Monday, August 1, 2011

Highly Cunhalogical :: Richard E. Cunha's She Demons (1958)

Our adventure begins when four shipwreck survivors wash up on an uncharted desert isle somewhere in the Caribbean. (I think, meaning I think they're in the Caribbean.) Said survivors were part of an ill-fated expedition to find a legendary lost land-mass, where many a strange and salty sea tale of demons and monsters and sailors never heard from again who dared go ashore was born. (I think, but who the hell knows for sure. And, eh, it won't really matter in a couple of minutes...) Led by Fred Macklin (Griffin), his crew is rounded out by Sammy Ching (Yung), Kris Kamana (Opuni), and Jerrie Turner (McCalla), the spoiled daughter of the wealthy kook who financed this trip in the first place. (Jerrie bemoans the fact that the only reason the old man paid for all of this was to just get her out his hair for awhile.) Well, by dumb luck and dumb luck only, they've found what they were looking for but now find themselves stuck there indefinitely. Eureka! And here's hoping all of those legends are just legends, am I right?

As they work to salvage what little they can, a malfunctioning plot-specific radio sparks off long enough to report that the search for them has been called off and they're all presumed dead, and then, while Sammy tries to fix the infernal thing, it confirms that, one, the circling planes overhead are Navy scouts, and two, according to the pilot chatter, these castaways have had the misfortune of getting themselves stuck on Naval bombing range, with the next bombardment ready to commence the following morning! Leaving Kamana to guard the camp, the others head inland looking for better cover before the bombs start falling, with Macklin and Jerrie sniping and snarking at each other every step of the way. (Just kiss her already!) And aside from a menacing snake, a cursory exploration finds the island seemingly deserted. I say seemingly because they keep finding human footprints everywhere but no other sign of who left them. But upon returning to the beach, the trio finds their camp destroyed, the radio smashed, and Kamana dead with several spears sticking out of his chest! They also find another body, a native woman judging by her garb, rolling in the surf. Closer examination shows her face is hideously disfigured, twisted into demonic mask of pure and adulterated e'yuck.

Then, the sound of distant drums draws our curious castaways further inland, where they discover more scantily clad island girls (only these beauties appear to be normal) engaged in some bizarre native ritual. But, this orgy of dancing and bongo drums is soon interrupted by the arrival of a squad of armed jack-booted thugs dressed in Nazi SS uniforms, who round up the girls into several cages (-- some already full of disfigured captives like the one on the beach), save for one new captive, who is chained up and summarily whipped to death by the brutish Igor (Roth) as an abject lesson to the others on what will happen if they try to escape again ... That's right, folks. Not only has this doomed expedition been marooned on an island that is inhabited by blood-thirsty She-Demons and scheduled for demolition by the U.S. Navy, but it's also serving as a refuge for a band of rogue Nazis led by a mad scientist (Anders), whose experiments in glandular secretions resulted in all of those pathetic and distorted creatures. And the only thing that could possibly make things even worse is if this cursed island was perched on top of an active volcano. Well, guess what? And, believe me, all of that accumulated shit is about to hit the fan.

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xx No, my dear. You are mistaken. It's only the
xx unimaginative who cannot believe that man is
xx incapable of improving upon nature."

-- Carl "The Butcher" Osler xxxx
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She Demons opens with a stock-footage hurricane shredding some unnamed coastal town to pieces (-- this storm being the root cause of the shipwreck that gets our cinematic ball rolling), and that's a pretty apt metaphor when dealing with the filmography of Richard E. Cunha, where cheapness, cheesecake and exploitative sleaze meld together into a volatile storm of Buhwuhbuhwuh -- what the hell... that tends to overwhelm audiences with there self-destructive tendencies. But if you look a little closer, into the eye of the filmmaker, there's actually something pretty cool, unique, and even ground-breaking things going on in the middle of all that chaos. Don't get me wrong. Logic or coherency do not apply here. Don't bother to think about them rationally -- that way leads to madness, folks. But taken on their own Cunhalogical terms, his films are twisted, tweaky, and an absolute riot to behold, and, I believe, serve as the absolute zenith of independently produced Grade-B schlock.

Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, Cunha, like a lot of his B-Movie brethren of this strata, got his first taste of filmmaking in the Army Signal Corps. After his hitch was up, he landed a job with Toby Anguish Productions, who provided material for the new and expanding medium of television, with the likes of The Adventures of Marshall O'Dell and Captain Bob Steele and the Border Patrol. When Anquish retired, Cunha and Arthur A. Jacobs (often mistakenly identified as Artur P. "Planet of the Apes" Jacobs) bought him out and rechristened themselves as Screencraft Enterprises. A lot of commercial work followed -- Texeco, General Mills cereals -- and the duo seemed content with that lot until one of their stock scriptwriters, Ralph Brooke, put a bug in their ear that they should jump on the insurgent monster-movie bandwagon, that had every crackpot crawling out of the woodwork to make their own hair-brained creature-feature at the time, and make some real money.

Cunha and Jacobs finally scratched that itch with Giant from the Unknown, the tale of an ancient conquistador named Vargas, who comes back to life after hibernating in the snow and ice for a couple of centuries to terrorize the town of Pine Ridge. A surprisingly moody and effective thriller, with a nice Hitchcockian wrong-man twist when the hero is initially blamed for the rash of animal mutilations and mounting homicides, Giant from the Unknown was in the can in six days for the princely sum of $54,000 dollars. Cunha managed to save money by skirting around the unions, sending their representatives to the wrong locations while he shot somewhere else with non-union extras. It was also originally intended for Cunha to only serve as the film's cinematographer but he slid into the director's chair to save even more money. Needing a giant monster that was just as cost-effective (read: cheap), the producers found Buddy Baer (uncle to Max "Jethro Bodine" Baer Jr.) to play Vargas. And his hulking, 6'7" frame, with make-up provided by the great Jack P. Pierce (-- after Universal unceremoniously dumped him after years of service), and decked out in fiberglass armor crafted by Harold Banks (-- who would go on to design and build the "Gumby" rock-creatures for Cunha's even more Cunhalogical Missile to the Moon), makes for quite a menacing figure.

Not surprisingly, it took longer to find a distributor for their inaugural effort than to actually film it (-- three months from inception to the final edit). Luckily, Jacobs had some ties to Astor Pictures, a company based out of New York, who agreed to distribute the film -- but there was a catch. The catch being that in those days of double-horror-bills, Giant from the Unknown needed a co-feature that Astor was willing to pony up for if Cunha and Co. were up for it. They were, and the end result was the ultimate Cunhalogical flick, She Demons.

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[She Demons] used women as both sex objects and figures of horror, giving Cunha his status as a maker of rotgut kitsch. In sex, gore and a feeling of general ugliness, these were the 1950's nearest thing to R-rated shock as black and white American-made films went.
-- D. Earl Werth xxxx
The Sleaze Creatures

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Co-writing the script with H. E. Barrie, Cunha's sinister island adventure probably drew inspiration from the lurid pulp novels and men's "Sweat" magazines of that era. (Though a check of publication dates on a lot of these mags makes one wonder who inspired who...)

Also around this time there was a lot of global buzz about the hunt for escaped Nazi war criminals, namely Josef Mengele and Adolph Eichmann; the former providing the inspiration for Cunha's vile villain, Carl "The Butcher" Osler, whose dubious experiments are only matched by the callous disregard for his test-subjects. And after a lot of digging, the only other expatriate mad Nazi scientist angle that I could find that predates this flick was Sam Katzman's Creature with the Atom Brain. And, right or wrong, a lot of deviant medical/sexual Nazisploitation flicks, from Love Camp 7 to Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, were destined to follow. And, believe it or not, She Demons also beat the likes of Georges Franju (Eyes without a Face) and Jesus Franco (The Awful Dr. Orloff) to the cinematic punch by several years on the whole kidnapping nubile young women for some dastardly face-swapping experiments to restore the beauty of a disfigured loved one; in this case, Osler's wife, Mona (Tana). In point of fact, the revelation of Mona's damaged face is one of the more unjustly unsung *bleaugh* moments of this or any cinematic era.

See! *bleaugh*

And not only is the mad little Nutzi dabbling in God's domain in a glandular sense, he's also tapped the Earth's molten core for an unlimited energy source in a scene that rivals Ed Wood's take on the horrors of Solarnite in Plan 9 from Outer Space in both concept and execution in that neither makes one damned bit of sense and both, I believe, were unnecessary to the plot but necessary as padding to get the much needed 7th reel of film to break the magic 70-minute barrier. Anyways ... Luckily for Cunha's marooned party, Mona's guilty conscience (and her husband's less than subtle attempts to dump her and get Jerrie in the sack) finally boils over, and, through her, they manage to engineer their escape. For while the She Demons get their revenge on that lout Igor, Mona openly defies her husband and saves Jerrie, who is strapped to a gurney and about to have her glands scrambled.

