Sunday, October 6, 2019

Hubrisween 2019 :: A is for The Astounding She-Monster

Not gonna lie, but, the movie that follows doesn’t really merit or ever earn the gloomy tone of our pissy narrator as he pithily recounts the occurrence of the Big Bang and the universe that sprung from it. He then continues, speculating how this new universe might’ve been built on the ashes of an old one and the triggering cosmic boom was the result of sentient beings dickering into powerful elemental forces they weren’t meant to dicker with but dickered with them anyway, utterly destroying everything that had been known before.

And now, as the narrator continues, we’ve come full circle as a consortium of alien races in the “Galactic Council” fear the planet Earth, which has just entered the Atomic Age, will most likely cause another one of these genocidal cosmic suicides if left unchecked. Thus and so, in the distant Antares galaxy, near a star of the 12th magnitude, a “meteor” is launched toward the Earth, carrying an emissary with a message from the Galactic Council. What this message is, well, despite what the doomsaying narrator thinks, we’ll try to keep an open mind as the flaming match-head meteor rockets into our solar system (-- and tries to stay lit).

Unfortunately, someone forgot to carry the two when plotting the route and landing zone. So instead of landing in Moscow or Washington D.C., the meteor crashes -- sorry, “lands” somewhere deep in the San Gabriel mountains of southern California. And from the impact crater emerges the Antarian emissary (Kilpatrick), which appears to be a female humanoid (-- except for a ridiculous hairdo and an exceptionally thick v-shaped unibrow), decked out in a tight silver spacesuit that gives off a phosphorescent glow, which, turns out, is also highly radioactive -- just ask the snake she just roasted. With no one to greet her, the alien creature -- now let’s be generous and say she’s adjusting to Earth’s gravity, rubberlegs it into the forest to find some intelligent life.

Meanwhile, in Brentwood, two hoodlums by the name of Nat Burdell (Duncan) and Brad Conley (Brown), along with Burdell’s lush of a girlfriend, Esther Malone (Tatum), ambush wealthy socialite Margaret Chaffee (Harvey), kidnap her, leave a stout ransom demand for her safe return in the woman’s abandoned Cadillac, and then head up into the mountains to hole up in their hideout until her father pays up. (All the while, our narrator blathers about the sins of the idle rich, insinuating the victim maybe had this coming.) But on the way, Conley swears he saw a glowing naked woman wandering around in the woods -- and so startled was he by this sight, the kidnapper runs their car into the ditch, snapping the front axle. Stuck and thus, they release Margaret from her bonds under threat of violence and head toward the only light they see.

This light turns out to be the secluded cabin of Dick Cutler (Clarke), a geologist, who is scouring the area for precious minerals and uranium deposits. Earlier, Cutler saw what he thought was a meteor hit nearby, and had planned to investigate further in the morning. Well, he was until Burdell bursts into his cabin, gun drawn, and demands the keys to Cutler’s jeep. But Cutler warns the headlights don’t work, and he wouldn’t recommend trying to navigate the old fire-road in the dark. No fool, Burdell then brings the rest of his party inside and instructs Conley to see if he can fix the jeep. But Conley, still jumpy after his close encounter, claims he doesn’t have the right tools for the job. Conley then spots the glowing girl again, spying on them through a window -- her incandescence giving the illusion she’s gone nudie.

But no one else sees her, and Burdell fears his partner is coming down with the delirium tremens just like Esther, who is currently guzzling every ounce of liquor she can find in the cabin to quell her own demons. Insisting on what he’s seen, Conley at least earns permission to go out and catch this phantom girl to prove himself. Outside, he finally runs into the Antarian, face to face, realizes she isn’t human, panics, opens fire, empties his revolver, but the bullets have no effect on the alien. Worse yet, the Antarian responds to this naked act of aggression with prejudice, seizing the man by the throat, and this contact seems to instantly kill him. And as this disastrous first contact concludes, I’m thinking it really doesn’t matter anymore if the alien’s initial intentions were friendly or not...

A person can’t be blamed for assuming Edward D. Wood Jr. was responsible for The Astounding She-Monster (1957). For while all of Wood’s earmarks are there from the over-packed and nonsensical script, to the cynically taciturn narration, to the circular plot logic, to the glaring continuity errors, to the stock-footage abuse, to the stilted dialogue, to the static direction, to the boneheaded execution of the special-defects, the credit (or blame) for this turd-burger goes to someone else -- though I still contend Wood’s fingerprints are all over this thing, which we’ll be addressing a few paragraphs down. But for now, let us focus on the wild and whackadoodle film career of another cheap-jack filmmaker, Ronnie Ashcroft, and what led him to make this sci-fi opus.

