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.”

Food Horror Movies

My ridiculous obsession with the Food Network and its competition shows (“Chopped,” “Worst Cooks in America,” et al) has made me reflect on all the food-based horror films that have been made, and which ones were the most toothsome.

Surely the granddaddy of them all is Herschell Gordon Lewis and David Friedman’s 1963 Blood Feast, which is more deservedly famous for being the first splatter film. It made tons of money and played the drive-in circuit for years.

The plot is simple. Egyptian caterer Fuad Ramses (the hilariously strange Mal Arnold) offers to cater a young girl’s engagement party with the intention of bringing an ancient goddess back to life.

To achieve his goal, he runs around town collecting body parts from young women to “rebuild” his goddess. Legs are cut off, eyes are gouged, tongues are pulled out by the root. All the effects are crude, but the mere fact that someone had the audacity to let the blood flow to such an extent in 1963 was an accomplishment in itself. And the Coral Gables-based cosmetic company that formulated the fake blood was called Barfred Cosmetics (an amalgamation of the husband and wife owners’ first names) and would ever after be known as the manufacturers of barf-red blood.

Lewis and Friedman had already run through the dying days of the “nudie cuties” (nudist colony films in which womens’ breasts and buttocks could legally be shown) and they realized they needed to take it to the next level. They thought, “How about dismembered bodies with gushers of blood?” and the drive-in crowd went absolutely wild. The film played for years and years and made a bundle.

Blood Feast, and others in the Lewis/Friedman pantheon, greatly influenced cult filmmaker John Waters. In his book Shock Value he wrote: “I discovered [Lewis’] films at my local drive-in, and when I saw teenage couples hopping from their cars to vomit, I knew I had found a director after my own heart…” Now there’s not actually any consumption of questionable food or cannibalism in this movie, but its importance in the genre must be acknowledged. Waters himself opened his Desperate Living (1977) with a nauseating sequence showing a woman demurely cutting up a cooked rat and consuming it in small bites (offscreen, thank God).

Now let’s munch on…

Another epoch-maker and much more fitting in the queasy realm of disturbing barbecue and cannibalism is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Tobe Hooper’s micro-budget drive-in classic. There’s a lot of implied, nausea-inducing food preparation (courtesy of the mute, scary Leatherface), but the film has the reputation of being a nonstop bloody gorefest. That’s simply not true.

What gives TCSM its power is what is suggested—viewers get just enough visceral information to upset them, and then their imaginations do the rest. That and the nauseating art direction inside the crazy family’s house (bones and feathers everywhere, chickens in cages), trigger the gag reflex much more effectively than acres of fake blood ever could. Besides, the smell of the real meat and offal on the set made the actors sicker still!

To me, the most upsetting scene occurs when the hitchhiking son (Edwin Neal) describes to the young travelers who’ve picked him up how he enjoyed working at the local slaughterhouse and using an airgun to kill the beef. His monologue is accompanied by close-ups of bovine victims rolling their eyes in terror. By the time he pulls out his knife to slice open his own palm, Hooper has achieved his goal—the audience is nauseated and on edge, and will remain so for the rest of the film.

I have a super 8mm sound print of this feature that I’m pretty sure is a pirated knock-off of a well-used drive-in print, and for my money it’s the best way to see the film. The colors are garish, almost melting off the screen, and it actually increases the anxiety level to watch it this way. It evokes those scary 1970s emotions when things were out of control—like watching authentic home movies made by insane cannibals!

Now here’s a picture that is not all about food, but it contains one singularly memorable foodie scene…Douglas Hickox‘s exquisite Theatre of Blood (1973), starring the great Vincent Price, firing on all four campy cylinders.

He plays Edward Lionheart, a hambone stage actor who fakes his own death in order to “come back” and exact his revenge on all the snobby theatrical critics who’ve ridiculed him throughout his career and denied him a Lifetime Achievement Award.

One by one, he knocks the critics off in Abominable Dr. Phibes style. Ironically, real critics of the era turned up their noses at this film because they considered it a blatant ripoff of his earlier hit. Time has been kind to Theatre of Blood, though, and it’s now possible to enjoy it on its own merits. Rated R, it’s much sicker than the PG-rated Phibes.

Anyway, the food scene. One of Lionheart’s targets is the effeminate Meredith Merridew (Robert Morley from The African Queen) who thinks he’s guesting on a TV cooking show and ends up being force-fed delicious chunks of his twin toy poodles a la “Titus Andronicus.” The close-up shots of the creamy pieces of meat being pushed down his gullet are…well…sickening.

