIC WOMEN (1967) Naturally our stalwart explorer can't wait to escape this Hell. 

It’s based on a play set around a remote inn on the Scottish moors, ala Edgar Ulmer’s polemic-burdened but mucho expressionist MAN FROM PLANET X (1951).  This one does offer some drollery and there’s the presence of (a rather conservatively dressed) Hazel Court for "traditional” sex appeal to counterbalance the dominatrix masculine side of the statuesque Nyah (Patricia Laffan), the devil girl herself. Clad in all shiny black vinyl, she's here to grab some virile specimens to take home for breeding and to show her around London, but whey she'd go to a remote pub for such a task is a mystery.

As if trapped in the ruts of cliche,  a traveling old scientist sent by a clearly dismissive and downplaying government to investigate saucer reporting, snidely dismisses Hazel Court's mention of a flashing light in the sky, assuring her she either exaggerates or is just an idiot with no sense of size. He snidely climes this event “couldn’t possibly have happened,” even after it already did; when Nyah tells how on her planet the sex wars were real and that the women won by wiping the men out with a “perpetual motion chain reactor beam” he condescendingly shakes his head, inferring, this chick is just some costumed hysteric. There's a few welcome Brit character faces like John Laurie as the Scot innkeeper, but the 'Americanized' reporter Hugh McDermott commits the triple sin of being one, a narc (he rats out escaped convict--the beady-eyed, Garfunkel-haired Peter Reynolds) and two, being a smug bastard to women, and three, a terrible actor who hits his marks like he's sleepwalking through a drama school-style 'forget your lines onstage in your underwear'-style nightmare. I find him even more offensive than Joseph Tomelty's Blue Book-style ridicule-and-marsh-gas professor, or the conservative sudden parenting of McDermott trying to stop young Tommy from investigating the craft.

Though she's here to conquer, Nyah truly warrants our sympathy. It's a sin against nature that these men are (mostly) spared a violent death; certainly they don't deserve the attention of cute lasses like Court or Adrienne Cori as the tavern wench (who hides the fugitive she loves in the inn's upstairs storage room, as per English barnstormer writ).

In fact the only cool human male present is a young rascal of a lad, the wee Tommy. Nyah's sagging spirit is mildly buoyed by his genuine curiosity and fearlessness, for his curiosity bypasses all the usual cliche'd stances, and for a brief minute they kind of bond and the film flickers into life. One starts to gather insights into the way the adult egos continually turn encounters with the alien into fights, the way their imbecile behavior quickly turns the potential for a close encounters into war of the worlds ("all inhabited planets have wars!" Nyah coldly announces). But once again, the script refuses to dally with anything other than pure trite cliché and Hazel Cour bashes McDermott's drinking even while she provides him with brandy, ("it is a required taste," he notes. "And I've acquired it.")

Nya is pretty sexy, despite her unflattering black headgear (it looks like a melted black rubber bathing cap), but it’s all too clear that the makers of this film are missing the point --they don't seem to 'get' the mythic current that, once tapped into, can make even the hoariest of cliches and effects roar to life. They can’t shake at old Brit repression escaping back even in their fantasies --and if I may hazard a wild pop psychology guess I’d pin it all on their corporal punishment-ridden school system. When imagining chicks from Mars, they don't go for Lambda of the cat women or a vain control freak queen, but a tall masculine disciplinarian schoolmarm dominatrix, who intones her lines as if correcting her understudy’s enunciation loudly enough to embarrass her in front of the back row. It's strong, but if she's not sexy what's the point? Emma Peel is proof England's women got that shit squared away, so where else must the blame be cast except the education system that's cowed even the male unconscious like a whipped dog?

Johnny knows the score.

The sad feeling one comes away with from both these films, aside from the 'first day of rehearsal' lack of blocking, is that when it comes to 50s sexual repression, the British had issues that made them perhaps more liberated to start with but perhaps slower to evolve once the post-war suburban boom, coupled to the popularity of Freud and the Kinsey reports (?) insured a greater sense of behind-closed-doors looseness in the US. We had our cave inside the moon easy chair, our picket fence oxygen mask and a TV antennae. The poor British, on the other hand, at least in these films, get hostile, like a nervous virgin freshman at their first keg party who refuses to drink, all while saying they don't need it to have a good time, They do, man.

Let me close loftily:

Shakespeare wrote in MACBETH, of a ravaged Scotland "almost afraid to know itself." Can this not serve epitaph duty on FIRE MAIDENS and DEVIL GIRL, two films where--even though surely no one will take it as instruction for real life--the characters remain afraid to step one inch away from their stock type's glum English-version-of-American-ish stubbornness? Instead of celebrating (and gently laying) these strong man-eating, sexually brash and forthright babes of space, our dull British astro-ambassadors merely boast, sneer and loin-gird. "We are all the slaves of a great and powerful civilization" DEVIL's hypnotized Albert notes. "Let us prepare for our rulers." But someone landing on their shore and taking over their country via superior weaponized technology shouldn't come as a shock for a nation like England. The return of the oppressed, the parallel between Johnny the Robot's laser beam and a cannon barrage from Her Majesty's Navy, is never drawn. "None of this has ever happened before," the fugitive says to comfort his girl. Does England mentally block out the guilt of their devious colonizing, the way we used to block out slavery and "Indian" genocide? Is that maybe the core of the British 50s space sex problem, that refusal to look below the surface of one's own native first world soil lest the zombie claws of the colonized erupt like weeds? Is DEVIL a movie about the coming of the 'fourth world' - when the 'first' of white straight male privilege is, kicking and screaming, unseated by racial, and gender, and sexual orientation equality, which feels to us all the world like we're being mugged in slow motion, or overrun by OCD commies ordering us around in our own house ala Dr. ZHIVAGO?  Well, well, why fight it, comrade? You can't argue with a woman, or an alien---they're too well-equipped. Instead, let's raise a glass of vodka to our future conquerors. For as we learn in AA or under the lash, be it to God, the Queen, the electoral college, or fiery sexual passion--surrender is the only surefire victory. Some men only find this out the hard way, but--as TS Eliot wrote, "the awful daring of a moment's surrender / for this and this alone have we existed." So..  Themyscira, Arise! America, Nostrovia! 1950s England, Exist!

Portions of this review first appeared in Van Helsing's Journal vol. 2, 2001

For another of my auld pieces from VHJ, see: Reverse Oedipus: Village of the Damned 

NOTES:
1. (PS since this writing it's come out on an Olive Blu-ray. Meanwhile John Huston's FREUD is nowhere to found? Oh the mundanity!)
2. I went to the cinema in London back in '05 and they still had a smoking lounge with a bar. Not sure if they're still 'sigh' allowed.

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