Tuesday 5 May 2015

The Astounding She-Monster [1957]

THE ASTOUNDING SHE-MONSTER is an American sci-fi film that was directed by Ronald V. Ashcroft for the Hollywood International Production company and originally released by our old favourites American International Pictures in 1957.  It stars Robert Clarke, Kenne Duncan and Marilyn Harvey.  After kidnapping a society heiress a trio of criminals encounter an alien creature whose mere touch can kill.

I can’t better sum up this film’s quality than by saying it runs for 62 minutes and it took me five evenings to get through it.  If Edward D. Wood Jr is the patron saint of Terrible Movies then Ronald V. Ashcroft (here credited as Ronnie Ashcroft) was a zealous acolyte.  It has everything you’d expect to find in a Wood movie: dreadful acting; copious use of stock footage; portentous voice-over; and special effects which are neither special of effective.  Yet somehow it lacks even that which makes Wood’s films tolerable.  With Wood I always feel his reach exceeded his grasp, that he was trying for the epic but doomed to failure by his incompetence and budget.  Ashcroft on the other was I reckon doing the bare minimum required to make a film and, on top of that, lacked any talent or technique.

One of the film's big FX sequences

In fact, doing some very basic research (i.e. wikipedia) as I write this I learned that Edward D. Wood acted as “unofficial consultant” on this film.  Given how clear his influence is on the finished product one can’t help but think his role was somewhat larger than unofficial consultancy, in the same way Spielberg’s was on Tobe Hooper’s POLTERGEIST [1982].  Even if it was not you have to wonder about the ability of a director who calls in someone like Ed Wood for guidance. 

Some library footage of an agitated fox

I think I've said before that I don’t adhere to the ‘so bad it’s good’ thing.  Generally if a film is that bad then it’s borderline unwatchable, especially if you happen to watch it by yourself.  If you’re poking fun at it with a few mates and a few beers then fair enough but what you’re really enjoying the company rather than the film itself.  Believe me, there’s little fun to be had flying solo.
Having said that, if a film was made under DIY conditions with a terrible director then it can only ever be so good and thus it’s unfair to judge it against the standards of mainstream movies.  It may be that a film such as THE ASTOUNDING SHE-MONSTER is, given the limitations of its production, as good as it could possibly have been. 

 To me the worst films are those made in Hollywood by major studios with A-list stars, a massive budget and, if required, special effects up the wazoo.  If you make a bad film with all those advantages at your disposal then something has gone terribly awry.  Two of the worst films I have ever sat through are UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL [1997], which starred Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford, and Mike Nichols’ WOLF [1994] which starred Jack Nicholson and, er, Michelle Pfeiffer.  If people as talented as that can produce a stinker then what chance did Ronald V. Ashcroft stand, even with Edward D. Wood to guide him?

I know US cars were large in the 1950s but this is ridiculous

The opening ten minutes or so are genuinely weird in that there is no dialogue, only the lugubrious voice over explaining everything that’s happening which we can see perfectly well for ourselves.  There’s also an annoying, inistent musical score which, with the voice-over, is presumably there to cover up for the lack of script, poor acting, hamfisted sound recording or one of the million other things that can go wrong on threadbare productions.  It isn’t until some way into the film before one of the cast actually says anything you can hear; indeed for about the first half hour the dialogue comes and goes almost as frequently as the titular She-Monster.

The She-Monster advancing...

Speaking of which, if you’re expecting a female version of H. R. Giger’s alien, or even a robot monster you will be disappointed, unless, that is, you’re partial to a curvy young woman clad in a sprayed on jumpsuit.  And who isn’t?  Certainly not Ronald V. Ashcroft because he treats us to several repetitions of the same footage of his monster walking slowly towards the camera.  The ever-reliable imdb informs me that the suit was so tight that inevitably it split under the strain of the She-Monster’s spacebottom which explains why when she’s in retreat – usually from Kenne Duncan waving a flaming torch in her face – she always does so facing the camera.

...and retreating

Kenne Duncan plays the chief baddie (not counting the Astounding She-Monster) and gives the closest thing the film has resembling a performance, a judgement which should cause all the other actors to hang their heads in shame.   Now I've never been sure how to pronounce his christian name but what I do know is that Duncan was a member of Wood’s stock company so if he ends up being Man of the Match then you know your film is in trouble.  Duncan was never short of work though and notched up a frankly jaw dropping 271 credits, the majority of which were before 1952 which says something about how prolific the US film industry was in the pre-television era.

(L-R) Kenne Duncan, Marilyn Harvey, Jeanne Tatum, Ewing Miles Brown

Robert Clarke is the bland hero geologist Dick who eventually figures out that the She-Monster’s jumpsuit is vulnerable to acid; he blithely mixes two potent acids together in his sitting room and chucks it at the dastardly alien which predictable consequences.  Clarke had a long but inauspicious career, mainly in TV, and is remembered by delirious film fans for devising, directing and starring in THE HIDEOUS SUN DEMON [1959].  His co-director, Tom “Boutross” Boutross, was the editor on a number Charles B. Pierce’s films; Pierce is a fine film-maker and I urge you to seek a few out, especially THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN [1976] a review of which you can find here.

Our hero Dick (Robert Clarke)

Edward D. Wood Jr was notorious, if that’s the correct word, for hiring past-it film industry professionals as his crew, primarily because they were a) cheap and b) skilled.  A good example if the cinematography William C. Thompson who was born in 1889 and had worked on many silent films including THE FALL OF A NATION [1914], the sequel to D. W. Griffith’s seminal but now reviled  THE BIRTH OF A NATION [1914].  His career was interrupted by WW2, as so many were, and when he picked it up again in the early 1950s he was in his sixties and found work hard to come by.  Wood hired him though and Thompson worked on a good half dozen of his films; he passed away in 1963.  However, he is almost certainly the inspiration for the character Cameraman Bill, played by Norman Alden in Tim Burton's very funny and affectionate biopic ED WOOD [1994].

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