Back in the ‘90s, an Infamous ‘50s B-Movie was Given a Smart Feminist Slant
Not every cult classic ages gracefully.
Twelve years after Lily Tomlin fronted a gender-reversed remake of The Incredible Shrinking Man, another 1950s B-movie about an abnormally sized human got the modern feminist treatment. Although it didn’t need to change the sex of its leading character, Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman is unarguably the more radical reinterpretation.
Adapted from the 1958 film, the HBO TV movie sees Daryl Hannah take over from silver screen star Allison Hayes as Nancy Archer, a wealthy yet troubled heiress. Not only did her mother take her own life after being committed to a sanitarium, she has a manipulative, scheming father determined to get his grubby hands on her money and, perhaps most tragically of all, she’s married to one of the lesser Baldwin brothers.
Yes, that’s Daniel Baldwin playing Harry Archer, an adulterous, gaslighting good-for-nothing who somehow has two women fighting for his affection. Luckily for Nancy, a nocturnal drive through the desert changes the course of her life, and the life of her small town. For it’s here where she first sees the UFO that will later beam her up and send her back to Earth 10 times bigger than before.
Following up his directorial debut, the Kevin Bacon-starring Tinseltown drama The Big Picture, Christopher Guest allows the incredulous story to unfold slowly. You have to wait until halfway through the brisk 90-minute caper to see Nancy’s clothes somewhat gratuitously rip apart, and her head amusingly burst through the ceiling of her family’s farmhouse. But that only makes her transformation, both emotionally and physically, more impactful.
By this point, Nancy has been pushed to her limits, rightfully convinced her husband is still having an affair with beautician Honey (Cristi Conaway) and frustrated none of the men in her life believe her extraterrestrial encounter. “People who see spaceships... these are not the kind of people you want making important decisions about money,” Harry tells father-in-law Hamilton Cobb (William Windom) in another example of his slippery smarm. “I am a person,” Nancy later states as the pair bicker about her mental state in front of her, finally offloading the suppressed anger that subsequently unleashes her towering frame.
Although initially forced to hide in a stable, Nancy continues to discover a sense of self-empowerment. “I’m not a that,” she tells Dr. Loeb (Paul Benedict), who in the height of male ignorance fails to see the crouching 50-foot woman until she’s pointed out to him. And in the film’s most memorable scene, she jokingly threatens Harry while making their large outdoor swimming pool resemble an intimate bathtub.
Nancy’s increased autonomy is most apparent when she tells Harry her new elevated status can help save their marriage, entirely oblivious to the fact he’s been researching how to induce a heart attack. While his terrible confessions appear to have the desired effect, sending his gargantuan wife tumbling onto the stable roof, Nancy soon recovers to go on the warpath.
“I’ve really tried to be modern and adult and post-feminist and look what it’s got me,” she quips while stomping around town like Godzilla, passing a drive-thru theater showing the original Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. “Well, now I’m taking matters into my own hands.” Joseph Dougherty’s screenplay never reaches the comedic heights of Guest’s more famous works (This Is Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind, Best in Show), but it still contains plenty of wry one-liners.
Proving what a scumbag he really is, Harry is already celebrating his wife’s suspected death at Honey’s beauty parlor. Yet unlike its predecessor, the film doesn’t end in a vengeful bloodbath. Passing on the opportunity to squish Honey in her fist, Nancy instead grabs her for an anti-men pep talk (“Don’t be stupid your whole damn life. You’re better than they are, you’re smarter than they are and you know more than you think. We all do.”)
And while a combination of National Guard helicopters, power lines, and overeager sniper thwarts her plans for Harry, the pair are soon whisked up to space by the flying saucer. In a final display of girl power, the sleazeball is forced to undergo a touchy-feely therapy session with a couple of guys who’ve been brainwashed by their similarly giant other halves.
Hannah’s Nancy is undoubtedly given more agency than Hayes’, but that’s not the remake’s only smart change. Both Frances Fisher’s mild-mannered Dr. Cushing and Victoria Haas’ doe-eyed Deputy Charlie were played by men in the original, with the former’s transition from family physician to Nancy’s shrink another sign of the modern times. The power of women is further underlined by an epilogue that reveals Honey became the CEO of Cobb Enterprises (and economic advisor to the Sultan of Brunei), while Charlie took over from the pig-headed sheriff (O’Neal Compton) more concerned with his hot dog order than keeping the town safe.
Perhaps in keeping with the film’s source material (or lack of budget), Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman’s special effects still possess an Ed Wood-esque quality. The UFO, in particular, looks like it’s been constructed with little more than cardboard and sticky back plastic. However, by pointing its lens at gaslighting, chauvinism, and general toxic masculinity, its politics have aged considerably better.