She Demons (1958) review – micro-budgeted monotony

While independent filmmakers are often lauded for their ability to work outside the system and complete a project using a modest amount of money, they don’t always arrive at the same destination career-wise.

For example, directors like Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson have become critical darlings despite their humble beginnings; debuting with simple crime features that lead to increasingly complex projects.

Meanwhile, people like Robert Rodriguez and John Carpenter have largely stuck with their lurid genre roots and developed more of a cult following as a result.

Then you have luminaries like Roger Corman, who is remembered more as a genius businessman because of his ability to turn a profit by shooting fast and cheap.

Some renegade directors have even cemented a legacy through their sheer lack of talent and business sense, which is largely the case with B-movie king Ed Wood.

But for every Ed Wood there are probably a thousand independent filmmakers like Richard E. Cunha, whose name has been cast into the dustbin of history while his similarly schlocky work lives on in the realm of public domain.

One of these projects is She Demons (1958), a sleazy science-fiction horror film whose production values are about on par with an elementary school play.

But to be fair, most elementary school plays at least go to some lengths to maintain some sense of stylistic consistency, whereas Cunha’s film feels like it consists of assets leftover from eight different movies.

And while part of me always admires the entrepreneurial spirit it takes to get any film project off the ground, especially on a micro budget, I can’t ignore the reality that She Demons feels like it is held together with chewing gum and masking tape.

For as disjointed as this movie gets, the plot is mercifully simple from the outset, where a spoiled heiress (Irish McCalla) and her entourage get shipwrecked on an uncharted island following a hurricane.

As the group gradually explores the island they stumble upon a menagerie of horrors, including Nazi soldiers, a mad scientist, and the titular female monstrosities, which turn out to be some conventionally attractive women wearing cheap Halloween masks.

After a bunch of corny fist fights and lengthy expositions dumps, the mad scientist eventually turns his attention towards McCalla, wanting to use her youth and vitality to restore the beauty of his horribly maimed wife.

Watching She Demons I was constantly reminded of a couple old episodes of Star Trek, the ones where the Enterprise crew would visit an alien planet that looked suspiciously like Earth during World War II or the Prohibition Era.

Of course, this sense of familiarity turned out to be a cost-saving measure, since it allowed the producers to re-use old sets, props, and costumes from other Paramount properties rather than shell out a bunch of money to create new ones.

It seems like Cunha’s team operated under the same penny-pinching philosophy, except they didn’t have access to the same caliber of writers that made those original Star Trek adventures so compelling.

Here, it seems like the story of She Demons was totally dependent on whatever sets, props, and costumes the filmmakers could get their hands on, leading to a weird sense of disconnect throughout the entire 77-minute runtime.

Admittedly, some of the exterior scenes look alright, since Cunha and his team at least had the good sense to shoot on an actual beach and public park in California to maintain the illusion that his characters are stuck on a tropical island.

But that illusion completely shatters whenever the actors venture indoors and are forced to interact with these cheap sets that were either quickly made or taken from other movies.

The patchwork nature of this production is present in a lot of other places as well, with the overuse of stock footage being a repeat offender.

The filmmakers didn’t even bother to set up important establishing shots in some cases, outright omitting any depiction of the giant shipwreck that’s supposed to set the entire plot in motion.

Now, you could excuse a lot of these shortcomings as being a byproduct of the film’s reported $65,000 budget, since that kind of money doesn’t leave a lot of creative wiggle room for a sci-fi, horror mashup, even by 1958 standards.

But what isn’t excusable is the movie’s script, which is simultaneously sloppy, nonsensical, and extremely long-winded.

For whatever reason, Cunha decided to take a simple premise (people getting stuck on an island populated with monsters) and weigh it down with a bunch of extraneous nonsense.

Instead of focusing on the characters’ struggle to survive, the film keeps introducing new outlandish concepts that come out of nowhere, like long-lost Nazis, experimental gene therapy, and using lava as a renewable energy source.

Cunha gets so carried away with these ideas that the titular “She Demons” barely factor into the plot and are only used as set dressing past a certain point.

It also doesn’t help that the movie’s complicated fake science is explained during a 10-minute-long speech from the main villain that only succeeds in bringing the film to a grinding halt.

The characters themselves aren’t much to write home about either, although you can at least tell that certain members of the case are trying to squeeze something meaningful out of this bonkers script.

The only person who comes close to making a lasting impression is Rudolph Anders as the main villain, since this German actor made a career out of playing doctors and Nazis and knows how to fuse those two archetypes together.

Irish McCalla also makes an impression as the leading lady, but that probably has more to do with her measurements than her acting ability.

Tod Griffin isn’t even worth bringing up as the main love interest, since his monotone delivery constantly sounds like he’s reading his dialogue off of cue cards.

