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DVD SAVANT

Fire Maidens
of Outer Space

Savant Blu-ray Review


Fire Maidens of Outer Space
Blu-ray
Olive Films
1956 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 80 min. / Street Date July 30, 2013 / 29.99
Starring Anthony Dexter, Susan Shaw, Paul Carpenter, Sydney Tafler, Harry Fowler, Jacqueline Curtis.
Cinematography
Ian Struthers
Original Music Trevor Duncan
Original Story and Screenplay by Cy Roth
Produced by Cy Roth
Directed by Cy Roth

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A legendary title with a reputation among the lowest of the low, Fire Maidens of Outer Space is not a backyard production, but rather belongs to that subset of exploitation films produced by professional hucksters trying to get a piece of '50s monster mania. An earler 3D production Cat-Women of the Moon had posited the silly notion that the first visitors from Earth would encounter a race of Lunar Amazons. Its inspiration may have been Universal's comedy Abbott and Costello Go to Mars, which populated Venus with curvaceous Hollywood showgirls.

Out of this World Shock Sensation!

Fire Maidens was produced in England. Its main title sequence is almost a joke in itself: the name "Cy Roth" is repeated several times as the presenter, producer, director and writer of the original screen story and the screenplay for what must be the laziest film production of 1956. Several camera angles of the space rocket en route to the 13th moon of Jupiter are stock shots purchased from producer Robert L. Lippert. A meteor shower from Kurt Neumann's Rocketship XM is repeated ad infinitum. Shots of a V-2 missile flying sideways through clouds appear to be borrowed from Bert I. Gordon's cheapie King Dinosaur. Many scenes are taken from one angle only. Whenever director Roth cuts back to ground control we see the same six or seven scientists and military men standing around in roughly the same positions, wearing the same costumes. No real attempt is made to create excitement or suspense through directing or cutting. Director auteur Cy Roth seems more interested in padding the picture out to feature length. The hike from the spaceship to the Fire Maidens' palace requires crossing three fields. For every trip back to the ship, we must watch as someone dutifully walks or runs through each of the three locations.

An overdubbed joke in Woody Allen's spoof What's Up Tiger Lily? implies that a female extra walking through the frame must be the director's girl friend. In Fire Maidens Cy Roth's one pre-spaceflight scene takes place in an observatory. When a professor calls his secretary the camera tilts up to a catwalk above. We watch patiently as a woman in a pleated skirt slowly descends a flight of steps, opens and closes two gates, and sits to take about ten seconds' worth of dictation. We then follow her as she retraces her steps, repeating the business with the two gates before climbing the stairs once again. The one-shot scene is pure padding. If it were meant as a joke, there's no payoff.

The astronauts in this space movie fly to Jupiter while seated in ordinary office chairs. After receiving English-language landing instructions from below on their radio, they wonder about what kind of life might exist on this alien planet. It has an atmosphere identical to Earth's and is warm enough to walk around in one's shirtsleeves. The landscape is a perfect match for rural England, with pleasant fields bordered by stands of trees and manicured hedges. Imprisoned in a castle built from stones, the two leading men search for a secret exit. We watch as they tap the walls for what seems to be several minutes, with no particular urgency.

The explorers are invited into the walled palace of the Fire Maidens by a feeble old man named Prasus (Owen Berry). He relates an incomprehensible story about the lost continent of Atlantis departing Earth and resettling here on the 13th moon of Jupiter. Prasus seems more than a little confused. At regular intervals he raises his arms in homage to a portrait of a grand lady, identifying her as the grandmother of his daughter Princess Hestia (Susan Shaw). A little later he refers to her as Aphrodite, and then as the original Queen of Atlantis. Hestia sets her cap for the smug, unlikeable scientist Luther Blair (Anthony Dexter), while the leading dancer Duessa (Jacqueline Curtiss) expresses her desire for the chaste married man Captain Larson (Paul Carpenter). Anthony Dexter had at least a little name recognition, having starred as Valentino in a 1951 biopic. Carpenter, Harry Fowler and Sydney Tafler specialized in small character parts, often as military personnel, ship captains, etc.

The dozen or so Fire Maidens must be so-named because one of their dances takes place before a flaming hearth. The narrative stops dead still for minutes at a time while the Maidens perform their faux-Grecian choreography to the tune of Alexander Borodin's Polovtsian Dancers, popularized as the easy listening standard Stranger in Paradise. One or two Relief Maidens consistently sit out the dancing, and instead strike plaintive poses against a nearby pillar. No musicians are present; what we hear is an uninspiring orchestral recording. Despite other soundtrack samplings of Borodin's Greatest Hits, the 13th moon of Jupiter never seems much of a Paradise. Neither does the romantic angle catch fire, thanks to Anthony Dexter's unpleasant personality and direction that makes Susan Shaw look catatonic -- her Princess Hestia typically stands and stares with a complete lack of expression. Nobody seems concerned when the only male survivor of Atlantis kicks the bucket, and Hestia hardly seems to care when she's invited to accompany the astronauts back to Earth.

For its monster Fire Maidens of Outer Space offers "The Creature," a bogeyman in black. Exactly what he is and where he comes from are never discussed. The Creature is seen mostly in long shots or partly obscured by garden vegetation. The one or two glimpses show a face like pitted teakwood, sanded to a fine finish. His shiny black head has a protruding chin and forehead that make him look like an Easter Island statue, only shrunken by headhunters. The Creature growls and screams when shot. He's not half bad for a budget bogeyman. The credited makeup man is Roy Ashton, of Hammer Films fame.

