When Lands the Saucer
Warm up the probulator!
I’m indebted to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for the title of this post. I think it comes from an old copy of The Demon, and it stuck in my mind because I thought it was amusing. (Apparently I’m wrong about the provenance — see comments section.) Any title that seeks grandeur by shuffling the words around (THE RIVER WILD) makes me think of that Dorothy Parker line about “The Play Terrible.”
Let’s be clear — DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS is a B-picture. The opening credit, “Spartan Productions” is hilariously apt.
But D.G.F.M. doesn’t actually fit the “so-bad-it’s-good” paradigm, which is fortunate, because that’s become rather a boring formulation. In fact, bits of the film are genuinely excellent: there’s a really beautiful flying saucer, complete with spinning bit; a smashing robot; a sexy space girl in slinky dominatrix uniform; two more human women of interest to genre fans; and John Laurie, primarily known in Britain for his role in the sitcom Dad’s Army, but familiar to American cineastes for his appearnaces in THE EDGE OF THE WORLD and THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP.
Indeed, considering it’s a sci-fi thriller, there’s more than a whiff of situation comedy about DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS. More on this aspect later.
The bad bits of the film — the lethargic, stay-at-home plot, the indecisive villainess who should be driving the story but keeps dithering, leading man Hugh McDermott’s hideous face — are pretty bad, and sometimes annoying. The combination of good and bad elements is sort of enjoyable and exciting. You never know whether you’re going to be tickled or stabbed, entertainmentwise. It’s like a night out in Glasgow.
The “action” unfolds at a guest house in the Scottish highlands, host to more drama than is typically the case with such establishments, in my experience. A glamorous London fashion model fleeing a doomed relationship is already in residence — this is Hazel Court in her second fantasy film (she’d already done THE GHOST SHIP for Vernon Sewell two years earlier). Then a convicted wife-murderer, escaped from prison, arrives and is sheltered by barmaid Adrienne Corri (another horror/sci-fi regular, best known for being denuded by droogs in CLOCKWORK ORANGE, an Edinburgh-born Scots-Italian beauty who also worked for Preminger, Lean, Renoir…). Challenged to explain why this traveller has no money, she improvises a tale about him bending over to try and catch a salmon, then straightening up to find his wallet gone. The old “fish thief” story — very convincing.
Already we have the tea-obsessed housekeeper and her drunkard husband (John Laurie, natch) and a young nephew from London. Soon, a car-sharing Irish astrophycisist and American journalist turn up. It’s quite a houseful even before the alien invasion begins.
Prof. Hennessey tries to warm his hands on a spaceship.
The American is actually another Edinburgh-born actor, Hugh McDermott, but his accent seems to have taken a transatlantic turn. I have the same trouble myself, actually. Too many Marvel comics as a kid.
Then the saucer lands. And this is the off-season!
Our space vixen informs the residents that she’s come to pilfer our men, replacing the ones who were nuked in the Big Martian Sex War. She does this while ceaselessly, pointlessly walking up and down, like Hamlet’s father’s ghost, which is mildly freaky and kind of effective. Then she tells them they’re surrounded by an invisible barrier and can’t escape — the scientist tries and comes back with a gashed forehead, having walked into it. “I believe what my brain tells me to believe,” he cries, on more than one occasion. He should stop listening, his brain is a fool.
The humes act up, so Mars-Gal shows them her robot, and it’s a beauty. It wantonly discomouferates things, like Gort from THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, three years earlier. One of those coincidences, I expect. Fiona and I were delighted by the robots design, pure Japanese tin toy. And his impressive HEFT. “That terrible robot!” cries Corri. “He’s not, he’s smashing!” shouted Fiona back at her.
The Martian, Nyah, is Patricia Laffan, who played Poppaea in QUO VADIS?, so this may have seemed a bit of a come-down, but she throws herself into it with more sneering superiority than anybody’s ever seen. This is the role she’ll be remembered for. Did she have an inkling of this as she slunk around the tiny set in her erotic space-wear? She’s first seen evaporating a balding wee man, a stereotypical “little worm”, in fact, the image of the masochistic bank manager of suburban sexual legend. She’s also reminiscent of another space-domme, the legendary Supreme Commander Servalan from the B.B.C.’s fondly-remembered but slightly crap Blake’s Seven. Interestingly, Servalan was played by another ex-Hammer glamour queen, the unconventionally beautiful Jacqueline Pearce (PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, THE REPTILE). Pearce is still unconventionally beautiful and still acts, while also working in a monkey sanctuary.
Anyway, returning to the monkey sanctuary that is DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS: I felt that Nyah’s power is considerably diminished by her inability to make up her mind. It may be a Martian’s prerogative, but it doesn’t help the dramatic arc…
Prof. Hennessey tries to warm his hands on a spaceship. Again.
Basically, the dramatic part of the story all unfolds while the saucer is being repaired by “Charlie” the robot. (Not a very Martian name, I’d have thought, although maybe it’s actually spelled “Chaghrrl-A” or something.) During the course of this little pit-stop, Nyah first freezes Corri, then un-freezes her, hypnotises the murderer and makes him go all murderous (doesn’t seem like much of an achievement, but still), abducts the small boy, then releases him, takes the scientist aboard her ship for a little tour, allowing him to gather intelligence to use against them, then announces that she will take one of the men as a guide to help her find her way around London. This conjures amusing images of her quietly landing in Camden Town and wandering the streets in her space garb, unnoticed by the general populace.
The film then allows the characters time to furiously debate who should make the supreme sacrifice by going with Nyah and attempting to sabotage her saucer in mid-flight. But this is a pointless scene, since Nyah has just told them SHE will be making the choice. It’s downright weird, this.
Predictably, Bobby Murderer gets selected so he can redeem himself and the Earth is saved and the landlady gets the kettle on. Suddenly I got the feeling I’d been watching A Very Special Episode of Father Ted. The scientist looks a bit like an older Ted. There’s the dissolute drunkard. And the tea-obsessed housekeeper. Admittedly, there are more babes and spacecraft than usual…
“Now I think we all REALLY need a cup of tea!”
The film is also a fine entry in the gather-in-the-pub-as-the-world-ends school of science fiction, a substrain unique to Britain. See also SHAUN OF THE DEAD, THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING, and several of the QUATERMASS films. See them before you see this, actually. But see this anyway.
Shadowplay would like to thank Huckleberry Hound for the word “discomouferate”.