While Victor Sen Yung is saddled with the hapless role of the wisecracking sidekick, the filmmakers at least had the decency to not force him to adopt a stereotypical Asian accent (as was the style at the time).

However, that didn’t stop Cunha and his co-writer from inserting some eye-rolling Oriental-flavoured expressions into the script, getting Yung to yell “jumpin’ wanton!” and “Great Confucius’ ghost!” at various points in the movie.

And despite the overall zaniness of the plot, She Demons’ biggest sin is it is a boring watch most of the time, with a punishingly sluggish pace that only picks up in the final five minutes.

So if you’re planning a Halloween-themed bad movie night, it’s best to avoid this film even in that context, since including it in your lineup will only succeed in killing the vibe.

The only real value you can glean from watching She Demons is purely academic, since it might give you some insight on what to avoid if you plan on shooting a movie for $65,000.

Now, I know that sounds harsh, especially since scrappy movie makers like Cunha still serve as inspiration to aspiring artists looking to break into the industry today.

But as much as cinephiles like to celebrate independent filmmaking as a whole, it’s always important to acknowledge the trash alongside celebrating the treasure, with She Demons being a prime example of the former.

Verdict:

2/10

Corner store companion:

OMG! Milk Chocolately Clusters (because you deserve to enjoy a delicious snack while watching this dreck)

Fun facts:

-Release date: Jan. 3, 1958 (U.S.)

She Demons was originally released in theatres as a double feature with Giant from the Unknown (1958), another cheaply made sci-fi, horror mashup directed by Cunha and released by Astor Pictures.

-Richard Cunha got his start in show business during World War II, where he served as an aerial photographer for the military. From there, he was transferred to Hal Roach Studios in Los Angeles to make training films, newsreels, and documentaries. After the war, Cunha worked his way up to becoming a cinematographer on television and eventually started directing his own feature films.  

She Demons marked the only time actress Irish McCalla received top billing in a feature film. She was also known for her starring role in the cult TV show Sheena: Queen of the Jungle (1955-56). McCalla retired from acting in the early 1960s and would go on to establish herself as a respected oil painter.  

She Demons can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube (the picture quality here is actually an improvement over my DVD copy from Echo Bridge Entertainment).

You Light Up My Life (1977) review- Why you should give this film (and the song) a second chance

Movies don’t always stick into the popular consciousness the way their directors would like them to. Some films, for example, are only remembered for one particular thing, whether it’s a standout scene or a single iconic performance.

You Light Up My Life is an obvious victim of this phenomenon, since many people forget that it was even a movie in the first place.

Instead, most people associate this film with its title track, which was one of the biggest hit songs of 1977, staying at the #1 position in the Billboard charts for an unprecedented, at the time, 10 consecutive weeks.

Not only did this single’s popularity make Debby Boone a star, but the following year it also netted director/composer Joseph Brooks an Oscar for Best Original Song, giving him a lot of credibility in the eyes of Hollywood elites (albeit temporarily).

Meanwhile, the original 1977 film that spawned this track is definitely not remembered as a classic, judging by its low rating on sites like Rotten Tomatoes (20%) and IMDB (4.6).

And even though the song initially fared well in the eyes of the public, its stock has severely diminished with time. In fact, if you Google “You Light Up My Life” right now you’ll find a bunch of modern culture critics writing about how it is one of the worst songs of the 1970s.

This overwhelmingly negative critical consensus on both fronts definitely came as a big surprise to me, since I found this film to be a charming romantic drama and the song to be an absolute show stealer.

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The story proper follows Laurie Robinson (Didi Conn), a working artist in Los Angeles who bounces around different commercial auditions and comedy acting gigs at the behest of her overbearing showbiz father (Joe Silver). However, her true passion lies with composing music and she even gets the opportunity to showcase this talent when she meets an established director (Michael Zaslow) by chance.

Laurie’s personal life is also put in jeopardy when she starts to develop feelings for this director, which complicates her impending marriage to another man.

Now, I’ll admit, there’s a lot of melodrama packed into this movie, especially when the run time is a slim 90 minutes. But Conn’s lead performance as Laurie really holds everything together, since she carries this entire movie on her back almost single-handedly.

It’s hard to put into words how endearing and likable she is on screen, as her character goes from audition to audition, facing rejection and failure at almost every turn. Conn’s optimistic personality and lack of cynicism really makes her a captivating underdog to watch, someone who also isn’t afraid to show cracks in that sunny demeanor when things get really rough.

Her relationship with Joe Silver is also a pivotal part of the movie’s appeal.

While Silver’s showbiz dad is totally ignorant of his daughter’s real interests, he isn’t trying to be malicious or exploit his only child for financial gain. Instead, he pushes her in a certain direction out of a genuine belief that stand-up comedy is her real passion, even though that’s mostly projection on his part.

