It looked more like the home of a fallen angel. Given the proximity of the millennial rollover, I found myself imagining jittery fundamentalists thinking that the judgment trump had blown early, and wondering by what oversight the rapture had missed them. But despite the striking resemblance, this was not the head of the devil. The nine-story-tall balloon, designed by Cameron Balloons of England -- the same outfit behind the Breitling Orbiter 3, the first balloon to make it around the globe -- was a likeness of the title character from the low-budget 1957 horror picture The She Creature.
Her visit to Tempe Diablo on Tuesday, October 5, was part of a national tour to promote AMC's "MonsterFest," that excellent cable channel's annual Halloween horror marathon. The tour is slated to wrap up, appropriately, at the Halloween festival in Salem, Massachusetts.
Affectionately known as "Cuddles," the She Creature was the creation of a magazine illustrator named Paul Blaisdell, who, during the mid- to late '50s, was engaged to design, build and usually to wear a series of monster costumes for low-budget horror and sci-fi films. With the exception of 1958's It! The Terror From Beyond Space (now generally recognized as the prototype for Alien), the movies in which Blaisdell's foam-rubber-and-paint monsters appear -- The Beast With a Million Eyes, The Day the World Ended, From Hell It Came and It Conquered the World, among others -- are negligible as cinema. The monsters themselves, however, are unforgettable and stylistically unmistakable -- lurid freaks bursting not so much with malevolence as with a sort of lovable cosmic irritability. They are pure kitsch icons; only the '50s could have produced them.
Blaisdell's bulbous-skulled aliens from Invasion of the Saucer Men, for instance, are the archetypal bug-eyed space invaders. Cuddles, with her scales and claws and prominent breasts, was Blaisdell's magnum opus, however. The suit, with one variation or another, appeared not only in The She Creature but also in such faves as Voodoo Woman, How to Make a Monster, Teenage Caveman and The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow, as well as a couple of TV shows.
Most of Blaisdell's work was for American-International Pictures, the studio of Sam Arkoff and James H. Nicholson and Roger Corman, the first studio to figure out the profitability of targeting films at the teen market. Little of this profit was passed on to Blaisdell, and he left the movie business for good in disgust after a salary dispute in 1960. He was still in his 50s when he died in 1985, having spent the last two decades of his life working as a handyman.
Here's one of the reasons I prefer to believe in ghosts: I'd like to believe that Blaisdell, after decades of bitterly -- and not wrongly -- thinking himself cheated by the movie business, can somehow see the face of "Cuddles" now glaring down from above on America, and know that his artwork has been given the deluxe star treatment at long last.
"I know he'd've loved it. He might not have admitted it, but he'd have loved it." So says Blaisdell's assistant and friend Bob Burns, by phone at his home in Burbank, of the AMC Cuddles balloon. Burns, an enormously genial fellow who keeps a small museum of Blaisdell artifacts in his back room, donned the She Creature suit himself for two television appearances, on the local L.A. shows Gene Norman Campus Corner and Louis Quinn's Corner.
Burns worked as Blaisdell's assistant on many of his films, during vacation time from his regular job as a film editor for CBS. Under the rubber masks, he's one of the title characters in Invasion of the Saucer Men, and he also doubles for actor Lyn Osborne during his death scene in the same film. Burns is looking forward to the "Blaisdell fest" on AMC on Friday, October 29. It starts with the documentary Attack of the 50 Ft. Monstermania (for which Burns was interviewed) at 6 p.m., followed by It Conquered the World, featuring Beulah, Blaisdell's "giant space cucumber," at 7 p.m., followed by Cuddles in The She Creature at 9:15 p.m.
"What was so great about Paul, that I always admired, was that he did it by the seat of his pants, and imagination," Burns recalls. "This was in the early '50s, before there were all these makeup schools and textbooks and stuff on how to do everything. He and [his wife] Jackie built the suits. It was amazing what this guy could do with a pair of scissors and foam rubber, just like rubber that you used to stuff your couches with in those days. He would airbrush his monsters with highlights and shadows, 'cause he knew they were gonna light 'em flat -- that's the only way those guys knew how to light in those days -- so Paul wanted to make sure the highlights and shadows would always be there. On to the She Creature, he even built these stomach hooks. He could work his stomach muscles, and make these claws move in and out. They were going to use it, and then [director] Eddie Cahn decided that no, it would be too gory, too horrible."