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Friday, December 19, 2008

The Astounding She-Monster

Released in late 1957, The Astounding She-Monster (ASM) was the second feature to an already low-budget "feature" film Viking Women and the Sea Serpent for a sort of babes-appeal double feature. ASM is nominally a sci-fi film in as much as it involves an alien coming to earth. The bulk of the movie is more film noir. At its core, ASM in the family of films of messenger-from-space, like the classic The Day The Earth Stood Still (TDESS, '51), but takes the darker tack. What if the messenger appeared to criminals instead of dignitaries? What if the messenger was only seen as a deadly 'monster'? Robert Clarke stars as the hero/geologist.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The narrator tells us about other worlds which faced destructive crises. An object leaves one planet, headed for earth. A meteor lands in the woodsy mountains of southern California. Emerging from the crater is the svelt she-monster. In the city, a band of three low-grade criminal types kidnap Margaret, a young rich woman, expecting a hefty ransom from Daddy. After a flat tire, they end up at the remote cabin of a geologist named Dick. They cannot flee further, so hole up in the cabin for the night. Brad, the thug driver, goes outside to investigate a noise. He encounters the she-monster. He shoots at her to no avail. She touches him. He dies. The she-monster confronts the rest of them outside the cabin, touching Esther. She dies. Nat dodges a lunge by the she-monster, who rolls down a cliff, apparently dead. Nat makes the three of them drive out in a lightless jeep at night. The she-monster revives and stops them. She touches Nat and he dies. Back at the cabin, Dick theorizes that the she-monster has a thin metal protective coating. He mixes up a flask of acid. She-monster jumps in through the window. He tosses the flask and she-monster dies. Only her locket remains. Inside is a message from "The Master of Planets" offering to help Earth out of its current crisis. Will another messenger come with a repeat of the offer, or for revenge? The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The dark reworking of TDESS is interesting in itself. Having the (presumed) "monster" be a curvaceous young woman is rare enough to be interesting. The hybrid of sci-fi and film noir is intriguing as well.

Cold War Angle
Between the narrator's comments and the message from "The Master of Planets" there is the understanding that the people of Earth stand at the brink of nuclear destruction. ASM is another tale of warning.

TDESS Sibling -- After all the crime and horror drama, at the end, the message is similar. Earth is in trouble and aliens want to help us. Here is the message the she-monster had in her locket: "People of earth, you have been under our surveillance for a number of decades. We now feel your civilization has progressed far enough to make you eligible for membership in the council of planets. This council, for your information, is a universal governing body dedicated to the advancement of planetary progress. It is an agency which Earth seriously needs in this period of crisis and chaos which Earth now finds itself. Many of our member plants have experienced the same disturbing problems which confront earth today. We feel that a meeting with the heads of these planets would definitely benefit Earth in the solution of its own global difficulties. If you would like a meeting, so arranged. Relate your wishes to the bearer of this message and she will return with word of your decision."

Scifi Noir -- Much of ASM is film noir. Crime and criminals dominate. Even the criminals themselves are derelicts. There is a femme fatale in the she-monster. A constant note of hopelessness pervades. Even the erstwhile band of criminals are dysfunctional and inept (symbolic of society itself in noir-view). Like many film noir, life is seen as fairly cheap and society somewhat dystopic. The narrator's tone has a snide edge to it. Margaret (the rich kidnapee) is described as spoiled and shallow. The kidnappers, too, are painted as losers. "You're all being taken on a rendevous with fate," the narrator says with a smug and oily voice. "The best laid plans will go astray, this day..."

Wardrobe Malfunction? -- One of the rumors surrounding ASM is that Shirley Kilpatrick's sparkly full-body leotard was so tight that it split a seam (or bust the zipper) up the back and that budgets didn't permit it to be fixed. Circumstantial evidence cited for this, is that Shirley "always" faces the camera, backing away instead of turning to walk away. There is, however, one brief scene nearer the end, where the she-monster is 'attacking' the group of four outside the cabin, and we do see Shirley from the back. Maybe this scene was shot early, out of sequence, but maybe not. What you do see is that the zipper is fairly wide and inelegant-looking. The notion of a tightly conformal metallic coating didn't square well with a fat zipper. It's just as likely that the director kept Shirley facing the camera to avoid seeing the clunky looking zipper. Besides, Shirley's front was better for viewing anyway.

A Dash of Science -- Besides the presence of an alien (albeit a very human looking one), the claim to "science" fiction comes near the end. Dick, the geologist, deduces that the she-monster has a thin coating of radium and platinum covering her (the radium is why her touch is deadly). Dick has on hand several acids he uses for his geology work. He mixes up a batch designed to dissolve the platinum, thereby breaking the she-monster's shell. It works. He throws the bottle of acids at her. She doubles over and dies (without any visible damage). Chemistry triumphs again!

Bottom line? ASM is a typical low-B movie -- The 'star' is a second-tier actor, the rest third-tier. The sets are minimal and the effects aren't all that special. Despite all this, there is an intriguing tone of dystopia, almost as if the hope of The Day the Earth Stood Still was turned on its head. For sci-fi and film noir fans, this is reason enough to give ASM a watch.


Jan Klika said...

I saw this as a very young girl and only two scenes remain in my memory - the glowing she-being walking in the woods being shot at by a man in a hat and the locket being read at the end. I remembered things a bit differently, like the whole time the men of the town including the sheriff out to destroy the alien who in the end everyone finds out had come in peace, but I can't imagine another sci-fi around with a semi-glowing female alien and a locket at the end which basically read ' I come in peace ' so this must be it.

Nightowl said...

Hi Jan,
From you you describe of your childhood memory, it does sound like She-Monster. It is funny how childhood memories go. My early childhood memory of Godzilla centered on one small scene where Godzilla looks inside a window -- scaring the occupants. That creeped me out and stuck with me for years. I didn't remember Tokyo getting stomped on at all.