The terminology is new, but the concept of “elevated” horror isn’t. As long as there’s been cinema, there has been a subset of both critics and fans who treat the perennial popularity of horror films as a slight on both the higher ambitions of moviemaking and the boundaries of better taste. In each individual era, a few titles are selected as canon candidates to have somehow transcended their low-rent origins. The movies deemed suitably directional become safe for even the most hopelessly refined cinephile to enjoy.
This killjoy tendency might be part of the reason mid-century horror films don’t get lavished with nearly as much retroactive attention. The ’30s and ’40s were filled with the sort of pop iconography and deeply coded subtext that could launch a thousand overly belabored think pieces. ’70s exploitation and ’80s slashers both hold the allure of transgression, full of censorship battles, banned films, and moral panic. What lies between finds itself too coy for the edgelords, but far too unsubtle to inspire the aspiring academics to really stretch their analytical acumen. It takes considerable effort and talent to make a stone-faced stand on The Horror of Party Beach‘s (1964) economy-sized humanoid fish being a secret avatar for generational trauma caused by burgeoning youth culture. Meanwhile, it takes little more than a set of functioning eyeballs to see the queer narrative lying at the heart of something like Cat People (1942).
The mid-century was addicted to anxiety in ways a bit harder to parse for a modern audience. For every Diabolique (1955), Psycho (1960), or Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956), there were hundreds of productions far less nuanced in their tensions. The trauma of World War II was still relatively fresh in popular memory, the promised utopia of suburban life and its iron-clad familial and gender roles far more isolating than advertised. Despite the air of cheerful consumerism, plenty of people were 2 Lucky Strikes and a failed Jello mold away from a meltdown.
In the open air and giant screen of the drive-in, with its newly acquired customer base of rowdy adolescents, these anxieties were writ large for eager audiences. The drop of an atomic bomb had already proven uncontrolled and irrevocable transformation was possible, why not mutant crab monsters? In a suburban landscape that already feels foreign, why can’t the annoying next-door neighbors be from another planet? As tame and silly as all of these ideas seem in the present day when taken as the panic-fueled racing thoughts of a generation prone to both paranoia and conspicuous consumption, they make perfect sense. Nothing exceeds like excess, be it mad scientist-created rubber suit monsters, overwire bullet bras, or the giant fins on a 1957 Cadillac.
She Demons (1958) in both plot and production, seems a rather nondescript entry in the sea of atomic age B films, made to live in grainy online uploads and pan and scan public domain sets alongside other shots in Griffith Park bargain-basement affairs. Spoiled socialite Jerrie Turner is sent off on a vacation cruise by her businessman father, in an obvious effort to get her out of his hair (and presumably his checkbook) for a little while. The ship gets caught up in an unexpected hurricane, and wrecks onto an isolated island. Thankfully, blandly handsome tour guide Fred, sassy sidekick Sammy, and ship’s captain Kris have all survived the wreck along with her.
Unfortunately, the island they’ve landed on, while uncharted, is far from uninhabited. The jungles are populated with “she demons”: beautiful women from the neck down, but with horribly disfigured faces, fangs, and a tendency toward animalistic violence. These creatures are apparently the test subjects of one Karl “The Butcher” Ostler, a Nazi commander who has been holed up with his subordinates in an elaborate underground bunker on the island since the war ended. He’s found a way to harness the volcano at the center of the island as a power source and has been using the natives as test subjects on an experimental procedure meant to restore his wife’s lost beauty after a lab accident. Because volcanos, Nazis, and monsters aren’t quite enough peril for the already underprepared central quartet, the one partial broadcast they can pick up on their ship’s recovered radio indicates the US military will be bombing the island as part of a nuclear test in less than 48 hours.
