A movie about an alien creature taking on a woman’s body, wandering about the streets of British territory, whose combination of outer beauty and curious behavior puts her in sexualized situations that most often result in negative outcomes for men who cross her path. An alluring leading actress who carries an almost blank demeanor throughout her performance. A director with commercial and BBC television credits preceding his work on this project. If you feed these details to most well-versed moviewatchers, they will likely infer that you are describing Jonathan Glazer’s low-budget, highly-discussed science fiction drama Under the Skin, released stateside in 2014, starring Scarlett Johansson.
However, before the film’s source novel had been written, before its striking star had even been born, these were the elements of another low-budget science fiction film – Derek Ford’s The Sexplorer aka The Girl from Starship Venus from 1975, starring Monika Ringwald – which, by contrast, was a comedy, and did not get critically elevated. In fact, it was barely reviewed at all. Yet in a surprising number of ways, it unfolds almost beat for beat as a rough draft for Glazer’s hotly debated opus.
The end of the ‘60s to approximiately the early ‘80s constituted the prime years of what author Simon Sheridan in his book Keeping the British End Up called England’s “Saucy Cinema” movement, which built on an already long-standing tradition of amiably corny humor based in amorous misunderstandings, took advantage of newly-relaxed dictates on what could be depicted in film, and thus added the very kind of cavorting, and bare body parts involved therein, that could only be hinted at before. Where previously one could only call someone a silly tit in a “Carry On” film, now an actual sensible tit, or several of them, could be shown on screen to provide contrast.
Derek Ford was one of the directors indelibly linked to this subgenre. Though he had begun his career as a writer, sometimes with his brother Donald, creating nominally respectable fare – radio shows, an episode of “The Saint,” the Sherlock Holmes extrapolation A Study in Terror, and the horror films The House that Vanished and The Legend of Spider Forest – once he got the first request to shoot new inserts for a Swedish nudie-cutie for English-speaking markets, he was drawn into the realm of sexploitation and stayed deeply involved in it until his death.
Ford had already directed 7 modestly-profitable films before making The Girl from Starship Venus. And many of them were notable for presenting sex-positive female protagonists seeking what Erica Jong in Fear of Flying had termed “the zipless fuck,” and frequently upending men’s expectations during that pursuit. In the “Charley’s Aunt in a brothel” comedy Keep it Up Jack, a rare occasion where he did use a male protagonist, that character spent most of his screen time in drag, behaving as a sympathetic fellow traveler with the women rather than lusting over them. Keep it Up Jack was possibly Ford’s best-received film in the U.S.; released by former Beverly Cinema operator Tom Parker’s Topar Films, it was frequently reissued in theatres into the ‘80s.
His interest in sex play and take-charge women were not strictly business-oriented either. He and his wife Valerie, outwardly living as polite parents in Maldon Essex, were active in fetish and swinger communities, and many of his collaborators remarked that plot points in his films were linked to real-life exploits, and the pressure of trying to publicly pretend that he was only making such films for the profit motive troubled him. Fellow producer/director Ray Selfe opined, “He was a male nymphomaniac, if you can call him that.”
The Girl from Starship Venus, one of two movies Ford made in 1975, is essentially as simple a story as the sparse synopsis at the top of this article. The feminized alien bumbles around Soho, sending telepathic reports back to her compatriots monitoring her on board the miniscule silver ball-shaped craft in which they arrived. The verbal exchanges between them, full of amusing misinterpretations of standard Earth existence, anatomy, and behavior, provide context and chorus to her encounters with ‘70s Britons. Befitting the genre, those encounters almost all involve a sexual quotient, from the manner she is regarded by people, to directly experiencing various manifestations of the act itself. As the scientist gets more immersed in the culture, and directly experiences human interactions and emotion, the more she rebels against the stated plan.
This is also effectively the dominant through-line of Glazer’s Under the Skin. The female-sheathed creature in that film, ostensibly already better researched in the language and rituals of humans, drives and walks about Scotland, asking random men perfectly reasonable yet oddly-stilted-sounding questions that draw them to what they perceive will be an anonymous hook-up. All the while, a motorcycle-riding figure, likely an alien comrade or superior, tracks her activities, and has non-verbal interrogations with her. She too begins to question and buck the initial goals of her implied mission after specific incidents with humans.
