March 14, 2009

"Behold, Earthmen, the Power of Another World!"

DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS (1954)
Directed by David MacDonald
Starring:
Patricia Laffan – Nyah
Hugh McDermott – Michael Carter
Peter Reynolds – Albert Simpson
Adrienne Corri – Doris
Joseph Tomelty – Prof. Arnold Hennessey
Sophie Stewart – Mrs. Jameson
John Laurie – Mr. Jamison



Central to sci-fi films from the 1950’s was the concept of isolation. Whether the theme was alien invasion or atomic mutation, first contact must occur in a remote location so that our characters are easily cut off from outside aid or communication. In American film, this is often accomplished by setting the stage in the southwestern desert. Tarantula (1955), It Came From Outer Space (1953), The Brain From Planet Arous (1957) and many other classics were all set in small, remote desert communities, which, during attack or invasion, quickly become desolate, finite pockets of paranoia and terror. With Devil Girl From Mars, an English production, this isolation is accomplished by setting the story on the Scottish Moors, wherein we have a very Scottish inn, The Bonnie Charlie, run by Mr. and Mrs. Jamieson (John Laurie and Sophie Stewart).

The Bonnie Charlie

As a lonely setting, the moors does very nicely for many of the same reasons the American desert finds itself the host for alien brains run amuck and giant, mutated insects. Both have barren and desolate landscapes not much likely to offer comfort to a distressed populace. Both are terribly flat, offering distant horizons and huge skies, which easily force a rather humbling and naked perspective on the lone man. Both are places human beings like to huddle close to the fireplace or campfire, whichever the case may be. I give as evidence of the above the film’s opening shot, which instantly establishes the setting’s bleak isolation: We see the Bonnie Charlie Inn, dark and brooding under a vault of dark skies and plaintive wind, and you might first imagine you have stumbled into a early Hammer Studios production.

And both desert and moor are lands of supernatural myths and legends; the moors have their ages-old myths of predatory creatures, whereas the American deserts have more modern myths, no less potent. The desert was, after all, the land that birthed atomic power, from whose fiery forge has come countless monsters both.

The inhabitants of the Bonnie Charlie seem quite content as our story gets under way: We are introduced to the local principals in quick, stagey fashion, and all are about as expected: we have Mr. and Mrs. Jamieson, innkeepers. Mrs. Jamieson, in apron and heavy, sensible shoes, absolutely running the show, forever tsking and fetching tea; while Mr. Jamieson, husband and ornamental handyman, looking for every excuse to celebrate absolutely any event with a drink (Mrs. Jamieson won’t let him of course). Behind the counter, at your service, is Doris the barmaid (Adrienne Corri), whose constant cleaning of the establishment’s glassware would be diagnosed in our enlightened times as Obsessive Compulsive Behavior. Doris is, naturally, young, plain-but-pretty, and love starved with a latent sense of romance and adventure. There is also young Tommy, a boy of about twelve and Mrs. Jamieson’s young nephew, visiting while his parents are in London (from the get-go it is clear that the boy is bored to the point of murder and will need some corporal punishment before film’s end).

A radio is playing behind the bar, telling of a huge meteor that has landed in Scotland, and the sighting of an unidentified aircraft. This warrants a “posh and bother” response from stern Mrs. Jamieson, and a host of relentless question from freckled Tommy (all asked in that 12 year old voice of breathless, merciless enthusiasm. Don’t let the little bastards fool you for a second, God bless them. Children know full well that such interrogation drives adults to eye-bulging madness. Now, where did I leave that paddle?). Mrs. Jamieson orders the radio off and everyone to bed. Tommy scampers off but Doris, in the tradition of hired help everywhere, ignores orders as soon as possible and snaps the radio back on the moment Mrs. Jamieson leaves the room. Doris listens, cleaning the glass right off yet another glass, as the BBC broadcaster tells of the well-know astrophysicist, Prof. Arnold Hennessey (Joseph Tomelty) traveling to the area to investigate the meteorite and the unusual sightings.

