She-Demons (1958) She-Demons (1958) -***

     I keep forgetting that Richard Cunha existed, and I really should stop doing that. Cunha made only a few movies, but so far as Iíve seen, theyíre all doozies. He was the director behind the lousy but inventive Giant from the Unknown, the deliriously silly Frankensteinís Daughter, and the deliciously pointless and unnecessary Missile to the Moon. Anyone with that resumť ought to stick in oneís memory. Cunha made She-Demons, too, as part of the same mad flurry of work that produced the three aforementioned films (all four were released in the same year!), and itís the most extraordinary thing of his that Iíve seen yet.

     Hurricane Emily just finished kicking the crap out of Surf City (probably the one among North Carolinaís barrier islands, as opposed to either of the Southern California municipalities which claimed that moniker unofficially in the late 50ís). It may have struck the town a blow before even coming ashore, however, for a yacht belonging to one of Surf Cityís foremost residents was out in the path of the storm, and hasnít been heard from since Emily blew through. Industrialist Hamilton Turner was not onboard the craft himself, but his daughter, Jerrie (Hands of a Strangerís Irish McCalla), was. With her on the lost vessel were its skipper, Kris Kamana (Charles Opunui), radio operator Sammy Ching (Victor Sen Yung, from Confessions of an Opium Eater), and scientist Fred Maklin (Tod Griffin, of She-Devil). The whole expedition was Maklinís idea. He wanted to investigate reports of an island inhabited by ďbeast-people,Ē and convinced Turner to lend him his yacht for the purpose. Iím not clear, though, on why Jerrie came along. On the one hand, spoiled rich bitches are not conspicuously useful in an anthropological context, and on the other, hunting up an island of freaks is clearly not Jerrieís idea of a dream vacation. Maybe Turner just thought Maklin needed a babysitter.

     The reason why Iím able to say anything at all about what Jerrie doesnít want in a vacation is because she and all three of her shipmates escaped the wreck of the yacht, and washed ashore on a pleasant-looking subtropical isle. The castaways were able to grab food, water, clothing, and even the radio before the yacht went down, so their short-term survival seems more or less assured. The prospects for their long-term survival, of course, are roughly equivalent to their prospects for rescue, and thereís bad news on that front. For one thing, the radioís transmitter got knocked out somewhere between its compartment aboard the boat and the castawaysí campsite on the beach. And for another, what Sammy is able to tune in on the receiver suggests that he and his fellows are all presumed dead back homeó which suggests in turn that nobody will be looking for them very hard. That being so, it looks at first like a reprieve when a quartet of navy fighters fly over the island. The reality is revealed as the exact opposite, however, once Sammy tunes in the chatter between the pilots and their carrier. The fighters are scouts for a bombing exercise, and given that this is 1958, any such maneuver is like as not to be nuclear. If so, the castawaysí time is short indeed.

     A strange upside to being stranded here of all places comes to light soon thereafter. Kris finds a ring of human footprints in the sand above the high tide line. That means thereís somebody else on the isle after all, and when Maklin spots what look like claw-marks accompanying each of the tracks, he realizes that this might well be the home of his supposed beast-people. Confirmation follows the next evening, albeit not confirmation of a sort that Fred or his companions would have asked for if given the choice. Maklin, Jerrie, and Sammy spend the second day exploring the islandís forested interior, and they return to find their campsite trashed and Kris dead of multiple spear wounds. The pilot must have taken one of his attackers with him, however, because lying in the surf nearby is the corpse of a grotesquely disfigured woman. One beast-person coming right upó eh, Fred?

     The next time Fred, Jerrie, and Sammy trek out into the jungle, the women they encounter are better-looking. Thereís a clearing in the woods where a dozen or so girls in Tarzan-movie attire gyrate somewhat listlessly to the beat of standard-issue B-movie voodoo drums. None of these dancers have clawed toes or monster faces, but their routine looks as if it would leave tracks like those the castaways saw on the beach the day before. Something even weirder comes to light a short while later. Near the center of the island is the volcanic cone which presumably created it, with an edifice of some kind built directly into the foot of the mountain. Surrounding that is a compound of bamboo cages and pens, and the men patrolling the latter are dressed in the uniform of Hitlerís SS! Amazingly, Maklin and the others (who oddly seem surprised to see Nazis here, but not surprised to see Nazis, if you grasp the distinction) decide to sneak inside and investigate. In the cages are two different groups of women, one seemingly normal, and the other savage and monster-faced. And within the volcano lair itself is a laboratory in which heaven knows what must go on during business hours. Itís while theyíre snooping around in the lab that the castaways are discovered by a hulking Nazi called Igor (Gene Roth, from The Lost Planet and The Giant Leeches), who attempts to detain them. Fred is surprisingly good in a fight, and handles himself pretty well so long as Igor is his only opponent. Inevitably, though, the struggle draws more Nazis, and all three interlopers are captured.

