Tuesday, July 11, 2017

No Sex Please, We're British... from Space: DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS, FIRE MAIDENS OF 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 (about the actual ladies of GLOW) -- it's depressing. The cheap video quality of the original program has not aged well, and between the terrible 80s hair, all the talk about the bad gym smells and cheap hotels, it's depressing. Don't sully the beauty and amazingness of the series with the brutalism that is the source reality. Go instead to CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON, GHOSTS OF MARS, or STAR MAIDENS, or THE RUNAWAYS (and, presumably, the new WONDER WOMAN) and dig on how progressive and rockin' chicks can be when they wise up and finally take back the matriarchal council from hammy elder 'fathers' and dogmatic scientists.

A word of advice though, to those free ladies: 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 boost your gene pool, 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 a piece of mine originally published in the print zine Van Helsing's Journal, which focused on all British horror and sci-fi, with me providing a very British blend of gallows' humor and urbane drollery in covering these two films as examples of how the Brits might trim a shaggy dog story down to a single well-groomed wag. My grandmother was a daughter of the Revolution with several descendants 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 I know a mild bit about Brit horror. In fact, right now Hammer's black-and-white 1963 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  coincidences, don't you? --they're absolutely mad, utterly bonkers! As for NIGHTMARE itself, 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. So you'd think being so good with that end of the fantasy spectrum, with a little sex in it, that 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 on a visible cable; stock rocket shots; hopeful young starlets willing to dress up in funny tiaras or black leotards with painted eyebrows; a stock cue library score, or--in CAT's case, they hire a newcomer kid like Elmer Bernstein, then just starting out, and man he does deliver. 

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-- 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 (though they're far less squeamish about sex than about violence), or of 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 that is bandied about in discerning circles as akin to ROBOT MONSTER or PLAN NINE (or my new favorite,  the 1957 gem ASTOUNDING SHE MONSTER). Friends, it is nowhere near in their league, maybe because it was 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 was on the lookout for it for decades, man, it would have been better I never found it.

Once seen, it is untenable to even mention it in the same breath as 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--are forgivable as long as you avoid being boring. Within the accidental Brechtianism induced by poverty row necessity emerges a a bag tricks and shortcut tactics we can use 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: so we have the most boring run of airport stock footage ever, 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 another monotonous streak of stock footage (this time of downtown London), he and some cronies enter an outer office and proceed to act smug, entitled and sexist to a cute secretary before heading in to plan a big space mission with their boss. 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, to us too: 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, more crew members, dials, people reacting, desk surfaces, buttons, more levers, instrument panels, button, flashing lights, buttons, etc. “All instruments check out; we’re approaching zero hour,” somebody says (I wrote it all 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 (who would be subtly manipulating the ambient sound to further lull us).

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, though. In fact the sex seems to have already 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 symbolic point home, hard - they've penetrated the atmosphere and landed deep deep down. The moon's surface is a surprise, though: 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, never trying to amble closer. In fact it takes about three hours of molesting and screaming before one of the men hits on the happy idea of trotting over there to see what’s what. The monster runs off as soon as they do, and we’re headed to the “ahem” palace.

Don't look at the camera, oh 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, using a tedious, self-bemused elderly tour guide tone, explaining the presence of humans 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. We collectively wrestle with our feminist ire (are all these hotties actually his real daughters, or Aphrodite's as he also says?) Either way, Aphrodite isn't there; he--an old white man-- is the boss of this planet, not some queen, and his way with the girls is smugly patronizing, like they're all mentally-infirm scullery maids who must be humored but not allowed to slouch. They all 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 fervent creationist will feel their inner Darwin seethe at the thought, due to the imbecile-level behavior on both sides, with the women getting nary a voice in the matter).

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 his speech 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 ---in a bad way. The more they try to sync movements the worse they get.

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. Who ere sees more is none. Even the occasional appearance of the "monster" cannot lift MAIDENS from its torpor. Even 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 were the sexual vibe not so snickering virgin-ish. When one of the astronauts mentions one of his brothers is "last in line" 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 boys 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, nor did any of the other Yank renditions. The old geezer's presence alone should warn even bad movie fans off.

