Writing science fiction is considerably easier when the general population’s knowledge of science remains primitive; it’s even easier, when the scientists themselves don’t know all that much. In the late 19th and early 20th century sci-fi authors happily populated the moon with all manner of alien life. Science was increasingly showing that such fantastic notions were impossible, but neither Jules Verne nor H.G. Wells were prepared to let that stand in the way of a good story. However, by 1953, with a landing on the moon a distinct probability for the near future, such notions had to be abandoned completely. If the moon was ever inhabited, then the people living on it were long since dead (as is the case in the Heinlein short story Blow-ups Happen). More likely, earth’s largest satellite was devoid of life and had been for all time. However, there was one last possibility that terrestrial imagination could seize on: the famous dark side of the moon. The moon doesn’t rotate while it revolves around the earth; the same side with its familiar craters, the man in the moon, is always facing our planet. Consequently, even in an age of advanced telescopes and nascent space-travel, there was a whole half of the moon that we were inescapably ignorant of. It was a long shot, but before mankind reached the moon there was no way of definitely saying there was no alien civilization hidden on the far side of the moon.
Having set up the slim possibility of its premise Cat-Women of the moon proceeds to go absolute wild though. Not only is there civilization of the dark side of the moon, but also there is gravity, atmosphere, and a race of gigantic spiders (roughly the size of horses, not skyscrapers, alas). All that pales in comparison to the aliens themselves, uniformly female and gifted with powerful psychic abilities. They can project their thoughts across the gulf of space, dominate any earth woman (but crucially not earth men), and even teleport short distances. They are human in shape, and look just like any normal terrestrial woman aside from their severe eyebrows, stagy make-up, and black tights. Don’t ask me why they are called Cat-Women, there is nothing particularly feline about these ladies; though I suppose Regular-Women of the Moon doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. Despite their powerful telepathic abilities, their civilization is dying: only a handful of these cat-women remain. With the moon’s resources all but exhausted they have no chance of getting off world by their own power. But their leader, Alpha has concocted a plan. The humans of earth are on the cusp of developing space flight, she and her fellows reach out across the void of space, implanting thoughts and knowledge into their chosen vessel, a woman named Helen who is serving as the navigator on the first rocket to the moon. They’ll use her to lure the rest of the ship’s crew into a trap and steal their rocket. From there it’s just a quick jaunt back to the resource rich earth which the cat-women are confident they can conquer in short order.
In addition to the Cat-Woman’s psychic thrall Helen, the ship’s crew consists of four men that the cat-women will have to out-smart or out-fight if they are ever going to get off this dying rock. The expedition’s leader, Commander Laird, is a scientist with a real stick up his ass for regulations and doing things by the book. Naturally, he and the ship’s two-fisted-man-of-action co-pilot, Kip Reissner, are at each other’s throats more of less constantly. Their rivalry is worsened by the fact that Helen is Laird’s girl, a fact that Kip plainly loathes. He doesn’t understand what the beautiful young lady sees in the pompous old know-it-all. What he doesn’t know is that Helen’s love for Laird, like her skills as a navigator, is a product of the Cat-Women’s influence. Laird knows the most about the rocket, and they figure it will be handy to have their mole cozy up to him. Were Helen left to her own devices she’d prefer Kip, a fact that will cause no end of melodrama for the ship’s crew once the shit starts to hit the fan. Rounding out the crew is naïve radio operator Doug Smith and money crazed engineer Walter “Walt” Walters (yes, this is his real name).
Under Helen’s urging the crew sets the rocket down on the dividing line between the dark and light side of the moon: in a valley which Helen could not possible have known about. The episode displays a shocking gap in Laird’s strict discipline: every one of Kip’s heroics earns a dressing-down from his CO, but Helen’s bizarre behavior and impossible hunches are let go without comment. Plainly the commander is blinded by love, a defect that will only grown more glaring as the mission progresses. The crew disembarks and heads for a cave that Helen claims to have seen while they were landing. Kip helpfully points out that there is no way this could be true as the cave is nowhere in the rocket’s line of sight. Once again, Laird plays favorites and takes his girlfriend’s side, and then leads the expedition right into the cave. After a short hike the crew realizes that the air in the cavern is breathable and begin to strip off their suits. In a rare display of common sense, Laird stops them and orders them to go one at a time, lest the entire expedition be disabled through carelessness. I can’t tell you how welcome this display of common sense is after watching the astronauts in Prometheus (2012) pop off their helmets without so much as second thought. However, Laird’s competence is short-lived, immediately after discovering atmosphere and gravity he has his crew leave their suits unguarded in the cave, under the belief that there cannot possible be any hostile life forms. Naturally, they are snatched up immediately by the Cat-Women who have been lying in wait all this time.
