Friday 23 December 2011

Big trouble in little California

Even if Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958) was any good, the producers would have set the bar impossibly high for themselves. The film has, perhaps, one of the most awesome titles in cinema history, and the famous poster - one of the terrific, prolific Reynold Brown's greatest creations - promises a heady mix of titillation and large-scale destruction no motion picture could ever live up to.

The inevitable disappointment is the perfect distillation of the dazzling, sleazy world of B-movies, for Attack of the 50 Foot Woman is not good. It is, in fact, an extraordinarily terrible film: despite being a slim 65 minutes long, it contains relentless padding - domestic drama, painfully unfunny comic relief, and technobabble - and no more than ten minutes of giant woman mayhem. For this reason alone I cannot in good conscience recommend it to anyone.

The sheer badness on display is no surprise, for Attack of the 50 Foot Woman is a knock-off of a knock-off: after Jack Arnold and Richard Matheson struck critical and commercial gold with The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), the concept was immediately inverted for Bert Gordon's The Amazing Colossal Man; and a year later director Nathan Juran (under the nom de plume Nathan Hertz, indicating Juran's embarrassment) and producers Jacques Marquette and Bernard Woolner decided to rip off Gordon, replacing a titanic soldier with a towering woman in her knickers. But where The Incredible Shrinking Man cost a respectable $750,000, Juran's knock-off was made for a mere $88,000, and boy, does it show.

So! We begin with Exposition TV, where a sarcastic news anchor (Dale Tate) explains that a 'satellite' has recently been seen in various places around the world and might be over the California desert right now! And so we cut to the desert, where wealthy heiress Nancy Archer (Allison Hayes) encounters the egg-shaped UFO. A giant emerges and reaches for her ('A thirty-foot giant? Oh no!', says a copper later), but Nancy manages to flee back to Tony's Bar where her husband, Harry (William Hudson), is blatantly cavorting with his floozy Honey Parker (Yvette Vickers), and scheming how they might be rid of his wife and get their hands on her fortune.

It turns out that the couple have previously separated and reconciled, and Nancy has spent some time in a 'private sanitarium' (Honey is more honest in calling it a 'nuthouse', obviously forgetting that poor people are mad while rich people are eccentric.) Her wild giant-spotting claims afford Harry an unprecedented chance of having her committed again, and so Harry accepts her request to drive her out to the desert. There, they eventually encounter the sphere, and Harry panics and flees while Nancy is grabbed by the giant. Harry gets home and packs his bags, but when their butler, Jess (Ken Terrell) demands to know what happened to Nancy the two end up struggling in the worst stage-fighting this side of Star Trek: The Original Series.

We are now 29 minutes into a 65-minute film, and Nancy has still not grown to giant size, let alone attacked anyone.

Harry's attempt to flee with Honey is foiled by the police, who have recovered Nancy. She's been infected by some sort of alien substance from the sphere, and her physician, Dr Cushing (Roy Gordon), calls in his friend, Herr Doktor Heinrich von Loeb (Otto Waldis), to help with examining her; still, both squints are astonished when, at minute 38, Nancy finally turns gigantic (well, there's a giant papier-maché hand, anyway). They put the increasingly distressed woman in chains to prevent her going after Harry, who is still conducting a shockingly public affair with Honey and hanging out at Tony's Bar. There's much wheel-spinning, and then - 56 minutes in! - Nancy finally breaks loose and goes on a roaring rampage of revenge.

Attack of the 50 Foot Woman has, at most, ten minutes' worth of plot, stretched out for more than an hour, and only very little is in any way related to a giantess in skimpy clothing stomping on people. I can't begin to imagine how a 1950s audience, lured in by the poster, reacted to this. Screenwriter Mark Hanna attempts to paper over the thinness of the storyline by introducing random subplots - for example, Nancy has one of the sparkliest diamonds in the world, the famed Star of India; much is made of this, but it could be cut in its entirety - and by piling on wretched pratfalls, courtesy of Charlie the obnoxious comic relief (Frank Chase). Have goofy cops ever been funny?

Then there are the not-so-special effects. I daresay most of the film's budget must have been spent on truly stupendous amounts of papier-maché for the enormous hand props menacing the actors. It certainly can't have been invested in the effects work for the scenes of giant Nancy wreaking havoc, for the same couple of shots are recycled over and over. I kept wondering why the giants were transparent, until I realised the filmmakers were just incompetent. If you can see right through the front image, you're doing composite imaging wrong, chaps.

The film's gender politics, on the other hand, are oddly fascinating. 'You'd make a wild driver, Harry', purrs Honey; and from her name to her blatant voracious sexuality, the script clearly wants us to hate her and long for her to be punished. I can't remember the last time I saw this obvious a cinematic representation of the madonna-whore complex - if one with a twist, since the madonna, Nancy, grows fifty feet tall and goes off to crush her philandering husband and his whore. 'Maybe Mrs Archer, who has recently been feuding with her husband... has finally found a man from out of this world, a man who could love her for herself', the news anchor deadpans, and so it seems.

If Attack of the 50 Foot Woman deserves that much thought, that's thanks to the performances: Allison Hayes gives Nancy a depth not required or rewarded by the script, while William Hudson's smarmy villainy makes the merciless padding at least somewhat endurable. Their work even gives the ending - ripped off from King Kong though it may be - a certain poignancy. But the next time a science fiction vehicle wishes to waste our time, it shouldn't look so deceptively appealing.

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