FIRE is, in short, a rough ride. 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 your faith as well. 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 from Mars 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, her original destination before she got lost in the fabled "pea-souper" of English fog.

Everyone is trapped in both her forcefield net (cast from her spinning top ship out back in the moors) and 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 claims 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 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. 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 the fear, denial, and hostility of the rest of the cast; for a wee minute, they kind of bond; Nyah's eyebrow, raised in mock indignity at his fortitude, indicates a snatch of Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth warming to the brashness of one of her Spanish ship-sacking pirates Then, sadly, she just leads him off camera; appearing soon after back to the tavern claiming he's being held as a hostage. She'd rather exchange him for one of the more adult males, despite the fact he's the most mature and bound to grow up.

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 declares proudly). But once again, the script refuses to dally with anything other than pure trite cliché and Hazel Court bashes McDermott's drinking even while she provides him with brandy, ("it is a required taste," he notes. "And I've acquired it.")

Nyah is--to some of us-despite her unflattering black headgear (it looks like a melted black rubber bathing cap), pretty sexy in a dominatrix headmistress kind of way --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 off the invisible shackles of repression, even in their escapist fantasies. When imagining chicks from Mars, they don't go for Lambda of the cat women or a vain control freak queen hiding her radiation burns under a Barbie mask, 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. Is this a result of England's corporal punishment in the socialist education system? I got no issue with that, but if she's not going to be sexy AND strong what's the point? If her imperious manner is going to only outrage the gentlemen, not tempt them, the film makes no sense. AVENGERS' Emma Peel is proof England's women got that shit squared away (being sexy AND confident, competent and in charge). There's no excuse in this case, other than a bad script as a result of a writer being so beaten down by the system so that even his fantasies are stifled by paranoid moral lip-service. We see this in Hitchcock's worst films too -- his Catholic school guilt choking the oxygen out of the water in films like THE PARADINE CASE and I CONFESS, the kind of stuff where unless you're repressed by a strict Catholic school education, you're probably going to roll your eyes at the central 'problems' at the core of the film.

Johnny knows the score.

Maybe it's because in America we had the space to escape our parents into something new called the suburbs: the post-war suburban boom, coupled to the popularity of Freud and the sudden cocktail water cooler prevalence of the Kinsey reports (?), insured a greater sense of behind-closed-doors looseness. We had our cave inside the moon, our 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 even at a party without a parent in sight, like a nervous virgin freshman at their first keg party who refuses to drink, shouting how he doesn't need it to have a good time, but he clearly does - all shaking with paranoia as if a cop will sense he's underage from a mile away and barge into the party to arrest him should he even touch a beer. 

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) the strong man-eating, sexually brash and forthright babes of space, our dull British astro-ambassadors merely boast, sneer, try to escape and then dourly loin-gird. "We are all the slaves of a great and powerful civilization" DEVIL's hypnotized Albert notes. "Let us prepare for our rulers." Being conquered by some highly advanced foreign power with superior weapons shouldn't be a surprise for an empire-building, colonizing superpower  nation like England --they have no right to get indignant about it. There is a clear parallel between Johnny the Robot's laser beam blasting away at trees and a cannon barrage from Her Majesty's Navy cowing some native uprising --whether or not the filmmakers even realize it. Clearly they don't.  "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 America used to block out the horrors of slavery and "Indian" genocide? Is that maybe the core of the British 50s space sex problem, England's refusal to "know itself," to look below the surface of their 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' world of white straight male privilege is unseated by racial, and gender, and sexual orientation equality? Such social change feels to us (SWMs) like we're being mugged in slow motion, or overrun by OCD commies ordering us around in our own house ala Dr. ZHIVAGO - we may consciously know it's for the best, but that still doesn't shake the feeling of being robbed. 

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 unfair lash of God, Queen, electoral college, or fiery sexual passion--surrender is the only surefire victory. America, Na Zdorovie! Amazons of Themyscira, Arise! 1950s England, Adieu!

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 

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...