This was the era in which science fiction really came into its own. Audiences everywhere thrilled to stories of humankind reaching out to the stars... or of alien invasions... or of primal things that rose from the depths of the earth to remind us we were not quite ready to move out into the galaxy. Most of the stories were more fiction than science, but what did that matter?
Some of these visions of the not-too-distant future were brimming with optimism, while others foretold disaster. Some looked forward to vast changes in the world and our understanding of it, while others saw only the status quo with a few rocket-cars and disintegrator guns thrown in.
And then, there were those that seemed to miss the point completely. When you look over the science fiction magazines and movies and novels and comic books of the fifties and sixties, there is one particular theme that emerges from this last category; one powerful unifying thread that suggests what Mankind really sought in the stars, and what he hoped above all to find there, was...
... a date on Saturday night.
Yes; just at the time when earthly women were starting to realize they deserved equality with men (and could achieve it), the men were dreaming of ways to escape to other worlds, where the women were all starved for affection, and oh, between the ages of 18 and 25. You might think that other planets, with their wildly varied gravitation and atmospheric content, with their extremes of heat and cold, with the insanely different types of stars they orbit, etc., would be unlikely to produce a life-form that was anything at all like us... let alone an entire species of beauty pageant runners-up. But you'd be hard-pressed to argue in the face of the evidence of the movies: Queen of Outer Space, Fire Maidens from Outer Space, Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women... and of course Cat Women of the Moon, in which an environment that doesn't seem suited to the evolution of women or cats manages to produce a civilization of women who... women who... oh, never mind.
Occasionally, sex-starved female invaders would come to Earth to look for suitable breeding stock (Devil Girl from Mars, Invasion of the Star Creatures), and sometimes even alien men would come to earth looking for the same deal the Earth astronauts were looking for (such as in Mars Needs Women, I Married a Monster from Outer Space and The Night Caller). I'll bet the alien men were disappointed to find that our terrestrial "cat women" are much different from the lunar variety.
And of course all these movies fail to take into consideration that real cosmic interbreeding would probably have to go along the lines of the model proposed by Alien considerably later. No matter how desperately lonely the Fire Maidens might be, or how anxious the Devil Girl is to perpetuate her species, conventional nookie just isn't likely to succeed.
In any case, these attempts at interplanetary long-distance relationships never seemed to work out. Things usually only lasted long enough for some middle-aged B-movie actors to neck with scantily-clad space women, and then there'd be some horrible catastrophe that left the guys conveniently single once more. This sort of thing reached its ultimate expression in the form of "Star Trek"'s James T. "Kiss of Death" Kirk, whose human or alien girlfriends never stood a chance.
But if there's one movie that stands out from the dross which is the alien miscegenation subgenre, it's Mexico's La Nave de los Monstruos/Ship of Monsters from 1959. Unlike so many other male chauvinist space fantasies, La Nave de los Monstruos refuses to take its subject seriously. In fact, not only is it played entirely for laughs, it also seems to satirize the other movies it so closely resembles — especially in the characterizations of its monsters.
After a typically portentious 1950's-style opening, warning of the dangers of the atom, we find ourselves on the planet Venus. There, it turns out, nuclear war has wiped out all the planet's men (making La Nave one of very few films of the time to use the threat of nuclear annihilation as the setup for a joke). The Queen of Venus has decided to send two of her subjects to the distant corners of the galaxy, looking for males of practically any species that they could use to repopulate their dying world.
Our two Venusian astronauts are named Beta and Gamma. These may seem to be unlikely names for Venusians, but they're really not unusual at all for a movie that followed Cat Women of the Moon. As for the very existence of Venusians, it's also handy to remember that in the 1950's it was still widely believed that Venus was a very Earth-like planet. It wasn't until the Soviet Venera probes of the seventies that scientists discovered the surface of Venus was a boiling sulfuric hell.
