I discovered this movie in the most roundabout way possible. A few months ago I was on a quest to find everything I could about El Brendel and I stumbled across this film, which excited me more than it really should have. A bad 1950s B-movie with The Elster in it? Starring Chester Morris, the angry star of all those 1930s pre-code wonders? Available on DVD with another 1950s B-movie? Heaven! I must have this film! I ordered a copy and camped out by the mailbox waiting for Acme Delivery to arrive.
After a day or so of leaning against the mailbox I started getting pity waves from the neighbors, thus decided I should finish waiting inside. Waiting involved watching “Mystery Science Theater 3000”, one of my favorite TV shows, so I grabbed a disk and read the label. The next MST3K episode in my pile to watch? “The She-Creature”. Oh. It was a season 8 episode of the show. A little more hunting online and I found nearly a dozen blogs who have already reviewed and summarized this film, probably a hell of a lot better than I’m going to.
But as you know, I was in a film funk for a while, and I thought “The She-Creature” would be just the thing to snap me out of it. I love watching 1950s B-movies, the stuff that filled the programs in drive-ins across the country, and this is one of the more competent and fun B-films I’ve seen. I trudged on and I have to say that I’m glad I did, even if I does mean blogging about something that’s pretty much blogged out.
“The She-Creature” opens on the beach at night, where Dr. Carlo Lombardi (Chester Morris) silently ponders his role in the release of something sinister, something we haven’t yet seen. The movie is called “The She-Creature” after all, so I doubt many people will wonder what Lombardi is referring to.
We cut to a swanky 1950s cocktail party. Don’t you just want to jump into the screen and join parties like these? All those pretty women in crinoline skirts and big clunky bracelets, all those men in their dark suits and thin ties, sipping martinis in an impeccably decorated living room filled with Danish Modern. Beautiful. A lovely blonde and her date, Dr. Ted Erickson (Lance Fuller, best known as Brack from “This Island Earth”) talk about the party — really, when you’re at a fabulous party like this, there is nothing else to talk about — and Ted makes it clear that he’s not comfortable around all these high-falutin’ rich people. He’s just a simple country boy from Ioway. A simple country boy from Ioway who is now a PROFESSOR OF HYPNOTISM, might I add.
Ted and Dorothy (Cathy Downs) go for a walk on the beach under the watchful eye of Dorothy’s mother, Mrs. Chappell (Frieda Inescort). The Missus feels nervous tonight; Dr. Lombardi informed her earlier that something sinister is coming, and she feels it on the wind. Her husband Timothy (Tom Conway, brother to George Sanders) thinks his wife is being silly, especially when she continues to mention Dr. Lombardi’s patient, a woman who can age-regress back 300 years to a past life.
Age regression was a popular subject in the mid-1950s. In 1952, hypnotist Morey Bernstein attended a party with housewife Virginia Tighe and performed past-life regression hypnotism on her, apparently for entertainment. Everyone was surprised to watch Tighe regress back to an allegedly previous life where she was a 19th century Irish woman named Bridey Murphy. Bernstein hypnotized Tighe many times and published the transcripts as a book called The Search for Bridey Murphy. It became a best-seller, and “The She-Creature” was one of the first films made to capitalize on the sensation.
While walking on the beach, Ted and Dorothy observe Dr. Lombardi entering a beach house some distance away. The film cuts to Dr. Lombardi finding a couple dead in the house, obviously the victims of a violent crime. Lombardi sees a large webbed footprint and seaweed in the house, gets a knowing look, and leaves.
Ted goes into the house to investigate and finds the couple. Some incompetent police arrive and schmutz up the crime scene with flour. When Ted tells the police lieutenant Ed James (Ron Randall) that Dr. Lombardi was seen going into the house, he somehow decides that Dr. Lombardi committed the murder, despite Lombardi only being in the house for a few moments. Ted should know this, and he also should have known there was no noise coming from the home while Lombardi was in there. Hard to wreck up a place without making some noise.
