AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: 15th January, from Studiocanal
RUNNING TIME: 77 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
Visiting the Bonnie Prince Inn in the Scottish Highlands are Professor Arnold Hennessey, an astrophysicist, accompanied by journalist Michael Carter, both of whom have been sent by the British government to investigate a meteor landing in the area. Also arriving are model Ellen Prestwick who’s escaping an affair with a married man, and escaped convict Robert Justin who wants to reunite with barmaid Doris. Then a flying saucer crash lands outside and from it steps Nyah, who’s from Mars. After a war between the sexes, women now rule on Mars but the male breeding stock is depleted and she’s come to Earth searching for men to help repopulate, her destination actually being London….
I previously reviewed this ten years ago upon its UK DVD release from the sadly recently deceased Network Distributing, but, seeing as we now have a new and improved disc from Studiocanal, was more than happy to revisit it, and in the process amend and add to my older review. I rather liked this slice of micro budget science fiction which, despite having something of a cult following [but then don’t so many of these B-movies?], albeit a cult following which is probably based largely on the appearance of its alien, seems to be generally regarded as terrible. However, I tend to have a different idea of what might be considered “terrible”, and Devil Girl From Mars doesn’t really fit into it. It’s a film which had extremely limited resources but which does the best it can with them. Most of the movies inspired by all those UFO sightings in the late ’40s came from America, the Brits taking their time with the matter until 1954 when, as well as this film, we had, following its 1953 TV incarnation, The Quatermass Experiment, plus the far less respected and seen The Stranger From Venus, which was basically an unofficial remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still, the seminal 1951 classic also an obvious influence on Devil Girl From Mars too, yet the latter is also rather unique. Bearing the title that it has, you would have every right to expect a very laughable and tacky film, and in some ways that’s what we still get, but it’s pretty interesting in some aspects, and anyway an interesting poor film is often much more worthwhile viewing than an uninteresting good one. This one has a charming eccentricity and odd conviction which, even if you end up chuckling at some of the proceedings [something which even I’ve done] is hard to shake off.
According to screenwriter James Eastwood, it came about because he was working with the producing brothers The Danzigers on Calling Scotland Yard, which appeared as both an American TV series and as cinema featurettes in Great Britain and the British Commonwealth. When production finished ahead of schedule, Eastwood was ordered to use up the remaining film studio time at Shepperton Studios already booked and paid for by working on a feature film. Supposedly [there’s no real evidence that it actually existed and if it did it was almost certainly unpublished] based on a stage play by John C. Mather of the same name, it seems like very little was altered, the result still coming off as a stage play for much of the time. Shooting only lasted three weeks and often went well into the night. To save money, there were no retakes except in cases where the film stock became damaged, Star Patricia Laffan not only had to suffer wearing a very hot and uncomfortable outfit but wasn’t allowed to eat or drink on set because it would have meant repeatedly taking her costume off which was always a long and difficult exercise. According to Hazel Court, Chani the robot [more on him later] was fully automated but kept breaking down during filming. The sound editor was Gerry Anderson – yes, the Gerry Anderson, while money was saved by composer Edwin Astley reusing his score for the TV series Sabre Of London. The cheapie could hardly not do good business. When she was ten years old, highly regarded science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler was inspired to start writing after seeing it, convinced she could come up something better. She probably did, but then another writer of the same genre, Harold Waldrop, said he became a writer because he wanted to transmit to others the weird effect the film had on him.
We open with a plane flying before it disappears in an explosion, the titles then taking place over a sky, before a shot of our main location which will be reused over and over again. The BBC Home Service is reporting about a meteor crashing and sightings of a white aircraft – well, before Mrs Jamieson turns the news off because her son Tommy has to go to bed. Meanwhile astronomer Professor Arnold Hennessey and journalist Michael Carter, who’ve been sent to investigate this meteorite. are lost in their car and find themselves at the Bonnie Prince Inn [though the sign to it just says “Bonnie Inn”], asking for a room for the night. Prison escapee Robert Justin, though calling himself Albert Simpson, is walking along a road, then hiding from a car, before also arriving at the inn. He knocks on the door to be welcomed by his ex-girlfriend Doris; he has no money, so Doris convinces Mrs Jamieson to let him do jobs in the place for some cash. “You killed her” says Doris. “It was an accident” replies Robert. “Was it an accident you killed her instead of me”? asks Doris. We never find out much more about this, by the way, though it’s interesting to have a sympathetic murderer in a film of the period, and a wife murderer at that. Also recently arrived is model Ellen Prestwick, while handyman David lurks around and Mr Jamieson seems to be interested in getting a drink rather then helping his wife out. “You won’t get much of a story here” somebody says to Carter, who just wants to chat up Ellen. Then Ellen sees a flash of light in the sky, Hennessey says that it’s a shooting star, and Carter recognises Justin and is about to expose him when a huge throbbing noise shakes the pub and a flying saucer lands just outside. “It’s like something from another planet” remarks Carter, though others disagree.
Around twenty minutes of the brief running time is spent on establishing the characters and getting some of them to the Bonnie Prince Inn. Even when this Martian does repeatedly show up, the film spends a great deal of time on the humans chatting in the pub, and you know what, I really didn’t mind, even though the characters and their situations are pretty much stock, and the attraction between Carter and Ellen isn’t written very well at all, particularly the scene where he comes into her room and immediately tells her that he knows that she’s running away from someone; it just rings false, especially in terms of her character immediately accepting this. Nonetheless, I quite liked spending time with these people. The film obviously didn’t have the budget to have much alien ‘stuff’, but this probably works to its advantage. If they’d tried to have a lot going on, a lot of it would have just looked ridiculous. And the ante is soon raised more and more as Nyah has certain powers to assist her in her demands, such as the creation of an invisible wall around the inn to stop anybody leaving, not to mention mind control and a freezing ray, though the latter two are rather randomly used, and a bout of fisticuffs seems rather out of place. It seems that Earth’s atmosphere was dangerous for the saucer and part of it fell off, this being the meteorite, yet this visitor isn’t really sympathetic, even though there are times where we are made to partially understand Nyah’s point of view as the humans scheme and constantly cheat her, and we’re told in detail what happened to Mars. And we always seem to have Mrs Jamieson around to make a nice cup of tea, so there is that.
