May 16, 2020

When Genre Worlds Collide: Crooks vs. Creatures, Part Two

Poster - The Astounding She-Monster (1957)
Now Playing: The Astounding She-Monster (1957)

Pros: The whole crazy concept of the She-Monster (if you’re a fan of bad movies); there’s some fun banter between the kidnappers.
Cons: The whole crazy concept (if you’re not a fan); the action scenes are repetitive and dull.

Remote places in the countryside have been such a staple of horror movies over the years that urban settings seem almost as rare and out-of-place as RuPaul at an Amish barn-raising. More specifically, the venerable Cabin in the Woods has appeared so often that it inevitably became both the setting and the star of its own meta-horror film that hilariously lampooned several decades worth of the subgenre.

While ostensibly representing rugged self-sufficiency and a sanctuary from the rat race, the remote cabin is the perfect place for the movie monster to ply his or her trade. Potential victims are cut-off from easy communication with or access to the outside world, including police and medical care. And once the monster gets them trapped inside, the cramped quarters combined with high anxiety can get the victims fighting among themselves and make them even easier to pick off.

In The Astounding She-Monster, the titular creature has her victims nicely trapped in a remote mountain cabin, but this being a late-50s B movie, instead of being a psycho or an in-bred mutant hillbilly, she is a sci-fi menace from outer space. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on your affinity for bad movies), the She-Monster is an astoundingly odd duck.

The creature (portrayed by Shirley Kilpatrick) is like an antimatter version of Vampira with thick, pointed eyebrows that make a dramatic V on her face, but instead of a black Gothic outfit, she wears a shimmery bodysuit that hugs her like a second skin. She’s almost as slow as Universal’s mummy, carefully putting one foot in front of the other as if she’s making her way through broken glass. She’s also mute like the mummy, and has about as much personality.

Composite stills - Maila Nurmi as Vampire and Shirley Kilpatrick as the She-Monster
Separated at birth, one chose the path of darkness, the other, the path of spandex bodysuits.

To add to the strangeness, the movie employs a double-exposure process in the She-Monster’s scenes to simulate a sort of radioactive glow, but the wavering, undulating effect reminds me more of trying to look at someone through the haze of an all-night drinking binge (not that I know about such things first hand, but I’ve heard stories).

Lastly, her touch means instant death, but owing to the production’s cheapness and its amateurish direction, this “feature” isn’t nearly as dramatic or suspenseful as it could be. Several characters (and unfortunately two animals) get the She-Monster’s fatal touch, but their deaths have all the impact of a joy-buzzer handshake: the touch, a short, muffled scream, and bam, they’re done.

The She-Monster rambles around in a plot made super-simple by the exigencies of producer-director Ronald V. Ashcroft’s super-low budget and super-fast shooting schedule. A trio of kidnappers led by gruff, hard-boiled Nat (Kenne Duncan) nab wealthy socialite Margaret Chaffee (Marilyn Harvey) in broad daylight. On their way to a hideout in the San Gabriel mountains, the driver Brad (Ewing Brown) swerves to avoid a bizarre, shimmering figure in the road and wrecks the car.

In the meantime, lonesome geologist Dick Cutler (Robert Clarke) is talking to his dog Egan (played by Egan, Clarke’s stepsons’ dog) about the apparent meteor he saw crashing nearby, and what an opportunity it would be to find pieces of it. He gets a nasty surprise when Nat barges into the mountain cabin, demanding the keys to Dick’s decrepit jeep to make their getaway.

Unfortunately for the crooks, night has fallen, and the jeep’s headlights are broken. Dick warns Nat that the road back to the highway is treacherous, and they’ll never make it without lights. Of course, we know that the meteor was no meteor, the weird lady on the road was no lady, and before the night is over, they’re going to get an unwanted visitor, and it won’t be Avon calling.

Still - Close-up of Shirley Kilpatrick as The She-Monster (1957)
"Hello, are you the lady of the house? I'm wondering, have you had a
chance to sample our fine line of beauty products?"

Actually, the kidnappers barging into Dick’s humble abode is the liveliest part of the movie (that’s not saying a lot), with the crooks barking sarcastic zingers at one another and at the hapless geologist. Nat is especially fond of hard-boiled one-liners. When he first pushes his way in and Dick demands to know what he wants, Nat sneers contemptuously, “Well pardon me, I’ll write you for an invitation next time.” Moments later, when he learns that the jeep’s lights don’t work, he tells Dick, “Don’t worry my partner will fix ‘em, he did post-graduate work at San Quentin.”

Nat’s alcoholic girlfriend Esther (Jeanne Tatum) is also along for the ride, and together with her caustic boyfriend and nervous Brad, they bicker and jab at each other like they're auditioning for a boozy, noir version of I Love Lucy. Later, when the She-Monster shows up outside the cabin and Brad and Nat leave one after the other to investigate, Esther gets her turn in the spotlight.

