This UK/USA clunker from 1956 is the weakest of all 50’s “Amazons in Space” variations. Astronauts chase a monster in black pyjamas through Surrey fields, pretending it’s the 13th moon of Jupiter, while maidens undulate to the music of Borodin. 0/10
Fire Maidens from Outer Space. 1956, USA/UK. Written, produced & directed by Cy Roth. Starring: Anthony Dexter, Susan Shaw, Paul Carpenter, Harry Fowler, Sydney Tafler, Rodney Diak, Jacqueline Curtis, Owen Berry IMDb: 2.5/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
You sort of know from the get-go that you’re in for a drawn-out affair in this British-American low-budget production. The film begins with a Trans-Am plane in flight that lingers on screen for about 10 seconds too long. We then follow a car which transports American expedition leader to one of Jupiter’s moons, Luther Blair (Anthony Dexter) for about 10 seconds too long. In the next scene Blair meets his British counterpart Dr. Higgins (Sydney Tafler) at an observatory, where the two stand just for a little too long smoking and looking at spectrogram charts in a static wide shot. We then cut to the catwalk above the two scientists over which an uncredited pretty secretary makes no haste walking, then walks down a set of stairs, opens two sets of low gates, closes them behind her, sits down on a chair for 5 seconds to take a message from Dr. Higgins, then walks back, opens two sets of gates, closes them behind her, walks up the stairs and across the catwalk out of frame once more. Unless you were sure Fire Maidens from Outer Space would contain a lot of padding before now, this scene rids you of all doubt.
This film is yet another “Amazons on the Moon” variation. Here, scientists have discovered a habitable 13th moon orbiting Jupiter, and whip up a mission to visit, in hope of finding human life, preferably female. Five scientists take off in the umpteenth re-use of stock footage from a V2 rocket, purchased from Hollywood producer Robert Lippert, which was first seen in Lippert’s surprisingly decent film Rocketship X-M (1950, review). Along with Blair and Higgins are Captain Larsen (Paul Carpenter) and the two young comic relief characters Stanhope (Harry Fowler) and Anderson (Rodney Diak). On the way, the rocket encounters the meteorite shower from Rocketship X-M, but survives intact, and lands on the moon. Here they discover a planet inhabited by the last descendants of the lost city of Atlantis, ruled by the old master Prasus (Owen Berry) and inhabited by his “daughters”, the titular fire maidens, so dubbed, probably, because they perform dance number in front of an open fire.
To make a drawn-out story short, Blair saves fire maiden Hestia (Susan Shaw) from “the Creature” (Richard Walter) prawling outside the impenetrable gates of New Atlantis, and by doing so wins Hestia’s hand in marriage. He and Captain Larsen enter New Atlantis, where they are then held as involuntary guests, while the rest of the team wait in the rocket. Blair and Larsen are informed that Jupiter needs Men, but the two prisoners are not allowed to leave before they have figured out a way to kill the invulnerable Creature, which prevents the Atlanteans from venturing outside the city. However, as Hestia’s life now belongs to Blair, she helps the two Earthlings in an escape attempt from the inside, while the bumbling trio left outside finally decide to spring their comrades from the outside. Both clumsy attempts fail equally miserably as all four liberators are captured by the fire maidens and tied up in the sacrificial chamber, where Hestia is to be sacrificed to the gods. However, in a splendid deus ex machina, the Creature first kills old Prasus and then interrupts the sacrificial ceremony. By this time Blair and Larsen have discovered the ultra-secret key to opening the secret doors in their cells: move the chair — and escaped, conveniently finding their confiscated weapons laid out on a rock shelf along their escape route. They enter the sacrificial chamber just in time to throw a gas greneade in the lap of Hestia, causing the Creature to lose its balance and fall into the flaming pit. For some reason, this turn of events eradicates all ill will against Hestia, who is now embracaed and welcomed into the sisterhood. Hestia, Queen of Atlantis will now follow the Earthlings back home, with sincere promises to return to the love-starved Atlantean ladies and bring more men with them. The End.
