|This magnificent poster semi-accurately represents the contents of The Astounding She-Monster.|
"I said, 'Eddie, you make Roger Corman look like a big time spender!'"
-Filmmaker Ronnie Ashcroft on his friend and colleague, Ed Wood
"We've had to use drastic means to get to you, but you left us no alternative. When you have the solarmanite, you have nothing. Nor does the universe."
-Eros (Dudley Manlove), Plan 9 from Outer Space
|An impressive credit for Ashcroft.|
According to film historian Bruce Eder at the All Movie Guide, "Ashcroft spent years as an editor's assistant, and then moved up to jobs such as sound effects editor for some of the smaller producers; he fulfilled the latter capacity in Roger Corman's The Day the World Ended, in 1956, and was the editor on the independent feature Wetbacks, starring Lloyd Bridges." The Corman movie does not turn up on Ashcroft's obviously-incomplete IMDb filmography, nor do any references to Ronnie's work as an assistant editor. His movie and TV credits there stretch from 1956 to 1983. As Eder suggests, Ashcroft seems to have toiled mainly as a sound editor but also served as a film editor (including a gig working for Edgar Ulmer on 1959's The Naked Venus), producer, director, and writer. His film work seems largely confined to independent features, but Ashcroft found more mainstream employment on television, even landing an Emmy nomination for his work on Police Story in 1974. As a fan of 1960s rock and soul music, I was most impressed to see that Ashcroft had been an "audio consultant" on Steve Binder's The T.A.M.I. Show (1964), perhaps the most magnificent of all concert films.
Ronnie Ashcroft's true "golden age" stretched from about 1957 to 1962. That's when he was an independent producer-director in his own right, working for himself rather than for others. He directed three of his own productions: a sci-fi film called The Astounding She-Monster (1957) and two early, tame sexploitationers, Girl With an Itch (1958) and the Russ Meyer-inspired Like Wow! (aka Mr. Peek-a-Boo's Playmates) (1962). A fourth Ashcroft production, a Western called Outlaw Queen starring jazz bandleader Harry James, was directed by Herbert S. Greene.
|Kenne, Tor, and Ed work on Night of the Ghouls.|
In the meantime, it's perhaps interesting to note that our good friend Kenne Duncan is in Outlaw Queen, while I. Stanford Jolley of The Violent Years is in both Wetbacks and Outlaw Queen. In fact, actor Duncan is the linchpin of the entire Ed Wood/Ronnie Ashcroft saga. "I met Eddie Wood at the home of my good friend, Kenne Duncan," Ashcroft explained to Rudolph Grey in the book Nightmare of Ecstasy.
One day during the making of Night of the Ghouls in 1958, Ed dropped by Kenne's place to give him some good news and bad news. The good news? For just $20, Eddie had rented a tiny studio called Picture Recorders from 6:00pm to midnight and had three sets ready to go. The bad news? His assistant director had quit on him, and Eddie desperately needed someone to corral the actors so that they'd know their lines and be ready to go when it was time to shoot. Being broke, Ronnie Ashcroft said, "I'm available!" Eddie hired him immediately. But an hour before filming got underway, Eddie, Kenne, Ronnie, and cinematographer Bill Thompson took time out to get sloshed at an establishment called the College Inn, where Ed blew through a stack of $100 bills he was supposed to be using as the cast's payroll. When Eddie and the gang finally arrived at Picture Recorders, the hapless director didn't have enough cash on hand to pay Tor Johnson, who then refused to work. Ah, the hazards of no-budget filmmaking, eh?
Curiously, Ronnie Ashcroft discussed his experience on Night of the Ghouls as if it were his first encounter with Edward D. Wood, Jr. But Ghouls was filmed in 1958, and as we shall soon see, Eddie was Ronnie's mentor on a film that had already been released the previous year...
