SHE DEMONS/1958/RICHARD E. CUNHA/irish McCalla
1958/Director: Richard E. Cunha/Writers: Richard E. Cunha, H.E. Barrie
Cast: Irish McCalla, Tod Griffin, Victor Sen Yung, Rudolph Anders, Gene Roth, Leni Tana, Charles Opunui
In some ways 1958’s She Demons is like a story that would appear in the sweaty men’s magazines of the sixties where overly viral white guys rescued, or tried to anyway, captive white girls from the clutches of Nazis, Imperial Japanese soldiers, commies, pirates or wild animals of various sorts. The story is one of the most outlandish ideas ever and so it lands a place here at the Uranium Cafe. The plot is the tried and true group pf travelers stranded on a desert island one with some sort of menace lurking in the jungles. This story line, along with the car breaking down in the countryside with a dark mansion or castle nearby, is simply one that will never disappear from the hack script writer’s box of two or three tricks. The story involves a small group of boaters who was washed ashore after their small boat is destroyed in a hurricane, in the Caribbean I am assuming, and they find themselves pitted against a group of well dressed and well supplied Nazis some thirteen years after the war has ended. I reviewed The Flesh Eaters here and that film also had a similar story, of a group of travelers who land off a small island in the Atlantic and find there a brilliant but mad Nazi who is continuing experiments from the war period in hopes of selling the results to the highest bidder. He did not walk around the island in black Nazi regalia not was he supposedly still be supplied by the defunct fascist Nazi regime, by secret submarines yet, as the goose stompers in this flick are. Well before we explore this unbelievable film in detail lets have a look at some of the people involved in its creation and production.
The film is directed by the man who brought to us, in the same year of 1958, what is considered to be his greatest contribution to the world of cheese cinema Frankenstein’s Daughter (a review on that wonder will be here at the Cafe eventually, do not fear) Richard E. Cunha. He was born in Hawaii and served in the Army where he learned his trade by making training films and newsreels related to WWII. He would later work as cinematographer for various TV shows (Branded and Death Valley Days among them) and direct some strange low budget cult horror and sci-f- classics, mostly from the late fifties and early sixties. He seems to speak with pride about how his films averaged $65,000 and no more than six days to make. His other films include Missile to the Moon and Giant from the Unknown. When I sad above that the lurid and macho cover art for the men’s action mags of the sixties usually depicted overly virile men I did not mean to infer that this film’s lead man was some such heroic he man. In fact Fred Malkin (Tod griffin) is really an odd character who gets a regular tongue lashing from spoiled rich girl Jerrie Turner (played by the original Sheena, Irish McCalla) and can barely hold his own in a fist fight with a fight Nazi named Igor. He is simply never convincing as a tough guy even though his shirt is opened up at the chest and his sleeves are rolled up. Also along on the shipwrecked crew are the To his credit Fred somehow as convinced Jerrie’s rich daddy to finance the whole trip which is to find an island where animal like humans exist like something out of Dr. Moreau. And that brings us to Jerrie who is simply one spoiled rich brat and we have to wonder why she even came along on the trip. When everyone is washed upon the beach after their ship sinks in the storm she can’t stop complaining that Fred did not salvage enough of her wardrobe. She whines on and on and refuses to spend even one night on the beach and never seems concerned about starving to death or dying of dehydration. While Fred seems to act tough with her and flings some insults back we all know who the boss is here, Jerrie and her daddy’s money.
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The last two members of the castaways (neither is a professor or millionaire) are two nervous looking ethnic stereotypes who are both wondering which one is going to die off first. The boat’s black captain is Kris Kamana and he really looks more like a struggling alcoholic to me than someone who would be manning the yacht of a millionaire. He seems superstitious and senses some bad mojo on this seemingly uncharted island. Though uncharted and basically unknown it is home to the band of Nazis and is used by the US Air Force in fly over bombing tests. Finally is the wise cracking Asian Sammy Ching (Victor Sen Yung) who is doing all he can to make sure he does not wind up the dead non-white guy and survives to be the comic relief providing side kick. And if you have to choose between sour pussed Kris and always ready with a one liner Sammy who would you choose? Victor Sen Yung is noted as sharing many of the Number One Son roles in the Charlie Chan movie series when they weren’t being played by Keye Luke (Master Po in the Kung Fu TV series)
The only other noteworthy character in the film (we will exclude introducing the henchman Igor) is the lead bad guy, since all Nazis are bad, is one Colonel Karl Osler (Rudolph Anders) and this guy must have been the inspiration for the character of Col. Klink in the Hogan’s Heroes TV series. Actor Anders has a long list of film credits and most of them all seem to be commanders or doctors with pompous sounding German sounding names. I will then assume that this guy’s accent may be for real and if so why is he not considered the Teutonic version of Steppin’ Fetchit or Sleep n’ Eat? He sports a monocle and black SS type uniform that looks extremely sharp and neatly pressed at all times, I mean considering he is on a desert island and it is 1958 and the Third Reich was all but destroyed thirteen years before. I love explanation sequences in old horror and sci-fi films. You know the scenes where the scientist starts giving a long winded and jargon filled break down of the situation according to all the laws of modern science, or even better, the scene where the mad doctor or villain discloses his plans and aspirations to his captives. Well this film has simply one of the best scenes ever of Col. Osler rambling on and on about the nature of his experiments on the islands and how they are connected to his old research with the krauts in some concentration camp back in the good ol’ days. It all has to do with something skin graft experiments and he uses the jungle girls (more on them shortly) as guinea pigs and hopes to perfect the technique to restore the once lovely fact of his wife, Mona, who was horribly disfigured in a lab accident. When I say disfigured I am trying to be nice here. Her friggin’ face is gone! He supplies his captive guests with all the details of his evil monolog since he feels they will never leave the island and I guess he just had to let I all out since he has been cooped up for way too long with the same old jungle girls who don’t speak English or Naziese, his freaky looking wife and his crew of lackies who are a lot of obsequious yes men if ever there were. So, lets discuss the story in a general fashion and see just why the hell I love this strange film so much.