Fire Maidens from Outer Space is an American production filmed in Elstree Studios in Britain in 1956, directed by Cy Roth. You may have caught it as Fire Maidens OF Outer Space, which is the title under which it was released in the US, and which is the more correct title, as these fire maidens are strictly speaking from Earth, and IN outer space. As the plot description above should make clear, this is yet another variation on the Cat-Women of the Moon (1953, review) trope. While Cat-Women is often touted as one of the worst movies ever made, it actually lies a rung above many of its imitators, including Fire Maidens from Outer Space. Whatever the flaws of Cat Women (and there are many), it had a couple of decent actors, some rather good hand-me-down sets and props, a coherent enough plot and a certain directorial flair. Films like Mesa of Lost Women (1953, review), Untamed Women (1952, review) and Fire Maidens from Outer Space have none of these.
Reciting everything that is wrong with this film would take the better part of a day and includes the script, the acting, the direction, the editing, the sets, the special effects, the wardrobe, the makeup and so forth. This is a film where nobody gave a damn. The movie is “presented by”, produced, directed and written by Cy Roth, “from an original story by Cy Roth“. Roth was not a man without experience — he had rattled around Poverty Row and low-budget Hollywood at least since the early 40’s, probably working a number of uncredited duties, but also a few credited ones, such as production manager, and had over half a dozen assistant director credits under his belt. Fire Maidens from Outer Space was his third, and best known, and last directorial effort. Why Roth came to direct an “Amazons in Space” movie at Elstree, more specifically the MGM-British Studios for a seemingly one-off production company he called “Criterion Films” is a question I have as yet not found an answer to. The obvious answer is that an opportunity presented itself to make a quick buck, but the hows and whens remain clouded.
But let’s talk about the good things in this movie — it’s a short chapter. First, the music. Much of the film is drenched in music from Alexander Borodin’s opera Prince Igor, a surprisingly fitting choice for an “Amazons in Space” movie, as it provides just the right mix of exoticism, romanticism, and a sense of danger. Borodin is most prevalent during the fire maidens’ interpretive dance sessions, of which there are at least three long ones and a couple of shorter ones. There’s also one dance session to the Oriental Suite by Monia Liter, which feela appropriate for the “harem” to present itself to. And then there’s Ian D. Struthers’ cinematography. Struthers doesn’t do anything spectacular, but given the time-frame he must have had tor work within (this can’t have been filmed in more than five days) and the restricted number of set-ups he’s allowed to make, Struthers manages to give the film a surprising amount of motion within single shots, utilising, zooms, pans, tracks and even what look like dolly shots. It’s still a terribly static film, but it could have been much worse, and Struthers is the only person on the artistic team that gets clean papers on this one.
One thing, though, that always vexes me about these films with dancing harem girls and undulating Amazons, even the better ones: there’s never any musicians! Where’s the music coming from?!
And that’s about it for the pros. The cons, on the other hand, are innuberable. As opposed to the 60-minute running time of the American B-movie, the standard running time for a British film was 80 minutes. Fire Maidens from Outer Space would have struggled to satisfyingly fill 60 minutes, and at 80 it is a slog. The opening scene where Blair and Higgins discuss the mission seems to go on forever, partly because it is filmed in a single take, and partly because the actors take their sweet time delivering their lines, both making time to suck their pipes and cigars and seemingly having a contest of which of them can look the smuggest after having stated a point. This goes on for the entire movie. Whenever someone says a line, regardless of its content, director Roth makes sure all five men have ample time to look at each other and look extremely smug. For lead actor Anthony Dexter this smugness seems to come naturally, but it can’t be a coincidence that all five lead actors look like they’ve just done a kiss-and-tell with Marilyn Monroe after delivering lines like “The atmosphere seems to be breathable” or “Don’t forget your binoculars”. It doesn’t help, of course, that half of the lines spoken in the film have something to do with the characters’ expectations of getting laid with a beautiful young woman. But was this part of the direction that Roth have the actors, or was there just some epidemic of smugness passing over the set when they filmed the movie?