Even in the context of the period, She Demons is dizzying in how much it attempts to pack into 76 short minutes. The baseline plot is ripped from a pair of Bela Lugosi oldies, mixing the mad doctor machinations of Island of Lost Souls (1932) with the obsessive fixation on beauty that drives The Corpse Vanishes (1942). The suspiciously coiffed, bikini babe “natives” and the misplaced exoticism of their savage sexuality (expressed via fully choreographed dance number) is pure teenage boy fantasy by way of Bowanga, Bowanga (1951). There’s also an early dash of Nazisploitation, as the antagonists are mostly divorced from historical context to do whatever villainous dirty deeds suit the film’s needs at the time, be it Dr. Ostler’s monstrous science experiments or a henchman named Igor whipping scantily clad captives for an escape attempt. The film is a layer cake of tried and tested exploitation tropes, with the buxom blonde lead and vague threat of a nuclear strike serving to put a more contemporary flavor on familiar ideas.
She Demons‘ acting is universally wooden, the characters ranging from cardboard cutouts to cartoonish ethnic stereotypes unfortunately typical to the period. The special effects are of the rubber mask and plaster bandage variety, the supposedly exotic locale and volatile volcano mostly filled in via stock footage. Yet something magical happens in this journey to the bottom of a double bill. Leading lady Irish McCalla was the top-billed star on the film, having a thriving career as a pin-up model in addition to a recent successful turn as the title character on television’s Sheena, Queen Of The Jungle. Irish was also a devout Catholic who took careful care in both her on-screen roles and her modeling gigs to never cross any lines that might violate her morals or embarrass her family. The filmmakers, forced by one or both of those circumstances to give Irish more input, give the bulk of the film’s action (and its only real character arc) to Jerrie, not square-jawed Fred.
Jerrie is absolutely a brat, initially more concerned with her expensive clothes than the larger situation at hand. However, none of her companions are much better, despite their supposed stronger handle on practical reality. Sammy initially recovers the radio to wire Jerrie’s father for money, Kris is soon moaning about how footprints in the sand are signs the island is inherently evil. Jerrie carefully mending her torn day dress with a makeshift hairpin as needle might be an odd early priority, but it is more resourceful than any of the others manage. Fred’s guidance leaves the group wandering in circles for hours, and Sammy fails to recognize his own dropped fraternity pin. Her early tantrums about toreador pants aren’t exactly relatable. After the men finally realize their navigational error, her exasperated assertion that she’s “surrounded by idiots” certainly is.
The narrative here is well within the territory of a men’s magazine-style serial, but Jerrie’s character is imported from a different universe, accidentally exposing the inherent silliness of the conventions of that genre. Fred’s derring-do quickly becomes derring-doofus when he rushes into a fistfight while clearly outnumbered, leaving Jerrie to fend for herself while he and Sammy get locked in a bamboo cell alongside the experimental test subjects. Outside of her usual high society setting, Jerrie quickly adapts with droll one-liners about martinis in an attempt to save her friends from discovery and a no-nonsense approach to the problem she faces when they blow their own cover. While the boys idly toss around ideas for overly elaborate methods to escape their cage without disrupting the monsters, Jerrie busies herself trying to discover who on the island has a key. She’s still a society girl, so her tools tend toward alliances formed over lended compact mirrors and champagne bottles as last-ditch weapons against a Nazi lech. However, she’s become much less self-involved in the face of actual danger, and the sort of soft skills and focus on aesthetics she is mocked for initially are the same qualities that help her save the day. It just happens to be in high heels and a borrowed evening gown.
This is still 1958, so regardless of Jerrie having done all of the hard work, Fred gets the dramatic leading man sweeping music cues as soon as he’s freed. His initial bickering with Jerrie was an obvious setup for a rugged escape and a romantic embrace in the third reel, and the film only has a short bit of runtime left to complete the last few tropes on the low budgeter bingo card.
She Demons was never going to be particularly progressive, and its leanings toward a female-focused narrative were likely more incidental than intentional. However, in its own shambling way, the movie gives Jerrie her due in the final few frames. During one of their initial arguments, Jerrie dismisses Fred’s condescending instructions with a bored directive of “Let’s play a new game. First one home is a hero.” When the trio makes their escape onto a rickety rowboat, it is Jerrie that climbs on first, leaving Fred and Sammy to row her home in triumph. She’s the winner of her own proposition, even if it did cost her her favorite piece of cashmere. ★