Alien Women

ANNOUNCEMENT: Next post is the big 100. Thanks to all my regular readers!

Since women scare men anyway, it’s only natural that there would be a lot of sci-fi movies in which the creature or otherworldly being is a female. Let’s take a look at some of the stranger ones.

One of the most intriguing (and most frustrating) films I saw at the drive-in was Curtis Harrington’s Queen of Blood (1966), starring John Saxon, Dennis Hopper and the unforgettable Florence Marly.

The distributing company, American International, had picked up an earlier Russian space film with spectacular (for the time) special effects, and Harrington was ordered to incorporate as much footage from it as possible into his movie. As a result, it’s a frustratingly heavily-padded movie whose intriguing central story would make a good “Twilight Zone” episode.

After aliens contact Earth to inform the population of an impending visit, their ambassador spaceship crashes on Mars. American astronaut rescuers find only one survivor on board (Marly)—a female with green skin, a Dairy Queen ice cream cone hairdo and a lust for human blood. The male astronauts are intrigued by their green guest, while the lone female astronaut, Laura (Judi Meredith) is suspicious, particularly since the alien woman—who is completely mute–reacts with disgust whenever she’s nearby.

Hopper’s character in particular is drawn to her, so of course he’s the first to go. The surviving astronauts realize they must protect themselves from her while assuring that she’s brought to earth safely for experimentation.

She can hypnotize the males, but not Laura. When this All-American woman catches the alien feeding on Brenner (John Saxon), a girlfight ensues, and the green lady is scratched.

Later, Laura and Brenner find her dead in a pool of green blood. They realize that she was a hemophiliac and was not able to clot after the scratch. She gets the last laugh, though—when they get back to earth and technicians start to search the ship, they find that the alien had lain glowing, throbbing red-green eggs all over the place.

Marly’s creature is great. Having no dialogue, her facial expressions, and the way her eyes are illuminated when she hypnotizes her victims, are quite memorable. But it really feels like about 30 minutes of the 81-minute film are filler: Rathbone speechifying, clips from the Russian film and long sequences of the astronauts walking around their training grounds and blathering. You can always do what I did—I recorded it from a cable broadcast, digitized it on my computer and made my own cut, which I burned to DVD. I think it runs about 45 minutes.

From England came Devil Girl from Mars (1954), a really low-budget sci-fier whose main interest (besides the great title) is the fact that it came from the U.K. at a time when its fantastic film industry was focused more on the Hammer remakes of classics horrors like Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy.

Patricia Laffan stars as the martian Nyah, a cross between Darth Vadar and a dominatrix, who lands in on earth to round up men to repopulate her planet. Since it’s based on a play (yes, really!), there’s a who-o-o-le lot of talking and not a lot of action, but if you’re fond of home country color with a bit of cheesy sci-fi thrown in, it might be right up your alley.

Some couples are staying at a little inn in the Scottish moors when Nyah struts in and states her purpose. Why such an out-of-the-way place to harvest men, you may ask? Her ship was damaged upon entry into the earth’s atmosphere, so she had to redirect from her original destination of the heart of London to the middle of nowhere. And instead of clamoring to get into Nyah’s ship, the men resist her plans because they don’t like—ahem—powerful women.

What little action the film has is buried by heaps and heaps of dialogue, but its most hilarious aspect is Nyah’s robot (pictured here). Intended to induce the same kind of fear Gort generated in the classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), this one is just hilarious.

Also of note are early appearances by genre stars Hazel Court (Masque of the Red Death) and Adrienne Corri (Vampire Circus), but this is another one that needs to be loaded on the computer and edited down into a highlight reel.

Another alien-woman-comes-to-earth film is The Astounding She-Monster (1957). It’s super-cheap, restricted to just a few sets, and basically the same action happens several times: alien comes into cabin, earthlings run out and go to the jeep. Alien confronts them on the road, earthlings rush back to the cabin.

There’s no synchronized dialogue during the outdoor scenes (they were probably shot MOS), so a loudmouthed narrator keeps advancing the plot along. The She-Monster (Shirley Kilpatrick) isn’t terribly astounding—she looks like someone who got a Divine makeover while wearing a body stocking.

It’s rumored that Kilpatrick was actually a younger, thinner Shirley Stoler, who attained cult status with films like The Honeymoon Killers, Seven Beauties and Frankenhooker. Frankly, it does kind of look like her!