Meanwhile, Dr. Lombardi arrives at the local carnival where he has a hypnotism show, and where he also apparently lives. That’s charming. No wonder Lombardi is such a sourpuss. A carny tells him the lady in his room — someone he’s known for years as a carny follower — was screaming so he checked on her, but the woman was completely out. Dr. Lombardi warns him to stop snooping around. Foreshadowing!
Laying in Lombardi’s office/stage/house/whatever is the beautiful Andrea (Marla English) in a clingy, sheer white dress. He brings Andrea out of hypnosis. She immediately objects to him putting her under hypnosis for so long. Lombardi has Andrea under his complete control due to his hypnotic powers and her susceptibility to hypnotism; “You’ve taken my soul,” she says. Lombardi clearly wants Andrea but she, understandably, hates him and would leave if she could. Despite his ability to control her, he cannot have her.
Inspector James and Ted show up at Lombardi’s just in time to see Andrea emerge from behind a dressing screen. She’s wearing the tightest sweater imaginable, and Ted unabashedly looks straight at her breasts for several seconds before finally being distracted. James takes Lombardi in for questioning while Ted and Andrea go for a stroll. Before she gets far, though, Lombardi’s spell prevents her from continuing her walk with Ted.
According to Alex Gordon, one of the producers of the film, Chester Morris was hired after a request to his casting agency for an experienced actor who would be able to do a week’s worth of shooting for about $5,000. Originally Gordon wanted to cast Peter Lorre in the part of Dr. Carlo Lombardi. This idea came about because Gordon and director Edward L. Cahn wanted to cast veteran actor Edward Arnold as businessman Timothy Chappell. Arnold and Cahn had worked together previously and Cahn was sure he could get him, and they thought pairing Arnold with Peter Lorre would be great for the film. Arnold’s agency agreed to the role but wanted Cahn to confirm that Arnold would do a small independent picture. Cahn tried to contact Arnold about confirmation, only to discover that Arnold had passed away that very day.
Meanwhile Peter Lorre refused to do the picture, saying that it was “a piece of junk”. When his agent at the Jaffe Agency said they’d already agreed Lorre would do the role, Lorre fired the Jaffe Agency in anger.
Chester Morris eventually took the role of Dr. Lombardi, and was just one of many “old-timers” deliberately hired by Gordon. Jack Mulhall, who plays a small role as Lombardi’s lawyer, was a silent movie leading man back to the 1910s. By the 1930s, however, he was playing uncredited and small roles because he was uncomfortable with talkies, at least according to Alex Gordon. Another leading man in very early silent films, Edward Earle, was cast as one of the scientists in Ted’s lab, and Edmund Cobb was cast as the superstitious detective who works with Lieutenant James. These actors were in hundreds of films during their lengthy careers.
Speaking of old-timers, “The She-Creature” features not only El Brendel but his wife Flo Bert. Gordon loved El Brendel’s vaudevillian act, and during filming they shot “reams” of stuff of El Brendel and Flo Bert. Almost all of it was cut out of the picture because it slowed the pace of the film. Gordon said Brendel was a nice guy, and he thought talking to Brendel was a hoot because he had a plain Midwestern accent instead of the Swedish accent everyone assumed he would.
Brendel plays the butler to the Chappels. We return to the Chappels house where Dorothy’s father Timothy, a businessman, is enjoying breakfast on his porch balcony. Dorothy’s dog starts barking when Brendel arrives with breakfast, causing Brendel’s bow tie to pop off. “He gives me the yeepers,” says Brendel.
Ted arrives at Chappel’s request, and the two begin discussing the murder of the couple and Lombardi’s claim that a creature from another time came out of the ocean and killed them. Chappel is an unscrupulous businessman who thinks he can make a fortune by acting as agent and publicist for Lombardi. Ted makes a lot of funny faces while trying to act like he’s paying attention. Ted comments that he’s trained to “fight stupidity”, which is a really funny line for him to say after accidentally wandering face-first into a prop branch while trying to thoughtfully pace about. Ted asks if the public will believe Lombardi’s tales. Chappel says, “They’ll swallow it whole and they’ll like it.” Poor Lance Fuller is completely outgunned by Tom Conway, a solid actor who seems to be having a ball with this film.
