Set your Longines space watches, grab your Chesterfields, and have a Coke, dear friends, for the once unthinkable has become reality – Cy Roth’s Fire Maidens of Outer Space has made the leap to Blu-ray, emerging from its deep-frozen home video obscurity to confound and dismay HD enthusiasts everywhere. The last time I saw Fire Maidens it was courtesy of a bootleg VHS that was, frankly, un-watchable. In light of that experience the new Olive Films Blu-ray (a DVD edition is also available) is like a fever dream come true, offering we long-suffering 50s genre obsessives the dubious opportunity to view one of the decade’s worst at a level of quality generally reserved for much better things.
Better things, though, are a dime a dozen. Fire Maidens of Outer Space (or Fire Maidens from Outer Space, depending on your locale) is wondrously one of a kind. Though co-produced with Englishman George Fowler (production designer on the Hammer classics The Nanny and The Reptile) and filmed at M.G.M.’s now defunct British studios, it was the mid-life ambition of small-time American cinema personality Cy Roth that proved most formative in Fire Maidens‘ creation. Roth took credit for anything and everything he could in his third (and final) feature film outing. The original story, screenplay, production and direction are all attributed to him and, like some Z-grade Howard Hawks, he bookends the opening titles with his own signature. For whatever reason Roth appears to have been plenty proud of his Fire Maidens, and I really can’t blame him. After all, against all odds and more than half a century after the fact we’re still here talking about it. Roth’s Fire Maidens of Outer Space may be (alright… is) terrible, but at least it’s a terrible that lasts.
Operating in the same vein as the earlier Cat-Women of the Moon and the later Queen of Outer Space, Fire Maidens is yet another yarn about men finding women… in Space! The story follows American scientist Luther Blair (Anthony Dexter, The Phantom Planet) and his intrepid band of astronauts as they travel by V2 rocket to the (then undiscovered) 13th moon of Jupiter, which Blair’s research has shown may support life. Upon landing the team discovers that the moon is indeed populated, and by none other than the cloistered (and rather scantily clothed) remnants of long-lost Atlantis! Within New Atlantis’ stone walls daffy elder Prasus (Brit television bit actor Owen Berry) keeps an obsessive eye on his “daughters”; fifteen inexplicably unrelated young woman who appear to be the city’s only other inhabitants. Prasus hopes to make husbands for them of the five visiting astronauts, whom he intends to lock away in his Orwellian kingdom as well, but “the creature” that prowls beyond the city walls promises to complicate things…
It’s difficult to know just how seriously Roth ever intended Fire Maidens of Outer Space be taken – while its requisite this-is-fiction disclaimer (“All characters in space are fictitious”) would have me think “not very” the rest of the picture plays with such a straight face that it’s difficult to gauge. Whatever the case may be, Fire Maidens remains a remarkably silly – and remarkably bad – film regardless.
As is too often the case a lot of that is to do with the production’s obvious financial shortcomings, though in this instance they suggest less a film going against the odds than a certain writer / producer / director trying to turn a buck on the least of possible investments. Roth certainly didn’t put forth anything more than the minimum effort required to piece his picture together, conveying most of its (in)action in lengthy master shots and settling for some of the least auspicious photographic angles imaginable. An early observatory-bound discussion between Blair and an English astronomer is recorded in a single long take and, unbelievably, utilizes live sound – if the acoustics of the location hadn’t already rendered the dialogue largely unintelligible, the persistent roar of passing automobiles would have. The scene also provides one of most dubious of Roth’s directorial flourishes, a languid, uninterrupted pan that follows the English astronomer’s secretary as she walks down some stairs, passes through a pair of gates, sits, takes a notation, gets up, and exits from whence she came. Rarely has the passage of a minute and a half felt so interminable.
