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American-International Pictures turned first to monster films to snag its hoped-for teen audiences, and this early pair of sci-fi horrors represents the work of two prolific sources of product, Roger Corman and Alex Gordon. Between these two films the company changed its name from American Releasing Corp. while its cigar-smoking distribution expert Sam Arkoff learned that he could scrimp on movie budgets but not on the "important stuff." Note that the key art for the first picture is grade "C" paste-up work, whereas the stylish The She-Creature poster is a beautifully realized original. For the next five years of cut-price double features, A.I.P.'s Arkoff and Nicholson's posters often far outclassed the movies they put inside the theaters -- in many cases grossly misrepresenting their pitiful content, as with Beast with a Million Eyes. Next to a tantalizing color image of Marla English in a nightgown, even the lame tag line "It can and DID happen: Based on authentic FACTS you've been reading about" achieves a surprising validity.
Having pretty much exhausted his ambitions in his four "western" films, Roger doubled back to the profitable subject matter of his first success, the micro-budgeted Lippert release Monster from the Ocean Floor: Science Fiction. By 1955 the only substantial post-apocalyptic film had been Columbia's Five, a prophetic independent that didn't inspire more serious movies. Prolific Lou Rusoff penned a fast script that reads like Key Largo with nuclear fallout, crossed with a heavy dose of quasi-Biblical fantasy. The science of Day the World Ended is bogus and its dramatics are crude, but its storyline is unbreakable.
For penny-pinching Roger Corman Day the World Ended is a natural. A home in the Hollywood foothills serves as Jim's survivalist hideaway, and a large pond at the Sportsman's Lodge on Ventura Blvd. In Studio city was used for the swimming scenes. The rest of the movie is filmed in the good old Bronson Caverns quarry, a Griffith Park location that must have been busy every day of the week in the 1950s. Watch carefully and you'll see the hikers pass a crooked tree branch over a path that gets a similar use in Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Add one interior set and you've got an instant Corman quickie.
Scientifically, Day the World Ended is a paranoid stew of false information. Radioactive fallout will disperse anywhere a breeze blows, invalidating Jim's protected canyon idea. Rusoff's visually effective smoke clouds outside the canyon aren't scientific either. The script implies that atom test scientists are withholding information that atomic test animals suffered grotesque mutations, forgetting that a mutation by definition happens to the offspring of an irradiated creature.
But Rusoff and Corman's simplistic atomic nonsense makes good poetic sense. Irradiated bodies grow scales to fend off more radiation, an idea that motivates the monster transformations. The mutants also turn cannibalistic and savage, giving us the idea that WW3 will split humanity into separate Jeckyll & Hyde species along the Darwinian lines introduced by H.G. Wells in The Time Machine. Finally, Corman's mutant also looks like a horned devil, conjuring a vision of a Hell on Earth to match the film's Biblical references. 1
The players are stock but also professional. Richard Denning seems ready to take on any role that gives him star billing. Lori Nelson is cute and concerned, and Touch Connors can snarl on cue. All must have gotten their work by proving to Corman that he'd never suffer a ruined take because an actor blew a line. Beautiful Adele Jergens, a statuesque Virginia Mayo type, has the most fun as a gun moll with a heart. She's cute even when faking her dance routines by the phonograph. Corman wisely resisted the temptation to make her beg for a drink, like Claire Trevor in Key Largo: Bottles and drinks would mean more props and more continuity worries. Although much of the film is played on a strictly cornball level -- no actorly introspection or nuances -- everyone is singing in the same key.
