First off, I want to make it clear that this peplum/MST3K joint series has made me seriously appreciate with Joel Hodgeson and Mike Nelson, and the rest of the MST3K team have made their life’s work. While I found Hercules Unchained bad, no doubt about it, Hercules Against the Moon Men was so soul-crushing that I temporarily forgot any semblance of joy in my life and momentarily forgot why I’m doing this: Because there is a LOT of media out there that may appeal to Hellenic polytheists, and some of you may not be prepared for it.
Fire Maidens From Outer Space is an odd little film. It pre-dates the peplum craze by a couple years, but clearly shares much of the sword-and-sandal aesthetics. It also dares to blend with the then-craze for cheap sci-fi, and the then-teen fad that rediscovered Universal’s “classic monsters”. This film tries to be many things, and fails at all of them.
We open with a narrator describing an impending expedition, “Project 13”, a joint between the US and the UK, to send a manned expedition to the newly-discovered (but then, in real life, still undiscovered) 13th Moon of Jupiter. The expedition, contrary to what Wikipedia states, includes one British astronaut, one Texan, and three other men of indistinguishable US accent, so probably a mix of Southern California and East Midwestern. The Texan, Luther Blair, our hero, is a nuclear physicist, because I guess that’s exactly what you need when you’re heading off to explore a planetoid that you’ve inexplicably determined is potentially habitable. Forget about ecologists and geographers — you need a nuclear physicist for this, and unlike George W Bush, this Texan can pronounce “nuclear” properly.
As the men leave for the 13th Moon, we’re given a bunch of amateurish and slow shots that are probably intended to heighten suspense, but at least it’s paced evenly enough that you quickly forget that the greatest “action” is a pan shot to give you a good look at the faces of everybody else on the Earth station, yes, the faces of characters you know absolutely nothing of and therefore couldn’t care less about. Then there’s a meteor shower, which I guess adds a milligram of tension, but might have added more if it wasn’t obvious that you were looking at B&W shots of somebody throwing popcorn in front of a black-painted panel. Fade to black, then fade back in and the characters are talking about reaching the end of their three-week journey, and nobody has shifted position from before, then we get a voice-over claiming to be from the planet they’re about to land on — a man’s voice, apparently human, and somehow… able to control their ship… from the ground…
While they’re in space…?
I know this is science fiction, but you’d think with a nuclear physicist on board, they’d understand that physical science doesn’t work that way!
When they finally get to land, they notice a beacon tapping out Morse code(??? I don’t get that, either — how the hell would anybody on a forign planet know Morse code, much less English?) telling them “head for trees at signal”. When the men get there, they comment that the structure of the beacon is bronze and resembles a lighthouse (it really doesn’t ‐ it’s a statue, probably a Hellenic deity) and suggest that maybe the plain used to be covered with water (an idea that is never come back to again, because the history of this space colony is very unimportant to the writer). They then notice one of the Pretty Girls™ that seem to be the excuse to make this film attacked by a werewolf-thingy-guy; see, we’re not exactly sure what it is or where it’s from or how it came into existence. It’s only referred to as “the man with the head of a beast” or, more commonly, “the beast” or “the creature”. In some shots, it looks like cheap werewolf make-up, in others, it’s a little more obvious that they just smeared a bunch of liquid latex and black greasepaint on his face. They fire their gun at the werewolf, but this doesn’t really do anything, and he leaps away, so then the Pretty Girl™, who changes actresses between the distance and close-up shots you get a few of in the span of ninety seconds, motions for them to follow her into a … cave? You know, I’m not sure where she’s led them into — nearly everybody calls it “the cave”, and from the first shots, it looks like it very well could be a cave made from a hollowed-out mountain — but there’s a wall around it, and within the wall is a garden, and motion-sensitive garden screens for doors, and I’m not really sure what this dwelling is, but she takes two of them, Luther Blair and “Captain Larson” inside, leaving The British Guy™ and the two others to stand guard, and then she wanders away.
