Devil Girl from Mars (1954)

Thirteen years before Mars Needs Women, the red planet was apparently running drastically low on the other sex. To balance the numbers, a female Martian named Nyah – clad in black leather and accompanied by a giant robot – travels to earth on a mission to round-up suitable males for breeding…

This is the premise of Devil Girl from Mars (David Macdonald, 1954), a curious movie that certainly fits the ‘accidentally hilarious’ category, but also one that possesses some unusual quirks which set it apart from other science fiction B-movies of the decade. Distinctly British in its approach and execution, Devil Girl from Mars is played with a seriousness that contrasts starkly with its low-budget effects and stage set.

The basic concept was by no means unique, for the early 1950s saw a wave of Hollywood movies about alien intruders, including The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Man from Planet X (1951), The Thing from Another World (1951), Invaders from Mars (1953) and The War of the Worlds (1953.) Without denying that these films may have had some influence, Devil Girl from Mars was a British production and feels very different from the American science-fiction movies it might have imitated. There are elements of the ‘country house mystery’ in the way disparate characters are drawn to the remote inn, a concern for matters like social class, moral behaviour, justice and redemption – plus a very British appreciation for tea and other beverages. Some of these elements betray the film’s radio play origins, although I have been unable as yet to trace any broadcast details. In structure and pacing the film remains stagebound, with its limited locations, excessive speechifying and over-reliance on dramatic entries and exits.

None of this can be anticipated from the film’s opening shots, however, in which an aircraft is mysteriously destroyed in mid-air. The mystery is not just in the mode of destruction, but also in its relevance to the story: it is never explained what this has to do with Nyah’s mission.

Following the plane explosion and the title credits, the scene switches to the Bonnie Charlie Inn ‘in a lonely part of Inverness-shire,’ which will be the setting for the rest of the film. Despite being closed for the winter, there are four staff in residence – Mr and Mrs Jamieson (John Laurie and Sophie Stewart), barmaid Doris (Adrienne Corri) and handyman David (James Edmond) plus Mrs Jamieson’s young nephew Tommy (Anthony Richmond). They have only one guest, glamorous model Ellen Prestwick (Hazel Court), who has come here to hide from her married lover.

This small household is soon bolstered by the arrival of escaped convict Robert Justin (Peter Reynolds), who was actually Doris’s lover before he was jailed for killing his wife, although her death appears to have been accidental: (and as Doris points out in his defence, ‘she was bad’.) Doris took the job at the Bonnie Charlie in order to be nearer Robert, although one wonders why she didn’t choose a pub nearer Stirling, which must be at least a hundred miles away. She might have been safer too, given the apparent pickpocketing powers of fish in the Highlands:

Isn’t it awful, Mrs Jamieson? He’s lost his wallet, he’s just been telling me…There he was crossing the stream, and he..he looks over to see a fish that’s in the water, and the next thing he knows…his wallet’s gone.

Mrs Jamieson will not withhold the Highland tradition of hospitality, but she gives Robert a suspicious look and warns him, ‘I’m counting the spoons.’

Next to arrive are Professor of Astrophysics Arnold Hennessy (Joseph Tomelty) and reporter Michael Carter (Hugh McDermott) from the Daily Messenger, who got lost in their car on their way to investigate reports of a meteor.


With all the characters now assembled, it is time for the Devil Girl to arrive. The spaceship lands right outside the inn in a cloud of fire and smoke, disturbing the group just as Carter reveals Robert’s real identity. Mr Jamieson declares that the craft ‘looks like a flying saucer’, using the term that had become popular since Kenneth Arnold’s encounter with UFOs seven years earlier. Professor Hennessy is reluctant to believe it could be a spaceship, but he and Carter head off to try and find a phone to inform the Home Office.


Miss Prestwick looking forlorn when Carter leaves the room. ‘I know it sounds silly, but I don’t like to be left here on my own.’
Viewers might agree that Ellen’s anxiety was justified when they receive their first sight of the ‘flying saucer’ pilot. After a dramatic stride down the landing ramp and a close-up of her face, the Devil Girl meets David and is unimpressed by his poor sight and limping gait.