Monika Ringwald portrays the eponymous heroine in Starship Venus. It was her only headline role in a short career that consisted of modeling in cheerfully dubious “health” and occult-themed magazines, playing eye candy in other UK-based comedies, and being a featured player on “The Benny Hill Show.” Besides this film, her most recognizable appearance would be on the back cover of The Kinks’ 1974 album Preservation Act 2, where she poses as one of the acolytes of Ray Davies’ “Mr. Flash” persona. She would leave entertainment behind for good in 1978, for conventional married life, and has not been publicly heard from since.
While logic suggests Monika had been picked simply for her looks and her willingness to appear nude and simulate intimacy, many have observed the role was almost tailor-made. Film historian Gavin Whitaker wrote, “[It’s] tempting to view The Sexplorer as an in-joke parody of her career. The story of a [distant] girl lost in a foreign land and surrounded by peculiar Englishmen seems as much Monika’s story as it is the Sexplorer’s. That may sound a tad cruel, but with autobiographical touches like having her real-life agent Alan Selwyn play a [porn shop operator] who takes one look at her then leeringly promises, ‘If you’ve got what I think you’ve got under there, you’ll make a very good career out of it,’ it’s sometimes hard to interpret the film any other way.” K.H. Brown of the blog Giallo Fever likened her performance to Joe Morton’s in The Brother from Another Planet, suggesting, “[Ringwald’s] foreignness appears [to be] a help rather than a hindrance, precisely because not knowing how to act, react or speak like a member of the culture is what the film is all about.”
Indeed, when revisiting the film, by muting out the comical voice-over conversations and concentrating solely on Ringwald’s actions and reactions during her journey, she is extremely convincing as a creature who is not quite at home in her own body, gradually taking in mundane life rituals for the first time. It makes her performance even more of a cousin to Johansson’s in Skin, both of them quietly contemplating the world, talking in almost impenetrable accents, and using their facial expressions to demonstrate their evolution. While her agent Selwyn dismissively recalled, “She was a lovely girl but didn’t have much of a sense of humor,” in retrospect perhaps Ringwald had much better instincts than she was given credit for at the time – a situation far too many women continue to deal with presently. Johansson herself faced as much derision as praise for her Skin mannerisms, with one critic calling her “a seductress on autopilot,” and Richard Corliss of Time referring to her as “dead alien walking.”
Without going into deep spoilers for both films, besides the already mentioned parallels, there are more astounding similarities between Venus and Skin. Both films were partially shot on stolen city locations with small crews. Each tale features a poignant moment the alien shares with a lonely individual – in Venus with a homeless old woman, in Skin with a facially disfigured young man. Both aliens have averse reactions to ingesting human food and drink, and have ingrained peculiarities in their fabricated bodies that complicate intimacy. And both of them meet a kind-hearted gent who offers them shelter for the night and initially insists on chastely sleeping apart from them.
Readers more familiar with Venus can compare their memories with this comprehensive breakdown of Skin even further.
However, besides diverging in their respective intent of comedy and drama, there is a clear divide of time, zeitgeist, and violence that makes these movies stand apart.
Steve Chibnall’s essay “Alien Women,” written for I.Q. Hunter’s critical omnibus British Science Fiction Cinema, offers this reading on Venus:
“[It] takes a wry look at human sexuality and gender relations…our alien ‘surveyor’ provides an ingenious perspective on sexual attitudes and mores. She assumes that men must be mutations. They appear scared by her appearance as a beautiful blonde and her frank investigation of sexuality. Their fear is reduced by alcohol but ‘most of them prefer to passively watch others doing something.’ Men’s sexual liberation appears to be largely confined to voyeurism and fantasy – a liberation of pornography rather than libido. On the other hand, women, she observes, ‘smile more’ and ‘obviously they are the happy ones.’ Their sexual potential, however, remains constrained by patriarchal prohibitions…The humans encountered by the ‘Sexplorer’ seem as alienated from their own bodies as she is from the form she has adopted for her investigations. But, lacking their inhibitions, she is able to get in touch with her new carnality…[and] once she discovers her own sexuality, her desire is insatiable.”
