As frequently misunderstood concepts, reincarnation and hypnotism are pretty good subjects around which to base a horror movie. While one would think that a movie about past lives and mind control would lend itself to be a psychological thriller, 1956’s The She-Creature takes the concepts in another direction and becomes a full-fledged monster movie.
The She-Creature is the story of Dr. Carlo Lombardi (Alibi’s Chester Morris), a sideshow hypnotist who claims that he can bring out the past lives of his assistant, Andrea (pinup model Marla English from Voodoo Woman), and manifest them in a physical way. The problem is that, apparently, Andrea was a prehistoric sea monster in a past life, and Dr. Lombardi is not only able to summon the creature, but force it to do his bidding. Psychic researcher Ted Erickson (This Island Earth’s Lance Fuller), believing that Lombardi is a fraud, is bent on debunking his methods, while another man named Timothy Chappel (Tom Conway from I Walked with a Zombie and Cat People) and his daughter, Dorothy (Cathy Downs from The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues), simply want to exploit Lombardi’s powers for financial gain. When dead bodies start showing up around town alongside reptilian footprints and massive claw marks, Lombardi also attracts the attention of Detective Ed James (The Strange Case of Dr. Manning’s Ron Randell), who finds it difficult to believe that his main suspect is a sea monster. Meanwhile, Ted finds himself falling for Andrea and takes it upon himself to find a way to save her and the rest of the town from Dr. Lombardi and his monster.
Made just a couple of short years after Universal’s Creature from the Black Lagoon, The She-Creature was American International Pictures’ attempt to cash in on the sea monster craze. The film was directed by renowned sci-fi/horror filmmaker Edward L. Cahn in the same inimitable style that he displayed in his classic films It! The Terror from Beyond Space, Creature with the Atom Brain, and Invasion of the Saucer Men. The screenplay, written by Lou Rusoff (It Conquered the World, Cat Girl), is a clever combination of a supernatural fright-fest, a whodunit murder mystery, and a good old-fashioned creature feature.
Even though the monster is seen from very early on in The She-Creature, the film still has an air of mystery surrounding it. Although Dr. Lombardi’s power over Andrea is without question and it is clear from the first scene that Lombardi controls the creature, Ted and Detective James’ quest for answers while constantly trying to prove Lombardi as a fraud drives the plot forward. The audience knows the truth; it’s up to the protagonists to figure it out and accept it. And the truth in The She-Creature is pretty unbelievable.
In a monster movie, it’s unusual for the beast to be outshined by a human, but that’s exactly what happens in The She-Creature. Dr. Lombardi is an excellent, charismatic villain. Although hardly a comedy, the film is just cheesy enough to be fun, and Lombardi is a big reason why. Chester Morris overacts the part like an evil genius, seemingly twisting his imaginary Snidely Whiplash moustache the entire time. Helped along by overly dramatic and unnatural dialogue, he’s creepy and campy, suave and surly. Dr. Lombardi is the perfect man behind the monster in The She-Creature.
The creature itself was designed, built and portrayed by Paul Blaisdell, the man behind the classic sci-fi monsters in films like The Beast with a Million Eyes and Earth vs. the Spider. The creature is more insect-like than amphibian, looking very much Blaisdell’s trademark aliens. The monster is all scales and antennae instead of gills and fins, making it substantially different than the monster in Creature from the Black Lagoon. Hilariously, Blaisdell also makes it obvious to the viewer that the creature is a female; there are two half grapefruit-sized breasts stuck awkwardly on the front exoskeleton of the costume, just in case the title of The She-Creature was not enough of a clue as to the beast’s sex.
The visual effects used to create the appearance and disappearance of the beast in The She-Creature are typical of the 50s sci-fi genre as well. Cahn and his longtime cinematographer Frederick E. West (a Roger Corman Film School graduate, having worked with the influential director on Swamp Women and It Conquered the World) handle the effects in-camera, using double exposures and time lapse photography to bring the creature out of the sea slowly, giving it a ghostly look. Stop-motion techniques are also used to make the monster’s footprints appear out of thin air, further solidifying its otherworldly feel. The cornerstone of a successful low-budget sci-fi or horror film is creative photography, and West learned from the best. His skills are on full display in The She-Creature.
Legendary composer Ronald Stein (Dementia 13, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman) contributes a score that compliments Cahn’s visuals perfectly. Stein’s fun soundtrack is a slick combination of traditional Hollywood fanfare, suspenseful music beds and trippy sci-fi theremin whistles that just screams 50s horror. Although The She-Creature is one of Stein’s earlier films, he handles the task like a seasoned pro, turning in a score that is simultaneously campy and solemn.
Often lost in the sheer volume of 50s monster movies, The She-Creature is not just a typical alien invader film. The monster comes not only from the sea, but from the recesses of the human mind, and the original storyline makes it a film that is both fun and engaging.