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Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Last Woman on Earth

The second of Roger Corman's "Puerto Rico Trilogy," Last Woman On Earth (LWOE) turned out to be the most memorable of the three. It is a member of the "last-man" post-apocalypse sub-genre. It followed, hard on the heels of On The Beach ('59) and The World, The Flesh and The Devil ('59). In some ways, LWOE seems like a writer's variation on the latter. LWOE is sometimes classified as sci-fi, but this is thin. Any science blather about the disaster is noticeably missing. The movie Is a stalwart example of atomic angst.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Harold Gern is a real estate tycoon who is regularly operating on the thin edge of legality. He and his new wife Evelyn are vacationing in Puerto Rico as a break from the turmoil. They take in such cultural jewels as a cock fight and casino gambling. Harold's lawyer, Martin, joins them, seeking some additional info and papers from Harold, regarding the charges against him. Ev, is dissatisfied with Harold's idea of fun. Harold decides they'll all go scuba diving as a non-money diversion. They dive and see some predictable undersea wonders. When they surface, however, they quickly find the air unbreathable. Relying on their tanks, they get to the boat. The pilot is dead, clutching his throat. The motor won't start, and matches won't light. No oxygen. They row a boat ashore. Their tanks run out. But now, in the tropical foliage, there is just enough oxygen to sustain them. Plants are replacing the missing oxygen. They travel to town, finding everyone dead. Figuring on a dreadful stench coming soon, Harold suggests a cohort's remote beach house. They load a truck with food and supplies, and take a convertible Ford too. At the beach house, Harold is all about planning for survivalism. Ev is dissatisfied with her lot in marriage. Martin sympathizes, reckoning that the (apparently) world-wide disaster has nullified the old morality of marital exclusivity. Harold picks up on the growing bond between Martin and Ev. They fight. Harold wins and exiles Martin to some other part of the island. Martin coaxes Ev in to going with him. They drive off in the Ford. Harold can't follow in the truck (Martin took the key) until he's hot wired it. Martin's eyesight is fading from a blow to the head Harold gave him in their fight. He crashes the Ford. They take an overland short cut to town, intent to take the yacht Harold had planned on them all taking. Martin leaves Ev to wait by a church while he gets supplies. Harold has caught up with Martin. They fight, then lead a merry chase through San Juan's old forts. They fight some more. Martin gets away and heads back to the church. By this point, his sight is completely gone. Harold arrives. The potential showdown over who will get Ev becomes moot. Martin dies of his head injury. Harold takes Ev by the hand. They walk to the door of the church. The End.

Armageddon Survived
LWOE uses the familiar plot of a scant few survivors of a global apocalypse. As in other, similar movies, there is a mix of survivalism and human drama between the survivors. There are the obligatory scenes of abandoned cars and empty streets. While far from numerous, Corman did at least show a few dead people.

Impact on Sci-fi
The "last man" genre was popular in the Cold War era. The prospect of nuclear war wiping out almost everyone proved to the most popular spin. It was appealing to imagine that, perhaps, YOU might be among the few survivors who would then go on to rebuild humanity. (As opposed to being among those dead in the streets). This trope played out in Five ('51) and the first half of Target Earth ('54) and in Richard Matheson's novel, "I Am Legend" ('54), which would go on to spawn three movie variations. Note the similar ending scenes between LWOE and Last Man on Earth a few years later.

Purple Cloud 2 --The earlier film about two men and one woman as apocalypse survivors, The World, The Flesh and The Devil ('59). was based on a 1902 novel titled "The Purple Cloud." The '59 film gave the cloud a Cold War spin by making it radioactive. LWOE returned to the novel's non-nuclear roots. People around the world are just suddenly asphyxiated. There is no scientist character to exposit his "theory" about the cause. The three characters just accept it (like they had a choice?) and get on with adapting/surviving. Whatever it was, something suddenly took enough oxygen out of the air that everyone passed out and died where they stood. Plants continued generating oxygen, so in the lush jungle, enough new O2 had been created to sustain Harold, Martin and Evelyn once their scuba tanks ran out.

Morality Play -- Interwoven in the survivor story line is one about morality and social order. Harold was a business man of low scruples and a jerk of a husband. The apocalypse strips away his empire, but he still took Evelyn for granted. Martin's advances towards her enflamed his primal jealousies, but it also exposed his presumption of moral order. Marriage meant something more than just a social contract which depended upon society for its value. The ending of the movie bothers some, but should be seen in light of this moral awakening within Harold. It's no mistake that it all takes place inside a church. Too, is Evelyn's recognition of a change in Harold. He was no longer taking her for granted. The very ending (them walking hand in hand to the back of the church, is evocative of the end of a wedding ceremony.

Post-Apocaclypse Malaise -- Martin gives voice to the sense of pointlessness to life after the disaster. Rather than feeling renewed determination to rebuild (as played out by Harold), Martin is the walking dead. He can see no future, since it is not what he was expecting. Note the scene near the end when Evelyn talks of having babies with him. (She is more like Harold in this respect). Martin scoffs at her notion. His only vision of the future was to indulge in self-cenered hedonism and just wait to die. His growing blindness is an artistic parallel to his fading will to live.

Save the Babes! -- Note how most post-apocalyptic movies feature the "last woman" as young and attractive. Rosanne in Five ('51), Louise in Day the World Ended ('55), etc. Such stories would have awkward complexities if the surviving pair were not Adam-esque and Eve-like. An overweight middle aged woman and a teen boy? A toothless backwoods mama and a sissy city slicker? Just too weird for audiences to digest. Best to stick to the Adam and Eve motif.

Puerto Rico Trilogy -- Due to changes in rules about how actors get paid, Roger Corman planned to shoot a couple movies in Puerto Rico (where the rules did not apply). The primary mission for the trip was a "war film" eventually titled, He ended up producing three films while on the island: Battle for Blood Island, Last Woman on Earth and Creature From the Haunted Sea. While called a "trilogy", the three have nothing whatsoever to do with each other, beyond having been filmed at the same time, and all in Puerto Rico. LWOE has proven, over the years, to have been the more popular film.

Lesser Siblings -- The film that led Corman and crew to Puerto Rico was Battle for Blood Island (BBI). Produced by Corman, but Directed by Joel Rapp, BBI used Puerto Rico's caribbean setting as a stand-in for a tiny Pacific island. BBI had aspirations to being a serious war drama about two soldiers trapped in a cave after a failed attack. It had the usual hobbles of an extremely low budget and the typically deceptive B movie marketing (highly sensational tittle and poster to which the film fails to match). Yet, despite the faults, BBI is at least a serious attempt. The third of the trilogy, Creature From the Haunted Sea was not serious. CFHS was an afterthought. The cast and crew of LWOE agreed to do another film as long as they were all there. Extended field trip. CFHS also had the deceptive marketing, but was at heart, a parody of crime and monster genre films. It was clearly the lesser of the three and more deserving of the obscurity it enjoys today.

Bottom line? LWOE is very low budget and shows it in many ways. Yet, the script has its moments. The drama is at times darker than that played out in The World, The Flesh, and The Devil. At other times, it sounds a similar optimistic note that the root of our civilization would somehow survive both the apocalypse, AND the self-centered chaos everyone expected would follow.

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