Part of a perfect 1956 matinee double bill, Alex Gordon’s supernatural thriller features an iconic monster, a piece of real horror art from monster-maker Paul Blaisdell. The production can best be described as ‘pedestrian’ but there’s no denying that the movie is an odd nostalgic favorite — a great poster helps. The cast mixes veterans (Chester Morris, Tom Conway, Frieda Inescort, Frank Jenks, El Brendel) with new blood (Lance Fuller, Ron Randell, Paul Dubov, William Hudson) — but the real reason to watch is starlet Marla English. This one should have been a classic.
1956 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 77 min. / Street Date June 28, 2022
Starring: Chester Morris, Marla English, Tom Conway, Cathy Downs, Lance Fuller, Ron Randell, Frieda Inescort, Frank Jenks, El Brendel, Paul Dubov, William Hudson, Paul Blaisdell.
Cinematography: Frederick E. West
Production Designer: Art Director: Don Ament
Creature costume: Paul Blaisdell
Film Editor: Ronald Sinclair
Original Music: Ronald Stein
Written by Lou Rusoff
Produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff, Alex Gordon
Directed by Edward L. Cahn
Nicholson and Arkoff at American-International wasted no time searching for new production sources for their sci-fi / horror double bills. Roger Corman was prolific but even he could direct only one movie at a time, and his upcoming It Conquered the World needed a co-feature. Sam Arkoff’s brother-in-law Lou Rusoff had scripted It Conquered, along with A.I.P.s previous sci-fi offerings The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues and The Day the World Ended. It Conquered’s producer Alex Gordon took hold of the new show, and the lightning-fast journeyman director Edward L. Cahn, just from Columbia’s Creature with the Atom Brain signed on as well.
Propelled by a dynamite poster, The She-Creature is a prime example of a ’50s monster movie. This one can boast a terrific, fairly original concept that’s never allowed to achieve its full potential. The idea comes straight from the culture buzz surrounding the contemporary Bridey Murphy controversy. A carnival mountebank keeps a beautiful young woman under his hypnotic control, combining the Bridey Murphy reincarnation-regression hokum with visual opportunities from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Svengali. The script might remind people of MGM’s Forbidden Planet as well: the primordial monster in this show is basically an “Id Demon” set loose from a female soul. “Hell hath no fury,” the saying goes.
What exploitation producer was above lifting an idea from a bigger production? A.I.P.’s It Conquered the World has a lot in common with the Heinlein book The Puppet Masters, too. Then again, any similarities could just be simple coincidence.
A fantastic tale of a spirit monster from a different dimension, The She-Creature called out for a delicate fantasy touch — sensitive direction and evocative cinematography. It ends up short on poetry and magic . . . with a monster that’s ferocious but not at all mysterious.
Sideshow mentalist Dr. Carlo Lombardi (Chester Morris) performs in a cheap ocean pier carnival, putting his performing subject / hypnotic slave Andrea Talbott (dreamy Marla English) into trances. Lombardi makes her reach back into earlier lives, such as a woman in Stuart-era England. Lombardi is also the power-mad kind of mountebank, who likes having a killer monster at his beck and call. He commands Andrea to transfer her soul to a scaly ocean creature, her ‘primordial female spirit’ from the dawn of time. This ghostly She-Creature rises from the surf and materializes in solid form; Lombardi directs it by giving Andrea commands while she’s under his hypnotic control. People that Lombardi doesn’t like are violently killed, like carnival employee Johnny (Paul Dubov), who pays too much attention to Andrea. Level-headed detective Ed James (Ron Randell) ‘knows’ Lombardi is responsible but can do little without proof.
The opportunistic businessman Timothy Chappel (Tom Conway) meets Lombardi at a Malibu house party thrown by his wealthy wife (Frieda Inescort), a devotee of occult gurus. The two ambitious men enter a partnership to promote the hypnotist, sell his books, etc.. Timothy is delighted when his daughter Dorothy (Cathy Downs) brings her new boyfriend Dr. Ted Erickson (Lance Fuller of The Bride and the Beast) to the party — Ted’s a scientist dedicated to debunking charlatan spiritualists, and will drum up newsworthy controversy. Ted falls in love with Andrea at first sight, and is impressed by Lombardi’s performance. The budding romance makes Ted into Lombardi’s number one grudge target — the hypnotist is murderously possessive of Andrea.