Hailing from Massachusetts, Ashcroft first got into show business around 1941, working in the publicity department of 20th Century Fox’s New York office. Soon heading west with dreams of becoming a cinematographer, this career arc met a premature death when Ashcroft learned it was a helluva lot cheaper to join the editor’s union. And so, a film editor he became, mostly working in sound design. And after doing the sound-mixing on a couple of Roger Corman pictures, including The Day the World Ended (1956), Ashcroft, seeing where the money was really being made, decided to follow Corman’s blueprint, strike out on his own, form his own production company, and make his own independent features.

Enter Ed Wood, whom Ashcroft had met through their mutual drinking buddy, Keene Duncan; a former western and serial star who now eked out a living as a heavy and character actor. These three then conspired Outlaw Queen (1957), a western, which Wood wrote (-- as Pete La Rouche), Ashcroft produced (-- with a little help from Cy Roth), and Duncan took a supporting role, acting alongside noted band leader Harry James, and future The Astounding She-Monster co-star, Robert Clarke. Alas, the film blew its meager budget and then tanked, which pretty much bankrupted Ashcroft and Associates Inc. after only one film.

Undaunted, Ashcroft was determined to try again. And since his western had failed, he decided to take a shot at the other popular film trend of the era and make himself a creature feature. From there, he came up with an idea about a titillating female alien sent by the intergalactic United Nations to deliver an ultimatum to Earth -- after seeing The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), I’d wager. He then turned this idea over to his friend, Frank Hall, who added the kidnapping caper to add a tempest without crisis within element because, sure, why not, as he finished up the shooting script for The Naked Invader. But I’d bet my copy of this DVD that Wood did an uncredited assist on the story with a promise to eat it, too, if someone can prove he didn’t, as too many of the plot elements echo Wood’s ideas for Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959).

Also taking a few deferred payment cues from Wood and remembering what Corman had done with his minimal cast and limited settings in The Day the World Ended, Ashcroft figured he could save even more money if he, himself, produced, directed, and edited the film with an even smaller cast and only one solitary setting. Thus and so, budgetary limitations are the true culprit of the moribund action in The Astounding She-Monster -- not helped at all by Ashcroft’s lackluster direction, as once the narrative reaches Cutler’s cabin it never, ever leaves. Sure, all the characters try to leave, numerous times, but are constantly thwarted and herded back inside by the Antarian, starting with Burdell, who leaves Esther behind to watch the hostages while he checks on what all that shooting was about.

Finding Conley dead and the alien lurking nearby, Burdell watches as the Antarian kills Cutler’s dog and then confirms bullets still don’t work before retreating back inside with the body. Examining the corpse, Cutler notes the glowing hand-print on the deceased’s throat and deduces the victim most likely died of acute radium poisoning. While Burdell was gone, Cutler and Margaret had been playing mind-tricks on the besotted Esther in an effort to escape. Now, he sets to work on Burdell, saying since he touched the contaminated body odds are he will die soon, too, unless he gets to a doctor PDQ. In the interest of self-preservation, Burdell agrees to abandon the kidnapping and let them both go if Cutler can get him away from the deadly alien and into the nearest town for treatment in time.

But the Antarian derails their escape attempt by crashing through a window and kills Esther while the others scatter outside. She then pursues Burdell to the lip of a deep ravine, only to fall into it when he manages to sidestep her attack. Thinking the alien’s dead, only she isn’t, Burdell reneges on the deal and prevents Cutler from calling the cops. Seems with the alien no longer a threat, the kidnapping is back on. But once again, the Antarian ambushes them as they try to leave and Burdell is killed.

Once more taking refuge in the cabin, Cutler has deduced the alien must have some kind of metallic force-shield made of radium and platinum, explaining her shimmer, invulnerability, and lethal touch. Digging into his equipment, he quickly whips up an acidic solution he hopes will dissolve this protective barrier. And when this acid-fueled Molotov cocktail proves lethally effective, the Antarian screams and collapses to the floor on impact. Turns out her shield was also protecting her from Earth’s atmosphere, which proved instantly fatal as her remains quickly disintegrate, leaving only the large medallion that was hanging around her neck intact.

And as Cutler wonders how they’re going to explain all of this to authorities since the alien invader just evaporated, Margaret notices the medallion has hinges, figures something must be secreted inside, and reaches for it until stopped by Cutler before receiving a lethal dose of radiation.

