Thursday, July 28, 2011

Devil Girl from Mars (Danziger Bros., 1954)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s San Diego Public Library “Schlockfest” movie was Devil Girl from Mars, a 1954 British entry from the Danziger producing brothers (Edward J. and Harry Lee) in the cycle of films about man-hungry women from other planets seeking the intervention of Earth’s males to reproduce since their own men have been either killed or exiled as a result of a nuclear war. It’s a sedate little movie that, except for a scene on a highway in which scientist Arnold Hennessey (Joseph Tomelty) and the film’s male lead, reporter Michael Carter (Hugh McDermott), are driving to the site of a supposed meteor crash (which really is, of course, the landing site of the Devil Girl’s spacecraft), all of it remains resolutely either inside or just in front of an inn in Scotland where all the dramatis personae gather.

Among them are escaped convict Robert Justin, a.k.a. Albert Simpson (Peter Reynolds), who was in prison for murdering his wife and is being cared for by pub waitress Doris (Adrienne Corri) — the gimmick being that Doris was his girlfriend before he dumped her and married the woman he’s been convicted of killing, and naturally Doris rubs it in that he’d have been a lot better off if he’d stayed with her instead — as well as model Ellen Prestwick (Hazel Court), hiding out at the inn for reasons screenwriter James Eastwood (no relation, I presume), adapting a play by himself and John C. Mather (one doesn’t expect there to be a science-fiction play, especially one about extraterrestrials invading Earth) makes pretty unclear, who of course falls for Michael Carter (even though he’s not especially good looking and he’s so truculent she hasn’t been drawn to him for his winning personality, either), as well as the inn’s owners, Mr. and Mrs. Jamieson (John Laurie and Sophie Stewart) and their nephew Tommy (Albert Richmond), bratty and obnoxiously cute in the manner of virtually all post-Temple movie prepubescents.

The film’s exposition drones on and on and on for about 20 minutes of its running time, during which you’ll be saying, “Bring on the devil girl from Mars, already!” Then a flying saucer — a quite convincing one, solidly constructed and with a spinning rotor on its outer rim that seems to be how it propels itself through an atmosphere (it also has a rocket jet on its bottom, which is evidently how it moves through space) — lands on the front lawn of the inn, and out steps the Devil Girl herself, Nyah (pronounce “NYE-uh,” not like the similarly spelled kid’s insult), dressed in a fetching all-leather outfit with a pleated top and skin-tight leggings below the waist. (According to the “trivia” entries on this film’s page, the costume was actually made of polyvinyl chloride — though it looks enough like leather I can readily imagine some of the Leatherwomen of my acquaintance wanting copies — and the actress playing her, Patricia Laffan, wasn’t allowed to eat or drink anything during shooting days because the costume was so tight they would have had to dismantle it, then reassemble it on her body, if she’d needed to use the bathroom while encased in it. Some of the actors on the original Star Trek TV series had that problem, too.)

The Devil Girl promptly announces that she’s there to pick a man as breeding stock for her race, and once the Martians repopulate themselves using the human stud service they intend to conquer Earth completely (she even asks directions to London!) and enslave the men and destroy the women — though if this is indeed her intent, her later actions belie it; she seems undecided as to which man to take with her and at one point takes Tommy, who at least theoretically isn’t yet old enough to serve as a human stallion for Mars’s breeding program. The rest of the movie is just a series of demonstrations of the superiority of Mars’s weapons technology — Michael attempts to fire a gun at her and she’s invulnerable to the bullets (it’s not quite clear how — whether her leather is armor-plated or she’s protecting herself with an invisible force field like the one she’s thrown around her ship), and later the characters attempt to electrocute her with a wire strung across the front doorway, equally futilely.

Though the alien is malevolent it’s clear that the writers and director David MacDonald were influenced by The Day the Earth Stood Still, since not only are the spacecraft similar in conception but they gave Nyah a robot familiar in a box-like metal suit who helps keep the earthlings under control. The scientist sneaks aboard Nyah’s craft and realizes that it’s powered by nuclear energy from a source unknown to humans, an organic metal (I’m not making this up, you know!) that reacts with far more power than the fissionable or fusionable elements we know and also allows the craft to repair itself whenever it’s damaged. The writers make Nyah so invulnerable, in fact, that it’s hard through much of this 77-minute movie exactly how they’re going to have the Earthlings defeat her — but in the end the escaped convict Albert Simpson agrees to return with her to Mars, much to Doris’s discomfiture, and using the information the professor gathered during his brief trip on board the ship, he blows it up and sacrifices his own life to kill Nyah and hopefully give the remaining Martians second thoughts about any more hostile dealings with Earth.

Devil Girl from Mars is actually a quite competent film in a disreputable genre — it’s not exactly thrill-a-minute exciting but it doesn’t reach the exquisite dullness of Cat Women on the Moon or Fire Maidens from Outer Space either; the effects are convincing, the acting is competent and it lacks the ineptitude that helped sink Plan Nine from Outer Space — though as I’ve noted in these pages before, the more lousy sci-fi movies from other directors in the 1950’s I see, the better Ed Wood looks: for all their crudity and borderline incompetence, Wood’s films have an energy to them which those of a lot of other people working in the indie and “B” salt mines lacked. Supposedly John Wilson’s Official Razzie® Movie Guide lists Devil Girl from Mars as one of “The 100 Most Amusingly Bad Movies Ever Made,” which seems decidedly unfair to it; it doesn’t have the major-studio competence (or the peacenik message) of The Day the Earth Stood Still or the drama and pathos of Teenagers from Outer Space (a much tackier film in terms of production values but also far better written and more deeply characterized) but on its own it’s a quite competent film, and though she’s not especially scary Patricia Laffan as Nyah does project a striking screen presence, not only because of That Outfit but her own success as an actress in capturing the character’s irritating pretensions to invulnerability.