Paul Blaisdell's mutant monster is the first of his full body suit creations and although it has earned a nostalgic place in our hearts, it's pretty tacky both in design and execution. The face is crude and the horns are as rubbery as the crumbly-foam skin; Paul's skinny shoulders are obviously covered by football pads to give the creature an imposing build. A second set of vestigial clawed arms sprout from its shoulders, like epaulets. "Marty" the mutant actually carries Lori Nelson in some shots, which must have been a real strain on Paul.(spoiler)
After the cast has been whittled down the drama is resolved in straight biblical terms: A purifying rainfall washes away the Atomic Sin. It's pointless to insist that the rain would simply bring the irradiated dust in the air to the ground. This rain kills the mutants and cleans the Earth of all atomic residue, allowing the survivors to go forth like a new Adam and Eve. Corman inserts perhaps his first instance of directorial finesse by fixating on a telltale snapshot of Louise with her lost fiancée. She takes one last look at the photo before leaving, and Corman dissolves to the dead mutant. Coupled with Louise's unexplained telepathy, the dissolve tells us beyond a doubt that the mutant was Louise's fiancée.
Finally seen in widescreen SuperScope, Day the World Ended also shows Corman becoming a more relaxed director. he may not be willing to slow down long enough to make his shots look attractive, but he at least sets his angles up with an eye for relationships. There's a little more thought in this film than in his subsequent long run of rush-rush productions.
1956 / 77 min. / 1:37 flat full frame (open matte)
Starring Chester Morris, Marla English, Tom Conway, Cathy Downs, Lance Fuller, Ron Randell, Frieda Inescort, Frank Jenks, El Brendel, Paul Dubov, William Hudson, Paul Blaisdell
Cinematography Frederick E. West
Art Direction Don Ament
Creature Costume Paul Blaisdell
Film Editor Ronald Sinclair
Original Music Ronald Stein
Written by Lou Rusoff
Produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff, Alex Gordon
Directed by Edward L. Cahn
The She-Creature is a prime example of a 50s monster movie with an absolutely terrific idea that's never allowed to achieve its full potential. Writer Lou Rusoff started with Corman and Dan Milner on their first monster shows and had put his imagination to good use on exploitation programmers of all kinds. For The She-Creature he blends the topical Bridey Murphy stew of reincarnation-regression with concepts pulled in from hypnotism and Svengali. If it indeed flew into its development period (what, three weeks?) after the now-forgotten movie The Search for Bridey Murphy, then The She-Creature also had time to cadge some concepts from MGM's Forbidden Planet. The primordial monster in this show is basically an "Id demon" from the depths of a female soul. "Hell hath no fury," the saying goes.
The She-Creature generates an essential magic that almost survives this tacky Alex Gordon production. The script uses an unusually large bargain-sale cast of stars: At the twilight (old matinee idol Chester Morris, "yumpin' Yiminy" Swede comedian El Brendel, Frieda Inescort), on the way down (Tom Conway) or stagnated in the pulp trenches (Lance Fuller, Ron Randell, Paul Dubov, William Hudson). Lance Fuller makes a somber leading man; his naturally high forehead tells us why he was hired to play Brack in This Island Earth.
Marla English is another story altogether. Unfairly dubbed the "Poor Man's Elizabeth Taylor," her own identity was soon lost among Hollywood's 1001 starlet bimbos. Her film career was all of four years' duration. It's true that Marla English is mostly called upon only to be beautiful, but that's more than enough. A friend of mine said his father was a sailor and saw her at some kind of official ceremony in San Diego in 1955. He and was lucky enough to take some pictures. There wasn't a man present who wasn't struck by her beauty. Unfortunately, the The She-Creature's indifferent lighting for English's few dialogue scenes does her no favors.
Alex Gordon and director Edward L. Cahn for the most part film the story straight, offering little atmosphere for the Chappels' beach house, the fun-fair on the pier, or the moonlit beach. Shot mostly day-for night, the unattractive beach scenes don't allow us to see actors' faces clearly. When a shot does express something, like a couple of tight close-up two-shots of Andrea staring at the camera, the movie pops to life. But too much time is spent on extraneous silliness like El Brendel. Gordon seems to have been the kind of guy who did favors for old actor friends. Of course, he's also a credited story author on Ed Wood's abysmal efforts Bride of the Monster and Jail Bait!
