Capsule Reviews: June 15 – 17

Attack of the 50-Foot Woman (Nathan Hertz, 1958)

Village of the Giants (Bert I. Gordon, 1965)

Queen of Outer Space (Edward Bernds, 1958)

Mars Needs Women (Larry Buchanan, 1968)

Two trends dominate the latest batch of TCM’s Drive-In Classics series (airing every Thursday in June): humans-turned-humongous and interplanetary-battle-of-the-sexes. Despite its cheapjack budget (approaching nonexistent) and risible effects, there’s an amusingly acrimonious air to the proceedings in Attack. Wealthy socialite Nancy Archer gets exposed to alien radiation and experiences a late-life growth spurt (“Astonishing growth!” quips the suspiciously German-accented Doktor Cushing), just in time to tear up the joint where her two-timing husband and his floozy are boozing it up. By film’s end, all three lay dead. Really, there isn’t much more to it than that, but then again that’s plenty.

Although I missed the first act of Village, I was informed by a reliable source that it began with extended dance and musical performance segments (courtesy of The Beau Brummels. Who, you ask? Now might be a fine time to consult your local Wiki.) At about the 45 minute-mark, the teenybopper rebels without a clue (with a barely post-pubescent Beau Bridges as their not-so-fearless leader) decide to stand up for themselves. (Boy, do they ever!) Their attempt to take over the town is foiled by boy genius Ronnie Howard (long before he cut it short at “Just Ron” and started fobbing off middlebrow mush and Dan Brown balderdash on the viewing public). Trivia of note: the extended post-gargantuanization tribal dance the Big Kids indulge in (it must last damn near five minutes!) is set to composer/arranger Jack Nitzsche’s “The Last Race,” which QT later pilfered…oh, I mean borrowed…as the theme for his Death Proof segment of Grindhouse (2007). Finally, anti-rebel ringleader Tommy Kirk (formerly a Disney child star) would secure the lead three years later as the Martian Dop in the gloriously inept Mars Needs Women (see below).

Zsa Zsa Gabor—at the height of her plush pulchritude—stars in, but not as, Queen. Its costumes may be recycled from Forbidden Planet (1956), and its sets may resemble Dr. Seuss by way of Timothy Leary, but the moral to the story is pretty amusing: When their rocket launch goes horribly awry (don’t they usually?) after being zapped by a Space Ray of unknown origin, a rough-and-ready (not to mention randy) bunch of American astronauts crash land on Venus. Now that we know (thanks to John Gray) that’s where women are from, it should come as no surprise to find the entire planet is populated exclusively by the fairer sex. (Leading to this riotous bit of scientific speculation as to how the Venusians perpetuate themselves: “Perhaps this is a civilization that exists without sex.” “You call that a civilization?” “Frankly, no.”) Turns out masked Queen Yllana has exiled all the menfolk from the planet after a series of brutal wars (SPOILER ALERT, like you care…) have left the Queen’s face terribly disfigured by radiation. Driven by her misanthropy, she vows to destroy the Earth with her redoubtable Beta Disintegrator. HOW TO READ THIS FILM: Ugly women (read:…draw your own conclusions) hate men, while beautiful, busty gals like courtier Talleah (Gabor) will risk life and limb to help them out in a pinch (and, oh yeah, save the Earth from certain annihilation). Since the script, by Twilight Zone regular Charles Beaumont, was based on an outline from screwball scribe Ben Hecht, we can assume that the contrasting varieties of sexism, however “benevolent,” are entirely intentional.

Made-for-TV movie produced at the behest of drive-in juggernaut AIP, Larry Buchanan produced/wrote/directed Mars for a reputed $20,000. (It shows.) His instructions were clear and simple: “We want cheap color pictures, we want half-assed names in them, we want them eighty minutes long and we want them now.” One way to do this, Buchanan quickly realized, would be to pad out the running time, recycling stock footage of Air Force fighter planes buzzing around, intercut with dramatic zoom-ins and –outs on a doggedly stationary loudspeaker. Tommy Kirk stars as Dop, leader of the last-ditch Martian mission to replenish its female population by procuring five Earth women, selected for their physical and mental compatibility. Why, though, the Martians should be quite so concerned that the ladies they’re about to abduct aren’t married remains a bit fuzzy. Interplanetary adultery would seem to be awfully difficult to prosecute…Funny how the Martian morality plays into middle-American values, thus making them implicitly worthy of our women. Enter bodacious babe (and, as it just so happens, resident expert on terrestrial and “outer space medicine,” whatever that might mean) Yvonne “Batgirl” Craig, to whom Dop takes a pretty square, old-fashioned shine. From there on in, obscured by the nebulous billows of dry ice smoke (conveniently explained away by setting the pitifully anticlimactic climax in…a dry ice factory), the best laid plans of Martians and men go steadily asunder.

J’Accuse (Abel Gance, 1919) – 4.5/5

Nearly three-hour antiwar epic from silent cinema pioneer Gance tosses a fleshed-out, nuanced love triangle—sensitive nature poet Jean Diaz, the object of his desire Edith and her brutish, jealousy-wracked husband Francois—into the hellish maw of WWI. The first half hour or so (the film is divided into three parts) depicts the frolicsome harvest festival in Orneval, a remote village in Southern France, introducing the three leads and their relations. When war is declared, the men march off to battle full of zeal and bravado. (It won’t last.) The long middle section chronicles Francois’ “humanization” through self-sacrifice accrued during warfare, as he grows closer to his one-time rival Jean, before eventually revealing the fate of Edith, abducted and raped by German soldiers when Francois sent her away to live with kinfolk near the frontline. When she returns to Orneval with an illegitimate child in tow, her father (a martinet veteran of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870) threatens to kill the girl on sight, as does Francois when he comes home on leave. Such fervent anti-German sentiment lends a darker tinge to the otherwise overt patriotism and melodrama of this portion of the film. The final act contains several stunning sequences, shifting the tone progressively from (melo)drama to horror: In the first, an extended battle scene (shot by Gance with the cooperation of the US Army on the actual battlefield of Saint-Mihiel in the final year of the war), Jean is driven mad from shell-shock and Francois slowly dies from his injuries. In the second, the mad Jean returns one final time to Orneval, on which he unleashes a vision of the wartime dead rising from their graves and descending on the village to ascertain whether or not their sacrifice has been in vain. (This section, though, is somewhat inconsistent: initially, Jean harangues the villagers with an account of their various crimes and misdemeanors, but then ultimately lets them off the hook with the pronouncement that their dead are appeased, their sacrifice has not been for naught.) In the final scene, the hopelessly insane Jean recants his earlier-recited Hymn to the Sun, instead accusing the sun of collusion in the brutality and butchery of war and, as its setting rays fade away, he collapses and dies in the dust.

God’s Little Acre (Anthony Mann, 1958) – 3.5/5

Overheated, Southern Gothic not-so-mellow drama, based on the controversial Erskine Caldwell novel, and directed by Mann with every ounce of widescreen Scope acumen he’d developed over the course of his five-film collaboration with James Stewart (from Winchester ’73 [1950] to The Man From Laramie [1955]), combined with the sinewy, shadowy feel of earlier noir classics like Raw Deal (1948). The story is an obvious allegory for the Post-Reconstruction South and especially the abuse of its natural resources: cotton-farming patriarch Ty Ty (an indelible, aw-shucksy Robert Ryan) would rather dig for the stash of gold his grandfather allegedly buried somewhere on the property a hundred years ago than plow and plant seeds; his sons—married and single (Hawaii Five-0’s Jack Lord among them)—squabble and brawl over the buxom Griselda (Tina “Ginger from Gilligan’s Island” Louise in a fine, understated turn); city-slicker son-in-law Will Thompson (Aldo Ray), when he’s not pining for the unattainable Griselda, dreams of resuscitating the cotton mill (defunct for economic reasons), which he finally attempts with fatal consequences. The yowling free-for-all narrative’s delivered at a fever pitch, ramping up the sexual innuendo (on top of the overt sexual spectacle of scantily clad Southern belles), though one gets the sense there was a whole lot in the source material that had to be expunged, even for the comparatively lax Production Code in force in the late 1950s.

About Budd Wilkins

Budd Wilkins is a writer, film critic and instructor. He is a Staff Critic for Slant Magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Nordic Issue of Acidemic Journal of Film and Media. He is currently writing a chapter for an anthology on international horror directors to be published by Intellect Press and distributed by University of Chicago Press. Mr. Wilkins was born and raised in Hollywood, Florida. He attended Penn State for several years before moving to North Carolina in 1994, where he earned his Bachelor's in Religious Studies and a Master's in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Film Studies from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His primary focus is film history, film literacy and criticism, with the goal of bringing obscure, foreign and films that are labeled "difficult" to the attention of film aficionados of all kinds. Other interests and focus of critique include comparative religion, black humor, 19th century European literature, horror and graphic novels. Mr Wilkins lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Tina. Follow @buddwilkins on Twitter.
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