The warm back-and-forth between Conn and Silver comes across as being very authentic and makes you believe that the actors would carry out these same conversations once the cameras stopped rolling.

In fact, most of the characters and dialogue in the movie comes across as very naturalistic, to the point where I almost thought I was watching a slice-of-life drama in the same vein as a Richard Linklater or Cameron Crowe film.

But I know what you’re asking: “What about the title song? Isn’t it awful and derail the entire movie?”

Actually, no. I would actually argue that the title track works on many levels and is one of the film’s biggest highlights.

 

From a filmmaking point of view, this uplifting number comes in at just the right point in the story, when Laurie desperately needs a win and finally gets the chance to showcase her singing and song writing ability in front of some Hollywood big wigs.

This exulted feeling is hammered home by the way the scene is shot, since it is all presented to the audience in a single take with fluid, sweeping camera movements.

And even though Conn obvious isn’t providing her own singing voice, she still acts the hell out of this moment, since her body language and facial expressions perfectly match the pipped in vocals.

(Plus, if Rami Malek can win an Oscar for lip syncing, why should I hold back praise for another quality pantomime performance?)

On a musical level, it’s important to point out that the movie version of “You Light Up My Life” is different than the Debby Boone rendition most people are familiar with.

The track was originally performed by classically trained opera singer Kasey Cisyk, whose powerful, uplifting voice effortlessly elevates the admittedly simple lyrics and makes them sound profound.

Boone’s performance is pretty bland and lifeless by comparison, which is part of the reason why, I imagine, this song has garnered such a bad reputation in the intervening 40 years.

I also feel like the instrumental accompaniment in the movie version of the song is alot stronger, especially the string section, but that could just be my imagination.

And even if you don’t like Cisyk’s version of the “You Light Up My Life,” the film is sprinkled with a handful of other catchy numbers, with “Do You Have a Piano” being another standout.

That’s not to suggest that every song is used appropriately.

The director has a bad habit of artificially squeezing his original music into scenes just to pad out the run time, like whenever Conn has to drive from one location to another.

Plus, not every track is a winner, with the dreary “California Daydreams” coming across as a bad Simon and Garfunkel rip-off.

In terms of filmmaking weaknesses, I would be remiss not to mention that You Light Up My Life occasionally veers off into the realm of a sappy soap opera, with some cheesy lines and plot contrivances that really strain the realm of believability.

But at its core, this movie still has a beating heart and the director is obviously very passionate about showcasing the struggle one must endure to make it in the entertainment industry.

The filmmakers in general do good job of blending the music with the overarching narrative, so movie-goers who have re-watched the recent A Star is Born remake for the 15th time might get a kick out of this story too.

I know that singing You Light Up My Life’s praises won’t win me any critic brownie points, since the movie has fallen into relative obscurity and the song has garnered a pretty unshakable reputation as being seven shades of uncool.

But every now and then I’m in the mood for some romantic fluff, especially if the lead performance is strong and the soundtrack adds an extra layer of intrigue.

For everyone else, just make sure you go in with an open mind and don’t buy into the anti-hype that’s built up around this song (and the movie that bears its name) for the last four decades.

Verdict:

8/10

Corner store companion:

White Wonder Bread (because it’s bland but emotionally satisfying)

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Fun facts:

-If you’re wondering why director Joseph Brooks didn’t use the Kasey Cisyk version of “You Light Up My Life” for radio play it’s because he is a giant piece of shit. According to Cisyk’s second husband Ed Rakowicz, Brooks made improper advances towards the young singer and became angry when she rejected him. The director went on to hire then newcomer Debby Boone to re-record the song and even instructed her to replicate Cisyk’s performance as closely as possible.

-Even though her rendition of “You Light Up My Life” is (arguably) inferior to Cisyk’s version, Boone’s career took off like a rocket after it hit the airwaves. Not only did the single earn her an Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Original Song, but she also won a Grammy for Best New Artist in 1977 and Song of the Year in 1978.

-Brooks’ monstrous behavior with Cisyk was only the tip of the iceberg. In June 2009 he was arrested for raping or sexually assaulting over 10 different women after his assistant lured them to his Manhattan apartment. Brooks committed suicide on May 22, 2011 before he could be tried for 91 counts of rape, sexual abuse, criminal sexual act, assault, and other charges.

Star Trek scholars cite Michael Zaslow, who plays the director Didi Conn falls for, as being the franchise’s first-ever “red shirt” or expendable crew member that perishes during a planetary expedition. During the Original Series’ first official episode titled “The Man Trap,” Zaslow’s character, crewmember Darnell, famously met his end after being seduced and killed by a shape-shifting alien.

-You can watch the entire movie on YouTube for free (with Spanish subtitles) here: