Friday, January 14, 2011


Science fiction cinema, much like its literary counterpart, has seldom lacked for outrageousness; indeed, it's its strength. The genre is, as one of its genuine titans, J.G. Ballard, observed, "the pipeline to the unconscious." What red-blooded male hasn't imagined a world ruled by the fair sex, and wondered how--or if--he would fit in? Camille Paglia suggests that "the myth of matriarchy may have originated in our universal experience of mother power in infancy....As history," she continues, "the spurious, but as metaphor, it is poetically resonant." Our planet's nearest satellite is a traditional female symbol, which brings me to Arthur Hilton's Cat-Women of the Moon (1953), a prime specimen of the subgenre that film historian David J. Hogan dubs "the 'cinema of lost women.'" This delirious distaff dystopia was one of the first 3-D features, and, although it's available only in a disappointing two dimensions on Image Entertainment's 2001 DVD, the picture packs a generous plenty of testosterone-versus-estrogen camp thrills into its economical sixty-three minutes. It may not be precisely poetic, but by Selene, it's surely resonant enough.

The four-man, one-woman crew of Moon Rocket 4 hurtle towards their destination after a lift-off audiences never witness. The first thing navigator Helen Salinger (Marie Windsor) does after recovering from g-forces is pull out a compact mirror and fix her hair, which prompts engineer Walt Wallace (Douglas Fowley, father of music impresario/Runaways producer Kim Fowley) to gloat, "Oh, brother! Am I gonna collect some bets!" Stuffy Commander Laird Grainger (Sonny Tufts) reminds his fellow astronauts that "this is a scientific expedition"--glancing significantly at his lover Helen--"and not a stunt." There's the usual in-flight hazard: in this instance a meteoroid, which somehow winds up, when the crew's not looking, embedded in the rocket's rear section. The astronauts successfully dislodge the object with centrifugal force, but there's a nitric acid spill in ship Sector 5 and take-charge co-pilot Kip Reissner (Victor Jory) collapses after containing it.

Helen protests that her relationship with Grainger on this mission is strictly "scientific," but Reissner, recovered from his exertions, informs the navigator that "it's hooey. You can't turn love on and off like a faucet." Leaning in close, he assures her that "if I ever fell in love with you, baby, I'd chase you across the world, round the moon, and all the way stations in-between." Helen's plainly affected, but she's also distracted: earlier, when the astronauts take turns at the radio greeting the citizens of Earth, she announces, "Hello, Alpha. We're on our way." Who Alpha is Helen has no idea, but her woman's intuition tells her that the spacecraft should touch down in a valley on the dark side of the moon. The crew had planned to study the bright side first, as any sensible astronauts would, but Helen's adamant that her selection "is the perfect landing place," although she confesses that she "[doesn't] know why I know it." It transpires that she's actually receiving telepathic transmissions from the mysterious Alpha (Carol Brewster). The crew disembark, discovering oxygen in a cave and discarding their pressure suits. Reissner packs a pistol, and, even though Grainger complains that "there's too much infantile romanticism in this crew," the weapon comes in handy when the astronauts are attacked by a pair of pitifully-unconvincing giant spiders (actually, one puppet masquerading as two), which dangle from wires--I mean webs--and shriek girlishly when injured.

The crew arrive at a subterranean temple comprising Doric columns with female statuary atop their capitals, as well as a central sculpture suspiciously resembling the male Hindu deity, Chandra. Reissner realizes that their spacesuits have vanished, and radio operator Doug Smith (William Phipps) is jumped by a Siamese-looking woman in tights while Helen "just [stands] there watching" the assault before wandering off on her own. When the other men rush to his aid, Reissner is set upon by three more of the meow mistresses. Smith tackles one of them, Lambda (Susan Morrow), but she dematerializes before their eyes (cameraman William Whitley simply stops rolling), and the others scatter when Reissner fires his rod. Helen, meanwhile, encounters Alpha and several more ladies, including her second-in command, Beta (Suzanne Alexander). The cat-women not only look decidedly human, they speak English and all other Earth languages. When Helen asks why the moon maidens selected her, and not the other crew members, for contact, Beta contemptuously replies, "We have no use for men."

That's putting it mildly. Alpha discloses that the Moon's atmosphere is steadily disappearing, prompting androcidal population reduction. Even that extreme measure hasn't helped, however, so three of the Sapphic circle have appointed Helen to take them with her to Earth, where they plan to control half the population's minds and "rule the whole world," thus demonstrating the mother of all mother power. The cat-women deliver Helen to the rest of her crew, providing refreshments for the astronauts. The Siamese sirens promise to return their spacesuits the following morning, but Reissner's skeptical and observes with disdain the other men's interactions with their hostesses. Lambda disavows her gynocentrism after falling hard for Smith when she learns he has no "special Earth girl." Greedy Wallace is stabbed in the back by Beta in the Cave of Gold; she also accidentally calls him "Doug," but nevermind. Reissner determines that Helen's under Alpha's command, and Lambda is slain by Beta when she attempts to stop the two ladies from leaving with Helen in the ship. Reissner plugs Alpha and Beta (offscreen), and the crew return to Earth, with the co-pilot replacing the commander as the object of the navigator's affections.

