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Bog Beasts & She Devils
Kurt Neumann’s Sexist/Feminist Ultimate
The procession of free Swamp Thing sketches for those who participated in the SpiderBaby Store test marketing earlier this month continue moving through the long-distance mails. These have been my morning warm-up exercises on the drawing board, and I’ll keep sharing a couple here for a while.
I also scanned a few in step-by-step mode, and will post those to the Art Instructional section of the Myrant site shortly.
I’ll keep ‘em coming in the meanwhile… Enjoy!
* Kurt Neumann‘s She Devil (1957) was another 1950s sf bottom-of-the-double-bill title that had eluded me all my life, until I snapped up a recent ebay listing for the L’Atiler 13 Pictures all-region-compatible DVD from 2009. Though the original theatrical run was in RegalScope (as was its original Neumann theatrical cofeature Kronos), the DVD transfer is crisp transfer of a pan-and-scan full-frame TV print, so it’s pretty much what I would’ve seen on The Late Show had any of our local TV stations had it in their packages.
Much of my love for Kurt Neumann‘s 1950s sf films is that he was making real science-fiction, even when the deck was stacked against him. Neumann was trying to do something different with each project, while his contemporaries were satisfied for the most part with cranking out imitative dross (conceptually, at least; much as I love 1950s sf/fantasy, precious few of them have two brain cells to rub together). And one would be hard-pressed to concoct two films more different than Kronos and She Devil, especially two films shot back-to-back by the same production and creative team.
Secondly, you have to understand something: as with many 1950s double-bills, She Devil was the second feature by design—and, hence, shot quicker and cheaper than its lead feature, Kronos.
In the 1940s, She Devil would have been a true B-picture—a B-film, that much-abused, incorrectly applied moniker of a type of film the studios used to manufacture like sausage as second-bill fodder to support their A pictures. True B-films ceased to exist by the 1950s, though this is mighty close: a second feature by design, cranked out as quickly as possible just to ensure a singular double-feature package rolling out into the 1957 bookings as a unit.
Given how low-budget Kronos was, it’s frankly astonishing that She Devil was (and is) as good as it is. What Neumann lacked in budget and time he made up for in adapting a short story that had a real idea behind it: what if science created the next stage in human evolution, “The Adaptive Ultimate”? While Neumann‘s competitors were trotting out evolutionary throwbacks and giant bugs, he was looking ahead, and making the most of his meager means to entertain a modest but imaginative “what if” scenario with some meat to it.
Mari Blanchard starred as the titular She Devil, picture here on the operating table, with Dr. Cyclops (1939) himself Albert Dekker as the sanest cast member, and Jack Kelly as the adventurous microbiologist Dekker houses and funds. This trio comprises the central cast of characters, with ample support from John Archer and Fay Baker as a wealthy couple separated and deep-sixed by Blanchard‘s schemes.
For the most part, Nuemann and co-scriptor Carroll Young (vet scribe of the Sam Katzman Tarzan and Jungle Jim series, hence used to making the most of poverty-row budgets) stuck to the particulars of Stanley G. Weinbaum‘s short story, which I first encountered at a tender age in the anthology The Other Worlds: 25 Modern Stories of Mystery and Imagination (edited by Phil Stong, 1941) which my mother (inexplicably) had on our family dining room bookshelves. “The Adaptive Ultimate” was originally published in Astounding (November 1935) under Weinbaum‘s pen name of John Jessel, which was how the story was credited on She Devil.
How low-budget was She Devil? The first image of the film is of a fruit fly specimen under a microscope—and Neumann had to use a science textbook illustration instead of a photograph. Paucity of means, meet conceptual audacity.