It is also rumored that Ed Wood had a hand or two in the making of this film, and the dialogue certainly sounds like it could have issued from his Remington typewriter. Monster‘s director, Ronnie Ashcroft, worked with Wood on Night of the Ghouls. And Kenne Duncan, one of Wood’s stock players, has a leading role. Even the trailer makes it look like an Ed Wood film. Hmm…

Finally, let’s take a look at a shoulda-coulda-woulda-been. Tobe Hooper, whose career has been revived more frequently than Zsa Zsa Gabor (sorry) got a cash infusion from Cannon Films in 1985 to make three films—Lifeforce, Invaders from Mars and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2—and they all stink!

The plot of Lifeforce sounds great: batlike creatures and three humanoids emerge from the tail of Halley’s Comet and transform most of the population of London into zombies. Plus, the lead alien (Mathilda May) who’s responsible for the outbreak is frequently naked, for those who are interested. As a matter of fact, most of the positive reviews on IMDB are from fanboys who’ve become human tripods because of the nudity.

Well, it’s not. The movie is a mess. As a matter of fact, it makes no sense at all. I’ve tried to watch it at least three times and have just been worn out by all the frantic goings-on. It’s like Hooper, four years after his estimable triumph with Poltergeist and 12 years after Texas Chainsaw, is trying to prove how relevant he still is. I really, really wanted to enjoy Lifeforce, but there comes a time in every wrongheaded film when the viewer’s brain becomes unplugged and enthusiasm deflates. That happens to me every time.

Invaders from Mars, despite the promising casting of Karen Black, who plays a school nurse helping the kid (her real-life son, Hunter Carson) who suspects his parents have “changed.” The only memorable scene in this film that I can recall involves Louise Fletcher, as a teacher who’s been invaded, gulping a live mouse down her gullet.

So what’s my favorite female alien movie? Well, for sheer entertainment value, I’d have to go with Plan 9 from Outer Space. Even though Vampira looks like…well, Vampira…she’s supposed to be an alien. And from the cardboard gravestones to the spaceship’s shower curtain door, man—it’s so funny.

Criswell: “Greetings, my friend. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future. You are interested in the unknown… the mysterious. The unexplainable. That is why you are here. And now, for the first time, we are bringing to you, the full story of what happened on that fateful day. We are bringing you all the evidence, based only on the secret testimony, of the miserable souls, who survived this terrifying ordeal. The incidents, the places.

“My friend, we cannot keep this a secret any longer. Let us punish the guilty. Let us reward the innocent. My friend, can your heart stand the shocking facts of grave robbers from outer space?”

Oh, and Hunter Carson was the original Bud Bundy in the unaired pilot for “Married with Children.”

Some Classic Horrors

What makes a classic horror film? Craftsmanship, certainly, and especially repeatability—a film you want to watch again even though you’ve thoroughly memorized the moments of shock. Today I’d like to reflect on a few classics…horror films that have stood the test of time and are just as striking today as they were on their original release.

Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without A Face), from 1959, is French director Georges Franju’s masterpiece. A surgeon, Génessier, is obsessed with restoring the face of his daughter, Christine (Edith Scob), which had been horribly disfigured in a car accident. To achieve this, he recruits his devoted assistant, Louise (Alida Valli) to lure beautiful young women to his remote clinic where he experiments on them.

It’s a fairly straightforward plot, but what makes this film exceptional is Franju’s handling of the material. Hauntingly poetic and genuinely creepy, it really gets under your skin (pun intended). Christine wears a white porcelain mask to hide her disfigurement, and it makes her seem like a living statue. Dressed in stylish white gowns, she drifts through the house like a ghost.

Génessier is so smug and self-involved that he doesn’t realize his skin graft experiments are in fact torturing Christine—not to mention the fate that befalls the numerous victims who are unlucky enough to find themselves under his scalpel. Louise is slavishly devoted to this bastard—she knows full well the women she brings to the clinic are going to die—and yet she keeps procuring more, defending the doctor’s work when Christine dares to complain.

Scob is remarkable in her role. We only see her face for perhaps three minutes in the entire film, yet she manages to convey a full range of emotions with her body language. Valli, of course, is terrific, and her Louise is a study in contradictions. Brasseur plays the arrogant doctor to the hilt, not in mad scientist mode, but with the self-assurance that comes from believing he’s always right. Christine is the only one with a conscience, preferring to die rather than continue suffering—and causing the suffering of others.

The most famous scene—the removal of a victim’s face for the graft—is still shocking today, because it’s done so clinically. There’s no sound except for the doctor’s breathing as he methodically cuts into the skin, carefully pulls up the edges and lifts it off. Even though I knew it was coming and had seen it before, when I watched this film in its 2003 theatrical re-release, I thought I was going to pass out during this scene!