The next scene introduces us to the good professor, who is traveling North by car, and smart aleck reporter, Michael Carter (Hugh McDermott), who has been assigned the story. They are good and lost as neither man can read a roadmap worth a damn. Our reporter establishes his fast-talking ass hole credentials right up front, jibing the professor for their lost condition despite being such a big-brain, while the professor grumbles that the entire trip to the godforsaken Scottish Highlands is a complete waste of his time at any rate. Meteor, he snorts. Probably just a “piece of engine cowling from an airplane” (although how a stray piece of plane engine has come flaming out of the sky, sans any reports of an accompanying crash, our pouty egghead doesn’t explain). While these two piss and moan, the car radio tells of an escaped murder, Robert Justin (real name Albert Simpson), and gives a description.

Cut to the man himself, Albert Simpson (Peter Reynolds), trudging along the bleak moor, looking for safe haven. He finds it, naturally enough, at the Jamieson’s Bonnie Charlie, where he has a past relationship with barmaid Doris (it will be reveled that she as taken the job at the Bonnie Charlie as to be close to the prison where Albert is being held. Albert, it is also revealed, is basically a good bloke. We are not given much to go on in this regard, other that the murder is explained as an “accident.” Well, OK, Doris, if that works for you it works for me). Doris - good, simple Doris - lies for Albert and convinces Mrs. Jamieson to give him a room at the inn, working off his room and board. No sooner do we meet Albert than we meet the remainder of our characters, who are: Ellen Prestwick (Hazel Court), a London fashion model who has retreated to the remote Bonnie Charlie to heal the wound caused by a failed love affair (to a married man, no less); and David (James Edmund) a limping, hunched cretin working as the inn’s “hired man.”

This may be a good time to jump in and admit that this film has a tremendous amount of character back story, something nearly always omitted from stateside atomic age sci-fi films. This has led to some crumbling from viewers and critics alike, who crab about the slow pace, the sloppy direction, blah, blah.

I can’t agree with these critics. This movie is competently directed at the very least and, while the pace is not adrenaline charged by any stretch, much does happen. Any viewer that bitches about the lousy direction in this film hasn’t watched enough B-film (hell, I have watched atomic age budget squeezers where you had to wonder if the film-makers even had a basic working knowledge of the equipment. Beast of Yucca Flats comes to mind, where one would be hard pressed to describe how any of the actors or scenes were “directed” at all). Devil Girl remains on a clear and linear track, the dialogue is sometimes very good, and the acting is solid ( and what Ms. Laffan offers as the Martian dominatrix is oh, so much more than “acting” but I will get to that later). This has become one of those movies that inspire brilliant comments, sometimes even in complete sentences, from folks that wouldn’t know a viewfinder from dirty bong water.

So, our reporter and professor stumble into the Bonnie Charlie for a room (although Professor Hennessey makes it bluntly clear that he considers this inn in the Scottish backwater well beneath his station). Once ensconced inside and having warmed palms to the large fire, Reporter Michael decides to charm the natives. He sidles up to the bar and unleashes his best clever barfly patter on fashion model Ellen (he tires the even-then dusty strategy of guessing Ellen’s profession. “I’ve got it, you’re an airline stewardess!” he brays, moving on quickly to order himself a drink: “I should like a very large scotch and a very small soda!” So, you get the idea: Card carrying dick head).

In the world of B-films, though, these two will of course fall in love (and who would have it any other way, really?). As the movie rolls along, it will be revealed that Michael is a chronic alcoholic; a burned out ghost of a good reporter who has seen too much human tragedy – via the Spanish War and D-Day -- and is now relegated to fluff pieces like tagging along with a tweedy professor on a meteor hunt. As fellow injured wrecks, both have a bead on the other instantly, and draw blood equally, as they fall in love. They have only one or two scenes together, but things really liven whenever the two trade body shots. “Don’t be too clever, Michael. It’s like drinking. It doesn’t do any good,” she tells him after yet another lame quip, and for his part, he guesses with offhand ease her adulterous past, shaking the liquid around the bottom of his flask, making her life instantly average and sad.

