...So I couldn't make it to B-Fest. Again. Still, in honor of the event I hope to participate in some day, I thought I'd review one of the films that appeared on the 2004 lineup: Devil Girl from Mars. It's generally considered an inoffensive little potboiler; that's why I was surprised to discover how much I really, really hated it.
To begin with, they promised us this:
They gave us this:
I'll have some more to say about this kind of false advertising later: first, let's get to Devil Girl...'s plot. Martian women have run out of fertile men, and so they've come to Earth to take away the finest male specimens and force them to mate. Yes, force them. And where do the Martians plan on finding the ideal testosterone-inflated subjects for their breeding plan? In 1950's England: where else? To make matters worse, the one space craft the Martians send to cruise for eligible males goes off course and winds up in rural Scotland. It sounds like a great setup for a satire, but this movie is played in dead earnest.
At the same time the straight-faced Devil Girl... was being made, American studios were cranking out even more ridiculous fantasies, with a totally different attitude to sex -- Cat Women of the Moon, for example. A decade or so later, Larry Buchanan would make the infamous Mars Needs Women, which treated interplanetary rape of women by male Martians as a much less serious matter than Devil Girl...'s attempt at stud farming. All these insipid stories forget that a Martian would have about as much success mating with a pitcher plant or a sea cucumber as it would reproducing with an Earth human... biology being what it is, and all.
Then again, if realism had been any concern to the movie makers, the film could have been over in about two minutes. It might have gone like this, building from the Devil Girl's dominatrix-like appearance:
But no: this was a film made by the English in the mid-1950's, for English consumption, and the thought of the Martian girl getting away with her dastardly plot would have been, well, infra dig. So we have a stalwart hero from London who fights to uphold those manly values of chastity... courage... forbearance... and a condescending attitude to the "weaker" sex; a man who stands up for the right of a man to pursue an innocent, sexless romance while fighting off the sinister suggestions of naughty people everywhere. "Breeding" to him means evaluating your past generations, not creating new ones. I might add that this fine, upstanding character never lowers himself to doing any acting, either. And naturally, we have a beautiful girl on hand to fall in love-at-first-sight with this ghastly dickweed... because he's our role model, after all, and he deserves to be rewarded for the fine example he provides.
(Yes, this is sarcasm. Our hero is every bit as insufferable as the Devil Girl, only we're supposed to like him!)
There's only one Englishman in the cast who seems to have any sort of libido, and that's the Escaped Killer who ends up at the remote Scottish inn -- he's broken out to see his girlfriend, who works there. He turns out not to be a full-fledged Escaped Killer -- just and Escaped and Misunderstood Manslaughterer, who is therefore redeemable -- but he's still a criminal, because after all, only someone of low character would have such base inclinations. He doesn't get a chance to consummate his pent-up urges, though. He ends up blowing himself up (along with the Devil Girl) to save the rest of humanity from the Imminent Threat of... you know. Thingy.
Devil Girl indeed. Her name is "Nyah", by the way (pronounced "Naya", rather than NYAAAAAAH, which is the sound coming from the audience). Her title is suggestive: Devil because she's come to tempt men into fornication; Girl because even though she's come from a frighteningly advanced civilization, and even though she's in control of vast destructive forces, and even though she's super-intelligent and practically indestructible to boot, we mustn't dignify her with the title "woman". After all, all she's really interested in is, umm, you know: Thingy... something a grown woman would surely have put behind her. We also don't want to give the audience the heretical suggestion that this hyper-advanced Devil Girl might not be vanquished by the power of Men. After all, the Universe must be restored to its, ahem, proper balance.
If this all sounds dreadful so far, the worst is yet to come: the opening credits inform us that Devil Girl... was originally a stage play, and was adapted for the screen by one of the original play's co-authors. There's nothing like a bad play lovingly translated into a bad screenplay. It's difficult to believe that the play could ever have been successful enough to inspire a movie, except as a result of a lost bet, or a particularly onerous favor. Ironically, the only things about the movie that work are the things that are particularly cinematic: the typically professional black-and-white photography and some of the special effects. The rest is crap (Oh, it's true the sets are pretty good, and eerily lit; but notice how sometimes the Devil Girl's spacecraft is completely hidden by the surrounding hills, and how sometimes it's clearly visible through the French doors of the bar).