After she leaves, one guy says to the other (because they look that much alike) that the interior architecture looks “late Minoan” (which it doesn’t, in fact the paintings on the wall strike me as late-classical Attic) as they stand staring at a painting of Aphrodite (you can tell from the scallop shell) that, I swear, looks like the predecessor to those sparkly New Age posters that adorned every teen girl’s room in the mid-1980s. They are then interrupted by the voice-over from earlier, saying “not Minoan, late Atlantean, but the two peroiods are often mistaken for each-other. Welcome to New Atlantis!”
WHAT?? How did that make any sense?
You know what, I will plod on, because the idea of sci-fi-and-sandal is just too weird to pass up.
So, yeah, the guy identifies himself as Prasus, the last survivor of Atlantis, and points at the painting and says, “she was my mother’s mother” and then is panned into the background shouting some prayer I couldn’t make out while the astronaut and nuclear physicist discuss the man’s presumed sanity. Prasus then introduces them to his daughter, Hestia, Princess of Atlantis, and gives her away to Luther Blair, cos he was one of five men who saved her from the creature, so yeah, that makes sense. He then has her fetch drinks and she returns with over a dozen other Pretty Girls™ who pour some wine and then dance all Isadora Duncan-like, complete with Vivaldi — in fact, for a film about a Greek colony (basically), there’s an awful lot of Vivaldi and Alexander Borodin’s “Gliding Dance of the Maidens” (a.k.a. “Stranger In Paradise”), in this film. So, surprise surprise, the wine was drugged, and the sleeping men are carried off to separate rooms wherein the only apparent doors are these motion-sensitive garden screens, but they’re apparently only accessible from the outside, which explains why the men don’t leave. Hestia briefly takes Luther out of the earshot of spies and explains to him that what Prasus spoke was true, but elaborates that all the women are veritable prisoners in the… cave-valley-area-ish-place…
You know, the series of events is internally consistent (at least up to this point), lame and predictable, but overall, it makes sense some sort of way, but the geography and architecture in this film seriously doesn’t make any sense in any way.
The other three men leave the shuttle again to go see why the two named guys have been out all night, and then Blair is finishing up a conversation with Prasus about rebuilding New Atlantis (another idea nobody ever comes back to); Hestia then switches the drinks when Prasus turns around to praise Aphrodite some more, and when he returns, he gets drugged and… for some reason, Blair returns to his room.
When the other three men get back to the cave-thinger-place, the beacon is gone and the entrance is sealed — cos yeah, it totally makes sense that that could have happened in a few hours — and they decide to go search for Blair and Larson. In their search, they discover the wall, and then discover that somehow a stone and clay wall is electrified(???), so they decide to go under the wall rather than over it — because I guess the laws of electrical grounding don’t matter on Jupiter. Somewhere in there, Hestia is captured by her sisters who then prepare to sacrifice her as punishment for drugging Prasus — hey, just cos it’s internally consistent doesn’t mean it has to make sense. Then the Pretty Girls™ capture The Other Three, and Blair figures out how to leave his room (move a chair, and you open a secret panel! these men will never figure that out! Wow, a super-advanced society that discovered space-travel before anybody else, that can somehow radio-in on Earth to learn English and Morse code, and they can’t figure out that people move chairs all the frackin’ time), and then, through the walls, tells Larson how to break free. The Named Two wander around trying to find a way out, or Hestia, or both (no, I’m not sure), and they hear the Other Three after the Pretty Girls have captured them; The Pretty Girls™ then hear that Larson & Blair have escaped and they leave The Other Three alone with Hestia in a ritual room for a few minutes.
When we return with The Pretty Girls™ to the ritual room, the eldest daughter of Prasus, who is angry that Prasus decided to marry off Hestia first, is doing a Duncan dance, but this is interrupted because The Beast has found his way in through the hole, killed Prasus (who had since awoken), and then broke in to the ritual.