Laird and his crew now cannot possible go back to the ship; they will never survive unprotected in the airless area outside the cavern: They must press on. Helen makes no secret of being overjoyed at this turn of events, an attitude that should cause some concern among her shipmates but doesn’t. They discover the remains of a ruined city, which has seemingly been abandoned for a long time. The crew separates to explore the ruins (another less than brilliant idea, given that they know for a fact that there are hostile alien life forms about, and judging from the fact that their suits are missing not destroyed it’s safe to assume that whatever is out there is intelligent). It’s here the Cat-Women make their move, attacking the isolated Kip, one thing they didn’t count on was that Kip would bring his old service revolver along with him. The cat-women have advanced psychic powers, but nothing in the way of conventional weapons, so they scatter. Since they cannot dominate Kip and the other men the way they have brain-washed Helen, Alpha decides that they need to cozy up to the men, ply them with food, drink, and the possibility of sex. Work on each man’s weak spots until they get them to explain the secrets of the rocket ship. Then it’s just a matter of sending a few cat-women back to earth to subjugate the planet. Of the men, only Kip suspects anything, and he’s not about to let these selenite babes put one over on him.
Cat-Women of the Moon boasts surprisingly effective visuals for a bottom of the barrel sci-fi picture. The rocket sets are convincing, as are the shots on the lunar landscape and lunar caves are both top notch. The space suits and gear used by the earthling astronauts are convincing enough that the existence of an entirely female race of psychic monsters becomes all the more absurd. Indeed the first twenty minutes of the film is so committed to realistically depicting a flight to the moon that when the fantasy kicks in it’s nothing short of astounding. The cat-women themselves are delightfully over-the-top, from their severe make-up, to their derisive dismissal of the earthling men-folk to their propensity to break out in interpretive dance sessions in the middle of hatching evil schemes. It’s nonsense and the effort to ground it in reality makes it all the more nonsensical. The effect reminds me of nothing so much as reading through Herodotus’ histories and finding tales of divine miracles and gold digging ants interspersed between the more sober accounts of kings and battles.
As one would expect from the title and the vintage, this film has more than a few views about gender that will offend modern prejudices (though the film does pass the Bechdel test for what it’s worth). The film’s hokey attitudes about women manifests in both small details, the fact that Helen pauses to do her make-up and brush her hair while the men are carrying on with their jobs for instance, and the larger plot. Indeed, the ultimate plan for the cat-women is to land on earth and use their telepathic powers to mobilize all the earth’s women against the earthmen. Using the army of liberated/enslaved women the aliens will then rule the earth and propagate their lines through carefully curated program of eugenics: no filthy heterosexual love for these ladies. Were this movie released 15 years later it would seem the most paranoid of reactionary fantasies; yet coming as it did in the early1950s makes it all the more intriguing. One has to wonder how much of this is political fable and how much of this is pure nonsense? To what degree did the filmmakers see the feminist revolution coming? More absurd still is the nascent homophobia embedded in the film; the cat women claim to have no need for men, when they take over the earth they’ll propagate using men but there’s no discussion of loving them. Indeed, the cat-woman who makes a suggestion to the contrary is immediately dressed-down by her superiors. There’s nothing explicit, but I don’t see how an audience could fail to read the cat-women, at least their leaders Alpha and Beta, as crypto-lesbians. Their power to bend other women to their will conjures up the most paranoid male delusions of having their wives and girlfriends forcibly converted to a Sapphic cult. If you ever wanted to see an early 1950s sci-fi play with these irrational fears, then Cat-Women of the Moon is a film that you cannot afford to miss.