Once the characters are all assembled at the dinner table, eating Mrs. Jamieson’s Scotch broth, the reporter recognizes the escaped murder, Albert, who is helping Mrs. Jameson serve at table. He is just about to reveal his true identity – “don’t you folks read the papers? Don’t you have a radio?” – when a blinding light and screaming sound fill the room. Everyone (save Albert, who will spend most of the remainder of the picture hiding in various spare rooms and garden sheds) rushes outside to watch a spacecraft, glowing white hot, extend its landing gear and set down amid roaring flames in a field near the inn. The spaceship is a great effect, its middle portion spinning as flames jet out of the bottom, and the scene, as the glare-flooded faces of the cast watch in open-mouthed wonder, feels very real. Our reporter dashes inside to make a call, sounding completely hysterical, only to find that somehow the lines are dead. The professor and reporter try to make a break for it, ostensibly to get to a phone (I don’t really like being left here alone, says Ellen. “You’ll be all right,” says our reporter, blowing passed her, desperate for a phone and the biggest story of his career). It’s no good, though, as the car mysteriously won’t work, either.


The residents of the Bonnie Charlie

The stage is set, and for the entrance of the Devil Girl from Mars, Nyah, played with imperiously flashing eyes and high-cheek boned contempt by Patricia Laffan. Nyah is clothed in glistening, black leather literally from head to toe, exposing about six feet of leg and leather miniskirt between the front of a full length cape. We first see her descending down the ramp of her craft like some hellish Cleopatra stepping off a barge in the Nile; and witness quickly what makes her clock tick as she smiles upon seeing David (the limping, cretin hired man, who never even gets to speak a line), who has come stumbling near the craft. Her faintly smiling lips curl as she catalogues his physical infirmities. With eyes dilating like a cat, she raises a laser gun and reduces him to a pile of ash. She is obviously a sadist, a dominatrix with a black skull cap, clad in boots of shiny, shiny leather. She is terminal, maybe even evil incarnate, and hotter than hell.

She comes striding into the inn and introduces herself, and we learn, via a long, scorn-filled speech (in which she sums up our professor quite accurately as “a very poor physical specimen”) that Nyah has come to earth with one simple mission: to enslave the most excellent male specimens in the city of London, who will assist the women of Mars to repopulate her home planet. She explains, with eyes glittering with pleasant memories, how most Martian males have been exterminated years before in a battle royal of the sexes in which the women of Mars declared their emancipation. Since this profound ass-kicking, it seems that the remaining males have grown weak and impotent (imagine that). After taking her pick of the London males, the rest of humanity will be terminated. It is no use trying to escape, she tells them, as she has encircled the inn with an electric force field that is impenetrable and has rendered all mechanical devises, like phones and cars, useless.

Patricia Laffan

She has landed in the Scottish moors only due to a mechanical problem where a piece of her craft was lost (the meteor). Once “Johnny” (her mechanical man) gets her saucer fixed, it’s off to turn London into a giant stud farm. The men of London will never submit! declares the reporter valiantly. Really? I admire the reporter’s balls, but who is he kidding? Submit? Oh, hell yes. Let’s think about this for just a moment. On the one hand, the men of London are offered a life of endless and complete sexual license with Nyah and countless, similar, exotic Martian “devil girls” presumably all with the same glorious sense of fashion; and on the other side of the ledger we have the standard life most men lead: a decent enough life of quiet adequacy, putting in thirty odd years at a ratty desk or cubicle in some meaningless office, getting a Plexiglas plaque or watch upon retirement. Hmmmm. Talk about your no-brainer. Where does the line start? A fair portion of London men, or men from any drone-filled urban center, will be climbing over each other to get on Nyah’s love saucer.