Chappel goes to the carnival to visit Lombardi, who opens the door to greet Chappel before he even knocks. Lombardi is psychic, you know. Lombardi agrees to the publicity scheme as long as he can live at the Chappels’ home. After Chappel says yes and leaves to start work, Lombardi hypnotizes Andrea and summons the She-Creature. We first see the creature here, coming out of the water in an odd double-exposure shot, and apparently covered in phosphorescent paint.
Paul Blasdell, special effects and monster creator for films such as “Teenage Cave Man”, “Teenagers from Outer Space” and “The Amazing Colossal Man”, created and wore the She-Creature’s suit. The She-Creature was called “Cuddles” on the set and was originally constructed to look only vaguely feminine. It was decided to make her look more like a woman, so Blaisdell ordered that breasts be put on the suit. The next day he arrived to see the addition of two enormous breasts to the front. Somehow, no one ever worried that the breasts would cause a problem, and I guess they never really did, although to this day they are one of the most memorable parts of the film — the creature is often referred to as “the mammary monster”.
Blaisdell said the suit was comfortable and flexible, although it did soak up water and made it difficult to walk through the ocean. The night the suit was created, Blaisdell and a friend terrorized the neighborhood and scared a passing driver. Later Blaisdell lent the suit to a friend who wore it while walking to a party. He ran into a little girl who was so scared that she fled, tripped over a curb and chipped her teeth.
After watching the She-Creature emerge from the ocean, Lombardi disappears, but the creature continues on and kills the carny who was worried about Andrea earlier. See, I told you it was foreshadowing. Meanwhile, we’re back at another fabulous dinner party at the Chappel’s. The dinner party is full of more old-timey actors such as Franklin Farnum and Creighton Hale. El pulls his bow-tie-popping trick again when offering a drunken guest a tray of martinis; he’s so surprised that the guy took two martinis that his eyes bulge and his tie pops off. Behind him we see Dorothy watching the drunken partier closely while Ted notices nothing, what with being self-absorbed and sulky and all. The drunk approaches Dorothy and we find he used to be her fiance.
Chappel and a guest discuss the financial merits of Lombardi’s hypnotism. The guest tries to sound like some upper crust businessman but comes across as an inexperienced high school kid in a play impersonating of Cedric Hardwicke. Would any high school kid even know who Hardwicke is? Probably not, but I stand by my comparison. We pan to Mrs. Chappel and two twittering friends. Inescort is caught looking off-camera for her cue just as the camera hits her, and the two friends read their lines as though they just learned them phonetically 5 minutes ago.
El keeps showing up in the background of the party shots. What a ham! Eventually he walks to the bar where he and the maid, played by El’s real life wife Flo Bert, do a little shtick about the drunken party guest. Everything they say is a one-liner and they deliver it as though they expect live laughs. (In the MST3K version of the film, Tom Servo makes a little ba-dum-ching! drum noise after every line in this bit.)
Dr. Lombardi arrives to the party, resplendent in an overwrought tuxedo and heavy Dracula-esque cape. Lombardi and Andrea go right into their act: “I shall touch you and soon you will be asleep,” he commands. Heh. Yeah, I’ll bet. (Ba-dum-ching!) Andrea succumbs to the hypnotism and starts speaking in a bad British accent, yammering on about various historical things from the 1600s or whenever this past life existed, answering questions and generally showing off her mad history skills. Lombardi also mentions that the creature is the manifestation of someone’s past life from many thousands of years ago. He doesn’t specifically say it, but it’s obvious that it’s Andrea from, oh, a million years ago or so, give or take a millennium.
