Tag Archives: B-movies

Female Creatures and Science Experiments Gone Amiss

Poster for The Wasp Woman

Films about disastrous science experiments follow a familiar format: well-meaning scientists searching for immortality or age-defying cosmetics, for instance, step a little too far into the unknown. The result is a contortion of human life that is uncontainable unless, usually, it is killed. An initial moral dilemma about manipulating ‘nature’ is followed by extreme guilt and a perverse fluctuation between the pleasure of controlling new discoveries and the knowledge that what might surface from the void might escape your control. An interesting sub-genre features monstrous women at the centre of these crises. They include Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958) directed by Nathan Juran, The Wasp Woman (1959), directed by Roger Corman, and Firestarter (1984), directed by Mark L. Lester and written by Stephen King. So what happens when the female of the species enters the equation? Girl sci-fi creatures in cinema are very enigmatic, and, to me, there is nothing more reassuring than a celluloid lady running riot.

In the language of conservative, mainstream film women are already unknowable, ineffable, irrational so they perfectly fit with stories about scientific experiments that venture into unknown territory. Often, the female characters are already presented as monsters in some way from the beginning. ‘Just who do they think they are?’ the filmmakers seem to ask. In two of the films mentioned, the narrative world of the film centres around women who are economically powerful. Janice Starlin in The Wasp Woman owns and directs a successful cosmetics company, Nancy Fowler Archer in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman supports her husband with her personal riches. Their ambition is presented as ruthless, they are outlawed for denying a ‘maternal instinct’. They are obsessive, jealous, neurotic and can’t be contained.

Then the mutations begin: traditionally, women are abducted by aliens or they get involved with hybrid experiments involving the ingestion of insect extracts, their DNA is spliced with an animal’s, or parts of their brain become overactive, and so on. The narratives of this sub-genre seem to suggest that this is the women’s comeuppance for their failings. Male scientists, doctors and those acting for the moral good see the monsters as a threat to national security. But this is intricately tied up with a general anxiety about the female body and the way it changes and develops. It is the non-human that impacts on these women’s already ‘unknowable’ and shifting bodies. In Firestarter, Charlie McGee is the lovechild of a couple involved in a drug test. The test left them with psychic abilities and Charlie’s quirk is pyrokinesis – she can think people and things on fire. The original doctor who held the test is convinced that her powers are caused by her overactive pituitary gland. They are due to get stronger with the onset of puberty. This ‘sleeping gland’ is about to wake up and she could be used to create explosions that may reach nuclear strength. Indeed, Charlie does erupt and avenges her parents’ death. Cue big fires, horses being released, fathers dying and other Freudian symbology.

Interestingly, the initial drug that Charlie’s parents were injected with was a synthetic copy of pituitary extract, something that re-appears in the other films. In Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Nancy Fowler Archer has an extraterrestrial encounter that involves being exposed to radiation. She later grows to 50 feet tall. Although it is muttered in the film, the doctor who treats Nancy says that while her condition is undiagnosed it can be related to an ‘overactive forward lobe of the pituitary process’ or something similar. Not quite so specifically, in The Wasp Woman, Janice Starlin enjoys a miracle preparation derived from wasp enzymes. This affords her temporary regeneration and seeming youth. She ODs, becomes psychotic and grows a hairy wasp head. But essentially she messes around with the natural ageing process.

So here’s the science: the pituitary gland is involved in homeostasis, the regulation of processes such as growth and sexual development. This gland is the epicentre for a scientific understanding of all the flux that women’s bodies present. The references are made in the films, I think, to indicate efforts to control and understand female bodies and the ultimate fear of a loss of that control. So in these films, women, monstrous by nature, are attacked by monsters that turn them into even scarier monsters: there does seem to be a glaring anxiety about women’s power here. The film’s narratives would have it that these aberrant women are out of control, but it’s also possible to read their extreme gestures as acting out a process of ‘taking control’. It’s this that might particularly appeal to a female audience.

The scenes where women are seen to do this are the most spectacular and entertaining in the films. Charlie McGee, in a trance with her hair flying around, appears to be in control of unearthly forces. She causes phenomenal explosions, cars burst into flame, three-pronged fireballs take out secret agents, brick walls are reduced to dust. She is allowed a certain amount of screen cool that is usually reserved for boys. The scenes are transporting and magical, and all the more because a nine-year-old girl, who would usually be largely invisible or performing a cutesy role, is the puppet master. When Nancy Fowler Archer decides to use her size to show her cheating husband just what she thinks of him she never looked so glamorous. She is suddenly blond, presumably from the radiation, and her clothes have been torn off her back to create a burlesque corset and mini skirt. She strides across the desert, glowing, to gloriously pull the roof of a hotel. Finally, perhaps when watching The Wasp Woman we can ask, ‘Who wouldn’t want to stay looking young, when this is viewed as one of the measure of success and power?’ Male CEOs can grow old gracefully but women in charge and in the public eye have a very different treatment. Although I personally think her killer queen look is fantastic, it’s ultimately a true manifestation of the monster within.

