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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Womaneater

This is an obscure British sci-fi/horror film that is thin on "science" but also light on the horror too. What it does have is an eclectic blend of Frankenstein and Faust and Jack the Ripper. Womaneater is still a low budget B-film, but does rather well within those confines. There is a little bit of stock footage, but not much. The sets are simple, but sufficient. There is a strong sense of film-noir throughout, as almost none of the characters seem noble or heroic. It ran as the "other" feature to The H-Man.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A London doctor travels to the upper Amazon because he had heard of a tribe of natives who have a "juju" which can restore the dead to life. He's suffering from "jungle fever" and his cohort is killed by a spear as they come across a native ceremony sacrificing a young woman to an odd "tree" with little wiggling arms.
Five years later, Dr. Moran has the tree (or one like it) in the basement of his manor house back in England. He also has one of the tribesmen, who is repeating the drum ceremony. They sacrifice a young red-head to the tree. Later, Moran extracts an inky serum from the tree and injects it into a heart in big beaker. The heart beats awhile, then stops. The police are trying to solve the disappearance of the red-head. Meanwhile, at a local traveling carnival, a young mechanic takes a fancy to a blonde "attraction" at a hawker's stand. He objects to how her boss talks to her. He punches out the boss. The blonde gets fired. The next day she walks to the mechanic's garage. He suggests Moran's house as a possible housekeeper job. She gets a job there, over the objections of the middle-aged housekeeper, Margaret. Moran stalks the streets of London looking for another victim for the tree. He follows and picks up Judy. He takes Judy to his manor. He and Tanga sacrifice her to the tree. Margaret threatens to leave. She and Moran argue. She tries to stab him with decorative dagger. He chokes her and kills her. Sally tries to leave, but Moran (who's fallen in "love" with her) tricks her and locks her in. He takes her his lab to see his triumph. More serum drained from the tree and injected into a body under a sheet. The heart beats, the lungs breath. The body sits up. It's Margaret. She's an unresponsive zombie, not really alive. Moran furious with Tanga (and his people) for cheating him by sharing only half of the secret. Zombie Margaret drops to the floor before getting to Sally. The police and the mechanic arrive in time to rescue Sally. Moran throws flammables on the tree. Tanga throws a dagger into Moran's back, then kneels before the burning tree. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The pacing is pretty good for a low budget movie, with several interwoven threads. George Coulouris plays Dr. Moran rather well, keeping the character teetering on the edge of rationality. Joyce Gregg does a good job with the tormented housekeeper. Vera Day, who did Quatermass II the year before, plays the carnival exotic dancer, but does about the worst hula seen on film. The shot over her shoulder, between her pointy bra peaks, of Jack trying to concentrate on the car's wiring, is hilarious. It probably wasn't supposed to be, but it's so completely unsubtle that you can't help but laugh.

Cold War Angle
There's nothing of commies or nukes in Womaneater, whether actual or analogous. This is much more of a faustian tale of science being misused by an arrogant scientist.

Generic Brownies -- A peek at 50s race-insensitive thinking can be seen in "the natives." They're supposed to be descended from the Aztecs, even though the Aztecs were in Mexico, not the Amazon basin. The natives are of various shades, and include Africans. The feathered garb of the medicine man is aztecish but the ritual chants sound decidedly African. There's no one that looks credibly like an Amazonian native. Instead, they're a mishmash of native peoples. This is pretty typical for 40s and 50s jungle films. All them brownies look alike anyhow, ya know. Who'll notice? In the 50s, they didn't.

Bad Girls -- A surprise, is how misogynist Womeneater is. There are no good women in this story. The beautiful victims are rendered mindless by the hypnotizing drums. Even when the effect wears off just prior to being fed to the tree, they can only scream in fear. They are powerless victims. Margaret is the abused former flame who hangs around, taking the abuse on the presumption that she could have no life apart from Moran. Judy, the bar tramp, is a cheap floosie easily picked up by Moran. As he feeds Judy to the tree he says, "What's a few worthless lives compared to what I'm giving the world. It's turning death into life." Women are cheap tree food. Even the "good" girl, Sally is abused. She's helping Jack work on a car. Just after Jack asks her to marry him, he begins to berate her for not holding the light right and other little blunders (she's no mechanic). Okay, so Jack is a jerk. That's not so odd. The odd part is that Sally accepts all this bad manners between them as representing a normal married life. The subtle message in Womaneater is that all women are low-value creatures who foster dysfunctional relationships.

Faust -- Unlike the archetypal naive scientist who unwittingly creates a monster, Dr. Moran fits the mad scientist mold. He's bent on controlling the amazonian's "juju" which can bring the dead back to life. He's doing it more for his own glory than any sort of altruism. In fact, he's quite willing to sacrifice young women's lives for the "gift" he's planning to give mankind. Not much of a gift at that price. There's nothing redeeming about Moran.

What's in it for Tanga? -- An obscure question is why the native, Tanga, agreed to come to England with the woman-eating tree when he knew all along that his people only shared half the secret of restoring life. He knew Moran's experiments would come to nothing, but played along like a good minion. His angle? He apparently just wanted the tree to be fed young women. This was his religion. The more sacrifices he tree-god received, the better.

Echo of Prohibition -- There's a curious little exchange between Moran and the bartender when Moran is stalking Judy. Moran asks for a whiskey. The bartender asks if he's a member. Moran scoffs and puts some money on the bar. The bartender smiles and pours his whiskey. What was that all about? It's a hint of earlier British culture. In the early 1900s, when the Prohibition movement was sweeping the USA, similar sentiments were astir in England. The British could not come right out and ban alcohol, as the Americans tried. Instead, they banned pubs serving drinks to just anyone. Private clubs, however, could serve drinks, but only to members. London gentlemen did like their clubs. By the 50s, the official private-club laws were a faint formality, largely ignored by both bars and patrons. The little exchange between Moran and the bartender captures that. This is a trivial little nugget as far as the movie goes, but it's a fun little snip of history.

Bottom line? Woman Eater is an oddly noir sort of film. It's a little thin on the "science" for a sci-fi, but no less than other sci-fi/horror hybrids in circulation in the late 50s. It ran as the B film to the American release of The H-Man -- making for a people-eater double feature. Woman Eater isn't a top priority film to see, but has some entertainment value.

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