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Savant can always find a reason to enjoy a low-budget Science Fiction film, even the ones that are dated, unconvincing, dramatically nonfunctional or bereft of the minimal requirements of cinematic competence. Image's Femme Fatale Collection is almost scary. It gathers three of the more notorious examples of bad filmmaking into one potent package not recommended for viewers unaccustomed to Triple-Z 1950s filmmaking.
One picture is a fairly elaborate independent production by the same kind of inept professionals as Edward Wood. The second is a modest, legit English effort that simply collapses under the weight of a laughable script and pitiful production values. And the third is a "what were they thinking?" exercise in minimalist idiocy. All three were probably guaranteed theater-emptiers back when exploitation double bills were a license to bore people to death. The crazy thing is that, given the right audience chemistry, these jaw-droppingly silly shows have found a new life as an irresistible kind of interactive group entertainment: Viewers can't resist heckling the screen with facetious comments. The ritual, with popcorn or beer, has the beneficial side effect of cleaning out the cranial synapses, like a good motor oil additive.
Mesa of Lost Women
1953 / 70 min.
Starring Jackie Coogan, Allan Nixon, Richard Travis, Lyle Talbot, Mary Hill, Robert Knapp, Tandra Quinn
Cinematography Karl Struss, Gilbert Warrenton
Film Editors W. Donn Hayes, Ray H. Lockert, Hugh Winn
Original Music Hoyt S. Curtin
Written by Herbert Tevos
Produced by Melvin Gordon, G. William Perkins
Directed by Ron Ormond, Herbert Tevos
Mesa of Lost Women looks like it has what's necessary to make a movie -- the cameramen are famous pros and it has some fairly elaborate settings and a sizeable cast of actors. But watching it is like being on drugs. The storyline, the performances and simple narrative logic just don't add up. The direction is incompetent in a decidedly Ed Wood style: The camera is never in a good position and every insert and cutaway is awkward, like the wrong puzzle piece forced into position. It looks as if it needed a wraparound flashback framework and an extended opening with vapid, non sequitur narration to come up to a reasonable running time.
You know you're in Ed Wood country when a film begins with a confused narration that only servs to make a meaningless plot incomprehensible. If these filmmakers had higher ambitions, they're hard to decipher, as Mesa of Lost Women offers no clues as to whether the director was an incompetent doing his best, or .... what? We tend toward the Ed Wood explanation: Somebody was carried away by filmic dreams of grandeur and lost their way ... big time. The many zombified babes in the cast offer a possible explanation. Aranya's spider girls are just Sunset Blvd. hopefuls with plastic monster fingernails and meaningless zonked-out facial expressions. The proximity of a large pulchritudinous cast may have been a big factor for the producers and investors of groaners like Cat Women of the Moon and Prehistoric Women. The girls in Mesa of Lost Women stand around on the periphery, or are simply cut into the proceedings in unrelated close-ups.
The ridiculously complicated plot hides the fact that nothing really happens for 65 or so of the film's 70 minutes. The two survivors start to tell their story but the pilot's flashback dissolves to Dr Masterson's back story instead! The film proceeds with a reel or so of narrative before the pilot even comes into the picture. It's disorienting to the point of dizziness. A cantina scene goes on forever, with Harmon Stevens' truly weird Dr. Masterson grinning like an infant and waving a .45 automatic at everybody. After the plane hijack, nobody tries to take the gun from Masterson, or even register concern.
But these are just symptoms in a film with lapses in judgment that boggle the mind. Hoyt S. Curtin's brain-numbing musical score features a flamenco guitar that plays furiously over almost every scene, to the point that we expect the actors to throw their hands over their ears and scream for it to stop. Characters travel by fast car and even airplane, only to have the same spider women arrive at their destination before they do. Jackie Coogan's manic mad doctor is played without a hint of parody, although we keep expecting the movie to turn out to be an elaborate joke.
The Ed Wood connection is reinforced by the presence of Dolores Fuller as one of the spider girls. Sherry Moreland was the blind Martian woman in Rocketship X-M two years before. George Barrows had a side specialty going playing in a gorilla suit, and is none other than the inimitable Ro-Man in the same year's Robot Monster.
