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Devil Girl from Mars

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
David MacDonald
Patricia Laffan
Hugh McDermott
Hazel Court
Peter Reynolds
Adrienne Corri
Bottom Line: 
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The bizarre example of little-seen 50s Brit sci-fi camp that is “Devil Girl from Mars” was produced by the prolific Danziger brothers, Edward and Harry, in 1954, and distributed by British Lion in the UK and Regal Films abroad. It now gets this nice-looking DVD release from Network as part of the company’s British Film Project: an attempt to rediscover that hidden heritage of British film history still to be found lying largely neglected in the industry vaults, usually in the form of forgotten second features and obscure independents. The two American producers famously operated a conveyor belt  system of low budget British film productions in the 1950s and were initially engaged in the making of cheap but good quality half-hour TV shows to be broadcast across the new ITV network regions then just beginning to challenge the BBC’s hegemony, while they mostly (at first) continued to operate from rented spaces out of Shepperton or Borehamwood; eventually the Danzigers branched out to combine production of their numerous half-hour filmed crime and cop dramas with a programme of second feature quickies after they founded the New Elstree Studios complex in Hertfordshire – which became the duo’s self-contained production headquarters for many years. Throughout the ‘50s the Danziger Brothers continued to dominate British television and movie screens with their ubiquitous adventure mini-series and a vast programme of film production that included well over one-hundred-and-forty second features, making Danziger Productions one of the most successful independent British production companies of the decade.

“Devil Girl from Mars” was one of the earliest of the features they made specifically to play on cinema screens (although their TV crime anthologies often ran as supporting ‘featurettes’ in that capacity as well), but has earned itself something of a reputation over the years for being one of the worst of the British crop of  sci-fi efforts of the period, thanks to its amusingly lopsided combination of alien-menace-invades-earth tropes (freshly imported from American science fiction) and a ludicrously quaint display of British gentility. Adapted from a radio play by John C. Mather and James Eastwood, the results are often just as incongruous as they would’ve been had Darth Vader suddenly been written into an episode of “The Archers” or Professor Bernard Quatermass had turned up at the bar of the Rovers Return: what limited action there is in “Devil Girl From Mars” rarely sifts from the vicinity of the bar area of its one main location, which becomes the focal point of the entire plot --  a secluded Scottish Inn called The Bonnie Charlie, in which a collection of banal romantic soap opera storylines initially play out amongst the small group of residents who, for one reason or another, happen to find themselves billeted here in this remote corner of the Scottish Highlands just as a flying saucer from Mars suddenly crash lands on the moors just outside their sleepy establishment, thus tasking them with saving the human race from subjugation by an imperious, ray-gun-toting Martian dominatrix vixen, who dresses in shiny leather cape, skin-tight leggings and a mini-skirt made of PVC! 

The cast and crew of this eccentric opus is composed of then-regular but now forgotten names from the Danziger TV production assembly lines, along with soon-to-be famous faces such as future Hammer darling Hazel Court (who looks stunning here) and Adrienne Corri; while another of the company’s regular technicians from its TV arm, David MacDonald, directs – and let’s not forget the film’s guest role for much-loved “Dad’s Army” character actor John Laurie, who cements the atmosphere of comfortable British cheer underpinning the death-rays-and-Saucer shenanigans on offer with his underwritten but light-hearted, tweed-clad rustic persona.

Homely, God-fearing Landlord and Landlady Mr and Mrs Jamieson (John Laurie and Sophie Stewart) oversee their chintzy off-season moorland establishment while looking after their eight-year-old nephew Tommy (Anthony Richmond) for the holidays. A suspected meteorite crashing over the remote Scottish moors also draws metallurgical expert Professor Arnold Hennessy (Joseph Tomelty) and special news correspondent Michael Carter (Hugh McDermott) to the Inn on a particularly Gothic night to investigate said phenomenon, while barmaid Doris is secretly harbouring her former lover -- escaped convicted murderer Albert Simpson (Peter Reynolds) -- as a lost hitch-hiker, booked into one of the rooms under an assumed name. Carter also manages to strike up a relationship in double-quick time with smart be-suited London fashion model Ellen Prestwick (Hazel Court), who has decamped to this remote corner of Scotland to recover from a previous failed love affair, but who also spots a similarly tortured soul in Carter when she notices his excessive drinking – a habit succumbed to in order to escape the horrors his job as a newsman have brought him into contact with on a regular basis during the war years. Just as Carter clocks who Simpson really is (forcing Doris to hide him in the strangely cobwebby upstairs attic room) a giant, very noisy flying saucer of typical 1950s vintage (this one looks like a cross between a spinning carousel and a sink plug) lands beneath scudding clouds on a barren stretch of moorland, and a tall shiny-caped female Martian with a skullcap and dressed in tight leather vacates it in stately fashion.

Patricia Laffan, Peter Ustinov’s wife in “Quo Vadis”, is the imposing statuesque matriarch from another world in question --  who manages to remain delightfully contemptuous of her earthling male opposition throughout the proceedings here, dismissing their efforts to thwart her in her intent to collect the best possible examples of Earth’s male population and transport them back home to Mars in order to repopulate her dying race, with witheringly delivered lines such as ‘you are a very poor physical specimen,’ (spoken to the portly professor who only wants to pump her for her scientific knowledge) and justifying such heartless acts as vaporising the Jamiesons’ hapless log-carrying work-help David (James Edmund)-- leaving just his spectacles intact amid smoking, scorched earth -- by casually telling his employers that he was ‘superfluous’! Going by the name Nyha, this kinky PVC-clad dominatrix materialises periodically at the French Windows of the Bonnie Charlie to stalk the Inn with cape swirling, while delivering long rambling info dumps to the befuddled clients lining the bar, assuring them that ‘resistance is useless’ in between explaining a backstory rooted in the Martian war between the sexes that brought her here in search of fresh meat: an escalating arms race in which both sides created more and more sophisticated weapons resulted in the females eventually overcoming and wiping out their male counterparts with a perpetual  motion matter transference machine … but only then realising that they had just left themselves facing extinction as well, for even with their great technological expertise the Martian women have as yet been unable to create life. Their technology has resulted in the emergence of self-repairing ‘organic’ metal and Nyra is also able to provide the Inn occupants with an awesome demonstration of superior Martian technological power when showing off her lumbering, eight-foot tall, self-replicating robot Chanti in action -- which, despite looking like a hulking refrigerator on legs with a light bulb for a head, is able to completely vaporise anything Nyha points it at.

This seventy-three minute second feature attempt at the traditional science fiction thriller format of the period is charmingly clunky in every aspect of its structure, with Nyha’s magical ability to stop telephones and cars from working properly and her placing of an invisible energy field around the immediate vicinity in order to stop anyone venturing farther outside the district occupied by her glowing white spaceship (parked rather conspicuously on the moors) providing a more than convenient excuse for everyone to remain largely ensconced within the cosy confines of the pub setting for nearly the entire film. Here they discuss their situation (‘while we’re still alive, we might as well have a cup of tea’ asserts Mrs Jamieson) as Nyha comes and goes at seemingly random intervals. This disappearing act has the advantage of leaving the group just enough time to be able to come up with a series of poorly thought-out plans -- each of which fails to yet another demonstration of the Martian fem’s unassailable power. The usual fears that beset ‘50s sci-fi about the dangers of nuclear technology and nuclear sources of power (part and parcel of the horror and science fiction of the period) have seemingly become allied here with all sorts of unconsciously articulated worries about female emancipation, and the results are hilariously barmy: the leather-clad Martian lady’s tech -- from her sterile white saucer machine to her box-like robot servant -- all looks like a futuristic, radiation-imbued outgrowth of the sort of modern consumer item then being routinely seen in 1950s ads for dish washers or refrigerators, etc., subliminally planting the idea that if you allow the female too much leisure time by freeing her from the shackles of the kitchen sink with technology, then in no time at all she’ll be parading about with her arms on her hips wearing skin-tight leathers and forcing you into a life of sexual slavery. While Court and Corri, as caring/sharing, emotionally tactile Earth women Doris and Ellen coo romantically over their chosen menfolk, the stentorian, emotionless Nyha -- a lethal, power-craving distillation of science appreciation gone mad – coldly surveys which of them will make the best choice of specimen to be abducted and whisked off by her in her ship to take part in her scientifically planned Martian breeding programme. All of the males get ritually humiliated in their various attempts to defeat Nyha -- whether physically, intellectually or in terms of their weaponry: bullets seem to have no effect whatsoever, and she is even able to hypnotise her opponents into becoming mindless drones who blankly recite her Martian spiel about inherent earthling inferiority. This identification of Nyha as being cold and emotionless, her scientifically planned rationality becoming blurred with an essential lack of warmth and femininity, is what earns her the soubriquet ‘devil’ in the film’s title (and in contrast, the Landlady Mrs Jamieson frequently invokes her trust in the Lord to give the group the courage it needs to prevail against her), and indeed the imagery associated with Nyha’s appearance also recalls that of the vampire, particularly in the way that she so incongruously invades the domestic space of the protagonists, with shiny black cape flowing around her in bat-like silhouette, as well as in her use of her mesmeric hypnotic powers to take control of her victims.

But it is the fact that it is the Jamiesons’ little nephew Tommy who in the end gets picked to accompany Nyha back to her luminous saucer, which emphasises the truth that it is ultimately Nyha’s lack of maternal feeling which is used as the clinching decider to identify her as being truly evil, and which bonds the disparate group in unity against her. Also, given her stated plan, it cannot help but feel like there is something intrinsically transgressive in this choice of abductee: bear in mind that Tommy -- still a freckle-faced little boy -- is essentially being taken off to be brainwashed and raised into adulthood as a stud for sexually servicing Martin women when Nyha beckons him to come with her, bringing all sorts of dubious associations to her uttered line, ‘I will show you wonders you have never seen before!’   

Despite the mysogonist subtext of paranoid anachronistic sexual and social politics, and the amusingly stagy conceit inherent in setting an alien invasion plot entirely within a pub to begin with; and also accepting that the often unbelievably clumsily written dialogue frequently makes characters sound suddenly as though Homer Simpson has momentarily taken possession of their minds (‘I’m a scientist!’ insists Professor Hennessy at one point, as he attempts to adjust his scientific dogma to the outlandish reality of his situation; ‘I believe what my brain tells me to believe!’) “Devil Girl from Mars” is actually a rather handsome looking production, thanks in no small part to Jack Cox’s beautiful lighting and cinematography. A close collaborator with Alfred Hitchcock throughout his British period, for whom he lensed such early classics as “Blackmail” and “The Lady Vanishes”, both of which display the kind of complex process and miniature work whose use throughout “Devil Girl from Mars” really marks it out as being a cut above the average B movie Sci-Fi fare, Cox brings consummate care and attention to the look of the film, and the small sets on which the studio exteriors were constructed are surprisingly effective in creating the illusion of a  lonely stretch of Scottish Highlands. The transfer used for this DVD release looks luminously clear, with the only damage being the reel change cigarette burn in the top right-hand corner of the frame which appears at regular intervals. A small gallery of production stills and poster artwork is included, and a four-page press book brochure, including synopsis, promotional campaign ideas and artwork (in which the robot Chanti looks considerably sleeker than it does on screen), is viewable from a computer in PDF form. This enjoyably naïve romp through a British, pre-Quatermass attempt to handle science fiction is all the more enjoyable for its awkward failures than its successes, though – and it makes a worthwhile addition to any fan’s collection.

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!

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