Donning protective gloves, he satisfies her “feminine curiosity” by popping the trinket open, revealing a message inside -- an invitation, really, addressed to the People of Earth from the "Master of the Council of Planets of the Galaxy." Seems the Antarian was sent to establish relations with Earth so these superior beings could help ease us primitives through some atomic growing pains so we don’t blow ourselves or any nearby galaxies out of existence. How these aliens will react to us attacking and killing their ambassador, who, in hindsight, only acted in self-defense? No one can say, says Cutler, but he fears to find out when they inevitably come looking for her.

Like a lot of gonzo monster movies from this era, the tale of their production more often than not proves more entertaining than the film itself -- and that is definitely true for The Astounding She-Monster, which is a bit of a snoozer. In fact, the film almost wasn’t finished. Seems Ashcroft hocced all of his furniture for a loan and borrowed enough money from several friends to get all of his interior shots done in just four days at the notoriously cheap Larchmont Studio before the meager budget ran out and the film went on hiatus.

Using this completed footage, Ashcroft was then able to secure a completion loan to get all of his exterior shots in and around the Griffith Observatory and Frazier Mountain Park. By then, he had fired his original cinematographer, William Thompson -- another Ed Wood veteran, who shot Glen or Glenda (1953), Bride of the Monster (1955), and The Violent Years (1956), because he got caught stealing raw film stock, and replaced him with an uncredited Brydon Baker. Beyond that, his crew consisted of two gaffers and one sound man. That’s it. And he lost the sound man when they started shooting outside because he could no longer afford him, necessitating all the cranky narration at the beginning of the film. And personally, I’d call Gene Kauer’s score a demented car race between Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” swapping paint with Gustav Holst’s “The Planets."

Ashcroft also saved money on his monster costume, which consisted of nothing more than a tight spandex leotard, painted on eyebrows at very severe angles, and a cheap ripple dissolve to suggest a constant, shimmering radiation discharge. The problem was this catsuit was too tight and his star, Shirley Kilpatrick, could barely squeeze into it. And while this showed off all of her ample curves rather stupendously, the poor gal could barely move in the damned thing without destroying it, explaining why it always looked like she was failing a sobriety test every time she ambled into a scene. She also couldn’t sit down, requiring the use of a surfboard to lean against, which was then gently lowered to the floor between takes.

Of course, it’s fairly notorious B-movie lore that at some point the She-Monster suit inevitably did split up the back during the production. And with no time or money to fix it, Kilpatrick was forced to clumsily back out of several scenes just as clumsily as she came into them to keep the damage hidden. 

The costume was still intact when she tumbled down the ravine, and if I had to guess I would say it finally gave up the ghost when the Antarian crashed through the cabin’s picture window. Apparently, this stunt was a disaster from the get go. The giant pane of candied glass she was supposed to burst through was accidentally dropped while installing it and subsequently shattered on impact. Unable to replace it, Ashcroft salvaged the biggest pieces left and embedded them in the frame, explaining the pre-broken window, the weird angle, and hackneyed editing during this sequence, negating any real impact.

Kilpatrick herself was a bit of an enigma. Apparently she was a model and a stripper, who went by the handle Celeste Kirk. She started showing up in men’s magazines as a popular pin-up around 1954, where her blurbs claimed she desired to be an actress. Alas, aside from her mute role in The Astounding She-Monster, Kilpatrick would only have one more screen credit after producer Phil Waxman caught her act and cast her to play a stripper in The Gene Krupa Story (1959). And while for the longest time there had been a galloping and very persistent rumor among the brethren that Kilpatrick and actress Shirley Stoler of The Honeymoon Killers (1970) were the same person, this has recently been dispelled as false.

It should also be noted that Ashcroft’s wife, Lorraine, served as Kilpatrick’s stunt-double and stand-in. So that’s most likely her crashing through the window and tangling with the bear. Yeah, this movie showcases several scenes of the alien having run ins with a stock-footage snake, a coyote, and a bear to pad out a few reels. But unlike the other two, the script called for the Antarian to fight and kill the bear. According to an interview with noted film historian Tom Weaver, Ashcroft managed to secure a bear from a dubious animal trainer. The bear was “mean as hell,” Ashcroft recalled, and extremely uncooperative. 

And later, as he edited the film together in his living room, he realized he didn’t have enough coverage to make the scene work, which would require re-shoots. But when he contacted the trainer, he was told the bear was no longer available because it was currently taking up space in their freezer. E’yup. The animal proved too unruly, and so, the trainer shot it and carved it up for steaks. Relating his problem to Wood, his friend suggested they just go rent a bear costume to get the close-ups he needed. This they did, sealing Duncan inside the suit, who nearly asphyxiated himself as he continued to chain smoke while stitched up inside.

Duncan was a legendary drinker and often threw debaucherous parties at his home. (Wood would often be found passed out near the pool.) Duncan was also a notorious lecher and for being second only to Milton Berle when it came to the size of his *ahem* “wedding tackle.” (His nickname was “Horsedick” after all.) As for the rest of the cast, Marilyn Harvey and Ewing Miles Brown don’t leave much of an impression, but I dug Jeanne Tatum’s take on the lush. I love how she always stood up to Burdell and always corrected his grammar. And then there’s Robert Clarke, who didn’t really enjoy this experience. However, he did learn from it and, taking his salary plus a contractual percentage of the film’s eventual sale to a distributor, made his own far superior cheap-jack genre pictures, The Hideous Sun Demon (1958) and Beyond the Time Barrier (1960).

Yeah, after filming was completed Ashcroft managed to sell the film to American International Pictures, who were that desperate for product at the time, for around $60,000 in one of the quickest deals Jim Nicholson and Sam Arkoff ever made. And let's be honest. The main reason anyone remembers this movie at all is thanks to the outstanding bait and switch poster art cooked up by Al Kallis for AIP, which is AH-mazing. I think it was AIP who dropped The Naked Invader title and rechristened the film as The Astounding She-Monster, sending it out on a double-bill with Corman’s marquee-busting The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1958). And I’ve often wondered if it was AIP who added the shimmering ripple effect to the negative to try and give the Antarian some sense of menace because I honestly doubt Ashcroft could’ve afforded that type of optical.

As for Ashcroft, he would take his profits and immediately invested them in his next picture, The Girl with an Itch (1958), which did so poorly he soon found himself broke and begging for work, earning him a temporary assistant director’s gig for Wood’s Night of the Ghouls (-- which was shot in 1958 but wasn’t released until the 1980s over unpaid lab fees), where he spent most of his time drinking up the film’s budget with its director and star -- Duncan again, dealing with the recalcitrant Tor Johnson, who didn’t get paid upfront like he was supposed to and walked because Wood blew it all on booze, and to keep Duncan “from chewing on Valda Hansen’s tits."

Thus, unless you wanna count Like Wow (1962), a nudie cutie rip-off of The Immoral Mr. Tease (1959), that would make The Astounding She-Monster Ashcroft’s lasting cinematic legacy. A very cheap, meandering, and not a very exciting legacy because the film isn’t very good and makes little to no sense. I mean, for such an advanced alien race, surely they would’ve known how deadly their radiation suits would be? And why would you send a mute as your ambassador? And don’t give me any language barrier crap, that note was written in English. And for heaven’s sake, wouldn’t they have at least let us know they were coming? Was she trying to save Cutler and Margaret from the bad guys? She went after all of the villains first, right? Sure, this could’ve all been fixed with a few simple comments from the narrator, saying her translator and suit had been damaged in the crash, or we got the message but didn’t translate it in time, even adding more tragedy to this situation as it unfolded but, nope, Mr. Redundant was too busy bitching about the bourgeois life of a debutante. I presume the surprise ending was intended as a shock moment, but it barely musters a dry popcorn fart.

And while I usually have a lot of patience with these types of genre films, forgiving low budgets and lack of any discernible talent if I get a sense of a sincere effort or even a glimmer of some ingenuity from the filmmakers to overcompensate for the visible spit and bailing wire holding things together and engages you on SOME level but, in the end, The Astounding She-Monster fails on all fronts, making it a prime example of an erratic, defensive-driving course kind of filmmaking at its absolute worst.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween! 26 Days! 26 Films! 26 Reviews! And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage as The Fiasco Brothers and I countdown from A to Z all October long! And that's one review down with 25 more to go! Up Next: When Disney went PG!

The Astounding She-Monster (1957) Hollywood International Pictures :: American International Pictures / P: Ronald V. Ashcroft / D: Ronald V. Ashcroft / W: Frank Hall / C: William C. Thompson / E: Ronald V. Ashcroft / M: Gene Kauer / S: Robert Clarke, Kenne Duncan, Marilyn Harvey, Jeanne Tatum, Ewing Miles Brown, Shirley Kilpatrick

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