Irish McCalla was a popular pin up model whose brief acting career is probably best remembered for her titular turn on mid 50s television series Sheena: Queen Of The Jungle, a role for which she was cast when Anita Ekberg turned it down. While far from a dynamic actress, her statuesque 5’10” frame and nominal ability to deliver her lines gave her a modest edge over some of her fellow beauties looking to jump from the pages of men’s magazines to the silver screen.
1958’s She Demons is the only film appearance in her slim filmography where Irish was given top billing. Given the time frame and the jungle island setting, this was likely a bit of a calculated career move for all parties concerned. She wanted out of television, the film’s producers wanted a still somewhat recognizable name on which to hinge an otherwise unremarkable bit of budget genre fare.
Spoiled socialite Jerrie Turner (Irish McCalla) is sent off on a vacation cruise so her father can get his bratty daughter out of his hair (and his checkbook) for a bit. Unfortunately, the ship gets caught up in a hurricane, and crash lands on an uncharted island. Thankfully, square jawed tour guide Fred (Tod Griffin), sassy sidekick Sammy (Victor Sen Yung, whose list of credits is historical proof of just what kind of roles non Caucasian actors were unfortunately limited to in this era), and ship’s captain Kris (Charles Opunui, ditto) have all survived the wreck along with her.
Typical of someone used to hired help, Jerrie is less concerned with her crew or essential items like food or a radio than she is with the location of her powder blue cashmere shortie or a particular pair of toreador pants. The group’s troubles quickly move out of Gilligan’s Island territory, and into something more pressing. The seemingly empty island is actually filled with, you guessed it, “she-demons”. The creatures look like scantily clad human women from the neck down, but have horribly mutated faces, sharp fangs and a tendency towards random violence. To make matters worse, the one partial radio broadcast the group is able to receive indicates the US military is scheduled to use the island as a bomb testing site in less than 48 hours.
This sort of schlock was an even bigger barnacle than juvenile delinquency melodramas for hanging onto the bottom of a double bill for ungodly amounts of time. What distinguishes She Demons is just how many tropes it manages to pack into 76 minutes.
Baseline plot stolen from Bela Lugosi’s work in both 30s sci fi serials and 40s horror cinema?
Check to both of those, simultaneously.
Rampant exoticism and ethnic stereotyping used primarily in service of giving some blandly attractive white extras an excuse to shake it in sarongs?
Check, and it’s a fully choreographed number set to Les Baxter’s “Calypso”.
Mad scientist in attendance?
Absolutely, check. The villain isn’t just a mad scientist, he’s a Nazi mad scientist, Karl “The Butcher” Ostler (Rudolph Anders). He’s been holed up on the island with his foot soldiers since before the war ended, using the suspiciously pale “natives” as guinea pigs in a crazy scheme to restore the beauty to his burn scarred wife’s face. There’s also a henchman named Igor (Gene Roth) who pops up to add some early Nazisploitation style sadism to this whole affair, whipping an escapee and tossing the girls into bamboo cages when its not their turn on the operating table.
Had writer/director Richard E. Cunha managed to shoehorn in some half baked voodoo angle, this film could have filled the Bingo card. That said, the final act is a nice surprise as it’s Jerrie, not unseasoned potato salad Fred, who saves the day. She manages to grow both a spine and a sense of resourceful priority quickly enough to save herself and her staff before the stock footage of US Air Force bombers is scheduled to show up.
This being the 50s, Jerrie ends up doing so in an evening gown, and Fred still gets the romantic hero treatment in the last 5 minutes despite being basically useless. It’s still a notably refreshing change for a film of this ilk to give its leading lady a bit of character arc. Even if that character arc is “self involved spoiled brat” to “self involved spoiled brat that manages to appropriately wield a champagne bottle and a set of keys to spring the men….. because there is absolutely no way in hell she’s voluntarily paddling 300 miles to the mainland in a rowboat”.