By Hank Parmer
Two Sides of Vegetables -- That Want to Eat You: The Woman Eater (1958) and The Man-Eater of Hydra (1967)
As my readers are probably all too aware by this point, I can be a bit ... well, obsessed with oddball film genres of the mid-20th Century.
And you can't get much more obscure than vegetable horror. I don't mean lobster-clawed pickles from outer space or "intellectual carrots" like The Thing from Another World or the occasional oversize carnivorous jungle plant with a sweet tooth for starlets. I'm talking straight-up horror films featuring murderous monster veggies. These make up a remarkably small share of Fifties and Sixties B-movie output, and none of them seem to be as well-known as parodies like Little Shop of Horrors and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.
Although this essay's cinematic tag team might be utterly deserving of their obscurity, you must admit there's an appealing symmetry to this pairing: Think of them as the botanical equivalent of Jack Sprat and his wife, when it comes to anthropophagy. (To forestall any nit-pickers, though, I should mention that the Maneater isn't quite so selective about its meals, gender-wise.)
One possible explanation for the relative rarity of this horror sub-genre is that right off the bat, there's a big drawback inherent in casting a member of the plant kingdom as your principal nasty, namely, limited mobility. Unless it's a Triffid, if the monster wasn't foresighted enough to secure a very large planter and a Hoverround it tends to stay rooted in one location.
This presents the screenwriter with a dilemma: how to lure enough victims within its reach to justify a feature film's run time. Obviously, the trick is to give the thing a human accomplice. In the case of today's double-feature George Coulouris and Cameron Mitchell, respectively, will be our Judas Goats.
Coulouris is of course familiar to classic movie buffs as Charles Foster Kane's despised guardian and financial nemesis, the banker Walter Parks Thatcher. It's been quite a while, though, since his glory days with Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater. This role is clearly a data point well on the downward arc of the actor's career.
The Woman Eater kicks off with a brief establishing shot of the entrance to the famed Explorer's Club in London. Inside, Dr. Moran (George Coulouris) holds forth to his audience: Lewis Carling, and another guy who merely rates a credit as "Man in Club". The doctor has a map he obtained from a dying explorer, which Moran claims shows the way to a lost Inca tribe. And if that's not sufficient to pique his listeners' curiosity, these strange and mysterious natives are rumored to be able to revive the dead. Which is just like catnip to your budding mad scientist. So of course Moran is in a lather to go haring off to the backwaters of the Amazon.
He manages to interest Carling in his expedition; the doctor gives him an invite and hurries off to make final preparations for the trip. The Man in Club warns his friend that Moran is the end product of a long line of major loons, but Carling shrugs it off.
Some stock footage of an airliner, then a biplane -- they must have boarded a connecting flight in Hooterville -- then a quick detour to Africa via clips of crocs sliding down a riverbank and a tree full of camera-shy birds, and voila, the doctor and his companion are hacking their way through some rubber plants on a soundstage. Moran appears to be a bit under the weather, but he assures Carling he's had the "jungle fever" before -- and he won't let it get him down. (The randy little bugger!) They follow the sound of tom-toms and soon stumble upon a native ceremony in progress.
One remarkable aspect of this cheesy tableau is that casting was apparently unable to locate any extras who might, if you kinda-sorta squinted your eyes right, appear as if they were in fact descended from a lost Incan tribe -- or any other indigenous inhabitants of South America. Instead, the filmmaker decided to go with sub-Saharan African, plus a smattering of European brunettes in heavy body makeup.
A very fetching young woman (Marpessa Dawn, just before she got her big break playing Eurydice in Black Orpheus) is swaying dreamily to the pulsating rhythm of the drums. There's also a guy wearing an ostrich-feather headdress, leaping and prancing about, raising and lowering his arms while he grips a fairly large snake in each hand.
Pretty much your standard Grade-Z-movie voodoo, really -- except for that stump with the shaggy pelt and flapping claspers, plus a couple of puny pincers thrown in up top to balance the composition. It looks like an emotionally needy refugee from the creature-of-the-week stable for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
Carling senses something unpleasant is in the offing. He barges onto the scene, shouting "Stop it, you devils!" This untimely interruption earns him a spear through the chest. (Remember: There are no small parts.)