The tale isn’t Earth-bound for long, thankfully, and once Fire Maidens touches ground on the 13th moon of Jupiter (looking rather a lot like a few square acres of English countryside) its awfulness takes on more amusing proportions. The settings are every bit as dull as one might expect, with a handful of generic studio interiors and a single garden location comprising the whole of New Atlantis, but the activity within is pure camp. Prasus spends his days drugging the astronauts (booze – who knew!) and absent-mindedly praising his “mother’s mother” Aphrodite, at least when he’s not ordering everyone about by intercom. Blair makes eyes at lead maiden Hestia (unfortunate Rank Organization starlet Susan Shaw), given to him as property after he saves her from “the creature”, but spends much of the last half of the film endlessly beating the wall of his room with a cup in search of an exit. Meanwhile the devilish Duessa (a promising Jacqueline Curtis) schemes to sacrifice Hestia to the God of the Sun for no obvious reason other than to fulfill the “Fire” side of the title bargain. The sacrificial chamber serves as the final battle ground between the New Atlantians, the astronauts, and “the creature” – my vote for lamest monster in film history. An early genre make-up gig for the genuinely accomplished Roy Ashton, “the creature” here is just a man stumbling about in a zip-up body suit and an expressionless, pimply mask. Roth shows some discretion in its use during the film’s otherwise limp climax, where its features are left to the shadows, though one wonders why he even bothered. For the rest of the picture “the creature” is seen, and quite well, wandering about in broad daylight!
Then, of course, there is the dancing, arguably Fire Maidens of Outer Space‘s most infamous feature. Out of what I can only imagine was some noxious blend of ego and desperation, Roth opted to score his film’s tepid cheesecake dance numbers with selections from Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances – most memorably Gliding Dance of the Maidens (or Strangers in Paradise for you fans of Kismet). Choreography was, it must be said, not one of Roth’s strong suits, and despite the best efforts of the women involved (particularly Curtis, who is later tossed out of frame, and evidently the film entirely, by “the creature”) the results only manage to be just dreadful enough to inspire a sort of train-wreck fascination. I can’t imagine anything less than hunger, or perhaps a massive delusion about what was being made, could have led these promising young women to flail about in such an embarrassing dud. At least a few careers survived the trauma, however. Kim Parker would go on to co-star in the iconic 50s horror Fiend Without a Face, while Dinah Anne Rogers and Jan Holden (The Stranglers of Bombay) would each find success in television. Star Susan Shaw is a tragic exception, though Fire Maidens is hardly to blame. After losing her husband to a traffic accident in 1958 Shaw descended into alcoholism, sadly never to return.
On a more positive note, the music of Fire Maidens of Outer Space – none of which was original to it – is actually very good, and possibly the only aspect of the production of which that can be said. In addition to the lauded work of Borodin, works by the talented light music composers Monia Liter and Trevor Duncan were also plundered. The latter’s excellent The Challenge of Space suite is featured quite prominently, and should be familiar to anyone versed in the BBC’s original Quatermass serials. The suite is collected, along with The Navigators: Grand Vista (Fire Maidens‘ opening title and incidental driving-around music) and a host of other tremendous compositions, in Cavendish Music’s Final Frontiers: Archive Recordings Composed by Trevor Duncan. I’ve no idea if this is out as a physical album anywhere (I’ve not been able to find one), but an inexpensive mp3 edition is readily available.
What else is there to say about Fire Maidens of Outer Space, a film produced on such a shoestring that the best effects it could afford were B-roll process shots from Bert I. Gordon’s King Dinosaur? It’s every bit as dreadful as has ever been implied, an alternately hilarious and sleep-inducing 80 minutes of pure, bottom-of-the-barrel bill filler the likes of which hasn’t been made in a very long time. It’s absolutely unforgivable, and I can’t help but love it. Olive Films’ Blu-ray is a typically bare-bones affair, but offers a lovely (albeit unrestored) transfer of the uncut film (all those product references are present and accounted for) and lossless original audio in DTS-HD MA 1.0. Fire Maidens offers no subtitles and is locked to Region A, and is available now through Amazon and other retailers.