Fire Maidens of Outer Space (1956) *
Director: Cy Roth
Runtime: 1h 20m
The Lost City of Atlantis is accepted by most incredulous people as an ancient myth and by most credulous people as a real civilization possibly built with the aid of alien technology. Surprisingly few people know Atlantis’ true origin as a rhetorical device by conservative, aristocratic Athenians that wanted their polis to abandon its naval empire. Much like female homosexuality, the only classical Greek source we have that mentions Atlantis is a platonic dialogue, in this case the Critias and the Timaeus. In these dialogues Atlantis is a powerful naval empire that tries and fails to conquer Athens, which is depicted as a scrappy little city-state with a small but effective infantry army. Conservatives had been opposed to building a significant navy since the idea was first floated by Themistocles, as the service of the low-born rowers would entitle them to full political enfranchisement. They preferred to trust the defense of the city to the hoplite infantry, who due to their expensive panoply, were drawn exclusively from landowners. Plato was coming rather late to this game, but was voicing the opinions and feeling that were common among Athens’ noble elites. Atlantis had no basis in yet more ancient history or mythology; it was entirely the invention of Plato. Such inventions were a common enough tactic for ancient thinkers, and we see it used consistently throughout Plato oeuvre and also among the surviving fragments of his sophist precursors. Now that you know the true story of Atlantis, you too can feel smugly superior next time you hear someone talk about the myth of Atlantis.
I begin with this preamble, because as absurd as it may sound now, today’s story is going to involve Atlantis. Not the real Atlantis of course, but the zaniest possible interpretation from the biggest crackpot ever to splinter pottery. In Fire Maidens of Outer Space not only was Atlantis a real, historic city; it was more technologically advanced than any 20th century civilization, having master space flight to such an extent that they were able to transplant at least a small colony of survivors off-world. More precisely, the Atlantians settled on the 13th moon of Jupiter (which for budgetary reasons is so life supporting and habitable as to be indistinguishable from earth). This extra-terrestrial human civilization would have no contact with the home planet for the next 3000 odd years. The Atlantians evidently believed the other seven continents sank beneath the sea just as theirs did and never bothered to send someone back to check, or even build a sufficiently powerful telescope to go have a look-see. Now, in the middle of the 20th century the humans back on earth have finally caught up to the ancient Atlantians, and are preparing to launch their own expedition to the 13th moon of Jupiter, total ignorant of what they are going to find.
Luther Blair, America’s top physicist, heads the expedition, assisted by his British counterpart Dr. Higgins. The expedition is rounded out with the pilot Captain Larson, radio technician Anderson, and biologist Stanhope. None of the characters have much in the way of personality; so don’t bother trying to keep them straight. The crew is assembled, and the rocket ship built with incredible speed: not even a full month elapses between Blair’s arrival at the missile base and the ship’s departure. Despite the presumed haste of the operation, the movie is in no hurry to have anything happen. This film is so absolutely crammed with filler that if it were trimmed to its essential story it’d be about the length of a Twilight Zone episode. One scene in particular illustrates the films morose pacing: We see Higgins’ secretary walk into the room at the opposite balcony, climb down a long flight of stairs, take a totally inconsequential memo from her boss and then walk back out the way she came. The whole episode adds nothing to the plot, and takes around three minutes to unfold. As a disruption of the plot it might be humorous, but nothing much is happening before or after this inexplicable scene. If anything the filler gets worse once the crew departs for Jupiter, though here at least it has some diegetic justification: a few weeks in a tin can would get tedious for anybody. While the fictional astronauts may be willing to accept a certain degree of tedium on their historic voyage, I sure as hell won’t. We’re nearly halfway through the movie before anything of consequence actually happens.
