September 1, 2015
In 1956 the hip new fad was past life regression, thanks to the story of Bridey Murphy. In Colorado, amateur hypnotist Morey Bernstein had been experimenting his craft with Virginia Mae Morrow, who claimed to have died in Ireland in 1864, when she was known as Bridey Murphy. The story was reported in the Denver Post, and then published as a best-selling book authored by Bernstein in 1956, The Search for Bridey Murphy. It was briefly on everybody’s lips, with the New York Times reporting, “there were Bridey Murphy parties (‘come as you were’) and Bridey Murphy jokes (parents greeting newborns with ‘Welcome back’).” Hollywood wanted to cash-in on the craze while it was still relevant, so Paramount rushed their official adaptation of The Search for Bridey Murphy, starring Teresa Wright, into production. It was released on October 1st of 1956. American International Pictures worked a little quicker, cranking their past life regression monster movie The She-Creature (1956) out in nine days, and getting it into theaters on July 25th. Though beset by casting troubles and budget restrictions, The She-Creature manages to create an atmosphere of voluptuous dread, aided by Paul Blaisdell’s insectoid creature design and efficient direction from bargain basement king Edward L. Cahn.
Wanting to profit while past life regression was still all the rage, AIP president Jim Nicholson assigned Lou Rusoff to put together a treatment for a film with hypnotism as its theme. The project didn’t have a clear shape until Nicholson and producer Alex Gordon were at a party where local exhibitor Jerry Zigmond mentioned The She-Creature as a possible title that could sell the Bridey Murphy hook. With the title in place, Rusoff then built the story around a prehistoric female monster, the endpoint of a past-life regression that goes back to the beginning of time. Andrea (Marla English) is the suggestive woman under the power of carny mesmerist Dr. Carlo Lombardi (Chester Morris), who is able to take her back through all of her past lives back into a primordial creature. The power of this hypnotic trance is so strong that the monster gains physical form, killing socialites on the California beaches with its thudding she-claws before disappearing back into the ocean. Lombardi builds his psychic reputation by predicting these murders, and starts to make millions with his business patron Timothy Chappel (Tom Conway). The one skeptic is Dr. Ted Erickson (Lance Fuller), a strait-laced academic who studies psychic phenomena. He is out to debunk Lombardi and free Andrea from his thrall.
The budget was $104,000 and the shoot was set for nine days. Director Edward L. Cahn had just completed Girls in Prison (1956) for AIP, and rolled right into The She-Creature, on which he wrings a lot out of abandoned beaches and double exposures – representing all the souls of Andrea’s past. Gordon wanted to get Peter Lorre for the Carlo Lombardi part, and Edward Arnold for Chappel. Both actors had worked together before in Josef Von Sternberg’s Crime and Punishment (1935). But Lorre backed out after reading the script, and Arnold died soon before shooting was set to begin. So they scrambled and hired Chester Morris and Tom Conway. Morris, best known for his starring role in the Columbia Boston Blackie series, was an experienced amateur magician, and brought an enthusiasm for prestidigitation to the role. His wide-set eyes and rumbling voice made for convincing hypnotics, even when he’s trying to mesmerize a dog. Tom Conway had his own series, as The Falcon for RKO, and looks to be having fun in deploying his plummy British accent in service of a scummy exploitation entrepreneur making a fortune off of Lombardi’s morally dubious act – not unlike how AIP was cashing in on the whole Bridey Murphy affair. This might have been an in-joke on Rusoff’s part (he was executive producer Sam Arkoff’s brother-in-law). Lance Fuller (This Island Earth) was another last-minute addition to the cast, and he looks jet-lagged and morose throughout, the dead space in an otherwise well-acted film.
The she-creature herself is doubled as Marla English in the human present, and Paul Blaisdell in the foam rubber suit as her prehistoric avatar. English was a San Diego beauty queen, whose career, at the age of 21, was already over. Previously signed to Paramount Pictures, they dropped her contract after she refused a lead role in The Mountain alongside Spencer Tracy, either due to falling ill from a smallpox vaccine, orbecause they would not cast her boyfriend Larry Pennell, causing her to quit in protest. She would retire from acting soon after shooting The She-Creature, and she looks ready to leave Hollywood for good, dazed but distantly beautiful — appropriate for a character in a hypnotic trance for most of the film’s running time. There is something elemental about English’s connection to the creature, depicted in double exposures as a foggy excrescence on the ocean until it takes physical form, her thoughts taking shape. It is an embodiment of the rage she has suppressed, her loss of power diverted into the creature’s superpower. And though Lombardi guides Andrea to call this being to life, it is not his creation – so he cannot control it. The most affecting moment in the film occurs when the monster, after scaring off one of Chappel’s rich regression parties, kneels worshipfully next to Andrea, as if in some kind of mind meld, sharing each other’s pain.
The monster itself is another remarkable creation by Paul Blaisdell, the unsung hero of 1950s science fiction (read Randy Palmer’s Paul Blaisdell, Monster Maker for the full story – it is the main source of information for this post). Blaisdell was a creature designer and builder for AIP who made something out of next-to-nothing, working in close concert with his wife, Jackie. They designed monsters for The Day the World Ended, It Conquered the World, Invasion of the Saucer Men, It The Terror From Beyond Space and many more. The She-Creature was “the best one I’ve ever done”, Blaisdell said. He built the creature on a pair of old long-johns, with the body a jigsaw puzzle of foam rubber made to look like the seabed floor. Its chest was made of “sea hooks” which could be used for disemboweling, its arms were clubbing crab-like claws built around a pair of welding gloves, while the face is a cat-lizard-insect combo with stringy blonde hair made for man-devouring. The compressed time schedule kept Cahn from utilizing all of the creature’s capabilities (swinging tail, chewing sea hooks), but it is a striking, unearthly creature that somehow has a spark of humanity in it. Blaisdell built the costume to fit his own body, he literally knew it inside and out, so there was no better person to give the She-Creature life.