The fleeting glimpses we get of Christine’s face are equally shocking. She slips into the room of one of her “donors,” and the disfigurement is seen, briefly and blurrily, but it’s enough. When a graft seems to be successful, she is elated with her restored beauty, but when it begins to fail, we’re subjected to a series of clinical still photographs documenting the skin literally rotting off her face accompanied by the doctor’s passionless reportage of the failure.

There are fairly straightforward scenes of police procedurals, but the images of Scob seemingly floating down hallways, and the leonine Valli driving through the streets of Paris in search of prey are oddly beautiful, surreal and absolutely unforgettable. Future Academy Award-winner Maurice Jarre provides the excellent score.

Terrence Rafferty, writing in The New York Times, said it best: “Eyes Without a Face is among the few films in the genre—Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) is the only other one I can think of—that holds our attention without any recourse to narrative suspense. We barely care how the story will turn out: the suspense is in the images themselves, in the tension generated by our attempt to resolve the contradictory emotions they arouse.”

Hard-working horror hack Jess Franco did a remake of sorts in 1987, Faceless. Relentlessly sleazy, it amps up the gore and is actually one of his more watchable efforts…which isn’t saying much. It also boasts (for Franco) an all-star cast: Helmut Berger, Telly Savalas, Anton Diffring, Stephane Audran (who gets a needle in the eye) and Caroline Munro!

Curse of the Werewolf (1960) is one of my favorite Hammer films, along with Brides of Dracula, which I’ve discussed before. Featuring a star-making turn by a shockingly young Oliver Reed, it’s perverse, violent and has a lot more on its mind than just ripping throats.

A beggar (Richard Wordsworth) is thrown into a prison cell and left to rot by a sadistic Marques (Anthony Dawson). When his mute servant (Yvonne Romain) rebuffs his repulsive advances, she is put into the same cell and raped by the now-beastlike beggar. After escaping the cell and killing the Marques in revenge, she flees to the country and is taken in by the kindly Don Carledo (Clifford Evans) and Teresa (Hira Talfrey), his faithful servant.

When the girl dies in childbirth on Christmas Day, Don Carledo adopts the boy, naming him Leon, but superstitious Teresa fears that he is cursed. Sure enough, soon the little nipper is flashing his fangs and telling his father about his disturbing dreams of blood. Local farmers are up in arms about the “wolf” that is prowling the countryside and attacking their sheep.

Leon grows to adulthood, and he moves to another town to take a job in a winery. There, he meets and falls in love with his employer’s daughter, Cristina (Catherine Feller), but when he is taken to a brothel by a well-meaning co-worker, the beast inside him is awakened and he goes on the rampage. He goes to the police, but they don’t believe him, so he turns to his father for help. Don Carledo realizes he must summon the strength to put his son out of his misery with a silver bullet.

Curse brings a number of new twists to the werewolf story. Rather than suffering a bite from another wolf-creature, Leon’s lycanthropy is truly a “curse,” having been born the bastard child of an insane man on Christmas Day. And the film explicitly links lycanthropy with puberty, as the young Leon is seen howling at the moon as hair sprouts on his body.

This is the Hammer factory in its prime. Excellent color cinematography, beautiful sets and crackerjack direction by the great Terence Fisher make this a film to savor again and again. The details are great—when the Marques calls the servant girl to his room for unsavory purposes, he is seen studying himself in the mirror and picking scabs off of his face. Behind the opening title sequence is a long-held close-up of Reed’s eyes darting, animal-like, back and forth. One could argue that the contact lenses he’s wearing are causing his eyes to well up with tears, but it really adds an extra dimension to the shot—this is not a happy monster.

Reed is so good as the suffering Leon. I don’t think his screen time even adds up to half of the film, but he’s in turns eloquent, pitiful and scary—all the right attributes for such a role. His werewolf makeup by the ever-reliable Roy Ashton is perfect, taking advantage of Reed’s already wolfish appearance. The supporting cast, including Wordsworth, Evans and Talfrey, also add to the persuasiveness of the story. And the story—written by producer Anthony Hinds under his John Elder pseudonym—is based on Guy Endore’s “The Werewolf of Paris” (switched to Spain because Hammer had the standing sets) and it has enough religious, psychological and sociological underpinnings to keep Freud busy for weeks.

1960’s The Mask of Satan (aka Black Sunday) is the legendary Italian horror director Mario Bava’s finest film and the sensational Barbara Steele’s first venture into the genre. She plays a two roles she’d repeat several times with variations—Asa, a reincarnated, centuries-old witch and Katia, her innocent, virginal descendant.