So little happens in the film, that editor Litho Carruthers desperately tries to stretch every shot to its unbearable maximum in order to reach the desired length. In order to get from their rocket to New Atlantis, the astronauts need to cross three fields, and we diligently follow them in real-time crossing said three fields every time someone needs to go to or the other of the location. It feels like the majority of the movie is taken up by men in army fatigues wading through grass. When imprisoned by the fire maidens Blair uses a metal cup to tap on walls and the floor in order to try and find a hidden door. This goes on for ever. I’m sure we see him tapping a hundred times over before finally finding it. There’s a subplot which basically involves the three non-imprisoned men trying to break out Larson and Blair, and it spends ages on the idea of climbing a tree to get over the wall, an act which serves no purpose, as they are all captured and imprisoned by the fire maidens. Carruthers obviously thought the end result was so bad that he changed his credit on the movie to “A.C.T. Clair.”
Beside padding, the entire script is muddled, to say the least. For one thing, it is explained that the Atlanteans fled the Earth and came to the 13th moon of Jupiter when Atlantis sunk under the ocean. Exactly how they did this, and why they can’t go back the way they came is unclear. Unclear is also how Atlantis is inhabited by 14 buxom young women and a doddering old man. The girls call him “father” and at one point he refers to the mural of a woman as the girls’ “mother”, but is also implied that he is not the father of the girls, but rather that the title “father” is used for the ruler of Atlantis. Oddly enough, though, when Hestia is made ruler at the end of the film, she is not called “mother”, but “queen”. Anyway, the characters of the movie even try to make sense of how and from where these girls have all sprung, but neither they nor we ever get an answer. Why they have wildly varied accents is also somewhat confusing.
Then there’s the monster. Seemingly, it is the only inhabitant of the world outside the confines of New Atlantis. It is a humanoid creature with a demon-like face which stalks the fields saying “Aaaaaaargh!” and apparently lives on girls who have strayed from their Gardens. And it is invulnerable. What it is and where it comes from (and what it feeds on other than Atlantean princesses) are further questions that are disappointingly never answered.
Now, the whole plot is oddly redundant. The five men aboard the rocket seem to be hoping to land on a moon inhabited by scarcely dressed maidens whom they can all give a friendly greeting from Earth. When their wishes are granted, they act as if they would rather be somewhere else. Disregarding the fact that Blair and Larson are given a sleeping potion and are locked up, the fire maidens don’t do any of them any harm, nor do they have any ill will towards the Earthlings. All they ask is that the men kill the monster and mate with the girls. For some reason, all five men vigorously protest to doing basically what they set up doing from the beginning, and end up doing exactly that, rendering the entire plot of the men being captured and imprisoned by the fire maidens completely moot. The same odd lack of logic surrounds the subplot of the fire maidens’ hatred for Hestia for trying to help Blair escape. At the finale of the film, Hestia is tied up and tormented by faux-Grecian interpretive dance, a prelude to her being burned at the altar for defying the laws of New Atlantis. However, once the monster is killed, all seems to be forgotten, and the girls happily chatter away as they untie Hestia, and upon learning Prasus has been killed by the monster, all happily choose her to be the new queen of Atlantis.
Of course, this is not the type of movie that requires logic to be enjoyable. However, for a film to be enjoyable as anything else than a MST3K-riffing, it needs quality in at least one or two departments. Witty dialogue, tongue-in-cheek self-awareness, a couple of cool effect shots or good design can save a film like this to some extent. This film has none of the above. On the contrary, it is abysmal in all the apartments above. Even if the actors involved would have been a grade sharper, there’s not much they could have done with a script like this, but the writing combined with the static direction and a group of actors who are mostly accustomed to bit-parts make this film feel alwfully like amateur theatre. The locations are dismal. The “wilderness” of the 13th moon looks very much like the rural Britain it is filmed in, with maintained fields, footpaths and neatly trimmed lines of hedges. The outside of the city of New Atlantis is basically a hole in a wall, and the inside — “the Garden” looks very much like the fields and hedges of the “wilderness”. The city itself seems to consist of one rather small grand hall, of which we only ever see two nondescript walls, a single room which doubles for both jail cells, a cavern with an altar and a fire (which is quite decent, possibly a hand-me-down), and a few stretches of papier mache tunnel. It screams cheap.