Although a credits disclaimer tells us that, "All Characters In Space Are Fictitious", on no level does this show function as an intentional comedy. Some of Fire Maidens' absurdities are indeed funny, but our general reaction is to shake our heads in disbelief. Cy Roth's lack of commitment makes us appreciate the earnestness of a talent-challenged filmmaker like Edward D. Wood. As painfully desperate as it may be, Wood's maladroit Plan Nine from Outer Space is the work of a sincere director doing his utmost best.

For reasons that even Bill Warren has failed to uncover, Cy Roth's movie is said to have been titled in England as Fire Maidens from Outer Space. It turned up on American television almost immediately after its theatrical release. Interrupted by dozens of commercials, it became an ubiquitous midnight offering along with turnips like W. Lee Wilder's The Snow Creature.

One might think that Fire Maidens would have bestowed the kiss of death on the Z-movie "Showgirls in Space" formula. Yet two years later Allied Artists released Queen of Outer Space, starring Zsa Zsa Gabor. Produced in color and CinemaScope, it can't make up its mind if it's supposed to be an intentional comedy. Astor Pictures' groan-inducing 1959 Missile to the Moon re-runs the screenplay for Cat-Women of the Moon, adding Gumby-like rubbery "Rock Men" monsters to the mix. Almost thirty years later, producer Robert K. Weiss resurrected the sub-genre's tacky charm for his comedy spoof Amazon Women on the Moon.


Olive's Blu-ray of Fire Maidens of Outer Space is in nigh-perfect condition. Although little in the film can be considered artistic, it is competently filmed. The B&W images are in fine shape. The audio is in such good condition that we can almost hear the phonograph needle hitting the groove when the Borodin music begins for yet another Fire Maiden dance.

Best of all is the widescreen framing, which gives some of the movie a theatrical feel. It certainly makes the stock shots look better. On old, dim television prints all the wide views of the English Jupiterian countryside marooned the actors as dots in the frame. I'm sure that on an old 16" TV set "The Creature" wouldn't even have been visible in some of the wide shots.

Now that word is getting around on the Internet's Sci-fi web boards, fans are talking about the copious bits of product placement in Fire Maidens of Outer Space. Not only does everyone smoke Chesterfield cigarettes and mention a particular airline by name, every clock, watch and timepiece we see is by Longines. The captain even says something to the effect of, "Let's all synchronize our Longines watches." Producer Roth surely racked up some nice side fees for this, or at least raked in a lot of smokes and a watch or two!

Olive's disc has no extras but their arresting box art design easily bests that of the original release poster. It feels strange to see Fire Maidens of Outer Space restored and presented in full Blu-ray detail and quality, as it's always been the kind of movie one might find on an old VHS tape, gathering dust in a closet. Watching this slick HD presentation, we feel like we're in a film lab screening room in 1956. Listen closely, and you may hear Cy Roth shouting: "Ship it, and make sure it gets on the list for Academy consideration -- all categories!"


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Fire Maidens of Outer Space Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Beyond all Comprehension
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Audio: English
Supplements: none
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? No; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 30, 2013

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

Footnote:

1. Discussion and information from correspondent Tim Rogerson, 8.29.13:

Glenn -- Enjoyed your review. I have copies of both the US (Olive Films) and the UK (From) versions of this amazing film.

Oddly, the credits for both are different. Anthony Dexter receives a solo screen credit in the UK print but shares credit with Shaw and Carpenter in the US print. The US print contains a unique caption with the words "Cy Roth presents". Shaw is credited below Carpenter in the UK print but above Carpenter in the US print whilst Curtis is credited sixth in the UK print but fourth in the US print above Fowler and Tafler. The reasons for this re-jigging are not known. The UK print also suffers from several BBFC censor cuts to the climax in order to get a U (universal) certificate.

Writer/producer/director Cy Roth gave an interview to a UK trade paper in June 1956 in which he claimed that the budget was $120k which seems implausibly high (public announcements of film budgets were usually double the real cost) although it was filmed at MGM Elstree which was notorious for dumping inflated studio overheads on productions (the film was made in September 1955). The film counted as British in the UK and seems to have been co-financed by MGM and Eros, the company which also bankrolled Blood of the Vampire, Trollenberg Terror, Behemoth etc. and financed more horror films than Hammer in the late 1950s.

I have never seen such blatant product placement like this in a film this early. You mention TWA and Longines but there is also a Coca Cola machine in front of the mission control room which occupies the gap between the conversing actors in one scene. Regards, Tim Rogerson

My follow-up, 8.31.13:

... but let me ask you, Tim, do both versions have the same title, "OF" Outer Space? Certain people here claim that there is a variant copy carrying the title "FROM" Outer Space, but so far it has only shown up on poster art. It would be great to clear up this crucial matter. Thanks! Glenn

... and Tim Rogerson comes through with the hard evidence, 9.03./13:

Glenn: I think that my FROM print was sourced off a screening from the UK Bravo cable channel in the 1990s. These screen caps were taken on my cell phone of the 'From' title and the alternate cast credits.

As I said earlier, this print also suffers from what appear to be BBFC cuts to the climax when the monster gate-crashes the sacrifice (restored in the OF prints).

The UK Bravo channel used to show some great stuff back in the 1990s. They showed the uncut UK version of Cat Girl (5m longer than the commonly bootleg available US version) and I taped it and then mistakenly junked it !! Regards, Tim Rogerson





DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2013 Glenn Erickson

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