After the act, Ted goes outside on the porch to mull over the amazing — er, I mean “amazing” — events he has just witnessed. The She-Creature shows up, sneaks up behind him, lifts her arms and… nothing! Aw, man. Andrea psychically intervened and saved Ted’s hide. The creature skulks away and Ted didn’t hear a thing. Later Lombardi finds Andrea on the beach. The beach scenes were filmed in Paradise Cove, according to Alex Gordon, but for some reason here the beach turns into a very obvious set in the middle of the scene. It’s just some sand and plants in front of a standard grey backdrop.
There were several nicely-filmed scenes in “The She-Creature,” however. Alex Gordon said these shots were not by the cinematographer Frederick West, who was known for competent but uninspired filming due to the speed at which he created sets and lighting, but rather created by Eddie Cahn. Many of the beach shots are quite good for being day-for-night, and the composition of a few other scenes was clearly worked out carefully. Unfortunately these scenes are random, rare, and somewhat mitigated by the sparse sets like the one that appeared in the middle of the beach scene.
The next day Ted does psychological research by donning a lab coat and horn-rimmed glasses, smoking a pipe, and fussing with some colored liquids in beakers. Lieutenant James shows up along with two other scientists, also bedecked in their scienterrific lab coats, to watch Lombardi hypnotize Andrea under super-scientific conditions. By “super-scientific” I mean “a set with random sciencey stuff tossed about.” Lombardi makes Andrea’s soul leave her body. Her soul, represented by superimposed smoke, is not visible to anyone in the film. Why it’s visible to the audience, I have no idea.
Chappel continues to work on publicizing Lombardi’s act, mainly by saying words like “loot” and “big chips” to indicate he’s greedy. Lombardi is enjoying living at the Chappel’s home because he gets to be near Dorothy, the young blonde who is supposed to be in her twenties but is clearly in her forties. Lombardi does eventually leave the house by taking the act on the road. We see the tour in montage, with one clip of Andrea and Ted in a car together, but with no explanation.
By now we know that the creature is one of Andrea’s past lives, but Lombardi is no longer in control of it. He also may not be in control of Andrea anymore, as Ted has been helping her build up resistance to Lombardi; maybe that’s what they were doing in the car. Ted has fallen for Andrea, of course, and when he lets Dorothy know she just goes back to her drunken ex.
During the tour a random teen couple making out near a cliff above the beach get attacked by the She-Creature, who pushes the car over the ledge, killing them. I think the shot of the car off the cliff is some old stock footage, as the car looks to be 15-20 years older than the film. Lombardi, this time dressed like a guest star on “Maverick”, is questioned but denies everything.
In a show-down at Chappel’s and on the beach, the creature kills Lt. James and Mr. Chappel, both of whom tried to shoot the creature but learned that the bullets didn’t affect her. She then turns on Lombardi himself. Lombardi apparently releases Andrea from his psychic grasp before he dies. Meanwhile, the creature goes back to the beach, and Ted follows it out and tells the cops where to shoot. I never did fully understand why they can’t see the creature, but they can’t, so they randomly shoot at a creature they can’t see which cannot be harmed by bullets. GENIUS. The creature runs off, Andrea and Ted are finally together, and the film ends with a huge “?”, implying there will be more to the story. Don’t worry, there isn’t.
Not only is the movie a real treat for fans of 1950s B-movie flicks, the MST3K version of “The She-Creature” is a lot of fun, although I understand that the show isn’t to every cinephile’s taste. There’s no good way to end this entry, much like there was no good way to end the film. Plenty has been written about “The She-Creature”, and I recommend starting with some of the links below.
Paul Blaisdell, Monster Maker: A Biography of the B Movie Makeup and Special Effects Artist by Randy Palmer
And You Call Yourself a Scientist!
“The She-Creature” review at Exclamation Mark
“The She-Creature” review at 1000 Misspent Hours
The MST3K Summary of “The She-Creature”, episode 808
The story of Bridey Murphy