All that is left of what Nyah judged ‘a hopeless specimen’
The Devil Girl’s agenda is not yet apparent, but this scene leaves no doubt as to her ruthlessness and capacity for cruelty. However, most viewers were probably still goggle-eyed at Nyah’s costume, with her skin tight helmet and full length cloak of black PVC. Once she enters the inn, the inner part of the costume is revealed as a black mini-skirt and tights.
Nyah explains her mission to Hennessy and Carter: on Mars, ‘the war of the sexes’ was literal, and after a bloody conflict the women emerged victorious, leaving only a handful of enfeebled male survivors with which to breed. Faced with the demise of their race, the Martians have sent Nyah to earth to bring back some virile men to help repopulate their planet. Before anyone asks why the Martians chose a remote part of Inverness-shire for their harvest of men, Nyah blames it on her sat nav: her spaceship was programmed to land in London, but having underestimated the thickness of the earth’s atmosphere (i.e. Scottish weather?), the spaceship was damaged on entry and forced to land in the Highlands for repair.

Nyah’s explanation of the repair process introduces the first of several technical discussions: we learn that the spaceship is made of organic metal that repairs itself by regeneration. The concept of a ‘living spacecraft’ was, I think, quite original at this time. A short while later Professor Hennessy quizzes Nyah on her spaceship’s power source:

N: A form of nuclear fission, on a static negative condensity
H: A negative condensity?
N: Exactly. Your atomic bomb is positive, it can cause an explosion to expand upwards and evaporate; our force is negative and explodes atomic forces into each other, thereby magnifying the power a thousand fold.
H: And the fuel?
N: Self-propagating

The science may be flaky in the extreme (don’t ask about the ‘perpetual motion chain reactor beam’), but there is something impressive in the deadpan seriousness with which it is presented. Despite its campy and unintentionally comic elements, this is an ambitious little film.

PictureHow many earth men could Nyah have fitted in here?

The notion of the self-repairing spaceship is crucial to the plot. Nyah is stranded at the Bonnie Charlie for ‘four earth hours’ until her ship is ready to fly again, forcing her to kill time with the inn’s residents while she waits. Viewers of the film start to feel much the same way, as an inordinate amount of time is spent watching characters wander backwards and forwards between the spaceship and the inn. Did Nyah travel 200 million kilometres for this?

The purpose of her one-woman invasion of earth is really to test the capabilities of the organic spacecraft, in preparation for a much larger ‘man-hunt’ that will follow shortly. Nyah therefore shows little interest in kidnapping any of the five males at the inn. She takes little Tommy, but then is persuaded by Carter to let him swap with the boy. After Carter has wandered back to the inn, Hennessy strolls out for a look around the spaceship and offers to accompany Nyah to London to act as a guide. She agrees, but he is soon back in the Bonnie Charlie as well. When the ship is repaired and she is ready to leave, everyone is hiding down in the cellar except Robert….

The three women may not be at risk of being whisked back to Mars, but they are as determined as the men are about stopping Nyah’s mission. When Carter introduces the Devil Girl to Mrs Jamieson, the landlady is given one of the best lines in the film:

– ‘Mrs Jamieson, may I introduce your latest guest, Miss Nyah. She comes from Mars.’
– ‘Oh, well, that’ll mean another bed.’

The earthlings face the alien threat with the sort of stiff upper lip and cheeriness typical of British wartime movies. Mrs Jamieson exemplifies the spirit of the Blitz with her down to earth remark:
‘While we’re still alive, we might as well have a cup of tea.’
Tea is not the only beverage drunk at the inn, and copious amounts of alcohol are drunk by Mr Jamieson and Carter in particular. I find it quite refreshing when films of this era depict heavy drinking in such a matter of fact way, without either moral judgment or any suggestion that large and frequent tipples are indicative of a problem.


Carter orders ‘A very large Scotch and a very small soda’


‘Has the tomato juice girl got any Scotch?’ ‘No, but I have some brandy.’
The free-flowing whisky and the Highland setting are not the only Scottish elements in the film; the director and four of the main actors were Scottish. The name of the inn might even be a subtle joke – ‘Bonnie Charlie’ refers to Prince Charles Edward Stuart, who landed in the Western Highlands in 1745 seeking to gather an army of men to support his cause – Nyah might have done well to reflect on how well that turned out.


Patricia Laffan was best known at this time for playing Nero’s vixenish wife, Queen Poppaea, in Quo Vadis? (1951), a film in which Adrienne Corri had a minor role. Laffan excelled in long-legged imperious arrogance.