The story, as I have already disclosed, is about a small yacht that is being charted by Fred Malkin for the purpose of finding an island that, according to legend and drunken sea tales, is home to a race of half animal, half human creatures. I cannot figure out if Jerrie is his girlfriend or not since they never seem to have a kind word for one another, but somehow Fred manages to talk her dad into financing the “expedition”. Why exactly Jerrie decides to come along is a total mystery since she is miserable from the word go. The rest of the “seasoned” crew is the sorry excuse, but most likely affordable, for a sea captain Kris Kamana and an Asian Hop Sing style tag along if ever there was one named Sammy Ching. Actually the Asian guy here does not descend into as many stereotyped mannerisms and dialog as one might expect form the period and is, s far I am concerned, the most likeable character in the film. And while Kamana appears to be a black man it is also likely he is a Samoan but I am not sure any of that matters because I think is obvious from the get go that what this guy is is dead meat. They run into a hurricane and I wonder if they had bothered to check the weather forecast before setting sail since hurricanes don’t usually appear out of nowhere. The storm looks like a bad one according to all the stock footage we are treated to. The ship goes down but as is usually the case everyone is washed upon the shore of a tropical island. How does that happen? I would think even with life jackets you are going to drown in hurricane waters strong enough to sink your ship. However Sammy somehow manages to save the blasted radio, the heaviest piece of equipment there is. Jerrie is at it in no time and Fred is yapping back at her for being the spoiled rich brat she is and the two ethnic minority members stare at each other wondering who will go first. Luckily it is the worst actor in the cast Kris who goes down first.
They see a formation of stock footage jets fly over head and receive a transmission that they will return later and perform a bombing run on the island. They find him later after exploring around a bit, searching for the sources of foot prints they found in the sand, with spears in his body and the radio smashed to pieces. This all bodes poorly. They head back into the jungle and after a few confusing adventures, such as Sammy finding his own college fraternity pin and the trio finding a freakish girl face down in a river, they are drawn to some primitive bongo and congo drums playing the type of untamed drum rhythms you heard at Ricky Ricardo’s club on the Lucy Show and find a group of robust white girls doing a “native” dance in a jungle clearing. It seems to be more like dance you would find on one of those burlesque Super 8 movie reels and I simply have to wonder what the origins of this tribe of sexy, white are. Are there really lost tribes of women like this on uncharted Caribbean islands? What is more amazing is what happens next. A squad of Nazis show up and recapture the girls as it seems they had all just escaped from their holding pins where they are kept for Col. Osler’s experiments. That is correct. These girls all just escaped from Nazis performing freakish experiments on them and what do they do? Do they high tail it to the furthest reaches of the island and hide quietly in the jungle? No, they start doing a loud Las Vegas show girl routine a hundred feet from the Nazi camp.
The girls are taken back and one is whipped to death by Igor as an example to the others and our trio of castaways decide to sneak into the camp and find out what is going on. The movie then becomes a series of the group’s attempts at breaking into the Nazi compound then getting captured and then escaping again and yet getting recaptured. Anders is great as the jeering and unethical Nazi madman and in one the most memorable scenes of the film he actually tries to seduce cold fish Jerrie by dressing her up in a black gown owned by his disfigured wife and plying her with alcohol. While Anders seems to be playing the scene for fun McCalla’s lack of acting ability is totally apparent. Nicholas Carras’ music score is decent enough and the cinematography by Meredith Nicholson is pretty good as well after the scenes begin to take place in the jungles and in the secret laboratory and compound. I felt his camera work on Cunha’s Missile to the Moon and Daughter of Frankentstein was far better however though She Demons displays plenty of his skill within the low budget 50’s and 60’s horror films genre. The She Demons themselves are interesting works and the scene where one turns her head after being transformed by Col. Osler’s experiments actually made my wife jump and cream a little. The make up is obviously pretty low budget with the long, gangly teeth really being the weak point but in a way the creatures are actually a little freaky. The scene where Osler’s wife’s face is revealed is pretty well done and reminiscent of Karloff in The Mummy, except that Mona’s rotted face is far uglier. Through it all Sammy keeps the wise cracks coming and Fred is simply a wuss in my opinion. Maybe one of the wimpiest action heroes to appear in film.
The film ends strangely, as if things haven’t been strange enough. Of course Osler’s wife get upset because of his interest in Jerrie and set them all free after they have been imprisoned yet again by sneaking them the key to the door lock. She never seemed to have a problem with Osler experimenting on the native girls with experiments that were usually fatal but she suddenly has an attack of conscience when he sees him trying to put the move on Jerrie in her black dress. While She Demons are running amok and our trio are making their escape the US Air Force starts a bombing run on the island and the laboratory is blown up and the lava that Osler harassed for his experiments is set loose and fries him. Was this not a major issue in the past? These bombing runs and why in the world did it just happen that this was the one to blow the lab to bits? We will never know I suppose. Fred, Jerrie and Sammy make it to the beach where finally Jerrie seems to have fallen for Fred but I have no idea why. She is still a shrew and he is a sissy boy. Of course I poke fun but this is a pretty good low budget film that draws on some classic traditions such as doctors driven to restore their disfigured wives, strange experiments gone awry on a desert island and shipwrecked survivors who find themselves in the middle of all the madness. Usually considered Cunha’s second best film compared to Daughter of Frankenstein but I think Missile to the Moon is often overlooked and a review of that film, and Daughter of Frankenstein, are coming eventually.