THE ASTOUNDING SHE-MONSTER (1957)
|British lobby card for the film.|
Availability: Thanks to distributor Wade Williams, who plastered his own name over the opening shot despite having no hand in making the movie, this film is easily and cheaply available to the public. You can purchase it as a standalone DVD (Image Entertainment, 2012) or as half of a DVD double feature with Richard E. Cunha's 1958 film, She Demons (Image, 2003). If you'd prefer to stream or download the film instantly, you can do that as well.
|Sci-fi movie posters from the 1950s.|
Strangely, although intended strictly as light entertainment, these movies tended to be grim, fatalistic, and preachy with downbeat endings. But they had eye-catching posters and lobby cards, and their titles employed such telltale buzzwords as "invasion," "planet," "attack," "creature," "robot," "space," and "monster." These movies viewed science either as a near-magical panacea for all of mankind's problems or a menace that would wipe out civilization. Aliens (often appearing in humanoid form) were walking, talking metaphors for all kinds of social concerns, from the ever-looming threat of Communist Russia and the accompanying specter of mutually-assured destruction to the rise of youth culture, which was viewed by many adults as incomprehensible and therefore dangerous.
Although there were occasional "respectable" and high-minded studio-made science-fiction films, such as Fox's The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and MGM's Forbidden Planet (1956), the vast majority of these movies were cheap, quickly-made independent productions aimed squarely at the teenage audience. As the decade wore on, these low-rent flicks got even more gimmicky and outrageous in their attempts to conquer the lucrative youth market with sillier monsters and tackier titles. These are the movies that would eventually form the backbone of TV's Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988-1999), where they were routinely mocked. Though they are fondly remembered by many, the science-fiction films of this era were not exactly highly regarded in critical circles, and they created the general perception among the public that the entire sci-fi genre was mere "kid stuff," a notion only partially dispelled by more serious fare like Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). It really wasn't until George Lucas' Star Wars (1977) became an across-the-board smash that the stigma was erased.
Ronnie Ashcroft's The Astounding She-Monster, for some reason, never turned up on MST3K, nor was it used by any of MST's spinoff projects like Rifftrax, The Film Crew, or Cinematic Titanic. I'm not sure why. It would have been perfect for their purposes, as it is flimsy and ludicrous, yet seems to take itself rather seriously. Its more-or-less brisk pace and merciful 62-minute running time also help. Ronnie Ashcroft, though not a rookie in the film industry, had never actually directed a movie before. For his inaugural feature, then, he apparently decided to keep the film's cast down to six people and limit nearly all of the action to a single location, a cabin said to be in California's San Gabriel mountains. The interiors were rather obviously shot on a set, but The Astounding She-Monster does contain a fair amount of location footage. Characters are seen driving on a remote highway, and there are a few sequences in a wooded area (probably Frazier Park, the same filming site as Fugitive Girls), plus several shots of a ritzy-looking neighborhood the script claims is the affluent West LA community of Brentwood, CA.
This being an Ed Wood-related movie, you can bet there is a generous amount of stock footage, too, specifically shots of animals, including a deer, a snake, and a bear. The authorship of She-Monster is questionable. The credited screenwriter is someone named "Frank Hall," who has no other titles to his name. The IMDb cites Ronnie Ashcroft himself as an unbilled scribe on the project. It's my personal theory that Ronnie's buddy and mentor, Ed Wood, had at least some hand in crafting the screenplay. Maybe that's wishful thinking. What we do know of Eddie's direct involvement in the project comes from an anecdote related by Ashcroft to Rudolph Grey:
|Stock footage of a real bear, intercut with shots of|
the director's wife wresting bear-suited Kenne Duncan.
I was cutting a sequence on The Astounding She-Monster. I got to a point where the invader comes upon a huge black bear. As the girl from outer space reaches out in a friendly gesture to touch the bear, it drops dead. I was having trouble with what we shot; I was very unhappy about it. Eddie came walking into the cutting room, and I told him my problem. He looked at the scene and said, "Listen, Ron, you go down to the costume company or maybe one of the prop houses and get one of those goddamn bear skins, not one of the silly things you wear to a party, but one that really looks real. And we'll get somebody into that bear skin and we'll go back to the same location."