The magical The She-Creature concept almost survives an unfortunately tacky production — the rushed schedule left no time for the grace notes the material needs. Producer Gordon compensates with a lively cast. He liked working with old-time actors, and signed Edward Arnold to play Chappel. But the actor passed away before shooting began. Gordon reportedly approached John Carradine and Peter Lorre to play Lombardi before settling for the old matinee idol Chester Morris as an okay substitute. Morris had gained fame in early talkie thrillers by Roland West, as a rugged romantic lead with a handsome collegiate profile. His Professor Lombardi has the stern attitude and commanding voice, but also looks ready for an old folks home. Morris wears a seriously obvious toupee, something we can’t help but notice.
Swede comedian El Brendel (Just Imagine, The Big Trail) is the Chappels’ butler, playing in a ‘yumpin’ yiminy’ style that provides truly limp comic relief. Frieda Inescort was a veteran of the ’40s films that Gordon loved. It appears that several of the party extras are old-time actors as well. Creighton Hale (The Cat and the Canary) is said to be among them.
Tom Conway wasn’t in the best of health; by this time his career had tapered down to whatever work he could get. We like to think that his Timothy Chappel is really good old Dr. Judd working in a new line of opportunism. Cathy Downs began with some choice roles at Fox (My Darling Clementine) and must have taken some of her late ‘monster’ work just for fun. The younger male leads Lance Fuller, Ron Randell and William Hudson were not getting great opportunities either. Lance Fuller is a sober leading man; his naturally high forehead tells us why he was hired to play Brack in This Island Earth). All ended up associated with down-market monster fare: a 50-foot wife for Hudson and a body of steel for Randell.
← Marla English is another story altogether. Unfairly dubbed the ‘Poor Man’s Elizabeth Taylor,’ English’s own identity was soon lost among Hollywood’s 1001 shapely starlets, and her film career lasted only four years. She’s only called upon to be sad and beautiful here, but that’s more than enough. The cinematography gives Ms. English only a little special attention, when she needs to be bathed in glamour lighting and filmed from more attractive angles. Director Cahn must have been in a huge rush — in some shots her hair could use more attention. As the somnambulent Andrea, Ms. English spends plenty of time lying on her back with her eyes closed. Neither the direction nor the lighting do much with the ‘sleeping beauty’ opportunity.
The gray plain-wrap look extends to the entire movie. The visuals offer little atmosphere for the Chappels’ beach house, the fun-fair on the pier, or the moonlit beach. Shot mostly day-for night, the unattractive beach scenes don’t allow us to see actors’ faces clearly. One ‘night’ scene also uses a fog filter, making things even hazier. As a production The She-Creature reminds us less of Roger Corman and more of the Milner Brothers’ The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues.
A little more magic is imparted to the monster scenes. For a while the monster is little more than a double-exposed mist, and when director Cahn takes it out of the shadows we can see it far too clearly — it looks pretty much exactly like what it is, an ornate and somewhat cumbersome man in a monster suit. The action is good for the few moments of violence, as when the She-Creature wrecks Johnny’s room on the pier. But the monster does altogether too much ‘ambling about’ in full view, like a butler waiting for instructions.
Paul Blaisdell’s fanciful homemade monster creation reminds us a bit of California custom car art — not a lot of subtlety but a ripe imagination. It’s a strange collection of craggy scales and ivory claws that look like tusks. Its face is a typical Paul Blaisdell build-up concept that makes a strong graphic impression. “She” has breasts, curly plastic hair, a tail, and a row of teeth on its stomach that the camera avoids showing. The Paul Blaisdell biography reported that those teeth were made to function, to bite! Bob Burns (I think) said that the chomping teeth gag wasn’t used because it wasn’t called for in the script, and director Cahn didn’t want to slow down the shooting even for an extra cutaway. When still half-obscured Blaisdell’s monster is an impressive presence, and when it roars like a lion it loses even more of its spectral quality.