The story is severely constrained by the limitations of a stage set. Nyah's plan was to land in a large city -- London; instead, she's forced to land temporarily in the middle of nowhere. Had she any sense at all, she'd have stayed as inconspicuous as possible until she had the chance to repair her ship and get on with her mission, but that would have left us without a play. So she makes do with the obviously unsuitable lot she finds in the vicinity. She keeps popping in to deliver plot-advancing threats, and then she disappears to allow the other actors to "build character". When she's not being vaguely menacing, she's saying things like this: "I come from a civilization so advanced you can scarcely imagine it! Why, even our space ships' self-destruct buttons -- like this one over here -- are more advanced than you could ever conceive! So conveniently located, too!"
We're even stuck with that typical failing of amateur theatre: actors who are instructed to stick to their marks rigidly, even when the situation demands a more natural response. We frequently see the actors standing like statues, their arms and shoulders clenched as though caught in mid-action, because they have no idea what they should be doing. Thus when the little boy (best character in the show, by the way) is saved from the Devil Girl's ship, nobody goes running to meet him, as they would in real life... but the entire ensemble, feet planted firmly on their little chalk "X"-es, acts up a storm with their arms and shoulders.
And then there's the robot, called "Johnny" or "Chani" or some such nonsense...
One more time -- they promised us this:
They gave us this:
Well, what the hell... she had to have something to keep her beer cold during the long flight. Still, as a weapon of mass destruction, this is one of the least threatening-looking things I've ever seen. It comes equipped with one of those amazing Death Ray devices, the kind that somehow manages to sense the object it's being aimed at, and destroys it -- and only it -- completely. If you should ever be attacked by Robot Johnny, be sure to hide behind something that has a strong outline, and you should be safe.
All right, maybe I've been a little too harsh, particularly on the reaction of our male leads to the Devil Girl's plan. After all, the prospect of having to satisfy a whole planet of Devil Girls is enough to make any stiff upper limp. Imagine the cries of "Puny Earthman!" every time you dropped your drawers! Plus, it's a fair wager that the Devil Girls have found a way to make the whole process as clinical and pleasure-free as possible. It may even involve that lumbering fridge-bot. I'll bet its claws are cold.
And naturally, the movie is about more than a bunch of Brits displaying a stereotypical aversion to, ummm... you know; Thingy. It's about choosing to live free from tyranny; it's about (cue the Elgar) standing up to the jack-booted fascists, and throwing their corrupt bargains back in their faces; it's about resisting those who would take away your independence, and feeling the cruel lash of their whips, and laughing -- yes, laughing in their leather-clad faces... daring them, begging them even, to give you their worst! Yes! More, Governess! More! I deserve it! I've been a bad boy: punish me! Make me watch Devil Girl from Mars again!!
Oh hell. There I go again. My sincere apologies to the entire United Kingdom. Still, I can't help it: whenever I think of matters of sex in 1950's England, I think of the brilliant mathematician Alan Turing. He should have been (and should now be) a national hero, not only for his pioneering work on artificial intelligence, but for his top-secret work breaking the German Enigma code during World War II. Instead, when it was revealed to the powers-that-be that he was gay, Turing was subjected to all sorts of humiliating punishment for his "crime". It became too much for him to endure, and he killed himself... in 1954, the year in which the silly Devil Girl from Mars was released.
Oh, I know: we here in the United States have had and still have our own problems and prejudices to deal with, including a share of political responsibility for Turing's death (Cold War America's insistence that known homosexuals posed a security threat got Turing thrown out of his top-secret work, and deepened his humiliation). We also recently made U-571, the movie that takes away the achievement of that <sarcasm>long-forgotten British ponce</sarcasm> and assigns it to some red-blooded, two-fisted, heterosexual and above all fictional Americans, where we apparently think it belongs. <soapbox>We're even talking about defacing the U.S. Constitution with an amendment so backward in its sexual attitudes that -- within a generation -- it will make the legislators who proposed it look as foolish as the writers of Devil Girl... look to us now. Perhaps I should be more charitable to Devil Girl..., which is, after all, pretty harmless by comparison.</soapbox>
So to end this review with something positive... at least the spaceship effects are well done. Also, they seem to have gone out of their way to design a ship that wasn't in the least phallic. In fact, with its vaguely triangular shape and its capacity to grow its own replacement parts, the Devil Girl's craft might almost be described as "uterine". And... well, as far as positive things go, that's about it.
Except for this: NYAAAAH!