So, I got the bear skin. Eddie promoted Kenne Duncan to volunteer to get in the bear skin, and a whole gang of us went up to Frazier Park. [My wife] Lorraine got into the invader suit and put on the weird wig. Kenne crawled into the bear skin. Eddie grabbed the reflectors. Gene [Gropper] was on camera. We made a couple of takes, and all of a sudden we hear a voice coming from the bear. Kenne was yelling, "Goddamn it, stop, let me out of this thing!" Kenne had been smoking a cigarette in there, and the damn smoke was choking him! Anyway, Eddie's idea worked out. he had a lot of savvy about the business, how to get out of tight spots. We ran the footage at the lab the next day. It was great and we were able to put it into the sequence. When it comes to friendships in Hollywood, they're rare. I'll say this about good old Eddie: whenever I was really in trouble and needed help, Eddie Wood was there.That behind-the-scenes story, unfortunately, is more entertaining than the scene itself. What you actually see in the finished movie is some rather pedestrian stock footage of a black bear wandering through the woods, mixed in with shots of Shirley Kilpatrick, as the titular monster, looking bemused. Then, in a brief, blurry close-up, you see the director's wife (in a wig) strangling what appears to be a bearskin rug. There's some high-pitched growling on the soundtrack, though whether this is supposed to be coming from the alien or the bear I couldn't say. By the standards of low-budget sci-fi movies of the era, the sequence is borderline acceptable. Only for a split-second do we see the lifeless, immobile face of the bear.
Incidentally, though these inserts were shot by Gene Gropper, the movie's cinematographer of record is the redoubtable William C. Thompson, a key member of Ed Wood's inner circle. The Ray Mercer Company is responsible for the one big special effect in The Astounding She-Monster, namely a diffused shot of a lit match that stands in for the fiery meteor that transports the title character from a distant star to our planet.
|Shirley Kilpatrick poses.|
Clarke's leading lady in this film, Marilyn Harvey, had a much less durable and distinguished career but did get a smattering of TV work (including an episode of Gunsmoke) in 1962. Jeanne Tatum, who is hysterical (in both senses of that word) in this film as a boozy gun moll, also did some TV work (Dragnet, Rawhide) in the 1950s and 1960s; this is the most famous of her feature films. Kenne Duncan's rather dimwitted sidekick in the film is portrayed by multi-talented showbiz lifer Ewing Miles Brown, who played Wild Bill Hickok in last week's movie, Son of the Renegade. In 1977, working as a producer-director, Brown hired Ronnie Ashcroft to edit a family comedy called A Whale of a Tale, whose cast included William Shatner.
And we mustn't forget the film's real star, the She-Monster herself, Shirley Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick does not seem to have ever appeared in another movie besides this one, though she was at least considered for a role in Columbia's The Gene Krupa Story (1959) with Sal Mineo. Other than this movie, Kilpatrick's reputation rests on her career as a model and pinup girl from 1954 to 1965, during which she appeared in such now-forgotten men's mags as Gent, Gala, and Bold. She also stripped under the name Celeste Kirk. Shirley married a man named Villy Carpenter Jakobsen in 1987 and now lives in Sequim, WA. One persistent rumor about Ms. Kilpatrick is that she went on to cult stardom as plump character actress Shirley Stoler (1929-1999). Though there is a strong facial resemblance between the two Shirleys, there is ample evidence that they are not the same person. I think Kilpatrick looks a lot like Divine in John Waters' Pink Flamingos (1972). In a series of weird coincidences, "Shirley" was not only Ed Wood's drag name but was revealed to be the Divine character's birth name in the unproduced sequel, Flamingos Forever.
|Three of a kind?: (from left) Shirley Kilpatrick, Divine, and Shirley Stoler.|
The viewing experience: Delirious and delightful, if a bit downsized. Though Ed Wood's name appears nowhere in the credits of The Astounding She-Monster, his presence can seemingly be felt in every scene. The plot feels like at least two different kinds of stories (hostage drama and alien invasion) rather clumsily welded together and has that intangible dream-logic quality of Wood's most famous work. The dialogue, as per usual, is highly artificial: a mixture of baldfaced exposition, technical gobbledygook, and improbable slang. The cheapness and hastiness of the production are plain to see. The script takes rather outrageous liberties with science, and there is something naive and childlike about the characterizations -- as if the author had no idea how, say, a gangster or a geologist or a society heiress would behave or speak in reality.