The plot finally gets rolling when the astronauts reconnoiter the 13th moon and discover a beautiful woman dressed in vaguely Greco-Roman clothing, being menaced by a vicious monster. They drive the monster off and the girl, who we will eventually learn is named Hestia, thanks them by leading the astronauts to the palace/city of the Fire Maidens (they are never actually called this in the film though). At the moment Hestia isn’t able to explain anything, she’s pretending to be mute for fear that her words will offend her father, and the 13th moon’s sole male: Prasus (Prasus isn’t around, so I don’t know what she’s hiding from now). Larson and Blair follow Hestia and meet with her father, the rest of the expedition returns to spaceship to wait. Evidently, Prasus couldn’t sire a male heir to save his life, and neither could any of his extended family. So, the space-faring Atlantians are on their last generation (though how long these Atlantians live is anyone’s guess, Prasus claims to be the grandson of the goddess Venus, so maybe the family has the longevity of the immortals). Prasus isn’t about to resort to incest, so he hopes that he can force a few of the astronauts to stay and bolster the population of the 13th moon. To this end he drugs Blair and Larson and takes their weapons. As far as seduction tactics go it’s a rather poor one, Larson (whose happily married) sure isn’t amused, though the bachelor Blair seems more amenable to the situation.
Blair and Larson are 1950s sci-fi heroes though, and even if plied with wine, women, and the most advanced hangover cure the ancient world has to offer, they aren’t going to sit around and be held prisoner. The problem is they have no idea how to escape, and seem to be too feeble-minded to even make a fair try of it. Blair and Hestia give Prasus a taste of his own medicine by drugging his wine, but why they bothered to do so is beyond me. As soon as Prasus is asleep Hestia and Blair split up and Blair inexplicably locks himself up in his own room again. With prisoners like these who need guards? He and Larson will spend most of the remainder of the film trying to find a way out of their rooms, despite the fact that both have giant glass doors that they can open and close at will. Hestia fairs little better. She manages to get herself captured by the other Fire Maidens, who are convinced that she’s married Blair, violating the Atlantian Law that the eldest daughter must marry first. Punishment is ritual human sacrifice, a bad idea in general but an even worse one in a population that is facing extinction in another generation. Higgins and the rest of the B-cast have managed to be slightly more effective than the film’s stars. After a few setbacks they managed to infiltrate the Atlantian compound by tunneling under the walls. Of course, the monster follows them in, setting the film up for its big climax.
Fire Maidens of Outer Space is a good illustration of the old truism: Just because its really bad doesn’t mean its “So Bad it’s Good”. The monster is a great example: a goofy rubber suit can make all but the most tedious turkey into something watchable. A low-rent rubber costume is crappy but it’s entertainingly crappy, all the more so when it’s garish and excessive like the one in The She-Creature (1956) or wholly incompetent like the one in Night of the Blood Beast (1958). The monster in Fire Maidens of Outer Space is just lazy, it’s a crappy Halloween mask slapped on an actor wearing a black turtleneck, black pants, and if we’re lucky black gloves (at least one shot omits this and we see the actor’s non-monstrous hands). He looks rather more like an anemic beatnik than a savage beast. The sheer crappiness of this makes it at least somewhat entertaining, but more in a pitiful and depressing way. Personally I prefer my Z-grade sci-fi/horror movies to have grand ambitions which they fail to achieve, not meager expectations that they half-ass.
The filler is the real death sentence for this movie though. If it were around an hour, like Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) was, it might have been watchable, but as it stands this film is closer to an exercise in endurance than anything resembling entertainment. For example: mission control is constantly calling the astronauts begging for a status update on their expedition. This behavior makes sense, the astronauts don’t seem overly concerned with making status report to their commanders back home, but it’s boring the first time it happens and only gets worse as the film goes on. Worse still is all the fucking dancing. It’s not that I hate ballet, though lord knows that a big chuck of this film’s target audience does, it’s that I just don’t think it has a place in mid-century sci-fi films. Much less films that have a score composed of whatever library music the filmmakers could snag without having to pay for. There’s not much that the Fire Maidens’ short skirts can do to salvage anyone’s interest in these proceedings. Fire Maidens of Outer Space is one of those films you can feel free to get up from and go fix yourself a snack or use the bathroom, without worrying about missing anything important. Chances are you can dip out for whole minutes at a stretch without missing anything of consequence.
All things consider Fire Maidens of Outer Space is just a cheap knock-off of the far superior Cat-Women of the Moon (1953). It lacks the early films’ grotesque anti-woman paranoia, internal dynamics within the male earthlings, and coherent plot line. The result is a real disappointment, the Atlantians on Jupiter premise is one so completely absurd that a real over-the-top bonkers film could easily have been made based around it. Fortunately there are plenty of bat-shit insane 1950s sci-fi movies for those inclined. No need to waste your time with this dreck, unless you are a masochist with archivist instincts who feels the need to review every film within a highly specific sub-genre.