For the first time since elementary school, I sat in front of a TV and watched ATTACK OF THE 50 FT. WOMAN recently.
According to my calculations, the first time I saw the movie was the year Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published; and the movie had its theatrical release a good half-decade before. For a movie produced in pre-Feminist times, the title connoted some subversive thinking: female dominance, a helpless male-oriented culture, the unleashed fury of an aggressive woman. Perhaps that’s a primary reason why the film and its title have a toe-hold in Pop Culture (as opposed to other female-as-unconquerable-monster / woman-they-couldn’t-kill films such as THE ASTOUNDING SHE-MONSTER or Kurt Neumann’s SHE DEVIL, both released the year before AOT5FW). Looking at the movie now, the gender statements are even harder to ignore, but the layered messages on sex and its social attributes, despite their obviousness, are even more confounding.
The now-archetypal image from the movie’s poster (a scene that never occurs in the actual film) is of complete Female Invincibility; but the story is solidly rooted in in the realm of Male Dominance. Within this controlled ‘Man’s World,’ traditional Male Entitlement (in this case adultery, philandering and neglect) gets smacked down by a genderless moral code, as the 50-foot Nancy Fowler (the demi-sublime Allison Hayes) quite literally breaks up her husband’s outside-booty setup after her dimensions go off the scale. Yet somehow, these thoughts and images of Biblical retribution via Female Empowerment, despite their rebellious roots and potential for fun, are blatantly articulated deep from inside the Penis.
When main character Nancy Fowler was normal-sized, she had all of society’s blessings: affluence, entitlement, privilege. She basically could buy and sell anyone in the dusty, one-hashhouse town she lived in. (A town with no visible drug store yet an amazingly impressive roster of medical personnel.) Yet despite the power she wielded due to money and family, conjugally Nancy was a doormat.
Her husband Harry Archer ignored (or when not ignoring, belittled) her; yet the script had Nancy agreeing to a this psyche-depleting relationship — despite her knowledge that she should end it — because, more than anything, he was the Guy She Loved (and therefore she was powerless around him because the emotions were so strong).
Although rich and entitled, Nancy was powerless against the low-grade men in her life (including the local police who were skeptical of her UFO sighting). Yet the one factor missing in her life that was the agent for her ability to wield power was SIZE. Once she was the biggest, once she won the pissing contest, then she claimed her power as the cock of the walk.
Like an anabolic steroid version of Judy Holliday in the first reel of ADAM’S RIB, the empowerment of being big allows Nancy to go after her man and his floozy girlfriend (the always quirky Yvette Vickers, whose film debut was in SUNSET BOULEVARD as the giggling blonde on the phone next to the ‘rainbow room’ at the New Years party).
What’s more confounding is how this image from the movie’s poster has recently been appropriated, popping up on the Internet with the head of Sarah Palin photoshopped onto the 50-foot woman. As someone who doesn’t understand the SP phenomenon, I can only guess that this schizo image signifies (like Allison Hayes’ character) a ‘normal’ gal who, when given the right empowerment, allows her emotions steer her to correct the moral injustices she sees around her. Is this some deep-rooted American archetype for wish-fulfillment? Or perhaps it signifies someone blindly and arbitrarily destroying everything in her grasp as she follows an unruly, ill-defined sense of righteousness fueled by a sense of existing beyond moral and legal strictures.
This is part of the fear factor in AOT5FW: this is a creature who is big and strong yet still hyper-emotional. Again, the Male Dominance is given the willies by the thought of an uncontrollable woman whom no man can save from her ‘irrational’ self.
In a contemporary viewing, this element ladles on an additional level of disappointment in the film’s experience. The film itself is basically a cheat, from ballyhooing a scene on the poster that never occurs on film, to withholding any sort of action until the final twenty minutes, to the extremely lame (even by my low standards) special effects. Yet today, the disappointment in the delivery of thrills is intensified due to the fact that the primeval fears don’t dig as deep (except — for me — in the images of Palin). Male fear of irrationality in the opposite gender that this film banks on doesn’t play on the collective subconscious the way it did in 1958. The frail conceits of the original movie just collapse today. It’s one of the few ‘bad’ films from back then that — contrary to the last couple of decades’ enjoyment by fans of low-budget 1950s horror and sci-fi — looks even worse now than it did then. The creators just couldn’t stop thinking with their dicks.