Dr. Moran wisely stays put and continues to surreptitiously observe the ceremony. As tonight's offering is led toward the plant, she suddenly has second thoughts about this hookup. But it's too late for that. The luckless sacrifice is seized by a couple of men and hustled toward the monstrous thing. Blackout.
Sometime afterwards, Dr. Moran, delirious and raving about the secret of Life, is rescued by another party of explorers.
England: "Five Years Later"
There's something peculiar going on in the dank, gloomy cellar of this country estate. Tanga the Drummer Boy whales on a couple of drums, while another young lovely has been enthralled by that irresistible beat. This gorgeous redhead seems mildly horrified ... and yet, aroused, as she stares past the camera at something.
Fully recovered now from his harrowing ordeal, Dr. Moran is up in his study, scribbling away. He pauses to consult a volume in his library, jots down a few more notes, then crosses to a curtained alcove. He unlocks a steel door that leads down to the cellar.
Where, in addition to Tanga and his date, there are also a bunch of test tubes, flasks and bubbling retorts. The Drummer Boy ramps up the tempo, then abruptly stops, stands up -- my, that silk diaper doesn't leave much to the imagination, does it? -- and slowly approaches the girl. Standing beside her, he puts his arm around her shoulders and gently but firmly urges her toward the camera.
"And let's see who our lucky bachelorette's picked for her Dream Date!"
After his near-fatal jaunt to the Amazon, has Dr. Moran found a more rewarding hobby, perhaps involving moving pictures tailored to the gents? But no, he must have brought a seed or a cutting back with him, because the doctor now has his very own woman-scarfing stump. And it really wants a hug. This should totally wow them at the Royal Horticultural Society's next shindig!
But once again, the stump's intended balks at the last moment. Tanga glances meaningfully at Dr. Moran. His boss gives him the nod and she's shoved into the creature's greedy clutches, while the Drummer Boy grins maniacally.
As this victim is being devoured off-camera, the doctor informs the audience he's only feeding her to the stump for the sake of Science: "She'll become part of the plant, and from it, I'll extract a serum that can bring the dead back to life. She won't have died in vain!"
Well, if he puts it that way ... I'm certain the lady would have found this a great comfort. But scientific breakthrough or no, if truth be told Moran looks as though he's manfully yet not altogether successfully suppressing a chubby.
Afterwards, the scientist futzes around a bit with his Lionel Porter Deluxe chemistry set. Assisted by Tanga -- who's exchanged the loincloth for trousers and a busboy jacket -- Moran fills a horse syringe with his mysterious concoction.
Despite what you might think, Moran has a big heart: He keeps it suspended in a glass jar. The doctor injects his wonder serum into the organ. It begins to twitch ... but after a dozen-or-so beats the heart-in-a-jar has a relapse; it's just a hunk of dead meat again. Disappointed, Dr. Moran admits he knew he didn't have enough serum, but next time, he's convinced it will work.
Next morning, Constable Plod cycles up to the Moran mansion and demands to see the doctor. Mrs. Danvers -- I mean, Santor, the housekeeper -- gives the fuzz a chilly reception, but he persists. When Moran is questioned about a missing girl who had been staying nearby with some friends, naturally he insists he knows nothing.
The action switches to a local fair. It's night time. A barker ballyhoos his revue featuring a "bevy of South Sea beauties" while grass-skirted, coconut-shell-brassiere'd platinum blond Sally (Vera Day) shimmies unenthusiastically at his side. Jack Venner is testing his marksmanship at the shooting gallery next door, but he can't keep his eyes off her. When the barker heads inside to get the show underway, Sally slips into an overcoat against the evening's chill and nips over to a refreshment stand. Jack continues to plug away even as he turns his head to follow her, yet miraculously, not only does he manage to avoid mowing down the carny and some bystanders, he pots all the targets.
(One of the things I admire most about this movie is the way it resolutely avoids obvious symbolism.)
Utilizing the stuffed toy he just won as a conversation-starter, Jack introduces himself to Sally. They seem to be hitting it off, until the barker shows up and Jack punches him in the face for rudely demanding his employee get back to hula-ing for the rubes. Sally begs her gallant champion to split before he causes any more trouble for her.
Next morning, Sally shows up at Jack's garage, and informs him she's been given the sack. Fortunately, Jack thinks there might be a job opening -- at Dr. Moran's mansion.