It's difficult to believe that anyone would place a nincompoop like Grainger, rather than the far more competent Reissner, in charge of a terrestrial expedition, much less a lunar one. Reissner--the script's real Alpha male--is certainly a better match for Helen than Grainger (the navigator admits to preferring him, but reveals the cat-women chose the commander for her because "Laird knew more"), and he's not fooled by the lunar welcome. Grainger, in fact, is constantly reminding Reissner that he's in charge, but don't you believe it. Roy Hamilton's screenplay abounds in amusing sexual metaphors: in addition to all the misandric shenanigans inside the womb-like underground city, the opening narration intones that Man "is barely able to penetrate [the] unknown secrets of space" and that "sometime, someday, the barrier will be pierced." The phallically-shaped rocket achieves this goal, and by the picture's finale speeds, angled at a triumphant tumescence, through the stars.

Hogan, in his 1986 survey Dark Romance: Sexuality in the Horror Film, laments that "there is something disquieting about [this subgenre's] insistence upon the adversary aspect of man-woman relationships, and the crass way in which they reinforce stereotypes," even going so far as to describe such pictures as "separatist and misogynistic...foster[ing] nothing but puerility and prejudice." While this obligingly reflects the feminist weltanschauung, I submit that, as laughably lunkheaded as these pictures often are, their scenarios nevertheless distill the masculine anxieties of classical myth for contemporary audiences. (The cat-women's names are, of course, derived from the Greek alphabet.) "Sexual geography," Paglia contends, "alters our perception of the world. Man is contoured for invasion, while woman remains the hidden, a cave of archaic darkness. No legislation or grievance committee can change these eternal facts." The "lost women" of celluloid not only manifest male fascination with female mystery, they communicate uncomfortable truths about gender and nature. The cat-women constitute a self-contained, pseudo-Amazonian unit; while Hogan considers such myth-making puerile and prejudicial, Paglia maintains that "[d]read is the proper response to beings of hieratic purity." The lunar ladies' two-million-year-old civilization is rapidly succumbing to entropy, symbolically exposing the barrenness of their culture, and they must be defeated before spreading it to Earth.

Cat-Women of the Moon takes so little advantage of the 3-D process, aside from stray meteoroids, that one wonders why the filmmakers even bothered with it. Be that as it may, the full-breasted felines are fetchingly stylish in their jumpsuits, and wouldn't have been out of place on a Roxy Music album cover. Tufts--the former "Male Sensation of 1944" whose career was stalled by several drunken misadventures (among them, biting the upper left thigh of stripper Melody Carol)--is comical to watch, as his acting largely consists of constantly rubbing his legs and the back of his neck, occasionally gripping the belt loops of his britches for variety; it's a pity he didn't channel his real-life aggression into the role of Commander Granger. Jory, best remembered as ruthless Jonas Wilkerson in Victor Fleming's Gone With the Wind (1939), is a curmudgeonly joy. Windsor, the tougher-than-a-fifty-cent-steak gangster's widow in Richard Fleischer's The Narrow Margin (1951), lacks the New Wave elegance of the cat-women and, while certainly likable, is too drab for the proceedings; although she's a superior performer to the six "Hollywood Cover Girls"--in fact, Windsor was one of the greatest noir actresses--here, alas, she shares their splendid dimensions but, strangely, none of their pizazz. Betty Arlen directed the ladies' daffy dance sequence, Chesley Bonestell provided another memorable moonscape, and Elmer Bernstein (whose name is misspelled in the credits) contributed an impressive early score. The astronauts' pressure suits are left over from Destination Moon (1950), while the rocket's interiors return from Project Moon Base (1953). The film's science is completely ludicrous; my favorite example of foolishness occurs at the dividing line of light and darkness on the Moon when Grainger, illustrating the (imaginary) danger of exposure to sunshine, causes a cigarette to burst into flames where there's no atmosphere.

In a remarkable fit of pettiness, producer Al Zimbalist actually sued the makers of the then-popular radio show My Little Margie for allegedly having "disparaged, ridiculed, parodied, mimicked and libeled" his masterpiece by having the series' characters attend a screening of a psychotronic potboiler called "Cat Women From Outer Space." This million dollar lawsuit was reportedly, or at least hopefully, unsuccessful. The movie was remade in 1958 as Richard E. Cunha's Missile to the Moon (minus 3-D, but retaining Wah Chang's infamous arachnid), and many years later, it served as the basis for Les Caulfield's play of the same title, which premiered--giant spider and all--at the 2010 Orlando International Fringe Festival.

Cat-Women of the Moon was released in a steroscopic format by Rhino Home Video in 1993, but I've not seen the company's cassette. Image's disc, yet another entry in the label's Wade Williams Collection, contains a dozen chapter stops and the film's original trailer. The fullscreen print is in reasonably good shape, though not quite as good as that of the Hollywood Cover Girls. They're the cat's pajamas, I assure you.


Hogan, David J. Dark Romance: Sexuality in the Horror Film. North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 1986.

Medved, Harry and Michael. The Golden Turkey Awards: Nominees and Winners--the Worst Achievements in Hollywood History. New York: Perigee, 1980.

Paglia, Camille. Sex, Art, and American Culture. New York: Vintage, 1992.

Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New York: Vintage, 1991.