Meantime, those Navy bombers have finally arrived, and as the island is pasted, Osler's lava machine overloads, killing him. With no hope for a cure, Mona remains behind, then, as more bombs fall, the long dormant volcano erupts, and our trio valiantly shoots there way out of the compound (and watch for a helluva nasty head-shot by Macklin, followed by a spectacular dummy death plunge) to the beach and the promised escape craft as the whole island implodes in a hellish inferno, taking all of Osler's evil with it.

Wow. All of that crammed into 77 mad-cap minutes. (And, to be honest, about half of that is still padding.) Even with an increased budget of $80,000 provided by Astor, She Demons was still brought in in just six days. The beach scenes were shot at Malibu (-- not far from where Jim Rockford's trailer sat according to Griffin), the familiar nooks and crannies of Bronson Canyon provided the caves and quarries, while the jungle and laboratory sets were built at Screencraft's own mammoth studio facilities. Yeah, those lab sets are pretty shoddy and the She Demon make-up F/X by Carlie Taylor, aside from that brief glimpse of Mona, is even shabbier, but there are a few things, and more than you'd think, that I can unashamedly trumpet on their merits. First is a rousing score by
Nick Carras that brings the percussion hard and heavy, which helps bring some gravitas to our ears when by all rights there shouldn't be any by what we're seeing with our eyes. The cast has some actual chemistry and play well off of each other, and though most of the overt comedy falls flat on its face there are some truly hilarious zingers to be heard if you keep your ears open. Also, mention should be made of a trio of action set-pieces that really stand out; namely the stunt where Osler is buried in lava:

Or the fire effects when Mona walks back into the inferno:

And best yet, a truly effective matte shot when a wall collapses behind our fleeing heroes to reveal a molten stream of lava.

Still, with all these minor technical triumphs, the gaffes and goofs in this fractured flick still rule the day; and none stand out more ridiculously than the epic fistfight between Macklin and Igor. Sure, it was edited together quite competently from many takes and cuts -- except for the bits where they went back and re-shot a few angles with a stuntman who is so not Tod Griffin and cut them into takes with the real Tod Griffin that one can only watch and boggle:

Tod Griffin.

Not Tod Griffin.

Griffin was a TV actor by trade, whose biggest credit up til then was starring in a Captain Video knock-off called Operation Neptune. Victor Sen Yung, his faithful sidekick, broke into the industry as one of Charlie Chan's innumerable Number One sons. This was to be his last theatrical credit before he switched mediums and moved out west to cook for the Cartwrights on the Ponderosa in syndicated perpetuity. And just by browsing their credits on the IMDB easily shows this wasn't Anders' or Roth's first rodeo on the whole Nazi thing, and Anders really has a ball as the smarmy amoral w├╝tender Wissenschaftler.

As for our bevy or beauties and dried oatmeal-faced demons, I give you the Diane Nellis Dancers. Alas, all further research on them proved about as fruitless as the attempted choreography of their salacious dance number.

But the real casting coup was landing Irish McCalla, who totally deserved her top billing. Coming off her own TV series as Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, the former Glamour Queen and Pin-Up idol (she was an original Varga girl) was hired for her looks first and her acting talent last. Still, I kinda dug the spunk and unsuspected backbone she brought to her character that, honestly, was sketched out as nothing more than rich bitch with the gooey center in the script. I absolutely adore the scene where she backs down Igor in a battle of wits, claiming she "swished onto the island on a dry martini." Look, by no means does McCalla show anything, here, that would suggest any kind of career beyond these eye-candy roles. But ya gotta admire how she wasn't afraid to get into the middle of the stunts and how she butted heads with her director and refused to back down when Cunha kept pushing her to show more skin in the cheesecake sequence on the beach, where she changes clothes behind a makeshift curtain.

So pleased with the box-office returns on both ends of this wonky double-feature, Astor immediately commissioned Cunha for two more, which turned into the nigh inexplicable, even by Cunhalogical standards, Frankenstein's Daughter and the aforementioned Missile to the Moon, a cheaper remake of Astor's already dirt cheap Catwomen of the Moon. (I think they even recycled that ratty giant spider-prop.) Before filming began, Cunha and Jacobs amicably dissolved their company when Jacobs moved onto greener TV pastures. (Truthfully, you can kinda sense his guiding absence in these follow ups.) And aside from serving as the cinematographer on Ralph Brooke's Bloodlust, a teenaged take on The Most Dangerous Game -- that is nowhere nearly as retarded as that sounds, this, sadly, marked the end of Cunha's theatrical output. After which, he returned to TV, focusing on commercials. And that, dammit, truly and odiously sucks and a crying shame.