Esther, alone in the cabin and with a gun trained on the captives, drains the last bottle of booze and then asks Dick if there’s any more. Realizing they have a slim opportunity, Dick and Margaret start playing mind games with the soused moll. First Dick offers to fetch a bottle from the bedroom, then Margaret, then the two suggest that Esther get it herself. When the phone rings, Dick tells her that it’s probably his friend the fire warden, and if he doesn’t pick up, the warden will think something’s wrong. The flummoxed Esther mutters to herself, “If I had a drink I could think better…”

Still - Robert Clarke, Jeanne Tatum and Kenne Duncan in The Astounding She-Monster
Esther examines the bottom of her bottle as Dick and Nat discuss options.

At least Esther’s scene has a little pathos going for it. By contrast, there’s no pathos and little suspense in the action scenes with the She-Monster. Characters dutifully tromp out into the woods at night, shoot their guns, try to avoid the death-touch, get spooked and retreat to the cabin -- and do this more than once. Viewer patience is mightily tested, as the scenes are flat and amateurishly directed. The biggest problem is the She-Monster, who is mute and expressionless throughout, and about as scary as a mime-in-training.

The scenes featuring the kidnappers and the captives without the She-Monster are interesting enough, and the dialog snappy enough, that one wonders if producer/director Ronald Ashcroft and writer Frank Hall would’ve been better off doing a straight crime flick.

But this being 1957, with distributors crying out for more atomic mutants and assorted space-age threats to feed into the voracious maw of the teen market, straight crime would not have been nearly as easy a sell. So, in addition to a deadly, radioactive space-babe, Ashcroft and Hall dressed up their bargain basement crime thriller with a pre-titles tour of outer space complete with a portentous narrator to get the ball rolling, and a “Day the Earth Stood Still”-type message to wrap things up.

Still - Marilyn Harvey and Robert Clarke in The Astounding She-Monster (1957)
"Hurry Margaret, we're going to miss The Andy Griffith Show!"

In Robert Clarke’s memoir To “B” or Not to “B”: A Film Actor’s Odyssey (with Tom Weaver, Midnight Marquee Press, 1996), the actor related a couple of amusing examples of how the cheap production prompted some “creative” improvisation:
“To give [the She-Monster Shirley Kilpatrick] an unearthly appearance Ronnie [Ashcroft] also gave her pointed eyebrows and he focused a bright light on her in the outdoor scenes so that she would look like she was glowing with radioactivity. … Mostly it was the tight, shiny suit that gave her the look of a weird yet appealing kind of alien -- but the first time she moved in the doggone thing, it split right up the back. The outfit was so skin-tight that there was no way to properly repair it, and so what they did was use safety pins to hold it together in the back. That’s why, in the movie, she never leaves a scene in any way other than backing away from the camera -- it added to the weirdness of the character, but the real reason she did that, if she turned around, she’d be showing the camera her backside!

  One of the big ‘scare’ scenes in the picture was going to be a shot of the She-Monster unexpectedly crashing through a window and into the geologist’s cabin. A candy-glass window and frame were made at a cost of one or two hundred dollars, which is a big outlay for a single prop when you’re working on the sort of budget Ronnie was. But as some of the guys were trying to get the thing into position, they dropped and broke it. … Ronnie very resourcefully had them put some of the bigger fragments back into the frame of the window and then had Shirley jump through. Later, when he edited the film, he cut that shot in such a way that it actually worked pretty well.” [pp. 174-5]
Still - The Astounding She-Monster confronts the earthlings (1957)
"Dagnabbit! Somebody's paying for that window!"

In spite of a bottom-of-the-barrel monster held together with safety pins, there seems to have been little doubt that Ashcroft would sell the thing for distribution. Clarke again:
“Ronnie decided to offer the picture to AIP [American International Pictures} for distribution, and he showed it to Jim Nicholson and Sam Arkoff at Nicholson’s house. After the movie was over, the three of them were in the projection room and Nicholson was rewinding the film. Arkoff, puffing on his trademark cigar, made the offer.

  ‘Well Ron, I’d like to buy it,' Arkoff told Ronnie through a cloud of blue smoke. ‘You know, you’re going to tell me that you’ve got $50,000 into this, but I know you’ve only got 40 so we’ll give you 60.’

  Ronnie grinned and told him, ‘You’ve just bought a picture.’

  … What Arkoff didn’t know was that the cost of Astounding She-Monster -- which Ronnie had originally projected at around $50,000 -- had come to just $18,000.” [p. 176]
Clarke was sufficiently impressed with the financial return on Ashcroft’s shabby She-Monster that he decided he would produce his own, higher quality independent creature feature, and The Hideous Sun Demon (1958) was born (see my review here).

Still - Shirley Kilpatrick at the climax of The Astounding She-Monster (1957)
"Oh crap, I split the seat of my bodysuit again!"

I doubt that Ronnie Ashcroft could ever have guessed, even in his wildest dreams, that the picture would be remembered beyond a single drive-in season, much less be touted over 60 years later as a “schlock classic,” with a long list of TV broadcasts and home video releases on its resume.

Even though it exudes cheapness from every pore, She-Monster at least tries to do something different by pitting wisecracking gangsters against one of the more oddball alien menaces of the era. If you haven’t seen it, it might be worth a look if only for curiosity’s sake (and it’s only a little over an hour long.)

Where to find it: The She-Monster is streaming on demand right here.

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