Blair kills the monster by throwing a gas grenade, which somehow only kills the monster and no-one else, and then everybody pairs off. Around the space shuttle, Hestia appoints some-one else temporary leader of New Atlantis, and she’s the only one leaving with the men, but they promise to send more expeditions so that the rest of them can get married off.
The MST3K cut aired in 1992. The sketches are only partly concerned with the film, and the rest of the time, they’re concerned with a dark spectre named “Timmy”, who is causing mayhem on the Satellite of Love. The sketches that do concern themselves with the film include Joel telling the Bots about Double Entendre, referencing an early scene in the film, and also goofs on the fact that the spaceship is apparently controlled by two parallel levers that “do everything”, earning Joel’s nickname “The Twin Screw Universal Controller”. From the beginning, the crew comment that this film has Cy Roth written all over it, as his name saturates the opening credits, and Crow also points out that the scene with the rocket landing on New Atlantis is the same process shot clip used for a similar set-up in Burt I. Gordon’s 1955 film King Dinosaur — as I had King Dinosaur also recorded on this tape, I was able to confirm that it is, in fact, the same clip. Tom Servo also noted what I did, that the astronauts all look a lot alike, but in general, most of the jokes are about how incredibly “padded” the film feels when you consider that, in spite of the pacing, not a whole lot of action is actually happening in these scenes — or, as Crow puts it at the end, “he had to pad out the film just to get to the parts that had more padding!”
The “Timmy” story in the sketches begins with the very first sketch and Crow T. Robot introduces a matte-black version of himself, and stating “I prayed for a friend and he came! His name is Timmy.” Timmy, in his time on the Satellite, attacks Cambot, repeatedly gets Crow in trouble with Joel, and finally attacks Servo in the theatre, which culminates in an elaborate spoof of Alien. This is one of the more memorable “meta plot” episodes of MST3K.
Honestly, no, honestly? I really want to like this film (but then again, I guess anything seems good after SANDSTORM). I kind of like some of the basic ideas here: Lost colony of Atlantis found in space, their leader is an actual descendant of an Olympian deity, and Earth explorers just wander in on some pre-existing tensions. If you took those ideas and got some skilled writers to manage it, it could work; maybe as no more than a popcorn film, but it’s really no stupider than most of the shit sci-fi that’s out there. This film’s biggest problem is that it had no idea what it wanted to be, and the writing was pretty incompetent. I’ve seen grade-schoolers churn out sci-fi that made a little more sense and had more comprehensive back-story, hell, AXE COP has a more comprehensive back-story; Fire Maidens From Outer Space relies too heavily on suspension of disbelief to work as-is, and the acting is often pretty wooden, which kills any possibility of that suspension. I like the idea of this film, it’s just too weird for me not to, but the execution has barely more attention given to it than Plan 9 From Outer Space, and only half of the “glorious train-wreck” appeal on its own; I’ve also seen better MST3K treatments, as well, but it’s definitely an enjoyable MST3K experience.
It’s nice to see a sci-fi film that pretty much confirms the existence of the gods, even if it makes one of their descendants kind of a jerk-ass; but then, Akhilles was a bit of a jerk-ass, and Prasus isn’t dragging somebody’s body around behind a chariot — he just wants his daughters to rape these men and re-populate the colony. It’s almost noble. The portrayal of “ancient Greek religion” is pretty obviously written with no research at all (human sacrifice had ended many centuries before Hesiod, so presumably this was at least a few more centuries before the approximate dates for Atlantis’ fall), and apparently exists as little more than an excuse for Pretty Dancing Girls™ — but it’s also portrayed as vaguely as possible, and the preposterousness of this film makes the glaring lack of research almost excusable, in an absurdist sort of way, because I doubt even Fred Phelps would take this shit seriously, it’s so stupid.
Neither version of this film appears to be available commercially, which is a shame for the MST3K cut, since this really works for MST; like I said, the meta-plot is pretty funny and the film with commentary is enjoyable. I suggest PirateBay or Cinemageddon or another film torrent site, or try your luck picking up a VHS copy on eBay.