Image's DVD of Mesa of Lost Women is in decent shape and comes with a competent original trailer that may have fooled exhibitors in 1953 -- it got a solid run on double bills across the country. I have to believe that it also made a lot of theater owners look twice before booking the next exploitation title sight unseen. Film fans have been marveling at Mesa of Lost Women for half a century, looking for some rationale that could explain its utter weirdness.
Devil Girl From Mars
1954 / 77 min.
Starring Hugh McDermott, Hazel Court, Peter Reynolds, Adrienne Corri, Joseph Tomelty, Sophie Stewart, John Laurie, Patricia Laffan
Cinematography Jack Cox
Art Direction Norman Arnold
Film Editors Brough Taylor, Peter Taylor
Original Music Edwin Astley
Written by James Eastwood from a play by John C. Mather
Produced by Edward J. Danziger, Harry Lee Danziger
Directed by David MacDonald
We cut English filmmaking a lot of slack after World War 2, as the country was an economic mess and a lot of homegrown studios were folding or making do with limited resources. Yet a strong vein of fantastic filmmaking comes through in a number of doomsday thrillers: Seven Days to Noon, Counterblast. Science Fiction themes were very popular in the UK, but the big-scale resources to make them just weren't available, as can be seen in awkward low-budget attempts like 1954's Stranger From Venus. Good actors meant little when spinning pie plates had to represent flying saucers. Many of these shows weren't released in America, showing up later in the decade as odd late-night TV fare.
The camp classic Devil Girl from Mars is a fully fleshed-out drama that shows its stage play origin. Stock characters fuss and worry at a remote Scottish inn (the setting is always a remote inn) and tea is served in rotation with scotch and brandy. The laughable Martian invader is played with a haughty disdain by Patricia Laffan, a formidable presence remembered as Peter Ustinov's murderous wife in the big-budget Quo Vadis? three years earlier. Dressed in a leather miniskirt and delivering arch dialogue about 'puny earthlings' while ogling a cowering Hazel Court, Laffan quickly emerged as an inadvertent camp riot. Just well made enough to be embarrassingly ridiculous, Devil Girl from Mars is one of the best/worst unintentional comedies ever made.
The calm disappears with the arrival of a spinning, glowing spaceship carrying Nyah, a statuesque warrior from Mars. Nyah throws an impenetrable wall around the inn, cuts off communication and power, and prattles on about superior weaponry and her role as the first of a planned invasion force. Various escapades ensue with Nyah's killer robot Chani, the taking of Tommy as a hostage, and sundry pitiful attempts to resist. Ellen falls in love with Michael, a take-charge kind of guy, but Nyah singles him out as the perfect specimen to return with her to her male-depleted home planet.
Devil Girl from Mars is more corny than it is incompetent. It's actually given an okay technical polish, with some good mattes around the spaceship and okay Martian death ray effects. The hilariously non-threatening robot Chani looks like a steam cabinet decorated with some flashing safety lights, and auto mechanics might think that Nyah's partly-spinning flying saucer is actually a clutch housing with a flywheel still attached. As for Nyah, she looks like Looney Tunes' Marvin the Martian's S&M dominatrix pal. Nyah struts around in boots, cape and skullcap. For the life of us, she seems less a Martian then a visitor from a sex club twenty years into the future. Nyah talks like a perfidious Queen from some sword 'n' sandal epic. There's nothing like her until Dr. Frank-N-Furter from The Rocky Horror Show -- and she's supposed to be playing it "serious."
The main joke sustains our interest, making watchable the rest of the play's silly attempts at romance and comic relief into hideously Bad Theater come to glorious life. The characters are all drearily self-contained and predictable, and everything wraps itself up in a neat conclusion for the handsome leads to get together. The less glamorous second couple finds tragedy, but nobody cares what happens to them. Besides, it's time for another cup of tea.
Silly innkeeper Mrs. Jamieson is Sophie Stewart. We're informed that twenty years earlier she played the beautiful Mrs. Cabal seen over the baby's crib on New Years' with Raymond Massey, in Things to Come . Is that possible?