While we're on the subject of "hot": Gamma is played by the lovely Ana Bertha Lepe, whose astronaut attire looks better suited for an upscale cocktail party than the rigors of space travel:
Beta, on the other hand, is played by that luchadorable Glory o' Venus herself, Lorena Velazquez (of, e.g., Santo vs. the Vampire Women and Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy):
Beta's regular outfit is a swimsuit. If this seems to make Gamma's wardrobe look utilitarian by comparison, allow me to repeat: Beta is played by Lorena Velazquez, who (as most male B-movie fans will recognize) is slightly hotter than the actual surface temperature of Venus itself. Mexican movie-makers knew that no costume could ever add anything to what Lorena already offered, so they wisely chose to keep things minimal.
The Ship of Monsters' third crew member is Tor the Robot, looking considerably healthier since his role in The Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy. Tor is listed as one of the "monsters of the galaxy" in the opening credits, but he's actually a friendly and helpful creature.
It should be obvious that the "monsters" of the title aren't Beta and Gamma. As the credits play, we see the Ship of Monsters land very, very briefly — absurdly briefly — on the surfaces of several inhospitable-looking planets. You understand what they're picking up on these planets, don't you? That's right: men. And the "men" they've found to repopulate their planet seem to be the ones who were being thrown out of the worst singles' bars on their respective planets at closing time... by sheer numbers changing the Venusian spacecraft from the Ship of Pulchritude to the Ship of Monsters.
Each of these aliens seems to represent manliness at its worst. For instance, there's the unofficial leader of the "men of the galaxy": Tagual, the Prince of Mars.
If this is a Martian prince, may I never see one of their frogs. Seeing him, you understand why the Devil Girl from Mars thought the Scottish moors would be a good place for a booty call. Imagine an enormous brain attached to the body of an overgrown baby: that's Tagual. Normally, intelligence is a positive trait in a man, but since it's Tagual's only positive trait, it actually works in reverse. Tagual's the kind of guy who truly couldn't understand why being captain of the chess team never scored him any chicks in High School, and is still mad about it. I'm willing to bet that Tagual's last action before getting on the Ship was to send an email to that girl who turned him down twelve Martian years ago: "You remember when you said you wouldn't go out with me if I was the last man on the planet? Well, just listen..."
Next there's Uk (pronounced "Ook"), the cyclops:
Uk is the dumb jock. Yes, he's got muscles upon muscles; but he's incredibly stupid. He usually refers to himself by name ("Uk strong! Uk smash you now!"); he also has a significant drool problem.
And then there's Utirr:
He's a Big Giant Bug. He's got more than his share of groping hands, and his mouth is dripping with venom. Unless you count the fact that one of his appendages can stretch out to twelve feet — ewwww! — then Utirr really has no redeeming features at all. If he were a human, he'd probably already be married...
And lastly, there's Zok:
Ah, Zok. I'm not really sure what kind of poor dating choice Zok is supposed to represent. After all, he's basically just... one big bone. Make of that what you will. Anyway, Zok is so helpless (i.e., so poorly designed and executed) that he needs to be carried around from scene to scene by one of the other aliens.
(There's an aspect of this movie that never seems to get the attention it deserves. Yes, I know it's never exactly stated like this in the course of the film; and yes, this is supposed to be a harmless family comedy from the 1950's. But at some point we have to realize: the women of Venus are going to mate with these things. Tagual, the saucerman with a skin condition, is going to schtupp Lorena Velazquez! Ana Bertha Lepe is considering snugglebunnies with a giant bug! Zok... well, actually, I don't know what Zok is going to do. Mostly stand there and giggle in that sepuchral voice of his, I guess. But he's thinking dirty thoughts! I just know he is.)
Once they've collected their specimens of galactic masculinity, the Venusians head for home. But before they arrive, Tor announces there's been a malfunction in one engine. The Ship is disabled, and must make an emergency landing on a nearby planet the Venusians have overlooked until now. You guessed it: it's the planet closest to their own, capable of supporting life forms just like theirs — and they've never even given it a second glance. The best and most obvious choices are the ones you always overlook... just like real dating. Down goes the ship, looking for a landing spot in rural Mexico.