Things become complicated when Nyah kidnaps young Tommy and takes him aboard her ship (Tommy has, naturally, been poking around where he shouldn’t). Why she abducts the smallest, youngest male available whispers to the imagination in some very unpleasant ways, and let’s just pray that she-of-the-flashing-eyes-and-squeaking-leather thinks of our freckled 12 year old as a future draft choice and not, as it were, a member of the, ahem, starting lineup. “Come,” she tells the boy, who barely comes up to her waist, “I will show you wonders you have never dreamed of!” She takes him by the hand and walks him away to her ship. Oh, God, Tommy, run!

The men of the inn, a nice enough lot but not the cream of the male species by anyone’s definition, begin vying for the right to sacrifice themselves, hoping to take Tommy’s place aboard the craft. Yet, why Nyah would even begin to consider this arrangement is incomprehensible. She has previously demonstrated the power to hypnotize men into a state of paralysis (she has reduced the escaped killer, Albert, to a near vegetative state when he attempts to defend the child. Albert, now a semi-zombie, sits in a spare room, staring at nothing and spouting devotion to Nyah), so if she desired, she could simply take them all right now, at any time, Tommy included. Be that as it may, this theme of sacrifice becomes central for the remainder of the film; particularly after Nyah gives the professor a tour of her ship. Nyah is a bit of a show-off, it must be said, and seems to give our professor this tour only so she can ridicule his limited understanding. “you speak like a primitive savage!” she tells him, lip curling in enjoyment at his failure to believe in the technology that powers her ship - some sort of "negative" atomic power, continually collapsing in on itself, creating perpetual motion.

Indeed, throughout the picture, Nyah has truly enjoyed not only killing humans, but seeing them quiver in fright. “Behold, Earthmen, the power of another world!” she declares earlier in the film, legs set wide, as she waves her robot controller at Johnny, setting the mechanical man off obliterating sheds, trees, what have you with his laser beam. When the residents of this small inn in remote Scotland react with understandable horror, a distinctly satisfied smirk crosses Nyah’s face and her eyes light up.

There is a slender filament of hope: During the professor’s visit into the ship’s interior, he has seen a Martian fatal flaw. The ship’s main power source, Nyah’s muckity muck perpetual atomic motion thing, can be destroyed, thereby obliterating Nyah and her ship, by a man willing to atomize himself in the effort. A good sharp blow, crisply delivered, should do it (yet why the professor assumes this piece of supremely advanced Martian technology would be susceptible to a “sharp blow” is not easy to fathom).

So, who wants to volunteer? Who wants to blow themselves up and save the world? Drunk reporter? Aging inn keeper? Come now, step right up. Actually, all say they are willing, but as the reporter points out, talk is cheap. What’s to keep a noble volunteer, taking credit for a great sacrifice, to cop out at crunch time and opt for a life of sex, sex, and then some more sex with Nyah instead of, well, obliterating yourself in some bizarre negative atomic explosion?

Eventually our reporter offers himself and, after some dickering, Nyah goes for a one-on-one swap, Reporter Carter for Tommy. Carter returns to the inn to tell all about the deal and say goodbye to Ellen (the two have fallen in a desperate kind of love, it being the end of the world and all). Just has he is about to reveal the deal, Doris comes running in a demands Carter’s help. It’s her boyfriend, Killer Albert; he’s upstairs and acting strangely. Oh, all right, dammit! Our hero reporter, dashes upstairs where the Nyah-paralyzed Albert attacks him. The two have a terrific fight (very well staged) in which the two tumble down a flight of stairs. Eventually, Carter knocks Albert cold. Albert is tied up to a chair, still unconscious, just as Nyah bursts through the terrace doors (throughout the film she has loved dramatic entrances). She has come to close the deal. “It is time, Earthman!” she declares. Jeez, just like that, eh? Well, I’ll certainly do my best – Oh, sorry, you wanted me to come back to the space ship, then?

Nyah strides purposefully back to her ship, Carter close behind. Once they reach the ramp of the ship, Nyah produces the three-pronged wand which summons the mechanical man, intent on presumably teaching pitiful Earthlings one last lesson in Martian power. Carter snatches the device from her grip, but is simply paralyzed by a glance of Nyah’s startlingly beautiful eyes. She simply takes the tool away from him, glaring at him. “That was the last trick, Earthman,” she tells him, and marches him back to the inn, very pissed. Deal’s off, she announces. Carter has screwed the pooch for everyone, so Nyah has a new deal. She will simply take off in her ship and kill everyone in the house. How’s that sound? Does that work for everyone?