Venus, with or without its constant interior dialogue (“aliensplaining”?), is merely a silly good-hearted romp conceived during the ‘70s euphoria of society embracing guiltless sex. It exists in an idealized milieu where women look out for one another and men with bad intentions are too maladept to be of consequence. Simple human living is so good and shagging is such fun that even someone from outer space would easily get caught up in it all. For a couple generations of youth in general – and definitely for a certain teenager watching it at the Carson Twin Cinema during it’s 1977 U.S. run, who then grew up to win some awards and acquire his own movie theatre – it was what many expected from/in adulthood. As the New Beverly Cinema’s landlord has said, “Even as a kid I knew I would get things from The Girl From Starship Venus that I wouldn’t get from the Hollywood films.”
Moving forward to 2014, here are observations on Skin from Kristy Puchko for The Mary Sue website:
“She’s an extraterrestrial predator…men discover they are just fresh meat in the literal sense. On its surface, this feature is a slick and sick bit of horror. But under the skin it is a lesson in rape culture targeted specifically at men…She is beautiful yet not intimidating or unapproachable. But we, the audience, have seen her in moments alone, when she regards mankind and men specifically as animal prey…the audience isn’t just put in place to watch the horrific actions of this alien predator, but also is entreated to step in to her perspective…an encounter [sparks] a change in her. She [flees] her web and alien brothers…trying not just to look human, but to be human…despite the [deeds] we have seen her commit, we begin to empathize with her. We root for her search for her own humanity. But horror stories aren’t ones for happy endings.”
Skin reflects a more painful and dispiriting present, where the open-minded sexual permissiveness of the ‘70s has been co-opted and curdled through multiple forces that have all appealed to men’s worst impulses. Curiosity is punished. Sex is weaponized. There are still moments of kindness to be found among the humans, but what shifts the balance of power against the protagonist is what had previously been liberating in the earlier film: discovering empathy and commonality with the Other.
It is doubtful that Glazer ever saw Ford’s film, or would have any interest in it now. That being said, by presenting a 1974 television clip of broad comedy magician Tommy Cooper in Skin as the alien’s first introduction to the concept of humor, one can fathom that, like Ford, he did remember that era as a looser, pleasanter time in human history, even if the jokes leave the character baffled.
Had he lived to see Glazer’s film, Ford would have been horrified at the bleakness, but probably not surprised by it. Gavin Whitaker described his last days in this manner:
“Ford [was] a man ill at ease with what he was, who nevertheless brought a very personalized approach to exploitation cinema, one where sex, guilt and fear of retribution for stepping outside of society’s sexual norms were tortuously intertwined. Films that themselves would come back to haunt their creator and ghettoize his career…[He] spent the close of the 1980s attempting to distance himself from his past in the hope that a mainstream career would open up for him. Delusions of grandeur and self-hatred rear their heads in the [Jackie Collins-style] books Ford wrote around this time…[waxing] nostalgically for the golden age of Hollywood, its glamorous stars and the sexual transgressions that brought them down, an era he clearly wished he’d been a part of, then [taking] swipes at the era he really was involved with…piling on all the clichés for a perceived bored, curtain twitching housewife readership by claiming such films were predominately made by ex-car salesmen ‘before organized crime moved in to scoop the pool,’ conveniently forgetting to mention his own involvement in that cinematic realm. Ford remains something of a tragic figure of the British sex film era, never finding critical acceptance or reaping great financial rewards during his prolific career.”
Thankfully, just as Ford’s comic odyssey ends with hope, we too can revisit that lighter time and aspire to that same spirit of open-hearted “sexploration,” and carry that into the future ourselves. Depending on how many hold to that goal, that day can return sooner and better than before. And in the meantime, perhaps some intrepid digital editor can do a radical Soderberghian remix on his film and discover the deeper gifts the elusive Monika Ringwald hid beneath the goofy jokes.
Either that, or for some well-needed levity, that same digital editor could mash-up scenes of Skin with Venus’ catchy earworm of a theme song.
She’s the girl from Starship Venus,
She’s the girl from outer space.
And she came down to our planet
To observe the human race.
She got turned on by permissiveness
Now she keeps up with the pace.
She’s the interstellar traveler of love.