All in all the Creature appears in maybe twenty angles, only three or four of which are 100% successful. An early long shot of it climbing the stairs of a Venice Beach Pier is worthy of Jean Cocteau — for the first half of the take the monster is just a glowing shape. A choker close-up of its eyes is a winner as well. By the time the monster is showing its bedside manner kneeling by the sleeping Andrea, the interest has waned. The monster’s function is a bit blurred: is it thinking, ‘Someday I’ll be as pretty as you?’ Another ‘spirit mist’ rises from Andrea when the monster is present, in the flesh. Again the concept isn’t clear . . . does Andrea have a second, extra soul to ‘astrally project’ beyond her body?
More successful are the scenes in which the obsessed Lombardi manipulates Andrea hypnotically. Lombardi gets a dark, intense look on his face, gestures like Mandrake the Magician, and ‘things happen.’ Since Lombardi isn’t a fake, but indeed has science-shattering occult powers, it seems a shame for him to waste his talent fleecing the rubes and seducing women. The man’s control of the dog Spike is phenomenal in itself (helped greatly by an excellent trained dog).
As with Dr. Morbius’ monster from the Id in Forbidden Planet, we understand immediately why the Creature refuses to kill Ted Erickson as commanded. It’s still Andrea, and she’s against the idea. Did kiddie audiences respond enthusiastically when Andrea breaks free from her bondage and takes control of her prehistoric alter-ego? The arrangement would have promising feminist possibilities if Andrea weren’t just making up her mind about who she wants for a beau. She basically trades an obsessed brilliant man for a dull researcher. Ted can’t really know her. He’s never talked to her when she wasn’t in a doped-up hypnotic state.
Admit it Glenn: it’s a nostalgic favorite, and you’ve always liked it.
The She-Creature remains an imaginative idea looking for a better production. They could only afford one negligee-like performance gown for the gorgeous Ms. English! We can’t help but wonder what might have been if the director was an artist like René Clair or Jacques Tourneur, and with someone like John Alton behind the camera. It’s likely that everyone from the actors to the director worked at a bargain rate. Just the same, the movie was solid double-bill monster accompaniment for the Roger Corman/Paul Blaisdell It Conquered the World. Corman’s show has the quality edge, but both movies deliver the scares and then some. And She-Creature is certainly preferable to most of A.I.P.’s later teen-oriented monster thrillers — this at least seems like a serious fantasy film made for adults.
The Blu-ray of The She-Creature is a big improvement over what we’ve seen before on disc — it’s a clean remaster that likely recreates what original prints looked like in ’56, when kids in line for matinees might have heard Elvis Presley singing on passing car radios. The greyish image often lacks strong contrast — besides the drab day-for-night material, many interiors are lit with a generic fill light. Combine that with too many shots framing characters against nondescript curtains, and the film fails to generate much visual excitement.
This title is from the Arkoff side of the Arkoff-Nicholson rights split of the A.I.P. library. All of those films need major restoration work. We never picked up a pricey UK DVD box that carried maybe eight Arkoff-owned titles — all were old flat telecine masters running at PAL 25 frames per second. The commercial opportunity for their full revival may have passed — a twelve-year-old who saw She-Creature new at the Bijou would today be (ulp) 78.
I’m pleased with this disc because it’s framed in a proper widescreen aspect ratio, which lends it a lot more visual appeal. Shots no longer look impossibly loose. We now notice more of director Cahn’s budget shortcuts. A number of party discussions take place on the Chappels’ patio. It presumably overlooks the Pacific but we never get that impression. Cahn has a dolly setup that trucks from point A to point B, a run of maybe fifteen feet past a bush. He uses that same move a minimum five times, at least three of them in a row, as people keep strolling over to talk to Ted and Dorothy.
The extras for this title are just a radio spot and a photo gallery. The Mystery Science Theater 3000 presentation of The She-Creature gives us roll call robots cracking wise after every line of dialogue, and the three-minute section I watched did have one funny remark. The flat & washed-out feature image serves as a good reminder of what we once could see of this old favorite. I tried to blow up and crop that old Lionsgate transfer but it still didn’t look like a properly-framed movie.
A nice touch is a decent representation of the film’s poster, the one with the glamorous artwork we always liked.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Video: Good +
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Mystery Science Theater 3000 presentation, poster gallery, radio spots, film poster.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case (poster in separate envelope)
Reviewed: July 6, 2022
Text © Copyright 2022 Glenn Erickson