Dr. Dan Scott (Jack Kelly) has pioneered a new wonder serum that has yielded miraculous results in test animals: healing a maimed leopard, curing a chimpanzee’s terminal bronchitis, mending a cat’s broken spine (don’t ask). The first indication that Dr. Scott‘s tests may have unexpected side effects: the leopard “changes its spots” into a pure black panther, and seems to quicker to anger. “It doesn’t like being a test subject,” Dr. Scott quips, and given that broken back referenced earlier, little wonder, eh? Mentor Dr. Richard Bach (Dekker) isn’t so sure, and urges caution—and when Scott demands a human test subject be found, Bach emphatically disagrees. That is, unless a completely hopeless, terminal patient turns up in Bach‘s hospital—
Enter the wane, terminally-ill brunette Kyra Zelas (Mari Blanchard), suffering the final stages of pulmonary tuberculosis (TB), hacking her last lung out and sure to die unless Scott‘s experimental drug is administered. The serum’s a success, her life saved, but she manifests extraordinary new biological abilities and becomes, seemingly, indestructible.
Zelas—she is constantly referred to by her last name in the film, emphasizing her resurrection exoticism—is essentially a blank slate on her death bed: no family, no friends, no job, no means. Thus, its little surprise when she begins to assert herself with unexpected ferocity; though the two doctors (an interesting companionship, here, of patriarchal mentor and eager young researcher, a bit like the venerable Dr. Gillespie and Dr. Kildare archetype) seem singularly surprised to discover Zelas‘s hand-to-mouth life that delivered her to death’s door has left her hungry for much more than life has given her to date. Bach—one of those multi-specialized movie doctors, both a medical doctor and a psychologist and brain surgeon, it seems—is particularly taken aback by Zelas‘s initial expression of aggression. After her miraculous cure, she bristles when it’s apparent that Bach and Scott have already planned for her to stay with them, where they can observe her closely as an experimental subject: “…then you had it all arranged…all my life I’ve had to do what other people wanted me to do, no matter how I felt… I’ll come, but only because I want to. From now on I’m going to do only what I want, and anything I want. I’m going to get everything I can out of life, everything I’ve always wanted.”
The 1950s fusion of sexism and proto-feminism doesn’t seem to have impressed many folks who’ve bothered to write about this film over the years, but I think it’s pretty compelling stuff. Like the Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur The Cat People (1942) and Lou Rusoff / Alfred Shaughnessy‘s 1950s British revamp The Cat Girl (1957)—along with just about every true film noir ever made and most horror/sf/fantasy films of the era and all that came before involving powerful women of any kind—Zelas was an eroticized object of ultimate dread and bottomless fascination. Neumann even staged an effective sequence in which Zelas demonstrates her self-healing powers by taunting and teasing the caged black panther until it claws her arm; the parallels to Tourneur‘s Irena (Simone Simon) are directly evoked, only emphasize Zelas‘s comparative zeal. Unlike the troubled, tragic Irena, Zelas revels in her newfound predatory abilities, and intends to make the most of them. In many ways, though, the film is even closer to William Sloane‘s extraordinary 1937 novel To Walk the Night, which was officially adapted as an episode of Robert Montgomery Presents (October 8, 1951) and unofficially via Rex Carlton/Jeffrey Stone/John Krish‘s uncredited British adaptation The Unearthly Stranger (1964).
I don’t want to falsely argue this was in any way a feminist tract for 1957. The core issue remained a cautionary Eisenhower era gender parable: a man can save a woman, but who can save a woman from herself—especially if she enjoys being a sociopathic monster? In this, She Devil unreeled like a sf spin on John M. Stahl/Jo Swerling‘s Leave Her to Heaven (1945, from the novel by Ben Ames Williams)—which was also a 20th Century Fox release.
Still, it’s hard not to applaud Zelas so consciously usurping a self-destructive life under the thumb of a procession of partriachs and authority figures. She’s quite blunt with her saviours/creators about where she stands in this new paradigm when the confront her with her first openly sociopathic criminal behavior, and she’s not going to take any shit from anyone. “Never mind that scientific double-talk,” she replies when Scott and Bach try to explain what the side-effects of the serum might be. “I did what I wanted to do and I’m going to keep on doing it—and I’d like to see you stop me. You had no right experimenting with me. You knew what you were doing. Well, you created me—and I’m your responsibility.”
Cue the sexy Paul Sawtell/Bert Shefter musical theme as Zelas struts away from the gobsmacked scientists. Go get ‘em, Zelas! When she’s on the prowl fresh out of the hospital, I don’t think it’s too much to say that her fleeting predatory strut up the sidewalk casing the window displays (culminating in her bold attack on a rich gent in the ladies department) matches both Jayne Mansfield‘s hilarious walk in Frank Tashlin‘s The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) the year before—and Divine‘s Baltimore parodic sashay (with a shoplifted cut of rare steak packed between her legs) in Pink Flamingos (1972).
That department store sequence—her first caper, if you will—dramatizes the initial manifestation of her newfound power. Penniless and unable to afford any clothes, she erupts in a hilarious explosion of naked greed and desire, beating a big spender senseless with an ashray, shouting, “I want that money!” It’s a moment worthy of John Waters‘s Female Trouble. She bolts into a changing booth, and to avoid being caught, changes her hair color from brunette to platinum blonde.
The technique for the hair color transformation scene was the same used in Robert Mamoulian‘s classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932) and by cinematographer Mario Bava for Riccardo Freda‘s I Vampiri / The Devil’s Commandment (1956/1963): make-up hair coloring was applied in red, and cinematographer Karl Struss than ran a red-fading-to-clear filter past the camera to cause the hair-color change in black-and-white. Struss was Neumann‘s cinematographer of choice, lending luster to even the direst production circumstances: they worked together on Rocketship X-M (1950), Tarzan and the She-Devil (1953, no relation to this She Devil), Kronos, and The Fly (1958), among other films. Neumann and Struss use the hair-change trick a couple of times in the movie—it’s their best sleight-of-hand, and (along with the lap-dissolve “self-healing wound” makeup effects) the only real special effect—and it works like a charm.
Zelas has her eyes on bigger prizes, though: enter womanizing millionaire Barton Kendall (John Archer) and his fed-up wife Evelyn (Fay Baker), who makes the biggest mistake of her short life when she dares to slap Zelas and call her a “trollop.” With another chameleon hair-color-change, Zelas gets away with murder, and lands Barton in one deft move.
We’re now in real noir territory, with the science-fictional element making this a precursor to the weird sexual stalker lunacy of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (which I couldn’t avoid thinking of, given Neumann‘s constant repetition of the Sawtell/Shefter saucy musical cues for Zelas, which anticipates the sick use of Abe Baker and Tony Restaino‘s “The Web” theme in The Brain That Wouldn’t Die), including the young doctor’s obsession with his reincarnated beauty: yep, Dr. Scott has the hots for Zelas. She lets him dangle until and unless he’s of use to her in her various schemes.
Those schemes result in a pretty momentous car crash sequence to eliminate the troublesome lech Barton (c’mon, tell me you saw that coming)—brutal footage lifted from the jarring climax of Otto Preminger‘s Angel Face (1952)—and it’s a corker. Zelas walks away from the crash, which leaves Barton essentially severed in half. She’s now a wealthy widow, with her eye on the next step up to social evolutionary ladder.
Weinbaum‘s short story took Zelas‘s social climb even further—into federal government circles—which Neumann, for either budgetary or ideological reasons (this was still the MPAA Code rulebook he had to play by, after all), eschewed altogether. Other than this, She Devil ends just as “The Adaptive Ultimate” did, for the most part, and it’s a pretty solid adaptation to my mind.
I don’t mean to make too much of this cheapjack effort, but as I’ve said (and hopefully argued with some measure of persuasion), Neumann pushed what he had to the limit to milk the most out of what could have been just another boogey-boogey bullshit second-feature (think Richard E. Cunha‘s She Demons, 1958). There’s also some thematic links here to early David Cronenberg, specifically The Brood (1977), as when Bach says about 20 minutes into the movie, commenting on Zelas‘s hair changing from brunette to blonde: “…emotional disturbances cause glandular disturbances. They in turn produce physical changes. Maybe it wasn’t the serum alone that changed her hair—but the serum, and some great emotional disturbance.”