The monster is simply a man dressed in a black jump suit — with a clearly visible zipper on the front — and a rigid face mask. Forget the clunky monsters in Roger Corman’s films — at least AIP put some effort into their design and manufacture. The “Creature” from Fire Maidens from Outer Space is worse than the yeti in W. Lee Wilder’s The Snow Creature (1954, review), and a serious contender for worst movie monster ever. These guys didn’t even try. Poor Richard Walter must have felt his career was sliding from having played Menteith in BBC’s TV play Macbeth seven years earlier, now standing in black pajamas in a field, pretending to be a scary-looking monster. If one does want to cram psychology into the film, one can pick up I.Q. Hunters’ book British Science Fiction Cinema, in which he describes the creature as an “id monster” (see Forbidden Planet, 1956, review), “a personification of the astronauts’ own lustful desires, a surrogate Oedipus who slays the patriarch and releases the libidos of maidens and astronauts alike”.
The cockpit of the rocket is not quite Ed Wood-grade, but we do find the usual office chairs, a few gauges and buttons and bric-a-brac, and nothing much more to be seen of the inside of the rocket. As stated, the outside shots of the rocket are all Lippert stock footage of a V2-rocket, some shots taken from Rocketship X-M, but most from another abysmaly bad movie, Bert I. Gordon’s King Dinosaur (1955, review), which had badly the V2 badly superimposed over clouds and trees, turning it translucent. Fire Maidens from Outer Space happily re-uses these, some of the worst visual effects of the 50’s.
I usually say something good at least about the actors involved, but there is just nothing here. Anthony Dexter has a kind of charisma, but smug even when he is at his best, his smugness level when he is at his worst is unbearable. Susan Shaw, playing Hestia, was not a bad actress, but Roth mainly has her staring expressionlessly in front of her in this movie, and she has absolutely nothing to work with.
I would also usually write something of the genre and the politics behind the movie, the time in which it was made and its larger context. There’s much to be said about the “Amazons in Space” subgenre and the “Mars Needs Women” trope — the backlash it represented, in the US in particular, against the independence many women had gained during WWII, against the rise of the women’s liberation movement, etc. Usually these films portrayed a matriarchy of soulless, cold women who’d done away with their males only to realise they need new breeding stock, but are put right when they encounter a true hot-blooded American male. However, this film doesn’t even get this part “right”, as New Atlantis is ruled by a man, and the women here only seem to be clueless princesses awaiting the arrival of Earth men. There’s not really even any gender-political subtext to be read into this film, other than that it is basically a juvenile male fantasy.
In a contemporary review of Fire Maidens from Outer Space, The Exhibitor wrote: “this phony science fiction meller can hardly be taken seriously on any account. […] Cy Roth also authored, in addition to directing and producing, and hence can only blame himself.” British The Monthly Film Bulletin opined: “Even the most dedicated connoisseurs of the artless are likely to find this British attempt at science-fiction something of a strain on their patience”.
Today the film has a 2.5/10 rating on IMDb, based on over 1700 audience votes. Anything under 3/10 is usually reserved for the worst of the worst on IMDb, and that will say more about this film’s quality than my review. AllMovie gives it 1/5 stars, with Cavett Binion calling it “silly”, and the monster “cheesy”. TV Guide writes: “This picture proves that the English can be just as cheap and hokey as their colonial cousins”, ignoring the fact that it is a US production. Bill Warren in his book Keep Watching the Skies! calls Fire Maidens from Outer Space “a crashing bore”. In Atomic Age Cinema, Barry Atkinson calls it “the worst British sci-fi picture released [in the 50’s], perhaps the worst of all time”. DVD Savant Glenn Erickson writes: Cy Roth’s lack of commitment makes us appreciate the earnestness of a talent-challenged filmmaker like Edward D. Wood. As painfully desperate as it may be, Wood’s maladroit Plan Nine from Outer Space is the work of a sincere director doing his utmost best.” Richard Scheib at Moria gives the movie 0.5/5 stars.
