Charles Saunders, 1958
Starring: George Coulouris, Vera Day
Dr. Moran is visiting the Amazonian jungle when he witnesses a local tribe sacrificing a lovely young woman to a tree god. Though one of his colleagues is killed trying to stop the sacrifice, Moran escapes with his life. Five years later, he has recovered from his trip and returned to England, along with the native Tanga, a ritual drummer, and a carnivorous tree, both of which he has installed in the basement of his mansion, right next to extensive lab equipment. There he plans to feed women to the tree — in an approximation of the native ritual — and use its sap to make a serum to bring the dead to life… like you do. Unfortunately his newest assistant, a beautiful young woman looking to trade in her career as a carnival dancer for some stability, has awakened his passion and could inadvertently ruin years of research.
Known as The Woman Eater in the US, this surprisingly enjoyable film is packed with completely ridiculous moments sure to have you in stitches — or cursing your television if this kind of schlock horror just isn’t your bag. For starters, killer plant films aren’t completely unheard of — horror-comedy The Little Shop of Horrors is a household name — and this underused trope has been explored in things like anthology film Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and its remake, Day of the Triffids, and even has a literary basis through Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (which was adapted into a film costarring Vincent Price).
But it is admittedly tricky to make a homicidal tree frightening and the titular Womaneater has thick, flailing tentacles capped by what look like rubbery green flippers. The film is just incredibly campy in every way, shape, and form. Personally, I delight in a bit of camp where mad science is concerned, but this goes above and beyond — almost back to the days of US horror in the ‘30s and Lugosi’s frequent turns as an evil doctor — going so far as to name one of Moran’s primary scientific instruments “The Pulsometer.” And if you love cheesy sci-fi films with mad doctors and inexplicable experiments, this one is for you.
Now, maybe I saw a slightly cut version of Womaneater, but I can’t figure out how the doctor suddenly realized that if he brought an Amazonian native and a man-eating tree back to his home in the English countryside, fed some women to the tree, and then harvested its sap, that he would be able to produce a serum that brought the dead back to life. Perhaps the film is going for a sort of “all natives practice voodoo” approach, as the one dead person Moran does successfully revive is little more than a mindless zombie. To his horror, he learns that Tanga, his native assistant — who sits around drumming in a loin cloth and presumably never leaves the basement — has only given him some of the facts and thus the years of research and thousands of dollars that he has poured into his experiments are for nought. He can use the serum to bring the bodies of the dead back, but Tanga vaguely explains that the minds of the revived dead “belong to us.” Presumably us means the members of Tanga’s tribe, but who the fuck knows?
The ending also makes no sense. Despite repeatedly insisting that he has no regard for women, he loses his mind when he learns that Sally (Vera Day of The Haunted Strangler) — the carnival dancer who randomly quits her job and comes to live and work in his house — is marrying someone else. The news that his experiments will only ever be partially successful doesn’t help and he retaliates by setting the tree on fire. Tanga, in response, stabs Moran in the back and then jumping into the burning tree, presumably so that they will immolate together. And somehow George Coulouris (seen in everything from Citizen Kane and Murder on the Orient Express) maintains a straight face and believable acting for the entire film, gleefully chewing scenery as he goes.
Despite the film’s casual racism, really cheesy monster, and unabashed use of stock footage, it’s surprisingly fun. I don’t believe it’s released on any official region 1 DVD, but you can find a serviceable DVD-R from Image. Personally I hate the idea of paying for a burned disc, so if you feel the same way you can also find it streaming online. My chief complain about Womaneater is that most of the British horror films from the ‘40s and ‘50s I’ve reviewed to date — including The Ghost of St. Michael’s, The Night Has Eyes, and Uncle Silas — include a malicious housekeeper or governess. The housekeeper in this film has loyally stayed on because she’s in love with Dr. Moran and is waiting around until he returns her feelings (not unlike Pete Walker’s much later The Confessional). Naturally she sets the concluding events in motion when she learns he loves Sally instead.