Phantom from Space (1953)
This early 1950s sci-fi movie tries hard, but really struggles at times to remain interesting. Few movies of this genre I have seen lately have been this overly talky, and not in a My Dinner With Andre-good way, but a middle act of Attack of the Clones-bad kind of way. It's only a slight exaggeration to say that 80% of the movie seems to be people sitting around talking, often spouting technobabble of astonishing stupidity. Still, it's not a totally bad film, there are a few good ideas that are worth exploring.
It was directed by W. Lee Wilder, who would give us the horrible Killers From Space and The Snow Creature in the next year. He was working from a lengthy script penned by at least three different people, and you can really tell. Clearly one writer wanted a traditional crime drama, and another wanted a sci-fi film, and the mashing together of these two genres was not done seamlessly. The film also shows rather bland direction and seems to think it's a much better movie than it really is. There are a few neat optical effects, but they're lost in a sea of lame ones, and the budget must have been tiny.
Phantom From Space opened on May 15, 1953. I will be using a new 2005 Brentwood DVD, black and white and running just 73 minutes. The sound is tinny and staticy, forcing me to turn the volume up to 40 just to hear. The picture quality is not much better, murky and faded. They must have found the original 16mm reel lying out in the Arizona desert since 1962. Truly a rotten presentation of this movie, a cheap-ass digital transfer of a cheap-ass print stock if I ever saw one. Still, this is about the only way anyone will ever see this movie again, so I guess I should be happy.
And now on to our show...
We open with a long series of stock footage montage shots. A droll narrator tells us that all we are about to see comes from the secret files of the "Central Bureau" in Washington. It's the story of a mysterious night that frightened the world! Are you tingling with excitement yet?
The stock footage opening lasts a full 3:52, which is like 5% of our entire movie. It's mostly industrial clips of radar sets and communications gear, mixed in with public domain clips of military forces and soldiers. In the montage, I recognize a C-54 Skymaster transport plane, a radar picket submarine (looks like a Balao-class), and a flight of F-80 Shooting Star fighter jets.
Basically, the story is that one evening, an unidentified flying object was detected on radar entering the Earth's atmosphere over Alaska. The object was heading south-southeast at a tremendous rate of speed and descending rapidly. Attempts at interception were useless, and eventually the object disappeared from radar near Santa Monica, California.
Stunning optical effects provided by a five-year old girl!
The next morning, agents of the Federal Communications Commission in Los Angeles detected some fairly severe electromagnetic interference in the area. This caused radio and television signals to white out and caused all sorts of trouble. So the FCC organized several teams of agents in cars to go out and look for the source of the interference, using RDF gear to try and triangulate the source.
Band of studs!
We join one of these cars, Mobile One, and meet our film's hero. This will be dashing FCC agent Lieutenant Hazen, played by Ted Cooper. Cooper had a remarkably short career in movies, with only 11 total roles, almost all from 1951 to 54. Despite this, he had roles in some of the best films of that time period, including 1951's The Thing From Another World and 1954's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I wonder what became of him?
As Hazen fiddles with his RDF gear, a young woman comes running down the road towards him, a frantic look on her face. She says that her husband and their friend were just attacked down at the campgrounds by a mysterious man. She says this attacker was wearing a "suit like a diver".
Hazen tries to call for an ambulance but cannot get through, so he decides to go down and see for himself. The woman is named Betty, and her husband Ed has been killed. Their friend Pete, who is also their boarder at their house, is alive but injured. The police arrive soon and take Ed to the morgue and Betty and Pete to the station for questioning. Lieutenant Hazen is asked to come down and give a statement later.
And so he does, arriving just as Pete is being interrogated by a homicide detective named Lieutenant Bowers. Bowers will also be one of our heroes, played by 32-year old Harry Landers. Landers had an average career in movies and television, and nothing really stands out as especially noteworthy.
Bowers clearly thinks that Pete killed Ed, in some sort of lovers' triangle with Betty. Pete is mad and defensive, sticking to his story. He claims that the attacker was dressed like a "deep sea diver", with a "crazy helmet with pipes sticking up out of it". He also claims that there was "no head inside the helmet". That's just crazy talk, man!
Police sketch of the alleged "attacker".
Just then, a call comes for Bowers. Another murder has been reported in the same area. While slightly vindicated, Pete is still kept at the station for now. We follow Bowers down to the murder site, where he questions an old man who lives next door to the victim. The old man says he didn't see much, but was watching TV when suddenly it went all fuzzy.