If there is something that separates She-Monster from Plan 9 from Outer Space and Bride of the Monster, it is the fact that Ronnie Ashcroft's film is more streamlined than a 1950s Ed Wood film. Even when he had little time and less money, Eddie wasn't apt to scale back his ambitions the way Ashcroft did with this film, focusing on a small set of characters in one particular location. And, apart from a few eccentric flourishes, She-Monster's script takes fewer narrative and philosophical detours than most of Eddie's creations. The characters in Ashcroft's movie tend to focus on the plot as it unfolds and don't go off on lofty, random digressions in the true Wood-ian tradition. To put it simply, this is an Ed Wood movie on Ritalin.
|A good companion to She-Monster.|
The film takes the requisite left turn into absurdity when our storyteller speculates that this cosmic conflagration might have been the result of a nuclear explosion and that our current universe might have been accidentally created by the destruction of a previous one. It seems far-fetched to me, but one distant "star of the 12th magnitude," called (I think) Anterius is so concerned that nuke-happy Earth is going to commit "cosmic suicide" that it sends a sexy female emissary, the catsuit-clad She-Monster (Shirley Kilpatrick), via a glowing meteorite, to our planet. Her exact mission is unclear. Mr. Announcer Man says that Anterius wants to destroy Earth before we can do the same to it, but the ending of the movie reveals the She-Monster's intentions to be more peaceful than that. Continuity isn't exactly the movie's strongest suit, but then again, dreams aren't noted for their airtight continuity either.
After the opening credits, accompanied by Guenther "Gene" Kauer's Rite of Spring-esque score, the story proper begins. Again, Ronnie Ashcroft relies heavily on voiceover to explain what's happening to the audience, but the tone of the narration has changed entirely, so much so that I have to suspect that this film had at least two announcers. The IMDb lists Scott Douglas (who also appeared in Wetbacks) as "Narrator," plus Al Avalon (making his debut here) as "Radio Announcer." It's my guess that Avalon and Douglas switched off on voiceover duties, with the former performing the prologue and reciting most of the film's radio broadcasts -- the characters in She-Monster, you see, frequently tune into one of those convenient, only-in-the-movies radio stations that exist solely to provide periodic plot updates -- while the latter narrated the post-credits introductory scenes. While deep-voiced Avalon is bombastic, serious, and stentorian, Douglas is gossipy, sarcastic, and utterly unsympathetic to the characters, watching with haughty, detached amusement as terrible things happen to them.
As the story begins, a two-bit gangster named Nat (Kenne Duncan), his right hand man Brad (Ewing Miles Brown), and his socialite-turned-boozehound girlfriend Esther (Jeanne Tatum) are planning to kidnap wealthy heiress Margaret Chaffee (Marilyn Harvey) as she leaves her Brentwood home in a Cadillac convertible. Sounding a bit like a fey Rod Serling, storyteller Douglas makes it clear that he doesn't feel the least bit sorry for Ms. Chaffee:
|"Three people" plan a kidnapping.|
Magaret Chaffee -- young, beautiful, and very rich. The beginning of a normal, carefree day in the life of a socialite. The normal, everyday problems that confront them. Overslept. Late for cocktails. Perhaps the Cadillac won't start. Just another, average afternoon. Too bad, Margaret. The Cadillac has not failed you. Ride swiftly. You have a very special appointment this day. An appointment that may very well change your life... or end it. For these three people, this day means the beginning of a job. A job so carefully planned for so many weeks. There's the gate, Margaret. Beyond it lies the most fantastic experience of your life. The wheels have started. Carefully laid plans have been put into operation. No use to struggle, Margaret. Being kidnapped could be considered almost normal for a wealthy socialite. And you are being kidnapped. In fact, you're all being taken to a rendezvous with fate. High in the San Gabriel mountains, the stage has already been set. No turning back now. But if they only knew. The best laid plans will go astray this day.
|Vintage She-Monster lobby cards|
The title character, clad in a skintight costume that in black-and-white looks like bare flesh, spends most of the movie wandering around the forest, killing everything with which she comes into contact. It's no trick, really, since she's teeming with radiation. Once she touches a living thing, it gets sort of a joy-buzzer-type jolt and then keels over dead. I'm reminded of one of Criswell's lines from Orgy of the Dead (1965): "I have but to touch you with my finger, and it would mean the end of you, all over!" Before she kills any humans, the She-Monster tests out her power on a few forest creatures, all of whom are represented by stock nature footage. In a moment that would not have been out of place in Bride of the Monster, Ashcroft cuts from a stock shot of a real snake to a staged shot of Shirley Kilpatrick halfheartedly tossing away a phony rubber serpent. Ms. Kilpatrick seems supremely bored and disengaged throughout the proceedings. Perhaps this is why she found no subsequent acting work.