That's quite some meet-cute: Not only has Jack managed to get her fired from one job, albeit a fairly crappy one, but now he's about to land her a cushy position with a psycho who feeds beautiful young women to his arboreal freak. Sally had better be the forgiving sort, is all I can say. If she doesn't end up as human Miracle-Gro.
At the Moran place, Tanga answers the door. He gives Sally the up-and-down with his eyes several times as he conducts her to the master's study. You know this guy only wants one thing -- and it's got hungry, hungry Hell-spawn written all over it.
Even though Sally begins the interview with a classic porn double entendre ("The man down at the garage said you might have something for me ...") Moran isn't very encouraging. But then he gets that frisky mad scientist gleam in his eye as possibilities begin to suggest themselves. He decides Mrs. Santor could use another pair of hands around the house, and wants to know if Sally would be willing to live-in. Having no place to stay, she answers in the affirmative, and bingo, she's got the job.
Later, Mrs. Santor gives the doc hell about her new "helper". There's clearly something more here than your typical employer-employee relationship. Moran scarcely bothers to hide his infatuation with the new hire, but twists the knife a bit by remarking how nice it will be to have someone "young and charming" around the house -- in obvious contrast to his housekeeper's more, shall we say, mature looks and dour demeanor. He orders Mrs. Santor to "treat her nice" -- twice, for emphasis. What a sweet guy.
Since one place is as good as another, I should mention here that The Woman Eater was scored by Edwin Astley. You probably won't find the name familiar (I didn't) but the style is instantly recognizable. He was a prolific composer for British film and TV during the 50s and 60s, whose credits include Behemoth the Sea Monster and the classic Roger Moore ITV series, The Saint. In fact, the score here sounds more than a bit like the one he did for Behemoth. Which worked well enough in that movie, but it's ludicrously overblown when paired with this squalid, glacially paced nonsense.
After evidence of a struggle is found near the Moran spread, Inspector Brownlow of Scotland Yard wants to have the grounds searched for the missing girl. Dr. Moran grudgingly permits the police to look in a couple of sheds. The inspector details Constable Plod to nose about, while he stays in the study and shoots the breeze with Moran. Brownlow is curious about a knife Moran keeps on the desk; the doctor snatches it away, claiming it's a one-of-a-kind from the upper Amazon. (Although it looks more like the props master picked it up at a Pier One.)
This pointless dialog gives the constable all of a minute or two to conduct an unusually thorough but ultimately fruitless search. Baffled yet again, the police depart.
Back down in the lab, Moran is brewing up a big mess of the resurrection juice. The doctor carefully extracts more sap with a syringe; he ought to save himself some bother and put a tap and bucket on the thing. Tanga gestures significantly toward the upstairs, where Sally is working, but Moran grabs his lapels, gets up in his grill and snarls, "Remember, I decide!"
Next we see Moran lurking about Piccadilly Circus at night. With the unerring instinct of your bent scientist on the prowl, he soon homes in on a likely prospect: a rather stunning brunette. He trails her to a hole-in-the-wall pub. Which, in an odd touch, has an Asian bartender. (The place may not look fancy, but he mixes the best Mai-Tais and Singapore Slings in the East End!) The doctor quietly observes from the bar while the brunette's boyfriend ditches her for the unpardonable affront of showing up half an hour late. The cheapskate leaves her to pay for their drinks. Presented with this perfect opportunity, Moran offers to pick up her tab, and soon has this overly trusting lady agreeing to go for a spin with him out to a roadhouse.
Mrs. Santor's waiting up for the doctor, nervously pacing the floor of her room. She hears the car pull up.
Belatedly, Moran's date displays some trepidation about following this strange guy down into that cellar, but he scoffs at her misgivings: "What's the matter? Don't you trust me?"
Well sure, why not? It's probably some trendy new roadhouse, serving a very exclusive clientele.
Once he gets her downstairs, she's seized from behind by Tanga. "Get her ready!" commands the doctor.
Mrs. Santor confronts Moran in the study; she bitterly accuses him of having been out tomcatting around. I'll spare my readers the sordid details, but the upshot is that yes, once upon a time they were an item, but he's been "different" ever since he came back from the Amazon. Even so, she's hung around for the last five years, hoping against hope that one day he'll recover that sunny disposition and be the guy she fondly remembers whistling a merry tune while he vivisects puppies and kittens.
