Mars needs men
Once I get my time machine perfected, one of the first trips I want to make is back to England in the early 1950s, if only to be in the audience for the stage production of Devil Girl from Mars. I bet it was a hoot.
Actually, I’m not sure if the play was ever produced. Thankfully, brothers Edward and Harry Lee Danziger either saw the play or got hold of the script, and decided that its derivative story had the makings of a cracking good movie. The Danzigers already had a reputation as Britain’s B-movie specialists, having produced Edgar G. Ulmer’s St. Benny the Dip and Babes in Bagdad, as well as the seminal women-in-prison melodrama So Young, So Bad. They obviously saw similarities in the story to big hits The Day the Earth Stood Still and Man from Planet X, with the added element of sex appeal.
The setting is a small Scottish inn known as the Bonnie Charlie (which sounds more like a gay bar than a Scottish inn). An astronomer (Joseph Tomelty, later Moby Dick‘s Peter Coffin) and an American newspaper reporter (Hugh McDermott, later in First Men in the Moon) end up at the inn after getting lost trying to track down a meteorite reported in the area. They find the Bonnie Charlie already busy, despite it being the off-season.
Fashion model Ellen Prestwick (Hazel Court, later The Curse of Frankenstein‘s Elizabeth) has been there quite awhile, hiding out from her married boyfriend. And a new guest is Albert Simpson (Peter Reynolds, later in Hands of a Strangler), who is, in reality, escaped convict Robert Sterling, hiding out with his old flame, barmaid Doris (Adrienne Corri, later in the Danziger’s The Tell-Tale Heart, as well as Dr. Zhivago). Everyone drinks quite a lot and deals with an overabundance of backstory, while audience members who tuned in too late to see the title think they’re watching a particularly stagey soap opera.
Just as Carter the reporter is about to identify Sterling the convicted murderer, a huge and noisy spaceship lands in the meadow, throwing everything into chaos. Waves from the ship cut off all communication and render cars inoperable. Everyone has a stiff drink or a cup of tea and discusses what they should do next.
Suddenly, a visitor throws open the double doors and makes a grand entrance. It is Nyah (Patricia Laffan, later in 23 Paces to Baker Street), a one-woman army sent to conquer the Earth in the name of her home planet Mars. The “meteor” turns out to have been a hunk of her spaceship, which broke off when she hit atmosphere, making it necessary she land in Scotland rather than downtown London. There is no need for questions – Nyah immediately delivers a history lecture on how the female population of Mars overthrew the males, then found the genepool drying up and decided to hunt in greener pastures. To put it simply: Mars needs men.
After revealing her master plan for conquest, Nyah – spectacular in her short black leather skirt (later to be known as a “mini” skirt) with matching boots, cape and cowl – retreats to her ship. Everyone has a stiff drink or a cup of tea and discusses what they should do next.
From time to time, Nyah returns to blab more of her plans. She also takes some of the cast back to her ship to show off Martian technology and give ridiculous explanations of how everything works (bullets won’t stop her because she can “take control of the fourth dimension” at will). On one of these field trips, she uses a wicked looking remote control to summon her robot, Chani. Much in the spirit of phony promotional robots making appearances for electric companies at the time, Chani resembles a walking refrigerator with a dome light on top. Nyah also packs a mean little zap gun and can hypnotize people. In between visits, everyone has a stiff drink or a cup of tea and discusses what they should do next.
After a great deal of this episodic and pointless haggling, one member of the party volunteers to accompany the devil girl on her ship. Will he use his chance to blow up the ship – presumably by using a big red lever marked “SELF-DESTRUCT” – or betray mankind by journeying back to Mars to be boy-toy to an entire race of leggy dominatrixes? What would you do?
While the miniatures are unconvincing, and the robot suit is clumsy, quite a few of the optical effects work very well. They are the work of one Jack Whitehead, who also performed solid work on 1935’s Transatlantic Tunnel. It doesn’t hurt that the cinematography was provided by one of Britain’s best cameramen, Jack Cox, who had worked on many early Alfred Hitchcock classics.
By playing the whole thing very straight, director David MacDonald (who later worked on episodes of the Boris Karloff anthology series The Veil) inadvertently keeps the tone both stodgy and outrageously campy. Tall and imperious, Laffan lacks only a bullwhip to take a job in Olga’s House of Shame. The rest of the cast could be picked off the rack at House of Clichés. Filmmakers have always tried to mix sex and space travel, but Devil Girl from Mars was first to bring the notion into the sci-fi boom of the ’50s. Many a Cat Girl and Fire Maiden would follow in her footsteps.
Like their other titles from the Wade Williams collection, Image has packaged the DVD attractively but woefully bereft of any bonuses or extras. The picture looks fine, but the Dolby mix makes all but the most strident sound effects difficult to pick up, and I was forced to keep the volume at maximum. Image would have done better to keep the mono soundtrack