Finally, I need to quote Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings almost in whole, because he has capture the feeling of watching this movie perfectly: “Imagine you’re sitting in a doctor’s office. You’ve gone to the doctor to have him check out a rather dull but persistent pain in your back; it’s not extremely painful, but it never allows you to relax enough so you can forget that it’s there. You’ve been waiting thirty minutes for the doctor to see you. None of the magazines are interesting, and the TV is running footage of the Senate in session, but the sound is turned too low to hear anything. The nurse keeps entering, and you hope that she’s about to call you in, but she never does. The only other person in the waiting room is preoccupied and doesn’t want to talk. So you find that you only have your own thoughts to keep you company, and you can’t think because the pain keeps distracting you. There’s a newspaper which you’ve already read, but you turn to the crossword puzzle for something to do, but it’s already been done. You check the clock on the wall; thirty seconds have passed since the last time you checked it. You can’t sleep because you’ve just drank some coffee. All you can do is wait. If you can imagine what the above experience would be like, than you’ve been prepared to experience what watching Fire Maidens from Outer Space would be like.”
There is little to glean about writer/producer/director Cy Roth from online sources, other than his IMDb credits. Roth first pops up as an assistant director in 1942, and has a handful of assistant or second unit director credits as “Seymour Roth“, and three credits as editor under the moniker “Cyril Roth“. Taking into account the sometimes unreliable nature of IMDb, we cannot be certain that these are one and the same person, though. He has three directorial credits, plus one TV credit his time in London. The only further mention of him I can find in my trade literature is a quote in Bill Warren’s book Keep Watching the Skies! from actor Robert Clarke’s autobiography, co-written with Tom Weaver, in which Clarke quotes the producer of the film Outlaw Queen (1957), Ron Ashcroft. Ashcroft had “allowed” Cy Roth to direct the movie, which he called “a big mistake”. According to Ashcroft (according to Clarke), Roth “rode around with a riding crop like Napoleon, hit a horse in the face with that stick, and immediately started falling behind schedule”. According to Clarke, the cast and crew hated Roth, and Ashcroft was eventually forced to fire him; “the cast and crew cheered at that moment”. A newspaper search turns up that Roth sued the production company. Outlaw Queen was, unsurprisingly, his last directorial effort, although the name Cyril Roth does turn up as an editor for a couple of films in the 60’s. Another interesting tidbit from the newspaper search is that at one point in 1952 Roth advertised that he was going to Japan to film a picture called “Mystery of the Duelling Pistols” over the Christmas holiday. Roth did release a film (his first directorial effort) in 1953, called Combat Squad, which was set in the Korean War, but it was filmed in Hollywood. Roth passed away in 1969.
Lead actor Anthony Dexter (born Walter Reinhold Alfred Fleischmann) had made a small splash in 1951 in the lead of the biopic Valentino, about silent movie star Rudolph Valentino, to whom he bore a striking resemblance. Dexter had had a promising start on the stage, and was chosen to play Valentino out of 75,000 applicants. However, this was not a springboard to greater things — Dexter was quickly consigned to swashbuckling leads in low-budget pictures, often heavily fictionalised “biopics” such as Aubrey Wisberg’s and Jack Pollexfen’s exploitation movies Captain John Smith and Pocahontas (1953) and Captain Kidd and the Slave Girl (1954). He starred as Billy the Kid in The Parson and the Outlaw (1957) and had a cameo as Christopher Columbus in The Story of Mankind (1957). Dexter gave up acting in 1967, and under the moniker Walter Craig started teaching English, speech and drama in the Los Angeles area, until his retirement in 1978. Before this, however, he had time to appear in a couple more sci-fi movies; 12 to the Moon (1960) and The Phantom Planet (1961), neither of which were significantly better than Fire Maidens from Outer Space.
