The She-Creature (1956) *1/2
Director: Edward L. Cahn
Runtime: 1h 17m
Thanks to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) hypnotists can claim to be the original horror villains. Throughout the 1930s and 40s psychotic psychiatrists and murderous mesmerists wielding gold watches and ordering their victims to “SLEEP!” were thick on the ground. The trend was still quite popular in the 1950s, fueled by an increasing interest among the American middle class in Freudian psychoanalysis. In later decades hypnotists would mostly disappear from horror films, until the inclusion of a villainous hypnotist, like the one in Get Out (2017), feels like a deliberate anachronism. Of course, in real-life the power of hypnotic suggestion is rather less impressive than it is in horror movies. You cannot use hypnosis to order someone to carry out a murder for you (or do anything that violates their moral principals), nor can you force someone to re-live a past life. You especially cannot use hypnosis to conjure forth a pre-historic Gill-Woman and have it murder random inhabitants of a small beachside town. Hell, even if it were possible, what sort of daffy loon would go through all the trouble for no tangible reward?
The answer is Dr. Carlo Lombardi, a hypnotist currently working at a traveling carnival and moonlighting by putting on hypnotic shows for an audience mostly composed of gullible old women. He has recently found the perfect hypnotic subject: a woman named Andrea Talbot whose life before meeting him seemed to revolve around following carnivals around. Andrea is so susceptible to hypnotic suggestion that Lombardi can force her to relieve her past lives. Lombardi is no quack though; he doesn’t dispute the truth behind Darwin’s theories, so the earliest lives that Andrea can regress to are not human at all. However, it seems like most biologists are pretty far off the mark about mankind’s common ancestors as rather than regressing into a single-celled organism or a hominid, Andrea’s first life was as a hulking ichthyoid bi-ped. For reasons the film doesn’t feel particularly worried about explaining, Lombardi takes the next step of having Andrea physically project her regressed consciousness into the real world. Once the creature is present in the real world, Lombardi has it kill bystanders, usually at random, though occasionally they are people that have annoyed Lombardi in some way.
Andrea, for her part, doesn’t understand the full extent of what Lombardi is doing to her, but she knows enough want out. However, Lombardi has her so far under his power that he can order her to do whatever he wants. Lombardi explains: “As long as I’m alive, I’ll possess you. It’s something beyond yourself that makes you need me.” The dynamic of their relationship is deeply disturbing, and the only genuine fright in the film. A young woman, hopelessly at the mercy of an uncaring and often cruel older man is bad enough on its own, but the fact that Lombardi is plainly in love with Andrea adds another level of creepiness to the dynamic. When we first see Andrea she is awakening from a deep hypnotic trance that Lombardi put her in against her will, one that she was in for more than an hour (something that Andrea has asked the mad mesmerist repeatedly not to do). One has to wonder what other sort of foul deeds Lombardi got up to in that hour, aside from conjuring a murderous fish-monster that is.
Once conjured, the fish-monster wastes no time in murdering a man and a woman in a beachside bungalow. The police take an immediate interest in Dr. Lombardi for these murders on account of the fact that he had made a predication earlier that people would start dying that night, and a pair of witnesses spotted him leaving the scene of the crime. The witnesses are socialite Dorothy Chappel and her latest boy-toy: professor Ted Erickson, a psychological researcher. Despite their testimony, the police can’t make anything stick on Lombardi, as all the evidence points to some kind of bizarre animal attack. The whole affair captures the attention of Dorothy’s father, an extremely successful businessman named Tim Chappel. Tim wants to build a media circus around Lombardi, his predications and his work in past life regression. He wants Ted to give his professional stamp of approval on the whole thing, knowing that recognition from a prestigious academic will lend more credence to Lombardi’s work. When Tim refuses, citing the whole matter as morally and scientifically abhorrent, Tim shrugs his shoulders and carries on all the same. After all, a public denouncement from Erickson will create controversy about the matter, and nothing fuels publicity like a good controversy.
Tim invites Lombardi to his home to give a demonstration of his skills to his family and a carefully chosen list of guests (book publishers, newspapermen, and the like). I have no idea why a savvy businessman like Tim thinks that Lombardi’s act will be profitable, not only could most of his performance easily be faked (the only one he is hypnotizing is his assistant, and Lombardi never volunteers to try his skills on members of the audience) but it’s boring as hell to boot. He has Andrea sit down on the couch, and then regresses her back to England in the time of James I. Then he conjures up the psychic ghost of the dead Englishwoman and has her open a window and draw the curtains. I find myself nodding in agreement with the MST3K commentary about halfway through the act: ”Can the She-Creature start killing now?”
Somewhere along the line, don’t ask me where the film isn’t exactly interested in developing the relationships between characters, Ted falls in love with Andrea. He good-naturedly dumps his socialite girlfriend and embarks on a plan to free his new love from Lombardi’s psychic domination. Lombardi continues his plan to… well I don’t really know what his plan is to be honest. He keeps having his prehistoric monster kill people while he perves on his assistant though. Regardless of what’s happening, there’s an awful amount of meandering around on the beach.
The She-Creature is not a very entertaining film. The effects are shoddy and the cast is mostly dull (in some scenes Ted, ostensible the leading man, seems to have a marked refusal to act in any way whatsoever). Lombardi at least manages to be suitably ridiculous but his evil plan, and the science behind it, makes no sense whatsoever. Tim Chappel is a much more convincing villain, because at least he has a motivation that I can understand (for him it’s all about the Benjamins, baby). Further marring the film is some patently unfunny comic relief that was so popular in mid-century horror movies. Here, the comic relief is the usual low-effort fare provided by an impossibly broad ethnic stereotype in the form of the Chappel family’s Sweedish servant. It is as unfunny and tiresome as you would expect, but it at least has the advantage of being something of a novelty: I don’t think I have every seen a racist caricature of a Swede in a movie before (indeed, I initially didn’t know what ethnic stereotype he was suppose to be).
The real star of this movie, like so many others of its kind, is the monster suit. This one is a real masterpiece, finding the perfect line between grotesque, goofy and bizarre. The influence of Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) is obvious, but the She-Creature is much more outlandish than the archetypical gill-man suit. For one it is covered in protruding bone-like horns and it’s facial features have a distinctly insectoid appearance to them. In addition, the She-Creature comes equipped with a pair of goofy lobster claws that make her look more lobster-like than fish-like. More remarkable though are the feminine additions to the suit: The armor-like breasts and the ruffled blonde wig. What’s more, the whole thing is well-put together. Rest assured, this is no shoddy amateur job. I fully believe that most of the film’s miniscule budget wound up in that glorious suit. It’s certainly one of the most delightful monster suits of 1950s horror, too bad it was only used in this stinker and the equally tiresome Voodoo Woman (1957).