Image's DVD of Devil Girl from Mars is transferred from a print in good shape. The audio is clear as well, and the original trailer makes it easier to believe that this is a real movie that showed in real theaters. Although it's no great honor, Devil Girl from Mars is easily the most sophisticated of the three discs in this set. I can imagine an analysis of the film along feminist lines, with Nyah's monstrous alien just the most blatant example of the female threat: The men tend to be ineffectual and weak, and the women more independent and devious.
The Astounding She-Monster
1957 / 62 min.
Starring Robert Clarke, Kenne Duncan, Marilyn Harvey, Jeanne Tatum, Shirley Kilpatrick
Cinematography William C. Thompson
Film Editor Ronnie Ashcroft
Written by Frank Hall
Produced and Directed by Ronnie Ashcroft
1957 was probably the year that American-International's Samuel Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson made their first million, releasing scores of cheap teen exploitation pictures to the drive-in market. The laughably awful The Astounding She-Monster barely hangs together as a movie, but it got plenty of bookings. That was probably because of its poster artwork, one of the most misleading (and sexy) designs of the 50s, an Arkoff specialty. In actuality, the film was a barely professional effort by Ronnie Ashcroft whose brief producing career soon turned to nudie pictures, one of them partially directed by Edgar G. Ulmer! It's reported thatThe Astounding She-Monster's box office performance inspired star Robert Clarke to make his own monster movies, but knowing Sam Arkoff we'd have to believe that AIP picked up She-Monster for a pittance. American-International was known for distributing independent productions that nobody else wanted.
The Astounding She-Monster looks a great deal like a modern backyard production, except on murky 35mm instead of Digital Video and acted by quasi-professionals instead of neighbors and friends. This is yet another movie with the taint of an Ed Wood connection, through both its cinematographer William C. Thompson (who admittedly keeps focus in most shots) and a couple of actors. The dreadful script begins with a droning, amateurish narrator telling us what we're watching, as if he was asked to fill up the blank audio track with whatever came into his head. Impossibly lazy and inexpressive exterior filming leads to a one-room interior set where 90% of the action occurs. People leave, they return. The monster chases them out; they run back in.
The voluptuous female figure with the far-out pose on the film's poster is a ridiculous exaggeration of the film's She-Monster. Shirley Kirkpatrick looks like a slightly chubby exotic dancer in a white leotard. She stares beneath pointy painted eyebrows, walks as if performing a sobriety test and behaves at no time in any way that could be construed as sexy or in character as anything but a puppet being told what to do. For all we know, Ms. Kirkpatrick could have been hired at the last minute for two days of work, and had to provide her own leotard.
The movie's sole special effect is a shimmering optical glow applied to Kirkpatrick. If the movie had any interesting camera angles, it might lend some interest to her character. Chances are the effect inspired a better optical enhancement done to Salome Jens for the next year's Terror from the Year 5000; perhaps the effect in both pictures was ordered by AIP so they could have something weird-looking to show in the film's trailer.
The script meanders with a few nonsensical speeches about science as the She-Monster kills off the bad guys one by one. The unimpressive resolution is capped with a 'surprise' ending: The lovers read a note from the alien explaining that she was really on a peace mission. Fooled us! If you watch The Astounding She-Monster alone, make sure you're well rested, as it has a tendency to put individuals to sleep. Of the three films in this set it's the one most likely to inspire a room of trash-loving film nuts to ask the host, "Uh, what else do you have to show us?"
The Astounding She-Monster is an okay transfer but is the worst-looking of the three titles; the blah images don't appeal no matter how one crops them off on a widescreen monitor. The trailer on this one really stretches to make it look like something; AIP would have done better sticking with the poster alone. Savant once saw a perfect copy of the poster -- one of the most desirable of the 1950s -- but knew that his wife would never let him hang it up anywhere!
The Femme Fatale Collection may be too much to take at one sitting, and could be useful for making unwanted relatives decide that it's time to go home. The collection comes in a garish box but the price is a bargain; five years ago these same discs would set one back 75 dollars retail. But how can one put a price tag on timeless art treasures?
These films have difficulty registering on the scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, but they're hypnotically watchable under controlled circumstances.