Lead actress Susan Shaw (born Patsy Sloots) is completely wasted in the female lead, having little to do other than look constipated. Shaw was actually a successful actress, having been one of the busiest leading ladies in English comedy and musical comedy of the late 40’s and early 50’s. In 1951 a Daily Mail poll listed her among the 1o most popular British female actors in the country. However, by the mid-50’s her star was somewhat on the wane, as proven by her involvement in Fire Maidens from Outer Space. She continued her string of leading roles in B-movies until 1958, when her husband was killed in a car accident. She briefly remarried, but never got over the loss, and gradually sank into depression and alcoholism. She died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1963, alone and penniless in Soho.
The male supporting cast is made up of seasoned character and bit-part players, none of whom will ring any bells with modern viewers. A few of them had rather successful careers in British TV. The second largest role of the fire maidens is played by feisty brunette Jacqueline Curtis, described in a Los Angeles Times article as “hopefully a new find”. However, Curtis’ screen career never took off, and she only appeared in a handful of bit-parts before withdrawing from the business in 1958. Elegant, blue-eyed Jan Holden was a stage actress who entered the movie business in 1952. On the big screen she was mostly consiged to bit-parts but she fared better in TV, holding down a few recurring roles and even starring in one short lived series. Holden worked steadily in both film and TV up until the early 80’s. Pretty Kim Parker’s film career lasted little more than five years, one of many young women hoping to make it in the business, only to find opportinities for women in film are fewer than men’s, and that managing the crushing 50’s expectations on being a wife and a mother was hard enough even without navigating a fickle and uncertain film career. Parker did have time to appear in W. Lee Wilder’s SF horror film The Man Without a Body (1957) and even played the lead in The Fiend Without a Face (1958). Also appearing in the latter was Shane Cordell, who started her career as a switchboard operator at the BBC, a so-called “hello girl” in the early 50’s, but quickly became a very popular model and a bit of a film starlet, although the evening papers were more interested in her bust size than her acting, and she was confined to pretty bit-parts.
Dinah Anne Rogers was one of the few fire maidens who went on to a long career, even if her film credits aren’t that many. The impression I get from the gaps in her movie credits is that she worked the stage and the screen in a parallel career, and she seems to have moved to Hollywood in 1960, perhaps in hope of better chances on the screen. Alas, her screen credits never got much better than “2nd engineer”, “townsperson” or “receptionist”, but she had a decent career in TV with a couple of recurring roles and a number of guest spots between 1960 and 1984. She also continued to perform on stage, and seems to have done so at least into the early 00’s. At 90, Rogers is still with us in 2022.
Another fairly active actress, with 22 IMDb credits, was Maya Koumani, who speaks with a foreign accent in the film, and about whom the Google knows very little – not even her place of birth, even if IMDb gives her birth year as 1929. However, a newspaper search reveals Koumani as a ballet dancer of Russian descent, who performed regularly on the London stage in large parts, often with the Ballet Russe – she also seems to have done some modelling. Koumani also had a couple of leads in B-movies, most prominently Strictly Confidential (1959). Plus: she might very well have appeared in one of the the very worst (this one) and the one very best science fiction films ever made – as she can be seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, see image above) as Dr. Stretyeneva. That is the woman in the purple dress who is part of the group of Russians aboard the Hilton station, who ask Dr. Heywood Floyd what the heck is going on on the moon, in the scene after Floyd had video-phoned his daughter. Koumani has one line in the film: “How do you do”. This was also her last film role.
Fire Maidens from Outer Space. 1956, USA/UK. Written & directed by Cy Roth. Starring: Anthony Dexter, Susan Shaw, Paul Carpenter, Harry Fowler, Sydney Tafler, Rodney Diak, Jacqueline Curtis, Owen Berry, Jan Holden, Kim Parker, Dinah Anne Rogers. Cinematopraphy: Ian Struthers. Editing: Lito Carruthers. Art direction: Scott MacGregor. Costume design: Cynthia Tingey. Makeup artist; Roy Ashton, Produced by Cy Roth for Eros Films, Criterion Films and Saturn Films.