As fate would have it, one man witnesses the sudden descent of the Ship. It's Lauriano, the singing cowboy (played by Jose Gonzalez, a.k.a. "Piporro"). Lauriano is an affable guy with a habit of telling tall stories, usually about his own abilities. While his fibs sometimes get him into dangerous situations, most of the people who know him just consider him a harmless joker. When Lauriano catches sight of the Ship coming down, he mistakes it for a meteor. He sings a song about making a wish for love on a shooting star.
Later on, when the Veunsian women are exploring this strange new world (Gamma gets to wear the skimpy swimsuit this time), they see Lauriano riding down the road. After Tagual, Utirr, Uk and Zok, Lauriano's horse would probably seem like a dreamboat; but once they set eyes on Lauriano himself, they're both immediately attracted (not that they had any real choice between the two, since Lauriano's horse throws him and bolts when it senses the Venusians). Still, with their Ship disabled, it's best to be discreet. They stop Lauriano, and ask him in several intergalactically-recognized movie languages where they are. When he tells them they're in Mexico, this puzzles them; so they hit Lauriano with a freeze ray while Tor searches his databanks for information (in the form of a brief travelog that flashes across his face). Lauriano, for his part, thinks the girls are part of some travelling circus... which again puzzles the girls, so they freeze him while Tor explains the concept of "circus". When they've got enough information out of the singing cowboy, they freeze him again and run away. When Lauriano is knocked conscious by a falling leaf, it seems to him as though the women have vanished into thin air.
While the Venusians repair their ship, they take the "men of the galaxy" to a nearby cave and thaw them from their suspended animation. Here we find out that these "monsters" aren't quite as one-dimensional as we might think. It's one thing to be thought of as a potential mate, but quite another when you're caged in a ship like an animal. The "monsters" demand their freedom. But the Venusians still consider them to be much too dangerous, and when the "men" try to force the issue, Tor puts them all back into stasis.
Beta and Gamma go off to get some more information from their new friend Lauriano, who lives with his little nephew and their pet cow Lollabrigida (insert udder joke here). When Lauriano, who is rather taken with Gamma, starts waxing rhapsodical about love, the Venusians are forced to freeze him again and turn to Tor for an explanation. Tor is stumped. Mating they understand; and agape, sure; caritas, even eros perhaps... but this thing called "love" movie-style... the strange force that makes alien women melt over Sonny Tufts ...that's something different. Hell, nobody understands that.
(Then again, Tor starts to get an inkling when he catches sight of Lauriano's juke box. Those curves! That voice! Hubba squared!)
And just when we thought we'd had all the exposition we needed, something unexpected happens.
You may have noticed that in the movies, whenever the main female characters are divided into the Cute One and the Hot One, the romantic lead usually ends up paired with the Cute One. The Cute One is less threatening; and besides, since only 1% or so of the movie's potential audience falls into the "Hot" category themselves (and who needs them, anyway?), it's the Cute One most people identify with. The film-makers will usually ensure that the Hot One has some sort of hidden blemish that makes the Eligible Bachelor's eventual choice seem more reasonable. But in this case, Beta (the Hot One) is guarding a secret that nobody — not even Gamma — not even a seasoned B-movie audience — could have guessed: she's a vampire!
Well, what the hey. If there's one thing the Mexican film industry did pretty well in the late 1950's and early 1960's, it was vampire flicks. So, in the spirit of "sticking with what you know", the film manages to remove Beta as a serious candidate for Lauriano's affections by making her grow fangs and attack unsuspecting passers-by. Since sucking the blood of the living is considered by Venusian law to be the most horrible of horrible crimes, Gamma is forced to condemn her friend to death.
Beta pretends to acquiesce to the verdict, begging Gamma only to be merciful and execute her right away. Gamma lets her guard down in the face of Beta's surrender, which allows Beta to grab her remote control device, take over Tor and lock Gamma in the ship's storeroom. Beta goes off to the cave where the "men of the galaxy" are in cold storage. Thawing them, she promises them their freedom if they will help her conquer the Earth. She sends Utirr out to subdue the women, Zok out to terrorize the children, and Uk to destroy all the animals. Then she turns on the charm with Tagual, persuading him to join her in subjugating the world's men.