When we first meet Asa she is being condemned to death for sorcery. Before she is burned at the stake, a spiked metal mask (the mask of Satan) is hammered into her flesh.

200 years later, Dr. Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his assistant Dr. Andre Gorobec (John Richardson), are traveling through Moldavia to a medical conference when one of the wheels of their carriage breaks. While waiting for their coachman to fix it, they explore a nearby crypt and find Asa’s tomb. Kruvajan is curious about the mask he can see through a glass panel in the lid, and when he removes it from the corpse’s face, he accidentally cuts his hand. His blood drips on the exposed flesh, but they leave the crypt unaware that Asa is being restored to life. Outside, the doctors meet Katia. who lives with her father, Prince Vajda (Garrani), and brother Constantine (Enrico Oliveiri), in a nearby castle that the villagers all believe is haunted. Gorobec is smitten with her beauty.

Now revived, Asa telepathically contacts her henchman, Javuto (Arturo Dominici), who’d been executed along with her, and orders him to rise from his grave. She wants to drain the blood of her descendant, Katia, believing it will give her immortality. Javuto goes to the castle and vampirizes Kruvajan, kidnaps Katia and taking her to Asa. As the witch begins to drain away Katia’s life force, Gorobec arrives in time to save her and dispatch her malevolent ancestor.

The devil is in the details with this film. The simple plot is merely a device upon which to hang a series of startling—and startlingly beautiful—images. When we (and the doctors) first meet Katia, she is dressed in a black coat, accompanied by a pair of large black dogs, standing against a dramatically clouded sky. It’s quite an entrance. As the mask is hammered onto Asa’s face, blood jets out—it’s still a startling scene. Asa’s resurrection is striking, too. When Kruvajan first pries the mask off of her face, her empty eye sockets stare up at him and a spider crawls out of one of them. Later, when his blood begins to resurrect her, eyeballs “regrow” in the sockets.

Javuto’s resurrection is also atmospheric. Revived but still unable to move, Asa commands him to return from his grave. The ground splits open and an alarming-looking, undead creature gropes his way out of the soil and pulls off his mask. Later, when Gorobec discovers that Kruvajan has become a vampire, he goes to the coffin where his former colleague now rests, accompanied by a local priest, who drives a wooden spike into the fiend’s eye in a scene that certainly must have inspired Lucio Fulci’s trademark eye-mayhem.

For years we Americans had to live with American International Pictures’ version of the film, heavily edited and re-scored by house composer Les Baxter. The first time I saw it was on VHS videocassette with a faded pan-and-scan print that did criminal things to the splendid black and white cinematography. And although it was a British print, it still had the more explicit scenes of violence excised.

Image Entertainment’s 1999 DVD release was a revelation. Not only was it restored to its widescreen monochrome glory, the mayhem was back. I knew what to expect—the old videotape was clumsily cut, but you could sort of tell what had happened. Not that Black Sunday is a splatterfest—the scenes are swift and unexpected, which makes them all the more shocking.

What makes this film a perennial is a handsome production, rapturously atmospheric settings, truly creepy sequences and the insanely gorgeous Steele, who was dubbed by one critic “the only actress whose eyebrows can snarl.”

The Tim Burton/Johnny Depp Collaborations

By now everyone has gotten a look at the “sneaked” photo of Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter in Tim Burton’s upcoming “Alice in Wonderland,” their seventh collaboration, and it looks like it’s going to be a wild ride.

The Disney animated feature and the various musical productions made for television throughout the years were all rather light and bright. It wasn’t until the 1988 live action-stop motion production by the Czech surrealist filmmaker Jan Svankmajer that the darkness in the story began to show through. Now, with this release, Burton is poised to do it one better.

Of course, Burton has never been afraid of challenging audiences with his unique vision. “Vincent,” a bleak, black and white stop-motion short about a boy who thinks he’s Vincent Price, got him noticed by Disney, for whom he made another short film, “Frankenweenie,” about a young boy’s efforts to restore life to his beloved dog after the pooch is hit by a car. It was deemed so dark by the studio that it wasn’t released until years later, after Burton became a top-echelon director. “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” his feature debut, is a rainbow-colored, crowd-pleasing delight which only provides glimpses (Large Marge, anyone?) of the strangeness yet to come. I saw it theatrically twice: once at a drive-in and once at a midnight show at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Both were memorable experiences.