Nicola Woodham

Cine-Excess 2010: The Movie Orgy

Poster for Tarantula

Cine-Excess 2010: Corporeal Excess: Cult Bodies

Odeon Covent Garden, London

April 29 – May 1, 2010

Cine-Excess website

‘The 50s were a great time to be a kid, because the whole culture was so juvenile.’
Joe Dante

‘Go get ’em, midnight!’ says the scarred man, sending his trained horse down by itself to attack the two riders in the valley below. ‘Lousy cops, always crowding a guy,’ snarls a teen hoodlum anti-hero swerving his car to avoid a back projection. Later he’ll be beaten up in a clumsy cafe brawl that he starts with the line ‘you’re outta your class, throttle jockey!’ Alfred Hitchcock pops up, presenting something. Then there’s Naked City spliced with a stag reel. The Lone Ranger patronises Tonto, Nabisco cereals are giving away ‘Defenders of America’ cards with their shredded wheat, baseball cards depicting US submarines, planes and missiles to warm the heart of your little cold warriors. The sponsors of Robin Hood, Wildroot Cream Oil, proudly announce that it ‘contains lanolin and cholesterol’, and on it goes: George Reeves’s Superman, Abbot and Costello, Rin Tin Tin, Bufferin and Lifebuoy soap, Alpha Bites cereal and Lustre Creme….

This is Joe Dante’s Movie Orgy, a hand-spliced avalanche of mostly monochrome pop culture, adverts, TV shows, B-movies, and whatever else Dante could find, made in 1968 and then toured round college campuses for the next two years. Screenings were supported by Schlitz beer, and the full thing lasted for seven hours (Dante: ‘after the third hour it got funny’). I’m watching a 90-minute edit courtesy of Cine-Excess, the cult film conference, and then sticking around as the charming Mr Dante is interviewed by Kim Newman afterwards. There was only ever one print of The Movie Orgy, and it played 200 dates, constantly falling apart, being added to, cut and re-spliced. No permission was sought for the use of the Orgy footage, and it carries a sly 68 anti-Establishment charge; Vietnam hangs heavily in the background (a trailer for John Wayne’s The Green Berets is one of the few contemporary clips to turn up), and the sexual and racial attitudes of the 50s are repeatedly brought into question. You can almost smell the dope smoke as you watch it today.

The teen hoodlum flick is called Speed Crazy, the cheapo Western remains unnamed, a random pattern that continues throughout; we know that Teenagers from Outer Space and The Giant Gila Monster are in there, and devotees will recognise Bert I Gordon’s The Beginning of the End and Jack Arnold’s Tarantula, but for much of the rest we’re on our own in a world devoid of explanation, the only context being provided by juxtaposition. Whole features are hacked down to their essentials, mined for weirdness and hilarity, the stuff that Dante and friends found funny at NYU at the time, and the stuff that they thought was cool when they were nine years old. At times it resembles a teenage mix tape made with love, at others a scabrous unveiling of the American subconscious, and mostly it’s a goofy mess. With its hand-lettered titles, varying sound levels, clicks, pops and hisses, it’s a distinctly low-fidelity experience, but that adds to its crude power. It’s like Andy Warhol via Mad Magazine, and though it’s largely shapeless there’s a definite method in the madness somewhere. Dante recalls that the original epic ended with a solid 20 minutes or so of the closing moments of dozens of different old shows, and the whole ‘happy trails, buckaroos’ montage would reduce most of the hardy souls who had sat through the whole thing to tears. In a world without video, DVD or the internet, all this material, this 50s juvenilia, had disappeared from people’s lives, and The Movie Orgy dredged it up, sliced it into pieces and fed it back to the viewers, in what must have been a strange and heady experience. Dante had the idea for The Movie Orgy after noting the popularity of a college screening of a complete 1940s Batman serial over five hours. Without the week-long wait between episodes that characterised the original run the audience were made forcefully aware of the repetitions of footage, the outrageous cheat cliff-hanger endings, and all the absurdities and narrative contortions of the type of entertainment that they had doubtless accepted at face value when they were children.

Susan Sontag’s influential essay on camp had recently been published, and The Movie Orgy followed its lead: to be included, footage had to be played totally straight, otherwise it wasn’t funny, and it should ideally push the buttons of the baby boomers in the audience. Rules are made to be broken, and some knowing satirical clips appear amid the Howdy Doody and Puralin, but for the most part it’s an unpolished, disarming trawl through the cathode ray hinterland I only knew through Drew Friedman’s genius comic strips. Here they are, the aging music hall comedians, hard-sell commercials and nightmarish kids’ shows, a festival of hokey staging and stiff delivery. It’s baffling and alarming and hilarious by turns; one moment you could be watching an ad for the Little Hostess Buffet set ‘by Marx’, a toy full dinner service for the career-free little girl, the next you’re pitched into the sheer proto-Lynchian hell of Andy’s Gang, where a live cat and mouse (Midnight and Squeaky) have been strapped into torture devices so that they can be filmed playing Salvation Army drums from a variety of angles while a distressed-looking fat man warbles ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so’ over the footage. It’s a good thing that the kids in the Andy’s Gang audience are provided by stock footage, otherwise they would be screaming in abject terror, as I would have been had I not been laughing so damned hard.

I would love The Movie Orgy for this sequence alone, and there’s plenty more where that came from. It’s a social document from the heady days of revolution, it’s a post-war treasure trove, and for Joe Dante fans it’s a touchstone. This is where the strait-laced dialogue from Mant, Matinee‘s film-within-a-film came from; here’s the first evidence of the anti-corporate, anti-military creator of Gremlins, Small Soldiers and The Homecoming; hell, here’s even the puerile knucklehead who had a hand in Amazon Women on the Moon. It’s a gas. Now, let’s get the full seven-hour cut over, somebody score some Schlitz beer and home-grown, pull up a beanbag, let’s watch this bastard properly.

Mark Stafford

The Movie Orgy (Joe Dante, USA, 1968) screened at Cine-Excess on April 29.