Definitely one of the lesser science fiction films of the 1950s, She Devil has been largely ignored since its initial release, when it shared a double-bill with the superior, unusual Kronos (1957), available on DVD since 2000 but not yet on Blu-ray. She Devil, also directed by Kurt Neumann and making its home video debut only now, is nevertheless highly enjoyable, falling into that sub-category of unintentionally hilarious sci-fi films. One can't help but regret that John Waters never remade it as a vehicle for Divine.
A Jekyll-and-Hyde story about a dying, tubercular woman transformed into a nearly indestructible, power-hungry vamp, She Devil features a memorable performance by uniquely sultry Mari Blanchard, heretofore best remembered as the Queen of Venus in Abbott & Costello Go to Mars (1953).
She Devil (not "She-Devil") was a Regal Films production in Regalscope, which were in fact trade names given 20th Century-Fox's lesser B movies of the late-1950s, with Regalscope christened as not to sully the CinemaScope trademark. Olive's Blu-ray of She Devil has quite a few attention-grabbing negative scratches, particularly during the first reel, and a lot of speckling throughout, but also appears drawn from the original camera negative. It's super-sharp with strong blacks and good contrast, to my way of thinking a more than reasonable trade-off.
Dr. Dan Scott (Jack Kelly, pre-Maverick) has developed "a cure-all serum derived from insects," specifically the fruit fly. With it he's cured tubercular guinea pigs, a cat with a broken back, a rabid dog, and a leopard with a "groin injury." The still-grouchy leopard and his coat have inexplicably turned black. Scott is eager to test his serum on humans but his mentor, Dr. Richard Bach (Albert Dekker, Kiss Me Deadly and former Dr. Cyclops), isn't so sure.
After a cursory glance at the Hippocratic Oath, Bach reluctantly agrees to let Scott test his serum on Kyra Zelas (Mari Blanchard), a charity case dying of end-stage tuberculosis. (She's still glamorous, however, sporting false eyelashes and lipstick.) A miraculous recovery follows. However, when Dr. Scott tries to extract a blood sample the needle has trouble penetrating her skin which immediately heals afterwards.
Wanting to keep their grateful patient under observation, Scott and Bach, the former by this time already madly in love with her, invite Kyra to stay at the large home they share, though Bach's maid (Marie Blake/Blossom Rock, later Grandmama on The Addams Family) clucks with disapproval.
En route, Kyra stops off at a pricey Beverly Hills dress shop, where out of nowhere she suddenly demands an elderly Sugar Daddy (Paul Cavanagh) hand over the wad of cash he was hoping to spend on his young girlfriend. There's a struggle and she hits him over the head with a glass ashtray. The police arrive instantly - this is Beverly Hills, remember, not South Central L.A. - and there's a search for Kyra, who's disappeared into a dressing room. She changes into a dress she finds there and, in the heat of the moment, the brunette Kyra suddenly becomes a platinum blonde. (Cinematographer Karl Struss employees the same colored-filtered technique he used in the 1932 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It's very effective, if rather silly.) Unrecognized, she casually departs.
At a party to drum up funding for Dr. Bach's hospital, Kyra sets her sights on wealthy - and very married - outdoorsman Barton Kendall (Destination Moon's John Archer), a shameless philanderer. Changing back into a brunette, Kyra strangles Kendall's unhappy wife (Fay Baker), then just as Mrs. Kendall's corpse is discovered, returns to the party as a blonde. Only Drs. Scott and Bach are quick to catch on to Kyra's scheming, hoping to operate on her - And do what, exactly? - before she commits any additional murders.
The movie is a fairly faithful adaptation of Stanley G. Weinbaum's short story "The Adaptive Ultimate," written under the pen name John Jessel. It had been dramatized previously, first on radio, then as episodes of Studio One, Tales of Tomorrow, and Science Fiction Theatre, all within a few years of one another. One assumes it was so frequently filmed because it could be done cheaply and easily, not because it was especially good. Indeed, some of the goofiest concepts in the movie originate in the short story.
One such example is Dr. Bach's epiphany as to how Kyra might be destroyed. "No human being can live in its own waste products!" he declares. What he means to say is that she might be smothered into unconsciousness with carbon dioxide, but not before the movie audience has visions of Kyra drowning in her own feces.
The filmmakers don't seem to have realized just how ludicrous much of the dialogue is. When Kyra first appears before Dr. Scott as a platinum blonde, for instance, the young man is overwhelmed: "I've never seen such natural luster!" There are also unintentional double-entendres, especially in scenes where Scott and Bach discuss how Kyra's newfound aggressiveness is the result of over-stimulation now that she's thinking with her pineal gland.
Some have described this as a proto-feminist sci-fi film, but that's not particularly flattering to feminists. Genre historian Tom Weaver more accurately describes She Devil as a kind of delirious Pygmalion/My Fair Lady, a connection even the filmmakers were perhaps clumsily trying to make. For no clear reason one scene has Kyra listening to classical music while voraciously reading books in Bach's vast library, hoping to reinvent herself as more cultured and lady-like.
Bill Warren, in his exhaustive, indispensible Keep Watching the Skies!, expressed disappointment in Blanchard's casting, calling her "a tepid actress" and suggesting Beverly Garland, Allison Hayes, or Susan Cabot would have been better in the role. But it's doubtful any of them could have risen above the material, though I confess I'd have liked to have seen the gorgeous and underrated Hayes give it a whirl. But Blanchard more than seizes the day, sashaying about seductively, batting those false eyelashes. It's a memorable performance.
The bulk of Blanchard's movie career was confined to a dozen years from the late 1940s through the early '60s, her last film being McLintock! (1963). She did a lot of TV after 1958 but slowed down considerably after 1964, battling cancer before passing in 1970 at the too-young age of 43.
Her facial features - large, wide-set eyes; big, high cheekbones but a weak chin and small mouth - are so distinctive it's hard to swallow that a mere change in hair color would render her completely unrecognizable, especially since the hair style itself doesn't change.
Video & Audio
As noted above, there's a trade-off in the 2.35:1 image, picture-wise. On one hand there's speckling and negative scratches galore, particularly during the entire first reel where one vertical line runs almost dead center in the frame, with four others off on the right side. That's mildly distracting but the image otherwise is so impressively sharp and rich the rest of the time that it more than compensates and overall the presentation is excellent. The mono audio (English only, no subtitles) is more than adequate but, alas, no Extra Features.
For fans of '50s sci-fi pictures and lovers of high camp, She Devil comes Highly Recommended, in part because its transfer is so strong, negative scratches notwithstanding. And that natural luster!
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.