A little more magic is imparted to the monster scenes, especially the first appearances of the glowing She-Creature walking up a pier staircase. Cahn wisely keeps us from getting a full view, as the monster loses impact as soon as it's clearly seen. Until then it's a strange collection of craggy scales and ivory claws that look like tusks. Its face is a typical Paul Blaisdell build-up concept, short on design finesse but cleverly executed. It has breasts, a tail and curly plastic hair, and sort of a toothy vagina (?) on its stomach that the camera avoids showing. When half-obscured the monster is an impressive presence, but we see it much too clearly in the concluding reel. It roars as it violently attacks, losing its spectral quality.
The scenes in which the obsessed Lombardi hypnotically manipulates Andrea are more successful. The psychic soul-linkage between Andrea and the monster is rather weak, with various blurry phantoms flying about and leaving her body. As with Dr. Morbius' monster from the Id in Forbidden Planet, we understand immediately why the She-Creature refuses to kill Ted Erickson as commanded. It's still Andrea, and she's against the idea. The She-Creature has vague feminist yearnings as Andrea breaks free from her bondage. However, she immediately leaps into the arms of a more desirable lover.
The She-Creature remains highly watchable yet is a disappointment on all but the conceptual level. It's certainly preferable to A.I.P.'s later teen-oriented monster thrillers -- this at least seems like a serious fantasy film made for adults.
Lionsgate's Samuel Z. Arkoff Collection Cult Classics presentation of Day the World Ended and The She-Creature is a sticky evaluation subject. Both titles play well enough but represent a disappointing step backward in image quality. Day is a SuperScope release and the transfer provided looks the same as the flat-letterboxed version shown on AMC in 1998 or so. It's okay but a bit beat-up. As we all know, transfer technology has improved in the last eight years and it should look a lot better. 2
The She-Creature is more typical of what we've seen so far with Lionsgate's Arkoff films. It's an ugly full-frame transfer made back in the early-to-middle 1990s and has many film-to-tape telecine flaws that become exaggerated on modern DVD displays. The only way to derive an appropriately cropped 1:78 image is to expand the image on a widescreen monitor, which only makes the flaws more pronounced. Seen flat on a small television the film has no compositional sense whatsoever.
I've read online opinions that spit blood over the outrage these transfers represent, especially when tiny outfits like Dark Sky and Kit Parker are going to the trouble to deliver quality enhanced transfers of late 50s widescreen movies. Lionsgate may not be the company to blame, at least not directly. I've been told that the Arkoff Collection was peddled to more than one home video distributor and rejected over transfer quality -- the majors release widescreen films in flat transfers but do maintain basic video standards. The present copyright holders, it appears, must have little interest in the legacy represented by the films and prefer to cash in with the minimum necessary investment. I'm also told that some of these films have been shown in beautiful HD on the Monsters HD channel (I don't know which ones, or if they were full frame or widescreen). Those transfers haven't been used, either because nobody cared enough to ask for them, or license them. Again, it comes back to money.
That's the reality of DVD -- some titles fall into happy stewardship and some end up like Cinderella with stingy stepsisters running them ragged. Savant doesn't normally encourage readers to start petitions or swamp unlucky executives with angry emails. But in the case of the Samuel Z. Arkoff Collection Cult Classics, I'd say just rent them. There are so many great discs out there that we can all afford to wait for decent disc versions.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Reviewed: May 2, 2006
1. The idea of creatures becoming immune to radiation, like fakirs "acclimatizing" themselves to poisons, crops up again in Joseph Losey's thoughtful Ban-the-Bomb apocalyptic fantasy These Are the Damned (The Damned). In this Hammer film a ghoulish secret project imprisons a group of radioactive children in an underground vault to await an atomic war. They're locked behind doors that will automatically open "When the Time Comes" for them to emerge into the new radioactive environment.
2. Before the letterboxed version, all we had of Day the World Ended was a terrible pan-scan copy that was essentially a 16mm film, a left-right crop of an already north-south cropped frame. It was a dead-center scan. In the bedroom scene with Jergens and Nelson, it drew undue attention to the significance of the fiancée photo, the one with Roger Corman standing in as the fiancée. The framed picture had the screen to itself because both women were cropped out of the picture right and left!