     Luckily for all concerned, the boss-man around here is chattier than a Bond villain, so explanation after explanation after explanation is soon forthcoming. The man in charge is Colonel Karl Osler (Rudolph Anders, of Frankenstein 1970 and Phantom from Space), a notorious war criminal, and heís got a bunch of irons in the fire here on this island. Osler got his start in medical research. After all, itís one thing to breed the perfect Aryan ‹bermensch, but he wonít stay perfect for long if heís getting shot up all the time conquering Lebensraum in the East. The coloneló also a doctoró was assigned to develop tissue-regeneration techniques to keep the Fatherland free of unsightly walking wounded. At first, Osler experimented with atomic batteries to power his experiments, but he soon discovered that geothermal energy was more reliable. That led him to set up shop under this volcano, where heíd have ready access to all the magma heat he could possibly need. The island was equally convenient with respect to experimental subjects, for nearby was another isle inhabited by primitives whom no one in the civilized world would miss whenever Osler needed new human guinea pigs. Then finally, Oslerís work took on a personal dimension when his wife, Mona (Leni Tana), got her face burned off in a magma-handling accident. His efforts to cure her by means of gene transplants (no reallyó gene transplants) from the aforementioned abducted native girls havenít done anything for Mona so far, but they have turned plenty of unwilling donors into monsters. (Osler has an explanation for that too, naturally, but it makes so little sense that I donít trust myself to try summarizing it.) Jerrie, as Iím sure youíve surmised, makes an awfully tempting target for experimentation herself, but she also makes an equally tempting target for trading up. No one but Osler is going to like either idea, of courseó and that includes Mona in the case of the latter scheme.

     What do you thinkódoes She-Demons have enough premises, or should Cunha and co-writer H.E. Barrie have added two or three more? Itís a Savage Island movie and an Amazon movie and a Nazi atrocity movie and a monster-making mad science movie. And as if that werenít enough, it looks from a distance like an Eyes Without a Face rip-off, too, what with Monaís bandage-swaddled face, Oslerís derailment of his official mission for the sake of fixing her, and the disfigured womanís own prominent role in her husbandís eventual undoing. The revelation of Monaís true appearance even resembles the analogous scene in Eyes Without a Face, in that it manages both to play fair and to avoid exposing the disfigurement makeup to closer scrutiny than it can withstand. But She-Demons, hard as this is to believe, did all that stuff first. Itís enough to make me wonder what this filmís release history looked like in Continental Europe.

     Tonally, of course, She-Demons is less Eyes Without a Face than The Brain that Wouldnít Die. Just making the villains Nazis is enough to beslime this movie beyond the tolerances of the typical late-50ís exploitation flick, even before factoring in two prolonged torture scenes and an explicitly sexual motivation for Colonel Oslerís interest in Jerrie. The native girlsí ritual dance is pure, gratuitous titillation, comparable to any of Dr. Cortnerís body-shopping expeditions in The Brain that Wouldnít Dieó or perhaps better yet, comparable to the rescue celebration that fills most of the third act in The Horrors of Spider Island. And Igorís fate serves up nastiness and titillation in equal measure, as he is set upon and implicitly torn to pieces by a pack of bikini-clad monster women.

     What stops She-Demons from matching the impressions made by any of the films to which Iíve just compared it is the repetitive shapelessness of its storyline, combined with its twin addictions to leaden banter and even more leaden exposition. Thereís no character you wonít want to gag with a gym sock before the film is half-over. Fred and Jerrie spend the whole first act sniping snidely at each other, while Sammy proves himself an inexhaustible fount of witless witticisms. Then in the second, Oslerís incessant yapping becomes a torture harder to bear by far than Igorís bullwhip. The colonel does at least get to expound the movieís most extravagant pseudo-scientific nonsense, however, together with this thudding justification for his war crimes record: ďI was merely fulfilling my responsibilities as a soldier of the Reich, developing a Master Race.Ē Itís the endless cycling of escape and recapture that hurts She-Demons the most, though, especially since the escapes and recaptures all seem so easy. On the one hand, Oslerís security is leakier than a sieve, but on the other, our heroes couldnít long evade Roscoe P. Coltraine. Not even the ticking clock supposedly embodied by that navy bombing exercise suffices to impose any urgency on the proceedings. And when the fighter planes do finally show up, they function as a uniquely half-assed deus ex machina, disrupting the final confrontation between the castaways and their captors without fully resolving it. In short, She-Demons falls just a little short of the mark suggested by all its crazed creativity.

 

 

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