It's worth pointing out that the film's title and poster make a big deal of the alien's femininity, but apart from Ewing Brown's comment that the monster resembles "a naked dame," sex has very little to do with the story. The movie can't truly be read as a parable about gender politics or women's role in society. Once all the facts about the She-Monster are in, we can only judge her to be a morally ambiguous character -- admirably motivated but indiscriminately destructive. The otherworldly being might as well have been genderless or neutered for all the difference it makes in this story.
Dim bulb Brad is spooked when he briefly glimpses the She-Monster and crashes Nat's car, forcing the party (including the three crooks and their victim) to relocate to a nearby cabin, occupied by square-jawed geologist Dick Cutler (Robert Clarke) and his loyal collie, Egan (played by Ashcroft's own dog). So snotty is narrator Scott Douglas that he even describes our thoroughly-nice hero and his adorable pet in an unflattering way, calling them "the ever-present 'innocent' bystander and his canine companion." That may not sound too terrible, but it's his tone of voice that makes it seem so nasty.
This is the point at which The Astounding She-Monster transmogrifies into the cinematic equivalent of a TV "bottle episode," with the criminals and their hostages confined to the remote cabin and everyone trying to figure a way out. Unfortunately for them, any time they set foot outside the cabin, they are immediately confronted by the She-Monster. These poor folks leave and then return to the same place so often that I started to think of the Pirandello-inspired Twilight Zone episode called "Five Characters in Search of an Exit." MST3K fans, meanwhile, will remember how that show dealt with the opening scenes from Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster, as two hapless characters kept winding up at the same spot over and over again. ("We're back here! How did that happen?")
|The She-Monster goes out just like the Wicked Witch.|
Ultimately, after a few comically absurd Mr. Wizard-esque discussions with Margaret involving alpha rays, gamma rays, platinum, radium, and "aqua regia," Dick intuits that the monster is protected from our atmosphere by a thin layer of protective metal. So he whips up some kind of all-purpose, alien-killing acid in his home laboratory, douses it on Shirley Kilpatrick, and watches her dissolve, Margaret Hamilton style. Only then do Dick and Margaret find the written message that the She-Monster had been concealing in her locket. Apparently, our extraterrestrial visitor was just dropping by to give us an invitation to join the Council of Planets, which is sort of like the NATO of Outer Space. The letter is in English, explains Dick, because the aliens must have been listening in to our shortwave radio broadcasts. Hmmm. That's even less plausible than the "dictorobitary" (language computer) from Plan 9.
And what about all the seemingly random, unprovoked killing? Well, Dick says that in retrospect, the She-Monster only killed when she was being attacked. After about five viewings of this film, I can say with certainty that this theory is complete and utter horseshit. Not only does Shirley Kilpatrick zap anything and everything that crosses her path, no matter how benign, there are a few moments when she takes obvious pleasure in terrorizing the other characters.
|"Fun couple" Esther and Vic; Margaret in foreground.|
Nat: Sit down, you lousy drunk!
Esther: I prefer to be referred to as an alcoholic.If Ed Wood has a surrogate in this movie, it's definitely Esther, who talks of nothing but alcohol (I'm not kidding!) for the entire movie and at one point declares, " If I could drink, I'd think better." A fairly long stretch of the film is devoted to a Mexican standoff in which Esther debates both Dick and Margaret about who will fetch more booze from the bedroom. Sadly, the very second she finally gets the bottle she's been negotiating for all this time, Nat shatters it with a bullet. The lousy rat! Foul-tempered Nat, for his part, is a one-man quote factory. He gets two of the film's most famous lines: (about Margaret) "Our young socialite has gotten up on her social register!" and (about Brad) "The way you keep puttin' your foot in your kisser, it's a wonder you don't get athlete's mouth." And Nat is the springboard for the script's one big, Wood-ian digression: a debate about capitalism, politics, and the redistribution of wealth. Esther has just been bragging about her former life as a wealthy landowner when Nat suddenly goes off on a rant:
Nat: The filthy rich! They're nothing but a bunch of parasites!