Devil Girl from Mars actually has a pretty good cast compared to similar B-movies of the era:

The lovely Hazel Court had enjoyed starring roles in several dramas and thrillers during the 1940s, and was even considered for the role of Vicky in The Red Shoes (1948), but following Devil Girl she moved into horror after playing Peter Cushing’s young fiancee in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957.) Her ‘scream queen’ career saw her appear in a number of Hammer horrors and Roger Corman adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe tales. In 1990 she said of Devil Girl: ‘I think it only took about two weeks to shoot and it was made on a shoestring. We got paid next to nothing.’

PictureShades of Dad’s Army – ‘Shoot, man, shoot!’

Although he is best known for his role as Private Frazer in Dad’s Army, John Laurie’s distinguished film career began way back in 1929 and he appeared in two Anton Walbrook films as well as Fanny by Gaslight (1944.) Sophie Stewart had appeared in two H.G. Wells adaptations, Things to Come (1936) and The Man who could Work Miracles (also 1936) while Hugh McDermott had a role in another Wells tale of space travel, First Men in the Moon (1964).

Experienced, talented actors like these deserved a better script, but unlike many B-movies in the genre, the film appears to take itself quite seriously, and the cast do their best with the cornier lines and contrived situations. There is, unfortunately, one stand-out leaden performance, and that is from Nyah’s companion Chani.


‘I can control power beyond your wildest dreams! Come, come and you shall see! Now earthmen look, watch the power of another world…’
Chani is Nyah’s robot companion, whom she parades before the inn’s residents after Carter’s ill-advised attempt to shoot her with Jamieson’s revolver. The robot is operated by a handheld remote control device, and Nyah clearly enjoys demonstrating her robot’s powers as he destroys a tree, broken-down tractor and a barn using a light beam fired from his head. The muskets used at Culloden were probably quicker to aim and fire than Chani’s head-beam, but Nyah is blind to his flaws; the only time she shows any emotion in the film is while watching her robot perform before the awestruck earthlings.


Proud mum. Nyah is clearly bursting with pride as she shows off Chani’s abilities at walking and blowing up tractors. Such human touches give the film a curious charm.


Mind that branch… Chani may not be the most frightening robot in cinema history, but for entertainment value he beats anything in the Transformers franchise

Devil Girl from Mars is probably best remembered for two costumes: Nyah’s black PVC dominatrix uniform and Chani’s cardboard fridge & styrofoam coffee-cup arms. These Martian invaders make an odd couple, and though they were clearly inspired by the pairing of Klaatu and the robot Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still, they fall far short in terms of effective teamwork and combined resources. Despite her impressive robot, powers of hypnosis and ability to enter the fourth dimension, Nyah’s mission turns out a spectacular failure. At the end of the film, is there a moral as to why?

The inability of the Martian women to procreate is symbolised by Nyah’s pairing with the mechanical Chani; furthermore both of them show a total absence of feeling throughout the film. In contrast, the Bonnie Charlie is a hotbed of romance and warm emotions, even in the depths of winter: Doris and Robert are reunited and both show willingness to sacrifice everything to protect the other; Ellen falls for Carter, finding the strength to break away from her married lover while succeeding in breaking through Carter’s cynicism and gruff exterior. Behind the Jamiesons’ constant bickering banter, there seems to be a steadfast relationship and a tender devotion to their young nephew. The cheesy dialogue and over–wrought domestic dramas may well amuse modern viewers, but they show that Devil Girl from Mars was looking in the opposite direction from most of its contemporaries. This is not another Cold War metaphor or guilt-ridden nightmare about atomic power. Devil Girl borrows the trappings of 1950s science fiction while exploring some fairly old-fashioned British themes about love, duty, altruism and moral principles. The similarity between Nyah’s black-booted outfit and the Nazi uniform is surely no coincidence; this is a flying saucer movie that looks to the past as much as the future.


This blog post is part of the ‘Accidentally Hilarious’ blogathon, and there’s some brilliant pieces on other classic films – including silent movies, the work of Ed Wood, more monster/alien flicks and all sorts of wonderful weirdness – to be found here. Enjoy!