It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters! Kevin Connor’s 1980 Motel Hell came so far out of left field that it took a decade or so for people to say, “Oh, yeah! It’s supposed to be funny!”

It didn’t take me that long. A knowing, insane parody of movies like Texas Chainsaw, it features erstwhile Western movie star Rory Calhoun as Farmer Vincent and Nancy Parsons (who looks like she’d be right at home in a Warhol or Waters film) as his wife.

Together, they waylay unsuspecting travelers and bury them up to their necks in their garden (slitting their vocal cords to render them mute) and keep them underground until their flesh is nice and tender…and ready to serve. I don’t know if it started the “funny cannibalism” genre, but it certainly helped it along. It’s interesting to note that at this same time the cannibal vomitorium films were making their mark in Italy…and on 42nd Street.

Human flesh consumption hit the arthouse most memorably in Peter Greenaway’s 1989 The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. I’d seen Greenaway’s earlier Draughtsman’s Contract, but I wasn’t prepared for this challenging, super-theatrical film that alternates sumptuous, color-coded restaurant tableaux with scenes of the lovers screwing amongst rotten meat. And when the gangster husband kills the wife’s (Helen Mirren) lover, she has the body cooked and forces him to eat it.

Later, Greenaway would turn Ewan McGregor into a book made of skin in the equally challenging The Pillow Book (1996).

In 1999, director Antonia Bird made Ravenous with Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), which I thought would be a pretty grueling film about an isolated group of soldiers resorting to cannibalism. Alas, although they do refer to it after a time, it’s much more of a talkfest. It had one of those dishonest marketing campaigns that made it look like a horror film instead of an art film, which is what it was.

And in 2002, Lewis finally released Blood Feast II: All U Can Eat direct to DVD, which I haven’t seen. Waters is on board as a pedophile priest (of course!). I’m kind of scared to watch it, because I don’t want to be disappointed by another old timer who’s trying too hard to make a “camp” classic, which can only happen organically, of course. You can’t push it.

Now let’s close the circle. Food Network’s own Iron Chef Mario Batali has a role in Bitter Feast, a straight-to-DVD film that Salon’s Bob Calhoun gives props to. I haven’t seen it yet either, but I really intend to take a bite of this crudite.

James LeGros (of Drugstore Cowboy and tons of other independent films) stars as Peter Gray, a TV chef who is pissed off at snippy food blogger JT Franks (Blair Witch Project’s Joshua Leonard) who is ruining his career. Gray kidnaps Franks and holds him hostage in his remote home in the woods, presenting him with an escalating series of cooking challenges in order to stay alive. Chopped, anyone?

The contents of your mystery basket are: human brains, gullets and popcorn! You have 30 minutes to make your appetizer!

Playing By Their Own Rules


The world of film is full of fascinating eccentrics. They choose offbeat material, project distinctive screen personalities, and are a hell of a lot of fun to watch. Here are some of my choices:

New York actress Sylvia Miles started her career in episodic television, but her brief, Oscar-nominated turn as the pampered Park Avenue wife who sleeps with wannabe hustler Jon Voight—and then takes money from him!—in John Schlesinger’s 1969 Academy Award-winner Midnight Cowboy started her on a career trajectory during which she has moved from mainstream to offbeat with ease.

Her roles in Cowboy and Dennis Hopper’s troubled The Last Movie (1971) surely must have brought her to the attention of Andy Warhol’s Factory, and she played the faded actress opposite Joe Dallesandro’s gigolo in Paul Morrissey’s Sunset Boulevard pastiche, Heat (1972). She was memorable in the bizarre and somewhat repugnant The Sentinel (1977), playing half of a Sapphic couple with a young Beverly D’Angelo. She was also fun as Madame Zena, the sleazy fortune teller in Tobe Hopper’s 1982 The Funhouse, who manually…ahem…relieves and then is murdered by the deformed killer who lives under an amusement park. On the other hand, she was in the Robert Mitchum classic Farewell, My Lovely and the Agatha Christie all-starrer Evil Under the Sun. Hell, she’s even done soap operas and an Afterschool special!
With her hard features and Noo Yawk rasp, Miles makes for quite an imposing figure, yet she is also capable of projecting a kind of motherly warmth. And can you imagine her as Sally Rogers in “The Dick Van Dyke Show”? She was in the pilot! Her latest film appearance is in this year’s sequel to Wall Street, reprising the role she’d played in the original.
And I love her line in Cowboy when Voight hits her up for money after they have sex:
“I could kill ya wid my beah hands!”