Dick: Oh, I don't know. It seems to me, a lot of our modern American millionaires have earned their wealth.
Nat: In a pig's foot! Just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Coincidence, that's all. Now you take a guy goes to the racetrack, picks a winner, collects a bundle. Did he earn it? Nah! Coincidence!
Dick: Well, what's wrong with that?
Nat: The point I'm making to you is that if there hadn't been a thousand little bettors bettin' on the same race, he wouldn't have won a thing! And the millionaire wouldn't have gotten his dough if there hadn't been a million little guys workin' their tails off!
Dick: And it's your idea to redistribute the wealth more evenly among the little guys, is that it?
Nat: Exactly! And since our society doesn't want to cooperate, then the little guy's gonna move in and take what he can get.
Dick: Now that puts you in the category of a criminal.
Nat: You're only a criminal when you're in the minority! Now you take a crook like Hitler was. Surround him with a million other crooks, and what do ya got? The ruling party of a country! And nobody thinks you're a crook anymore!
Dick: So it's your idea to just move in and take what you can get.
Nat: You said it, bub! And I can do it with my moxie!
Esther: What he's pointing to is the hole in his head!
Nat: Shut up, ya crummy lush!Obviously, as a law-abiding, right-wing, pro-military super-patriot, Ed Wood would have thoroughly sided with Dick in this debate. And yet I cannot help but speculate that some of Nat's dialogue resonated with Eddie as well. Certainly, Ed Wood was a man who watched others in his profession get rich and famous undeservedly, while he toiled away for decades and earned very little money for his troubles. While I don't think Eddie wanted to "redistribute the wealth," I think he did feel that he just needed a few lucky coincidences to get on Easy Street. While I'm on this subject, I should also mention that in last week's movie, Son of the Renegade (1953), the elder Red River Johnny was somewhat of a Robin Hood figure who did "redistribute" some of what he stole to "whoever needs it the most." The definitive essay on the Macroeconomics of Ed Wood has yet to be written, I'm afraid.
As other critics have pointed out, there are a number of plot similarities between The Astounding She-Monster and Plan 9 from Outer Space, especially if you consider the films in the broadest possible terms. In both stories, an alien civilization is concerned that the inhabitants of Earth will one day destroy the entire galaxy, so they send an emissary to our planet in a desperate bid to prevent us from blowing ourselves up along with everything else in existence. Once here, said emissary embarks upon a sketchy, poorly-thought-out plan that makes no sense and mainly involves terrorizing random people in a fairly obscure location in the Los Angeles area. After it's all over, the surviving human characters remark how much more advanced the aliens are than Earthlings, even though their plan was a complete flop. Take this line from the last scene of The Astounding She-Monster:
Margaret: Obviously, this universal council is made up of people from worlds far more advanced than our own.And compare it to this similar line from the last scene from Plan 9:
Col. Edwards: We've got to hand it to them, though, they're far ahead of us.In both cases, amusingly, the aliens receive this high praise only after wiping out in spectacular fashion. Perhaps even as far back as the 1950s, Ed Wood was already presaging his own "success by failure." Maybe he was hoping that, long after his own death, the rest of humanity would look at his work and be amazed by how far ahead of the times he was. In a way, he got his wish. After all, Eddie's been gone about 35 years now, and yet here I am poring over his work. And there you are, reading about it. Perhaps Ed Wood knew something that his contemporaries didn't.
Next week: Let me tell you about a 1950s screenwriter named Peter "Pete" LaRoche. He had three screenplays produced in the 1950s, all low-budget Westerns, then was never heard from again. The third and final one was an Indian-themed sexploitation movie that was among the earliest so-called "nudie cuties" in Hollywood history, perhaps even beating Russ Meyer to the punch. Perhaps not coincidentally, it's also the only LaRoche film that seems to have survived into our time. But that's not the most interesting thing about Mr. LaRoche. No, what makes Pete so fascinating is that he seems to have never existed at all. He has no history, other than those three screenplay credits. No birth date. No death date. No photos of the man. No anecdotes from friends or coworkers. Nothing. The most popular theory, then, about the elusive Pete LaRoche is that he was really our very own Edward D. Wood, Jr., working under an assumed name. We'll dig into all of this in a mere seven days as we explore the enticingly-named Revenge of the Virgins (1959).