Our alien is given a whole load of dramatic entrances. Clad entirely in black, she has a leather cape, boots, and a sphinx-like skullcap, looking like some weird dominatrix. Was any sexual aspect intended, at least by costume designer Ron Cobb? Add to that a very highbrow accent, and you have a memorable villain who may not seem too alien but is certainly both scary and bizarrely appealing; you won’t be able to take your eyes off her when she’s on-screen, despite the luminous presence of Hazel Court, who’s required to emote in the most cliched manner, and Adrianne Corri. Nyah is played in a perfect manner by Patricia Laffan, best known from Quo Vadis, where she played a somewhat similar character. She takes the role seriously, which of course makes it funnier for some. I reckon feminists could have real fun with this film, some finding it very pro-female, and others seeing it as typically sexist of the times, with a fear of strong, sexually upfront, women. In any case, it’s notable that the men are mostly weak, being pretty ineffectual even when they go into action. And this film almost belongs to that weird little cycle of ’50s science fiction films that show alien societies where women have taken over and/or eliminated men altogether. The story has its stupid aspects. Nyah may have great power, but she’s also pretty stupid, and not just because she shows someone how her ship is powered. Rather than just take some men away for the females on Mars to breed with, she instead shows up and tells people that she’s going to do it. And, come on, surely if she had just simply asked for volunteers in a nice way, male members of the human population would have swarmed her! She wouldn’t have had to kill anybody! Sometimes the script goes overboard with bogus scientific terms, but then it also has some good concepts, often used decades later, like an organic spacecraft that can repair itself, though they don’t tend to be used as much as they could be.
Two major events take place offscreen, though occasionally we go outside to a very atmospheric moor set and some action around Nyah’s spaceship, which though typically flying saucer-shaped, has a convincingly spinning rim and an interior which plays tricks with perspective. There’s a scene which tries to replay the great bit in The Day The Earth Stood Still when Gort the robot first comes out of the spaceship to blast all those soldiers. Nyah says she’s going to show people real alien power, the hatch slowly opens, and through what seems like a fog steps out….a fridge with arms, legs and a police siren for a head, which then vapourises a tree, a truck and a barn. Chani is one of the silliest looking robots in cinema history, he’s just hilarious in both looks and the way he walks, like on tiptoe but with his feet on the ground. Despite what Court has said, it looks as if a person is inside. Some of the other special effects in this film, considering how cheap it is, are pretty good. There’s some impressive matte work with people by the spaceship and Chani, and an explosion in space which is probably an underwater explosion transposed but is certainly cool to look at. Director David MacDonald keeps things moving and loves compositions where most of the characters are together, while the good cast does well, John Laurie doing his usual amusing Scotsman act. Edwin Astley’s recycled score actually works pretty well, despite its very repetitious nature. The ominous drum-dominated music used for the alien menace is effective and the string-led romantic stuff for the two relationships are solid without dominating. Devil Girl From Mars is a surprisingly intriguing piece, rather strange and even ahead of its time, yet in some ways as British as you can get. You won’t get lots of thrills and spills if you decide to purchase it, but it’s oddly compelling, so I don’t think that you’ll be disappointed, and it’ll probably stick in your mind for quite a while, and not in ss bad a way as you may think. After saying all that, many readers will probably still think that I have rated it too highly, but hey!
Studiocanal have called this a new restoration, though details are scarce. It looks it, though. Except for the Region 1 Elite Entertainment DVD, all previous releases seem to have used public domain copies, even Network’s which didn’t appear on Blu-ray but looked reasonably okay on DVD. Therefore the improvement for UK viewers will be immense. Contrast is great, detail is considerable and most of the effects still look okay.
Brand new audio commentary with Kim Newman and writer & journalist Barry Forshaw
Newman, who calls this “an astonishing piece of cinema” seems to be at his best when discussing vintage low budget quickies, while Forshaw has become as good a commentary companion for Newman as his old mate Stephen Jones. They both express their liking – or rather their love – for it eloquently and convincingly, even if I can’t agree with them that the robot is fine. They discuss all the expected things, such as the PVC costume – Adrienne Corri said that the cast were often laughing because of the PVC costume while some have said it wasn’t even designed by Cobb – plus related subjects like British sci-fi of the decade and the influence that comic books had. As usual Newman tends to lead, often by asking questions, but Forshaw certainly contributes a lot too. A wonderful track.
Brand new interview with novelist and critic Kim Newman [18 mins]
This piece can’t help but repeat material heard in the audio commentary, such as a review at the time showing unusual [considering the snobbishness of so much film criticism back then] liking of the film, though there tends to be more detail. Newman is probably right when he says that Devil Girl From Mars is “unlike anything else in British cinema in the 1950’s”, and points out some interesting things such as so many sci-fi of the time having religious elements added; Devil Girl From Mars only has a little. However, he makes a rare mistake when he says that Nyah has come to steal Scotsmen; it’s clearly stated in the film that she was en route to London.
A set of four collector’s art cards [Blu-ray only]
Strange and making good use of its tiny budget, “Devil Girl From Mars” is hardly an unappreciated classic but is very likeable. Studiocanal’s release is an essential upgrade for fans. Recommended!