Here’s a clip from Heat with another bizarre character from the Factory, Pat Ast:

Born in England but educated in Toronto, Jackie Burroughs turned premature aging into an asset, building a career out of playing eccentric old ladies even when she was in her thirties. One early credit is “old lady at pool” in 1975’s My Pleasure Is My Business (starring “Happy Hooker” Xaviera Hollander)—and she was only 36! She played Christopher Walken’s mother in David Cronenberg’s underrated adaptation of Steven King’s The Dead Zone and had a long run in the Canadian seriesRoad to Avonlea.”

I love her performance as whorehouse owner Mother Mucca in Showtime’s “More Tales of the City” and “Further Tales of the City,” in which she is reunited with her long-lost son who is now her daughter (Olympia Dukakis). Her mannerisms and expressions are hilarious. Sure, she’s hamming it up, but it’s Grade-A ham.
In Don McKellar’s Last Night (1998), whose characters collide while awaiting the end of the world, she has no dialogue but plays a jogger determinedly running down the abandoned streets of Toronto. She was also paired memorably with Crispin Glover in the remake of Willard (2002). Both are extremely eccentric performers, and the scenes of Willard ministering to his repulsive mother are suitably shuddery. The shots of her thick yellow toenails are…ewww.

Burroughs was married to Zalman Yanovsky, co-founder of the sixties group The Lovin’ Spoonful! And her strangest credit? She was in three episodes of “The All New Ewoks” in 1985!

Best known for her work with John Waters, Mink Stole has done films for other directors, but it’s three of the Waters films that make her a beloved resident of Weird Movie Village.

Of course, her Connie Marble in 1972’s Pink Flamingos is a study in over-the-top efficiency and rigidity, even when she’s calling her butler a queen or telling a job applicant to eat shit. The “shrimping” scene with David Lochary is hilarious, but too often the film is cold and mean-spirited, something Waters doesn’t do too well. He was out to shock with this piece, though, so I guess it’s a success.

Far better is my favorite Waters film, Female Trouble (1974) in which Stole plays Taffy, the incredibly bratty daughter of Divine’s criminal Dawn Davenport. The result of a Christmas morning rape, it seems that Taffy was put on this earth to torture her mother endlessly. She likes to play “car wreck” in the living room by twisting a detached steering wheel, making collision sounds and dousing herself with ketchup.

At one point, exasperated Dawn tells her girlfriends, “I’ve done everything a mother can do—I’ve locked her in her room, I’ve beat her with the car aerial. Nothing changes her. It’s hard being a loving mother. Taffy goes in search of her birth father (played by Divine’s alter ego, Harris Glenn Milstead!) and she kills him when he attempts to rape her, too.

Taffy seemingly finds inner peace by joining the Hare Krishnas, but it only serves to drive Dawn completely over the edge and she is murdered, too. Keep in mind that this is a comedy, though—and a hilarious one, too!

Stole got her first starring role in Waters’ next film, Desperate Living (1977), playing the kind of role she specialized in: high-strung, officious and arrogant. She plays a rich housewife, Peggy Gravel, who must flee with her enormous maid Grizelda (Jean Hill) after they inadvertently kill her husband. They end up in the town of Mortville, which is full of sexual deviates and ruled by evil Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey). Peggy is horrified by all the sleaze, but soon finds herself in bed with Grizelda in a sex scene you will never forget.

Peggy’s evil side emerges, and she becomes Queen Carlotta’s malevolent sidekick, planning to infect the entire citizenry with rabies as a way of quelling an upcoming revolution. My favorite scene occurs when Peggy realizes in horror that she’s in a dyke barand rushes to the safety of the ladies’ room, only to see a pair of enormous breasts pop through twin glory holes cut into the stall.

Stole’s last great and sizable role for Waters (so far) is Dottie Hinkle, the high-strung neighbor of Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) in Serial Mom (1994). Turner is a scream in the starring role, making you wish she’d do more offbeat material like this. She’s a seemingly normal, happy housewife who takes affront to her neighbors’ violations of social rules which escalates into murder. She enjoys making obscene phone calls to Dottie in the afternoon when the husband and kids are away, and after a particularly obscene (and hilarious) rant which climaxes in Dottie screaming “Fuck YOU!” and slamming down the receiver, Beverly calls back and pretends to be a phone company representative. Relieved, Dottie says, “I’m a divorced woman. Please help me!” Later, when they’re visiting at a neighbor’s house, Beverly leans over to Dottie and growls “pussy-willow,” making her realize who the caller‘s been all along.

When Dottie must take the stand during Beverly’s murder trial, Beverly twists her words until Dottie can’t stand it anymore and loses it in front of the entire courtroom. I have to say that although I enjoy Pecker and Cecil B. Demented, Serial Mom is Waters’ last great film. But I know he’s not done yet!