His former lover is convinced he's up to something "wicked" -- it's not clear whether she's worried or jealous. Moran threatens to send her away if she starts prying into what goes on in that downstairs laboratory, and kicks her out of his study. After all, it's feeding time for his pet.
There's really no need for another run-through of this sacrifice routine, right?
So that's victim number three out of the way.
While his stump chows down, the doctor is once again quick to remind everyone that he's only doing this for the sake of Science. Good thing, because otherwise, the casual viewer might suspect Tanga's not the only one into it for the pervy kicks.
Like, for instance, if the victims invariably snap out of their trance and have to be propelled into its embrace, why does Dr. Moran even bother with all this ceremonial claptrap? There must be several quicker and far less complicated ways to connect the stump with its nummy.
Maybe he believes it's necessary to put the thing in the mood, beforehand. Yet even so, why do all its victims not only have to be female and good-looking, but they also have to change into that single-shoulder ersatz-Lost-Inca-tribal number before they're fed to it? (Unless Tanga's also a whiz with a needle and thread I'm assuming the doc keeps a closet full of ready-mades.) I mean, if the thing doesn't have eyes, how can it even tell what the women look like, much less how they're attired? It's all rather confusing.
The next day, Jack gets a visit from Sally. He's working on a car, and enlists her help to push a wire through a hole in the dash. (Oh ... I get it.) He asks her to get in the car and hold the work light for him. She sits in the passenger seat, positioning herself so that while Jack's fiddling under the dash he completely coincidentally gets a magnificent view of Ms. Day's fabulously lifted and separated breasts, looming above him, straining against that tight sweater. He's clearly appreciative.
For some reason, Jack chooses this moment to pop the question. Sally not very forcefully objects they've only known each other for a couple of weeks. For once, our hero has the right response: "I fell for you in the first two minutes."
But then he nearly blows the romantic moment by getting snippy with her for not holding the light properly. She rips out the wire in a shower of sparks and exits the car, slamming the door for emphasis. Ah, a woman of spirit! But Sally relents, leans in through the window and tells Jack he'll just have to teach her about cars -- once they're married.
Walking on sunshine, Sally returns to the mansion. Mrs. Santor immediately tears into her for being late back from her half-day off. The doctor soon intervenes, telling his long-suffering housekeeper she's tired and out-of-sorts. To make her humiliation complete, he orders her to go to her room and lie down.
He invites Sally into his study for a cozy little chat. While upstairs in her room Mrs. Santor paces and sobs, Moran promises Sally he's going to send the old bat away for a rest, first thing tomorrow. Oh, and he'll of course need a new housekeeper.
Sally isn't inclined to take him up on the promotion, especially now that she's snagged a real catch like Jack. Moran persists: Is it something about him? He doesn't understand why she's not jumping at the opportunity to keep house for this sinister lech and his disturbing manservant, who're getting up to God-only-knows-what down in that cellar.
Rather than give the doc a flat refusal, Sally stalls for time. She promises she'll make her decision by the next day, and exits.
Sally locks the door to her room as soon as she's inside, so perhaps she's not a complete idiot. After a bit of frowning and pacing -- an awfully popular blocking choice for the actors in this movie -- she dons her overcoat again, grabs her purse and slips out of the house. Is this story about to violate the Crappy Horror Film Prime Directive and have one of its protagonists do something halfway intelligent?
Meanwhile, down in his laboratory cum gynoponics setup, Moran tells Tanga they'll have enough serum after tonight.
At Venner's Garage, Sally brings Jack up-to-date on the latest developments at Chez Moran. She insists she's not about to stay at that gloomy pile alone with the doctor, who she frankly admits scares the willies out of her. (Not a word about Tanga, though. Maybe she caught a glimpse of him in that loincloth.)
Jack offers to find her a hotel room. Sally decides to economize and spend just one more night at the mansion, convinced that Mrs. Santor will keep the doc on his best behavior. So much for smarts. Oh, script, you're such a tease!
Back at Moran's place, in the study, Mrs. Santor is once again brutally rejected by the doctor. While his back is turned to her, she grabs that knife from his desk and attacks him. He forces her to drop the weapon and strangles her.
