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.
Corner store companion:
OMG! Milk Chocolately Clusters (because you deserve to enjoy a delicious snack while watching this dreck)
-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).