The artifacts of its time and place, however, keep it from being a prescient work. There’s a painted portrait of Zelas that becomes a key prop, evocative of 1940s predecessors like Laura, Portrait of Jennie, and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and anticipating gothics like the Roger Corman/Vincent Price/AIP Edgar Allan Poe cycle. A bit of puckish 2013 hindsight: the painting looks like Mitch O’Connell handled Blanchard’s portrait (though Mitch‘s would have been slicker, by far)!
Moral reservations and piety typical of 1940s and 1950s sf also keep She Devil from being as adventurous as it might have been. Bach is the stereotypical pontificating patriarch (the polar opposite of Dekker‘s iconic Dr. Cyclops renegade scientist), repeatedly arguing that science shouldn’t go where angels fear to tread blahblahblah ad infinitum. Risible talk of the pineal gland being the harbinger organ “of the soul” lends this the usual religious fealty, but, again, the movie is still pretty randy stuff for 1957 in a number of interesting ways.
Mari Blanchard sizzles in this, her second sf film of the decade (after Abbott and Costello Go To Mars, 1953, one of her early contract roles for Universal-International), dominating the proceedings throughout. She Devil had me hankering for more Blanchard in similar roles, but alas, I’m not finding much to gravitate to in that department. Her only other genre role was in the lackluster Vincent Price/Nathaniel Hawthorne vehicle Twice-Told Tales (1963), though she also appeared in the ersatz Arabian Nights outings Son of Sinbad (1955, also with Vincent Price) and The Veils of Bagdad (1953).
The fact is, I’ve never read anyone state the obvious: Blanchard‘s role and performance clearly was the template for Susan Cabot‘s lead in Roger Corman‘s The Wasp Woman (1959), which extrapolated the fruit fly genetics of the Weinbaum story into a more venomous flying insect D(NA)istillate transforming another femme fatale into a lethal man-stalking mutant. In the meantime, Neumann had already expanded upon Weinbaum‘s insect/human hybrid template to helm his most popular sf film ever, The Fly (1958) for 20th Century Fox—the movie most Corman scholars presume Wasp Woman was imitating (which Corman was, cannily mining two Neumann Fox vehicles for a mere fraction of the price of one).
A modest film long deserving of a closer look and critical reassessment (especially given David Pirie‘s elevation of the equally tatty British Cat Girl to a position of prominence in his seminal A Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema, 1946-1972 way back in 1973), She Devil was the thematic and feral evolutionary link between Lewton/Tourneur‘s The Cat People and Neumann‘s own The Fly, in genre terms. It’s interesting to note, too, that the transmutation of feline/female archetype to insect/woman archetype also chronologically registered and resonated in other cultures, albeit in less literal, fantastical terms (see Shōhei Imamura‘s にっぽん昆虫記 / Nippon Konchūki / The Insect Woman, 1963).
“The Adaptive Ultimate” was earlier adapted to radio—for Escape (March 26, 1949) and Studio One (as “Kyra Zelas,” Sept. 12, 1949).
- (You can listen to the Escape radio adaptation right here, with just a click and some listening time to spare; enjoy!)
Genre scholar/archivist Tom Weaver posted on the Classic Horror Film Board
“Since She Devil will probably come out on DVD… I’d love to see some bootlegger come up with a nice print and combine it with the Tales of Tomorrow, Science Fiction Theater, and and (if it still exists) Studio One versions of the same original story.” Well, L’Atelier 13‘s all-region import DVD (below) indeed features two of the 1950s TV adaptations, in pretty good transfers from venerable source materials: “The Miraculous Serum” episode of Tales of Tomorrow (June 20, 1952), starring Lola Albright as Zelas, and the color “Beyond Return” from Ivan Tors‘s Science Fiction Theater (Dec. 3, 1955), with Joan Vohs as the female chameleon. That’s reason enough to track down this DVD, while you can.
Note: Neumann‘s She Devil is no relation to the later She-Devil (1989) directed by Susan Seidelman starring Meryl Streep and Ed Begley, Jr.
Swamp Thing® and ©DC Comics Inc/DC Entertainment Inc.; sketch art ©2012 Stephen R. Bissette. All other artwork and photographs © respective years by their respective proprietors, posted for educational and archival purposes only.