For, though his gruesome oeuvre may be small, one cannot deny Cunha's impact and influence on what followed. And with films like She Demons, Fiend without a Face, Monster of Piedras Blancas, and The Flesh Eaters kicking in the door, they paved the way for the grittier and more explicit fare that followed in the 1960's, culminating in another independent production, also made by a company known for their TV commercials, shot ten years later outside of Pittsburgh. Maybe you've heard of it.

Other Points of Interest:

This post is my contribution to Nathanael Hood's latest blogathon over at The Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear, where participants were asked to go all Bobby "Boris" Pickett on some gonzoidal monster movie gold nuggets from the 1950's. Hope you enjoyed it, and I encourage all of you to click on over and check out the other entries.

She Demons (1958) Screencraft Enterprises-Astor Pictures / P: Arthur A. Jacobs / AP: Marc Frederic / D: Richard E. Cunha / W: Richard E. Cunha, H.E. Barrie / C: Meredith Nicholson / E: William Shea / S: Irish McCalla, Tod Griffin, Victor Sen Yung, Charles Opunui, Rudolph Anders, Gene Roth, Leni Tana


Nathanael Hood said...

Nazis...why does it ALWAYS have to be Nazis?!

I have to say, this may legitimately be one of the most bat-sh!t insane movies that I have ever heard of. And let me tell you...I'm thrilled that you decided to write about it and bring it to our attention! Thank you!

Kevin Deany said...

That was an awesome review of a really unheralded piece of 1950s horror pulp.

I'm glad you pointed out Mona's face revealing scene. I could imagine how the kiddies must have felt when they first saw it and it provides quite a jolt even today.

Really impressed with this review and I've bookmarked your site for myself. Looks like I have some interesting reading to catch up on.

Grand Old Movies said...

Wow - haven't seen this one, but my curiosity is now piqued! What a wild-sounding film. Great, funny post, and loved the references to other movie influences and especially to those men's magazines (were those meant for adults??). This is my first visit to your blog, and from the looks of the film posters on your sidebar, I can tell that you have great taste in the right sort of movies!

Thomas Duke said...

Thanks for all of the background info and everything else. I absolutely love this movie, but didn't know any background info on it. It's like the best episode of Gilligan's Island ever.

Dave the Movie Guy said...

Hey W.B -

Great post ... I've seen quite a few B-flicks in my time, but seem to have missed this one. I'm going to have to get a big bottle of aspirin and get with the program ...


W.B. Kelso said...

Thanks guys. Truthfully, I had a much better write-up for this creature feature. And then Blogger ate about half of it. I salvaged it as best I could. Autosave, why have thou forsaken me!

RVChris said...

I never heard of this before but thanks for the fun, informative review!

Stacia said...

This is terrific! I had heard of this film before but had no idea there were Nazis in it. Nazis! I really love the comparison between the men's entertainment (ahem) magazines and the scenes in this film. Also glad you mentioned the 70-minute barrier, as I find a lot of people don't realize that. When they ask why Ed Wood included every single frame he shot (often twice, three times, maybe more) it's obvious they didn't realize the film had to be X minutes per contract and, with small budgets, every frame counted.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

"Rotgut kitsch." I need to make that part of my permanent vocabulary.

I've not seen She Demons but it sounds kind of kicky...and of course, one can never go wrong with Nazi villains. Great review, W.B.

Aubyn said...

I've heard of this film before and thought it sounded like fantastically good fun. Although I must say that those men's magazines look like they have enough material for at least 5 schlock/exploitation masterpieces. "Can you survive America's sex war...I blasted Hitler's torture compound for frauleins."

Great, detailed review. I loved it.

W.B. Kelso said...


And those were the relatively tame covers I managed to unearth.

Again, thanks all for the kind comments and by all means give She Demons a whirl on DVD players. Definitely a one of kind experience. E'yup.

Doug Bonner said...

That was one smokin' post. I really like to read something where the backstory and the knowledge of how films are made and distributed play an integral part in the writer's p.o.v. Can't wait to read more!

Anonymous said...

I first saw "She Demons" when I was much younger, in a second-run ultra cheap theater (three horror flicks for 65 cents on Sunday afternoons).

The unveiling of Mona's face -- on a big screen -- really was a shocker. It's one of the few images from the movie that stuck with me for over 50 years.

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