David MacDonald, 1954
Starring: Patricia Laffan, Hugh McDermott, Hazel Court
A strange ship lands on the Scottish moors near an inn that is all but empty thanks to the winter season. The ship’s only living crew member is Nyah, a black vinyl-clad female alien from Mars determined to take male humans from Earth back with her to help with the Martian breeding program. Since the war on Mars between females and males resulted in a female victory, the male Martians have gradually degraded and are not considered suitable stock for procreation. But the handful of residents remaining at the inn are in no hurry to leave and work together to try to outwit her, though she clearly has superior technology, including sophisticated weapons and a robot companion.
Produced by the Danziger Brothers and distributed by British Lion, this low budget film is unmistakably kitschy and ridiculous, but it also has a certain charm and is far more entertaining than it has any right to be. When I first saw it, I was struck by two things — coincidental relationships with later works of fiction — that were difficult to leave behind. First, the Martian’s robot companion is named Chani, curiously also the name of the memorable love interest in Frank Herbert’s sci-fi masterwork Dune, which was written in 1965, so it’s possible that Herbert saw this film and was struck by this unusual name. According to the internet, it might be of Hebrew origin, though it kept Dune in my mind while I was watching the film. To be clear, the two Chanis have basically nothing in common. The film’s Chani is like a homicidal, slowly moving refrigerator, while Dune’s Chani is a captivating woman.
Obviously it would be unfair to compare Devil Girl From Mars to Dune, but it perhaps made me walk away imagining a richer back story for Nyah, the female alien, than really exists within the film. If one of Dune’s primary strengths is building such a complex universe, Devil Girl From Mars does sort of work towards building a compelling back story for the Martians. Somewhat like Mario Bava’s superior Planet of the Vampires, Nyah is from a violent but oddly sympathetic alien species who are forced to prey upon humans to save their dying race. I wish more had been done with this element of the plot, but it’s certainly one of the best parts of the film. I don’t know about you, but I definitely prefer sci-fi horror mashups where the aliens are fully developed characters rather than nameless monsters (…except, of course, Alien).
The film’s remote location on the Scottish moors — another of its best elements — reminded me of the recent, excellent Under the Skin, a more harrowing, abstract tale of a female alien landing on the moors to prey upon men. There were a number of early British horror films set on the moors (both English and Scottish) and the eerie locale lends itself well to low budgets and spooky visuals. The potboiler setting of the inn has its highs and lows. On one hand, it is really only an excuse to make roughly half the film’s scenes little more than a British tea-time drama with romantic intrigue and a bit of class friction. These overly talkie moments essentially revolve around two couples: a model trying to get away from her married reporter boyfriend, and a barmaid hiding an escaped convict who accidentally killed his wife. a couple with lots of dramatic plots about a budding romance and an escaped convict. Devil Girl From Mars’ scenes basically go back and forth between these moments of personal drama and overwrought and tense moments where Nyah enters the inn, makes threats, goes away, rinse, repeat.
On the other hand, the low number of cast members makes the story a bit more believable, ratchets up the tension, and gives a claustrophobic feel to the proceedings. No one comes to their aid because they are isolated in the country in the middle of winter time, while an invisible wall Nyah has put up around the inn keeps them from going out for help. Despite the cheesiness of the film, there is something horrifying about Nyah’s intentions, though the discussion of what seems to be a planned invasion of Earth — where Martian women will visit major cities to kidnap human men — is never really resolved.
Incredibly, this was based on a stage play (!!!), which perhaps explains the basic sets and pared down story, but Devil Girl From Mars does have some interesting things going for it. Nyah’s imperviousness to human weapons, the advanced Martian technology, and her ray gun that can kill or stun is standard fare in contemporary science fiction, but this was possibly the first film to include a space ship made of living metal that can repair itself. And unlike many other sci-fi films from the period, this has strong sexual themes. Patricia Laftan’s Nyah resembles a modern day dominatrix more than she does any alien species. But like other British films from the period, she is ultimately not a match for the British citizens she goes up against. Despite their martial and technological advancements, the Martians have failed at that most basic of biological requirements — reproduction — and thanks to Nyah’s need for viable males, they are able to outwit her. The escaped convict agrees to go on board the ship and blow it up before it leaves the atmosphere.
Though much about Devil Girl From Mars is enjoyably silly, there are decent special effects and this is an interesting look at British sci-fi horror a few years before Quatermass. Prepare to find some scenes effectively eerie, but much of the running time is padded with unintentional hilarity — such as the robot Chani, whose ridiculous figure leeches away a bit of Nyah’s gravitas. I couldn’t help but wonder why Patricia Laffan (who stars as Nyah) didn’t appear in more genre films — she would have made a great Bond girl — though there is a solid, likable cast of familiar faces including Hugh McDermott (The Seventh Veil), Hammer and Roger Corman regular Hazel Court, Adrienne Corri (Vampire Circus), and John Laurie, who was like an early British horror version of John Carradine. Pick up the affordable DVD for some vintage horror that makes for fun Halloween season viewing.