A pioneering slice of British science fiction from 1954 – before Hammer’s Quatermass Xperiment opened the floodgates for the genre – Devil Girl from Mars is something of a curiosity. Too well done to be hilarious but too trashy to take seriously, it’s an odd – and very British – take on the genre.
Opening with a aircraft explosion that has no real relevance to the plot, the film takes place entirely within a Scottish highlands inn out in the middle of nowhere, making it also a pioneer in the ‘British movies set in a pub’ genre (someone really needs to write a book about British movies and their obsession with the pub… but I digress…). The first half of the film introduces the characters – there’s inn owners Mr and Mrs Jamieson (John Laurie and Sophie Stewart) who have the sort of ‘hen-pecked husband / no-nonsense wife’ relationship so beloved in British culture, mysterious and well dressed Ellen Prestwick (Hazel Court), irritating child Tommy (Anthony Richmond) and barmaid Doris (Adrienne Corri), who has moved to Scotland to be close to ex-boyfriend Robert (Peter Reynolds), who is in prison after killing his wife. It just so happens that Robert has escaped, and he turns up at the inn to hide out, employed by the Jamieson’s as a handyman. Unfortunately for him, Professor Arnold Hennessey (Joseph Tomelty) and reporter Michael Carter (Hugh McDermott) also turn up, having gotten lost while travelling to investigate claims of a crashed meteor, and Carter immediately recognises him. But before this revelation can go anywhere, events are interrupted by the arrival of a spaceship, carrying Martian Devil Girl Nyah (Patricia Laffan).
She’s quite the sight in her fetish wear latex cape and mini dress, black stockinged and booted legs and general dominatrix aura, and when she announces that she has come to take men back to Mars for the purpose of breeding (the Martian men having been rendered sexually useless after a war between men and women), you’d think there would be no shortage of volunteers. But thanks to a miscalculation, rather than landing in London, she’s arrived at a near-empty pub where half the men seem to be pensioners and everyone seems more interested in having a cup of tea than travelling to another planet for presumably non-stop sex with horny Martian babes.
Nyah does her best to convince them she means business – her ray gun disintegrates trees and tractors, and when she roles out robot Chani – for no obvious reason, given that he does very little – everyone is amazed, including the audience who will probably fall off their chairs laughing at this extraordinarily clunky machine – imagine Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still made from toilet rolls and sticky-back plastic and you have the right idea. Seeing she means business, the men cut cards to see who will have to sacrifice his stiff upper lip and travel to Mars to be used as a sex toy – though their cunning plan is for whoever takes the trip to sabotage the ship and destroy it.
Strictly poverty-row stuff, Devil Girl from Mars is nevertheless better than you might expect – though if this is a good thing or not is debatable. Certainly, in the pre-Martian part of the film, things plod when they ought to gallop, with characters introduced slowly and events spelled out by a radio announcer (saving on additional shooting to show the meteor and letting us know who is who before they are even seen on screen). The film’s origins as a stage play are all too obvious. But the performances are better than you’d expect in such a film – old fans and future talents like Laurie, Hammer star Court and Corri ensure that the film never slides into high camp. Of course, the characters are fairly weak – McDermott in particular seems so horrible and arrogant and has such an annoying transatlantic accent that the idea of Court falling for him within a couple of hours seems even more ridiculous than it otherwise would.
The arrival of the Devil Girl livens things up considerably of course. Laffan gives a haughty performances that is perfect for her space-dom character and plays the whole thing as if it is high-art. These moments of quality do ensure that the film never becomes a hilarious Bad Movie, which is a pity, because it has all the right elements – but stubbornly refusing to play along, Devil Girl from Mars is simply too solid a film to ever work as a Good Bad Film, the high-camp of Nyah’s costume and her clunky robot assistant aside.
Still, that’s not to say you won’t get a lot of pleasure from the movie. There is much fun to be had here, not all of it intentional, and it’s better – certainly more memorable – than a lot of 1950s US sci-fi. And I’d love to see the Devil Girl look adopted by women at fetish clubs…