After “Beetlejuice” and “Batman,” Burton met Depp, starting a nearly 20-year collaboration that seems to be the perfect arrangement for both of them. Burton loves to conceive the bizarre characters, and Depp loves to play them. Their first effort, “Edward Scissorhands,” goes back to “Pee Wee’s” brightly colored neighborhoods but stops to lift up a rock so we can see the creatures slithering underneath in the darkness. It also provides the wonderful Vincent Price with his final role as Edward’s creator. I’m crazy about this film. It’s a perfect blend of fantasy, social commentary and sci-fi that never makes a false move. And you get so caught up in the story that you never question how or why Edward was made—or what he’s made of! Depp’s admirable pantomime skills and expressive eyes really put this character across.

Then came the major studio production that was made for a comparative handful of people—”Ed Wood.” Beautifully shot in black and white, with Depp in fine form as the infamous cross-dressing director, this is a truly personal work as obsessive as anything John Waters has ever done…made with Disney money! Martin Landau’s superb, heartbreaking (and Academy Award-winning) performance as Bela Lugosi in his final days is a joy to watch, and I love the way the filmmakers took true episodes in Wood’s life and “happied” them up, conveying the joy Wood himself felt while making his films, never realizing that their quality was somewhat lacking. And the upbeat ending, at the preview screening of “Plan 9,” is the perfect conclusion to the story. Ed would’ve wanted it that way.

It took five years for them to work together again, and that was for 1998’s “Sleepy Hollow.” I have problems with this one. While the production values are gorgeous, evoking the technicolor fantasy world of classic Hammer horror films (intensified by a cameo from Dracula himself, Christopher Lee), they are put into the service of a rather limp and unsatisfying story. Depp’s Ichabod Crane is an unfortunately dull nebbish, and I frequently found myself bored. Verdict: despite the surprisingly high gore quotient, the screenplay was simply too normal for a Burton film!

Seven years passed, and Depp saw his star ascend with his depiction of Captain Jack Sparrow in the first of the surprise hit “Pirates of the Caribbean” films. Then, in 2005, he and Burton collaborated on two projects as if to make up for lost time. I must admit I never saw “The Corpse Bride,” so I can’t comment on it, but Depp only provided his voice, anyhow. The other release of that year, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” a remake of the 1971 Gene Wilder favorite, is a film I can sum up in three words:

I hated it.

Everything about “Charlie” seems so overproduced: the art direction, the costuming, the acting, the music… At first, Depp’s creepy child molester caricature is amusing, but the movie is so busy screaming, “Look how weird I am!” in every stinking frame, it just becomes tiring. Danny Elfman’s songs are awful, and the bizarrely-monikered actor Deep Roy (“Neverending Story”) is obnoxiousness multiplied as the OompaLoompas. While “Sleepy Hollow” is beautiful but boring, “Charlie” is just fingernails-on-chalkboard bad.

When I heard that Burton and Depp were taking on Stephen Sondheim’s musical version of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” I was afraid. Their last two collaborations were not successes in my opinion, and I was fearful of what might happen to this wonderful work. I never got the chance to see Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou (or George Hearn) perform it on stage, but I loved the PBS “Great Performances” teleproduction of it. And about a year before the film’s release, I saw the revival of the musical on Broadway with Patti Lupone. In this radical restaging, the actors also play instruments, doing double duty as the orchestra! It worked amazingly well.

So, I thought: What are you going to do, Mr. Burton? Are you going to provide this classic with the production it deserves or are you going to take it to oompaloompaville? Despite my trepidation, I eagerly rushed to the theater upon its release. As the blood trickled through the sewer system and the main theme played during the opening credits, I could feel a tingle starting at the back of my neck. It was a tingle that never stopped during the entire film.

Burton made wonderful choices. Knowing that he couldn’t “camp up” the grand guignol story, he instead played up the themes of disease, revenge and blood—lots of blood. No one gets out uncorrupted—and in many instances, alive. Depp’s grim-visaged Todd manages to be both humorous and tragic at the same time, a tribute to his skill. Bonham-Carter’s Mrs. Lovett is a revelation, too, as a world-weary piemaker who doesn’t care what ingredients go into her goods and who sees Todd as her last hope for happiness in a dark and disillusioned London. And given the fact that Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter are not professional singers, their songs integrate beautifully in this context. I understand Sondheim himself approved of the film, and well he should.

So now here comes “Alice,” scheduled for release next year. My faith renewed by the success of “Sweeney Todd,” I’m looking forward to it. The cast is chock-full of great English stalwarts (and Americans Anne Hathaway and Crispin Glover) and, if Depp’s makeup and costuming are any indication, it will be a feast for the eyes as well. I hope it’s dark, and I hope it has humor, too.

But please, Mr. Burton…no oompaloompas.