Uk soon turns the poor cow Lollabrigida into a suitable date for Zok. When the grief-stricken Lauriano follows Uk's tracks,he accidentally runs into all four of the invaders. Lauriano, using his wits and a convenient hollow log, manages to escape. It's just a shame that Lauriano's reputation for tall stories means that nobody listens to him when he goes to spread the word.
Beta's plan has one significant complication, though: in spite of her teasing of Tagual, Beta is still kind-of sweet on the singing cowboy. Yes, just as every bizarre life-form in the galaxy finds the human female form irresistable (and as long as it's Lorena Velazquez, who's arguing?), so too does every space woman, even a voluptuous space-vampire, fall helplessly in movie-love with the first Earth man she sees. She wastes valuable Earth-conquering time to abduct him and to try to seduce him away from Gamma. Lauriano finds it hard to concentrate with a space blaster pointed at him — "melting his heart" is just an Earth expression, Beta — so he convinces her to put down her weapon (which he covers with his hat). Then Beta shows the cowboy the full force of the new feelings he's awakened in her — and what better way to do that than through a song-and-dance number? Lauriano, who's figured out what's going on during a brief imprisonment with Gamma, plays along until their duet reaches its peak. Taking Beta in his arms for a big smooch, Lauriano uses the opportunity to grab Tor's control device from around her shoulder. Then he runs for the rock where Beta's space blaster lies under his hat —
— and he retrieves his hat.
To my way of thinking, this alone makes Lauriano one of the best sci-fi heroes of his time, well-deserving of any Venusian woman's devotion. Given the opportunity to grab a weapon and blast his way to freedom, he chooses instead to grab his hat and take his chances with his wits. And if you knew Lauriano as well as we've come to know him from the movie so far, you'd appreciate how big a chance that actually is.
Like many B-movie fans, I first heard about La Nave de los monstruos in the mid-1980's, long before I had any hope of seeing it. It was listed in the Medved Brothers' book Son of Golden Turkey Awards, one of the books that helped reawaken interest in so-called "bad movies". As I remember, Ship of Monsters was included as a runner-up in the category "Most laughable concept for an outer-space invader", and it was Zok they singled out for the honor. That was fair enough: not only is Zok so badly realized that he has to be carried from scene to scene (and is kept mercifully off-screen for most of the movie's running time), but he's also been completely forgotten by the time the climactic battle happens. We never find out what happens to poor old Zok. Secretly, I hope he snuck off with the skeletal remains of Lollabrigida and lived happily ever after.
But, as was so often the case with movies the Medveds included in their books, Son of Golden Turkey went on to heap undeserved scorn on the movie as a whole. From the description, you might believe that the entire movie was as cheap and ill-put-together as poor Zok. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth: La nave... is relatively ambitious for a Mexican film of the time. Sure, it uses copious stock footage from other films to illustrate space flight, to the point where the Ship changes its shape slightly from shot to shot. But the sets — e.g., the base of the rocket, with its massive fiery engines... and the inside of the ship, with its rotating wheels and sliding doors... and the enormous cavern where the monsters first awaken — are all surprisingly elaborate and effective. The monster costumes (aside from Zok) are also pretty well-realized: Tagual's brain pulses with blood, and his eyes dart back and forth; Uk's nostrils twitch in the unfamiliar atmosphere, and he can also wiggle his ears.
Production values aside, the most important thing about La nave de los monstruos is that it's fun. It never takes itself seriously, to the point of insanity; and the overall goofiness of its plot and its monsters only increases its entertainment value. The end of the movie has Tor blasting off into space with Lauriano's jukebox, which seems to have cometo life. The two love-struck machines sing a passionate duet as the Ship disappears in the night sky. How is it possible not to love a movie that dares to conclude on a scene like that?
La nave de los monstruos deserves to be celebrated, not scorned. Currently, it seems to be available only in dubiously-legal video prints in unsubtitled Spanish. Thanks to DVD companies like Mondo Macabro and Casa Negra, Mexican fantastic cinema is finally reaching a wider audience; if ever there was a unique and entertaining film that deserved to join that growing catalog of films, it's this one.