Wednesday 29 June 2011

Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958)

Director: Nathan Hertz
Stars: Allison Hayes and William Hudson

When The Amazing Colossal Man did so well at the box office in 1957 for Bert I Gordon, it was surely no surprise to find other filmmakers promptly cashing in on its success with similar films. The one I remember most fondly from my youth was Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, made a year later by Woolner Brothers (no, not Warner Brothers), with a female lead, clad in appropriately draped bedsheets to keep her modest. Made for $88,000, it grossed well over five times that, enough to prompt sequel discussions, in colour and with a much higher budget, but it never got past the script stage. Unfortunately it isn't that great a film. Perhaps my fond memory of it was enhanced by the poster, which is one of the greatest and most subtly sexual movie posters ever made. The artist was Reynold Brown, who was reponsible for many great exploitation posters such as Creature from the Black Lagoon, I Was a Teenage Werewolf and This Island Earth.

While the poster and the title advertise this as a monster movie, it takes a long while for Allison Hayes to grow to her huge and stunningly inconsistent size. For the most part it's a movie about normal sized monsters, of the cheating variety. 'Harry, what would your wife say?' asks Honey Parker of her boyfriend Harry Archer as we begin. His wife, to whom he's returned after a brief separation, entirely so he can get his hands on some of her fifty million bucks, says 'Aaah!' but not why you think. There's a science fiction component here: 'a strange red fireball' comes out of the sky while she's driving down Route 66 and lands in front of her, like Rover from The Prisoner. A giant emerges to reach for the diamond around her neck. It simply isn't Nancy Archer's day: she has to deal both with a cheating lowlife husband and a giant from outer space. Of course not a soul believes her because they know that she's spent time in a private sanitarium.

Allison Hayes was a regular in genre pictures of the fifties and sixties, not just horror movies like The Undead, Zombies of Mora Tau and The Crawling Hand, but also westerns, films noir and spy flicks. The poster for this film is an undoubted highlight of her career but the character itself was unfortunately not quite what it should have been. As Nancy Archer, she's a rich woman dealing with her love for a man who doesn't deserve it, shamelessly cavorting with mercenary blonde Honey Parker in a small town where everyone surely knew everyone else. In another film she'd have shot him dead or conjured up the forces of evil to take care of him, but here she flounders around until she's contaminated by alien radiation and she becomes the fifty foot woman of the title. Only now does she feel safe in dealing with Harry, by reversing the iconic shot from King Kong, the giant woman reaching through the window for the normal sized gorilla.
Initially the story builds neatly as a B movie melodrama and it had all the potential to become a feminist landmark, but it loses its way. While Archer flounces around with her feelings instead of doing something about them, Yvette Vickers has no such restraint as Honey Parker. She's a sleazy piece of work from moment one, cuddling up with another woman's husband in public and needling him to bump her off for the money. She does it blisteringly well: she's a dynamo and she knows how to walk the walk and talk the talk, sashaying and pressuring in equal measure. No wonder Stephen King ranked her as one of his matinée idols. Like Hayes, she made a number of genre pictures: Reform School Girl and I, Mobster preceded this one, and Attack of the Giant Leeches would arrive in 1959, a year after being a Playmate of the Month. The pair work well as opposites: one wishywashy and emotional, the other ruthless and determined.

The script should have had them face off against each other for more than just a single lopsided, albeit satisfying, scene. Hayes and Vickers both had the looks and the acting chops to make it a battle to relish over an hour and a bit of running time. Sure, the alien radiation could have given Hayes the edge but the battle should have been raging for a long while before that ever became a factor. Instead they fail to even connect, possibly not even sharing a scene until the finalé, so we're stuck with Harry instead as the connection between the two. William Hudson is capable as Harry Archer, but nothing more. We don't like him, for sure, but he doesn't have the charisma to make us truly despise him as we should. 'You're all I have,' his wife tells him, in her mansion with her devoted butler and world famous Star of India diamond. Everything should have been there for us to hate him with a passion, like a great wrestling heel, but he's too inconsequential.

In fact the easiest male character to focus on is Sheriff Dubbitt's deputy Charlie, played by Frank Chase in his last year in the movie business. Credited in less than half his movies, this was still his 25th of 26 pictures, and he's as much a bundle of dim witted energy as Hayes is a bundle of nerves. A small town cop in every way, Charlie is still much more noticeable than his boss, who is simply in the picture, and more than any of the male actors up to the lead. William Hudson is here presumably because he'd played the doctor in The Amazing Colossal Man, as it can never hurt to steal some of the cast from the movie you're ripping off. Yet even when about to murder his wife with an overdose, we're still thinking about Deputy Charlie dancing with Honey down at Tony's Bar and Grill. Other actors like Ray Gordon or Otto Waldis do exactly as they're expected but nothing more. It's sad when the small town deputy dominates the male cast.

What surprised me most was how much buildup this story had before the fit hits the shan. There is suspense, this monster movie being far more carefully plotted than most, but there are no real surprises. It's pulp stuff, right down to the spaceship the sheriff and the butler end up on, with its glass fishbowls with suspended diamonds. How the thirty foot bald, translucent, alien giant fits in this normal sized spaceship I have no idea, with or without his crusader costume, but scale is off consistently here. The story really is a deadly B movie melodrama with a dollop of sci-fi until the very end, when the giant Nancy wakes up and tears off the roof to wreak violent revenge on her husband. It's satisfying to urge on the monster for good reason, not only because the good guys are so annoying. The ending is the wish fulfilment fantasy for victimised women that the whole of the movie should have been. If only it had been as good as the poster.

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