The doctor pleads for her to take him, claiming he would be a useful tour guide around unknown London for the initiated visiting Martian devil. London is such a big city, don’t you know, so many tall buildings. Nyah actually likes the idea, calling it sensible, but it is hard to understand why. How would London, or any city for that matter, be troublesome once all citizens are paralyzed? None the less, she will consider the idea. The doctor asks for one condition; that all the others be spared. Nyah has a better idea. She likes the idea of taking someone to help her manage London, but the “sparing people” thing sounds like no fun at all. Tell you what, I’ll pick my favorite male among you then blow the house to bits, slaughtering every man, woman and child inside. Shall we shake on it? You pitiful earthlings talk amongst yourselves while I go check on the ship. Back in a tic.

Nyah goes on back to check that the ship is all powered up, while the three men pick cards to decides who goes with Nyah (they apparently weren’t listening. I didn’t notice her giving them a choice in the matter). Carter draws the high card, the king of spades, so it is decided he will, hopefully, be the one to sacrifice himself. Michael and Ellen have a farewell moment, sentimental for sure but also surprisingly honest, in which both declare their love for one another and, in the same breath, admit their love is born of the frightful intensity of the situation; that under normal conditions, she would have thought him a boorish loudmouth, smelling of liquor; and he would have considered her a spoiled rich girl, lording it over the rural locals with her fancy ways (somehow, their feelings are deepened by this exchange).

Once it is decided that Carter is going to Mars, the professor describes quickly where the ship’s atomic device is located and how to destroy it and save the human race. Carter listens intently, but listening also is Albert the killer, still tied up but now conscious. He seems resigned somehow, out of the grip of Nyah’s mind control but lacking any fight. Once Carter has his instructions (and it seems now he is really committed to the kamikaze mission) the professor decides that the best bet for all the others is to hide in the inn’s cellar, where they might escape Nyah’s wrath. Carter begins to guide everyone downstairs. Hey, what about Albert, wonders Doris, Aw, we’ll get him later, says Carter (later? What later?) Come, says Ellen, you must come, Doris. You go ahead, says Doris, I’ll be along in a bit.

So Doris and Albert are left alone for an emotional goodbye. Doris cuts him loose, and he stands and rubs his wrists, as if preoccupied with thought. “Are we going to die, Albert?” asks Doris. “Perhaps, Doris,” he says simply, clearly further along the acceptance path than are any of the other characters. “Perhaps we are.”

It is finally revealed that the person Albert has murdered is a woman, a girlfriend or wife, it isn’t clear. All that is clear is that Albert, so near death, regrets the murder and realizes, finally, the act is unforgivable. “No one has the right to kill,” he says, speaking of himself and his unredeemable life. The two kiss and it is understood that Albert won’t be joining her in the cellar with the others. He is, now, beyond safety or their comfort.

“C’mon now,” he tells her, “you must go or they’ll miss you.”

She is rubbing his hands in hers, the gesture communicating tremendous human warmth and need. She collects herself and tries to smile. “You’ll hide yourself somewhere,” she says, but it is just something to say. She looks up at him. “Be seeing you,” she says. Albert’s breath catches as he tries to speak, but can’t. They share a last look, and Doris turns and runs toward the cellar, tears in her eyes. Albert stands looking at the floor for a moment. “Goodbye, Doris,” he says finally, the room empty.

Suddenly, Albert turns and Nyah has been watching them form the patio doorway. One senses that she has been watching them for a bit, but her face reveals nothing but predatory ice. It would be pleasant to imagine she has been moved by this scene of earthly love, but her face tells the tale; she feels nothing for the earthlings. Nothing. She scans the room, looking for any movement, then approaches Albert like a large black cat moving smoothly so as not to startle even so helpless a prey. It is all so much sweeter without the struggle, when surrender is given in supplication.

