A superheroine to add to the Wonder Woman's ranks, from an unlikely source
Women don't get to be superheroes all that often. The recent documentary Wonder Woman!: The Untold Story of American Superheroines, makes this point clearly enough. In the film, people stopped on the street and asked to name female superheroes come up with Wonder Woman, Catwoman ("Is she a superhero," they ask)...and that's about it. The film does note that there have been others—the Bionic Woman, and Phoenix, and Buffy, for example. But even so, their ranks aren't exactly teeming. And when you watch the fourth-grader dressed as Wonder Woman proclaim that her superhero role model gives her the strength to stand up to bullying, it's hard not to conclude that we could stand to have a few more heroes for her.
Behold, then, I give you...She Devil! The 1957 film directed by Kurt Neumann is re-released this week on DVD. Though it's usually billed as a horror film—and though it was made during the anti-feminist post-war backlash when even Wonder Woman herself was reduced to insipid romance plots and mooning after Steve Trevor—the film unexpectedly features a full-fledged, forgotten superwoman. Originally a mild-mannered tuberculosis patient named Kyra Zelas (Mari Blanchard), her life is saved when Dr. Dan Scott (Jack Kelly) injects her with an experimental extract of fruit flies! Blessed with incredible adaptive abilities, she gains the power to change her hair color at will and heal any wound instantly! She vows to fight crime as...She-Devil!
Well, okay...that last sentence isn't precisely accurate. In fact, Kyra's motivations aren't so philanthropic. As she says post-operation, "From now on I'm going to do what I want, and only what I want!" She then sweeps out the door, bops an elderly man in the head with an ashtray, takes his money, and goes shopping—using her changing-hair-color power to throw off pursuit.
So yes, it's true. She Devil is a supervillain, not a superhero. Give a woman too much power, and she'll start breaking heads, breaking hearts, murdering honest wives, and sliding her curves into heart-stopping dresses as if she has some sort of evil adaptive superpower designed to cloud men's minds and/or other bits. It's almost like the film can't tell the difference between a superheroine and a femme fatale.
And in fact the film can't tell the difference. A powerful woman is, as far as She Devil is concerned, a dangerous woman. Both doctors comment that before the formula was administered, Kyra was docile and quiet—suffering decorously from tuberculosis the way a good woman should. Therefore, good old honest Dr. Bach (Richard Dekker) reasons that the formula which gave Kyra her power also made her a villain. Or, as he puts it, the fruit fly extract hyperstimulated her pineal gland and turned her into, "a demon, a devil, a creature with a warped soul!"
Dr. Bach and Dr. Scott are, then, supposed to be the heroes; the forces of order and reason fighting to contain the minx-like, manipulative, frighteningly adaptable female they have unleashed. And yet, watching the film, it's difficult not to end up rooting for Kyra—seeing her as the twisted superhero of the piece after all. In part, this is due to the sheer joy of Blanchard's performance, which is tied closely to the sheer joy Kyra takes in her powers. Superheroines from Buffy to Phoenix often mope and groan about their superness, wailing and wishing for a "normal" life. Not Kyra. When she realizes she's accidentally changed her hair color and so can escape the police, her eyes widen and her whole body tenses in a sensuous shiver of pleasure. Similarly, as she announces to the two doctors that she's going to do whatever she wants from now on, Blanchard's eyebrows are a kind of poem of self-assertion. You almost expect them to leap off her face and pummel those patriarchal fossils back to the Neanderthal caverns where they belong.
Such a pummeling would be satisfying not least because the doctors are, in fact, intolerable. Their stolid virtue is indistinguishable from a festering smugness. After Kyra recovers from her tuberculosis, they assume that she'll come to live with them so that they can monitor their experiment and, in Dr. Scott's case, court her ("you have a peculiar sense of medical ethics, haven't you?" one character asks him). Later, as she starts to cut her swathe of robbery and then murder, they fuss and expostulate, but refuse to turn her in because doing so might bring their dubious medical experiment to light. Instead, they decide to anesthetize her secretly and then remove her powers by operating on her against her will. In other words, they would rather compound their ethical violations than face up to them. And all the while they keep telling Kyra that they know she's not responsible for her actions, and that they're just trying to do what's best for her—all hypocritical, condescending nonsense that Kyra doesn't believe for a moment.
Watching She Devil, then, you don't want the doctors to defeat Kyra and take away her powers. Rather, you end up hoping that Kyra will use her powers to humble those doctors once and for all. The film wants you to see female superheroes as femme fatales, but it also, somewhat helplessly, ends up presenting femme fatales as superheroes. Of course, there probably aren't any fourth graders who are going to dress up as She Devil, and no doubt you wouldn't really want them to. Still, if the choices on offer are lying back and dying of tuberculosis, docilely marrying the insipid, self-regarding doctor, or doing what you want and only what you want—well, who's going to pick those first two? Kyra isn't meant to be a superheroine, but she's adaptable enough to pass as one in those not infrequent emergencies when there aren't any others around.