Well, whaddaya know: The guy's working on a serum to bring the dead back to life, and looky here, he's got a corpse. How very ... convenient. It'll certainly save him no end of bother. He might have had to risk a nasty chill rummaging around graveyards at night, or fritter away who knows how much time and money in tedious negotiations with the sort of unsavory chaps who can supply dead bodies on demand. Let's just hope Mrs. Santor will let bygones be bygones once she's back on her feet again.
When Sally returns to the mansion, the doc says the housekeeper is having a lie-down and doesn't want to be disturbed. (Well, you can't argue with that!)
Next morning, while Sally serves his tea, Moran claims Mizzus Santor is still feeling right poorly and needs her solitude. He presses Sally about his job offer. She finally gives him a definite no; when he insists she tell him why, Sally informs the lovestruck loony that she's planning to get married. He demands to know who's to be the lucky guy.
When he finds out it's Jack, the doctor comes completely unglued: Moran sneers at her choice of a lowly mechanic, when soon he'll be the most famous man in the world! He confesses to his mad crush on her; to prove the depth of his devotion, he promises to give Sally a personal tour of the cellar. She seems more puzzled than frightened.
At the same time, the pieces begin to fall into place for the coppers when Inspector Brownlow receives a phone call from the Yard confirming that Moran really did go up the Amazon, that his partner Carling bought it, and the doctor brought some kind of weird plant back with him. Plus, there's a legend of a woman-eating stump making the rounds in those parts.
Back at Venner's Garage, Jack is -- you guessed it! -- pacing restlessly back and forth while he waits for Sally to show up. He tries ringing the Moran residence, but ominously, no one answers. So he motors over and confronts the doctor. Moran claims Sally left early that morning. Jack doesn't believe him, and departs, threatening to bring the police with him when he returns.
Moran releases Sally from the anteroom where she's been patiently waiting for the tour to begin, and escorts her down the steps. Tanga's already in the cellar, stripped for action, with drums at the ready. When the doctor shows her his stump -- why does that sound so dirty? -- the Drummer Boy understandably believes it's his cue, and starts pounding the skins again. But Moran has other plans; he yanks Sally away from the plant's frenzied claspers. Tanga is not pleased.
Sally watches, perplexed and terrified, as Moran injects his death antidote into Mrs. Santor's sheet-covered corpse. After a moment, the Pulseometer registers a heartbeat; the sheet rises and falls as the subject begins to breathe again. The doctor is elated!
But there's a catch: Mrs. Santor is a mindless zombie. Which may not interfere all that much with her housekeeping, but this will undoubtedly make Moran's resurrection drug a far more difficult sell to the Nobel committee.
"Your people cheated me!" he accuses Tanga. "They only gave me half the secret!"
Psych! Should have read the fine print, doc.
"Our secret not for you!" jeers Tanga. "The brain for us!"
(Which explains quite a bit about this story. And should earn Tanga and his tribe a place in the pantheon of all-time greats, when it comes to practical jokers.)
While Moran rages, evidently Mrs. Santor's winning personality hasn't entirely evaporated: She gets up off the table and stalks silently toward Sally, her outstretched hands held like claws.
"Ooooo ... I'll harm you!"
Sally screams and cowers against the wall -- but luckily the former housekeeper drops dead again in mid-stagger.
"You cheated me!" moans Dr. Moran, as he kneels by Mrs. Santor.
Tanga tries to take advantage of the scientist's distraction to feed Sally to the stump. He gets as far as grabbing her and ripping her blouse, but Moran prevents him from carrying through with his fiendish craving. While the scientist grapples with Tanga, Jack and the police arrive at the mansion and break in. Jack finds his way down to the cellar, where he slugs Tanga and rescues Sally.
Moran sets the plant on fire with a jar of napalm he keeps handy; Tanga reciprocates by planting a knife in the doctor's back. Fade-out, as Tanga falls to his knees before the flaming stump. Little wonder he's so upset: Now he's going to have to look for a regular job.
Bidding a thankful farewell to stately Mildew Manor and its irrepressibly drab and awful inmates, we're migrating south now to a sunnier clime, for a second helping of vegetables -- don't give me that look now: it's good for you!
Join us on Wednesday for Part 2 of our Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral (but mostly Vegetable) horror-fest: The Maneater of Hydra.