“So you are coming?” she says, her voice dripping with disdain.

“Yes,” he answers.

“Where are the others?”

“They’re hiding. They’re afraid.”

Her eyes blaze at his. Her eyebrows could scratch glass. “Do you go with me -- of your own free will?” She has mentioned this before, telling Ellen earlier in ruthless fashion that Carter was going with her of his own free will. It seems to heighten the pleasure of her victory.

“Of my own free will,” says Albert.

She escorts him to her ship, and the others come rushing out of the cellar. They see Albert and Nyah walking back to the ship. Carter, assuming the jailbird has cut a deal with Nyah to save his skin and doom the rest, begins to rush the ship. Doris throws herself in his path and pleads “Give him a chance, Mr. Carter. Give him a chance!” She understands perfectly why the repentant murder wants to be the one to go with Nyah, and she has complete faith in him. Hearing her voice, Albert casts one last look backward before entering the ship, but his expression is impossible to read. We watch him turn and walk up the ramp, following Nyah into the ship, and it is impossible not to notice the grubbiness of his clothes, the badly worn look of the man.

We remember Andrew’s rapt attention at the professor’s description of the ship’s nuclear device and how a committed man might destroy it. Somehow, like Doris, we have come to believe this unredeemable sinner will find the strength of sacrifice.

Peter Reynolds and Patricia Laffan

And he does. As the ship lifts off the earth, we watch it becoming smaller and smaller in the sky until it begins to glow, brighter and brighter, hotter and hotter, until finally the small point of white light erupts in a billowing, beautiful explosion. This shot is very long and very well done (overall the special effects in the film are outstanding, particularly the Martian space ship, both exterior and interior, and leagues behind many similar B efforts from the period).

Tears in her eyes, watching the explosion as a final marker to her love, she says quietly, “Albert. Albert did it.” This is the only expression of acknowledgement that Albert will ever get from anyone for saving the human race. The film ends with Doris sobbing in Mrs. Jamieson’s arms, Carter and Ellen kissing (I’ll take long odds on how long this romance will last once foxy Ellen realizes she’s latched onto a blabby drunk), and Mr. Jamieson buying drinks for the house.

So let’s wrap it up: This is an excellent film with fine performances throughout - my near-favorite being the redeemed killer, played by Peter Reynolds. The effects are very good, as I said before,(though “Johnny” is a bit of a lumbering thing). But let’s face it; Nyah (Patricia Laffan) is the real show. She’s a black stiletto switchblade with long legs and bright lipstick; her eyes brought to life by suffering. Laffan’s gaunt, beautifully boned face, her imperious blade of a nose, have the brutal effect of fine weaponry. Throughout the film, her voice communicates nothing but cruelty, pain, simmering hatred -- and pure sex. Indeed, I have seen the power of another world! Good God, get this film and watch it! - Radiation Cinema

6 comments:

  1. If only they'd cast Hazel Court as the Devil Girl I'd never stop watching this.

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  2. Matthew: Hazel Court! Now there's a keen bit of casting. She did have the look of an exotic alien. Count me in! Although, I must say, for me the haughty Ms. Laffin owns the role forever. She had that important combination of long legs and condescending bitchiness so necessary for the role. -- Mykal

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  3. Wow, what an outfit and such poise!
    Thanks for posting xx

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  4. MissMatilda: I agree. She was all about regal attitude and bearing. Thanks for stopping by! - Mykal

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  5. Ah! Another of my favourites from the 50's. I figured you would have excellent commentary on this gem. I got this from netflix a while back because I was having a little John Laurie Festival. The film was unexpectedly talky and VERY enjoyable. I've recommended it to a few people who CLAIMED they were fans of 50's SciFi, but they were unable to appreciate this film because there was too much dialogue and not enough explosions. Poseurs!

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  6. Panavia999: This one is for true believers only! Its pleasures are not for the common rabble! -- Mykal

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