Haldane Macfall’s Whistler

Last Friday ago I picked up this little book in an antique shop by the River Exe. Whistler: Butterfly, Wasp, Wit, Master of the Arts, Enigma, (Edinburgh & London: T.N. Foulis, 1906) presents a brief account of the life and work of artist Sir James Abbot McNeill Whistler, and was written by Haldane Macfall (1860–1928.)

Macfall’s literary career began while serving in Africa with the West India Regiment in the 1880s, when he began writing about his experiences for The Graphic. A skilled artist, he also contributed illustrations to the magazine, designed bookplates, decorated books and exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Quite apart from my interest in Whistler, I was attracted to the book’s design and page layout, and particularly intrigued by the presence of hand-drawn pencil sketches opposite the opening page.

There is nothing here to identify the artist, although there seem to be quite a few copies of Macfall’s books in circulation bearing pencil sketches on their blank pages.

Chambers Haldane Cooke Macfall was born in 1860 but lost his mother when he was still young. His father Surgeon-Major David Chambers McFall (1833-98) remarried in 1871, and his new bride – Frances Clarke – became stepmother to Haldane and his brother Albert. At sixteen, Frances was only six years older than her eldest stepson, and within a year she gave birth to a boy named Archibald. The Macfalls spent five years in the Far East, returning to England in 1876, but the marriage proved an unhappy one. Frances left her husband in 1890, subsequently changing her name to Sarah Grand.

Sarah was a forceful campaigner for women’s rights and a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Her first novel, The Heavenly Twins (1893) sold over 20,000 copies and caused some controversy due to its strong feminist message and frank treatment of medical matters relating to sexual behaviour. She was active throughout the 1890s, lecturing on topics such as women’s suffrage and rational dress. In 1898 Haldane McFall moved in with his step mother, having been forced to leave the army due to a serious bout of fever. His first novel The Wooings of Jezebel Pettyfer was published the same year. His next novel, The Masterfolk (1903) was a witty portrait of Bohemian life in London and Paris in the 1890s, declared by Vincent Starrett – in his essay on Macfall in Buried Caesars (1923) – to be ‘the last word on the English decadents.’ Other novels include Rouge (1906) and The Three Students (1926), while his biographies included Ibsen: The Man, His Art & His Significance (1903), Sir Henry Irving (1906), Fragonard (1909), Boucher (1911) and a spirited defence of his friend Aubrey Beardsley (1928.) He returned to the army to serve during World War One, and published a number of books and essays on military topics. He collaborated several times with the artist Claud Lovat Fraser, who – along with Edward Gordon Craig – provided illustrations for Macfall’s essay on art and aesthetics, The Splendid Wayfaring (1913.) Macfall seems to have been on friendly terms with both artists. Gordon Craig’s father had been a friend of Whistler’s, and he was godson of another of Macfall’s biographical subjects, Henry Irving. He engraved bookplates for both Macfall and his wife Mabel, and wrote an appreciation of Macfall after his death.

Whistler exercised a considerable influence on the aesthetic movement in Britain – not only through his artwork, but also by his insistence on the autonomy of art, which he believed existed for its own perfection rather than for didactic purposes. Wilde had made a similar argument during his 1895 trials, and Whistler also found himself defending the notion in court during the libel case that followed Ruskin’s slur on the artist’s Nocture in Gold and Black. By contrast, Whistler’s response to reading some of Macfall’s art criticism was apparently ‘Ha ha, this man knows.’ It was probably just as well that he found nothing to offend, for Whistler made a formidable enemy – the waspish wit collected in The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1890) may amuse readers, but being on the receiving end of Whistler’s wrath was far from pleasant.

This aspect of Whistler’s work was symbolised in the butterfly monogram that appears on the cover of Macfall’s book and elsewhere inside. The artist used this on his paintings in place of a signature from 1869 onwards, basing it on his initials ‘J.W’ but developing a series of variations over the years. When using the monogram to sign his more acerbic correspondence, he would give the butterfly a stinging tail.


Whistler knew of course that these theatrical exchanges with the press would provide valuable publicity for his art, and he enjoyed near celebrity status when Macfall’s career was beginning. Although Macfall seemed to abandon the paint brush for the pen later in life, he produced some interesting artwork that reveals the influence of fin-de-siecle aestheticism. This Beardsley-ish image formed the frontispiece to The House of the Sorcerer (actually a fragment of The Wooings of Jezebel Pettyfer):

I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of Macfall’s work in future.