Just then, Hazen and his RDF set drive up. Hazen confirms that the interference seems to now be in this area. He then leaves, as the interference has been triangulated moving northeast. They arrive at the Huntington Oil Fields, just in time to see an oil tank ablaze. Still they can't locate the source of the interference, as it just keeps moving around in random patterns. They don't think it's a transmitter set in a car, but rather something a man is carrying around that is causing the trouble.
Sometime later, we go back now to Detective Bowers. Hazen is here, too, having been called in to discuss what is happening lately. A police sketch artist is with Pete and Betty, and has made a sketch of the mysterious suited man. Both witnesses agree on the attacker's appearance. The night watchman from the Huntington Oil Fields arrives then, and his story and description dovetails with the others'. He says the scary suited man walked into the complex and blew up an oil storage tank.
Hazen and Bowers discuss Greek poetry and the Lakers.
So, now Bowers and Hazen talk about what or who the man might be. They think that the suit is probably some sort of "flying suit" or a "high-altitude gear". They come to the conclusion that the man is probably an "enemy saboteur", parachuted into Santa Monica to cause havoc. Not really that crazy a suggestion, considering the facts and the paranoid climate of 1953, where Commie infiltrators were a common perceived threat. They send a message to Washington and agree to keep the press in the dark until they find this guy.
That same night, Washington cables back and tells Bowers and Hazen to go talk to two guys at the "Griffith Institute" at the Griffith Observatory. So they go and meet Air Force Major Andrews and Doctor Wyatt, and tell them everything that has happened up to this point.
Major Andrews is played by 39-year old James Seay. Seay worked in movies and television for 30 years, including several early sci-fi b-movies. He was Colonel Hallock in 1957's The Amazing Colossal Man and Colonel Banks in 1954's Killers From Space. He's a big man with a strong and proper military bearing.
Doctor Wyatt is played by 58-year old Rudolph Anders. The German-born Anders made a living playing Teutonic scientists and insidious Nazi generals, severely typecast with his thick accent and appearance. During the war years he wisely changed his screen name to Robert Davis, but in the 1950s he took up his birth name again.
The four of them bounce ideas off each other for a bit, sharing all the information that they know. The Major lets everyone in on the mysterious UFO that was tracked coming down in the Santa Monica area. After a lot of rambling talk, they come to the conclusion that whoever they're looking for came in on that UFO and is now running around loose in west LA. Note in this scene that Detective Bowers is wearing a suit about a size too small, when he sits down, his pant legs ride up almost to his knees. [Editor Pam: Not only that, he seems to like to sit with his knees drawn up close to his chest. Not something you'd expect an adult to do. In subsequent scenes, if you look fast, you can see his pants are very short even when he's standing up.]
So, the FCC now doubles their efforts to track the alien by its interference. After some considerable effort, they finally track it down to a warehouse somewhere in the area of the oil refinery. A group of policemen and FCC guys go there, and using Geiger counters, are hot on the trail of the alien.
And then, fully 25:50 into our movie (!), we finally get our first view of our titular alien. He's indeed wearing a white diving suit sort of thing, with a big helmet and a chest-mounted airpack. The alien runs around a bit, trying not to get caught, but is eventually cornered inside a shed. As the humans prepare to storm the shed, the alien frantically looks around for a way to escape.
Finding no other exit, the alien decides to remove his space suit, to reveal that....the dude's invisible! Saw that coming. The men barge in and find...zip. Well, they do find the suit and helmet. They make the illogical deduction that the man took off the suit to avoid detection, but don't worry about how he managed to get out of the locked shed, suit or no suit.
They wave the Geiger counter over it and it pegs. Despite the fact that they're all standing about a foot away from this highly radioactive suit, no one seems to care. If it was that hot, they would all be poisoned just by being in the same room, whether they touched it or not. [Editor Pam: The quality of the print I watched was so poor that I couldn't read the scale on the instrument's display, so I can't tell how much radiation the suit was supposed to be emitting. However, if the suit really was radioactive, the amount of radiation the instrument detects should increase as it gets closer to the suit, and the clicking we hear should get faster. It doesn't, so the filmmakers probably foleyed in the sound, which would certainly be easier and safer than obtaining real radioactive material.] That's a 1953 knowledge of radioactive material right there. They get a lead-lined box and put the suit inside, lifting it up with metal tongs held in bare hands.
They take the box and put it in a car. The invisible alien slips in the back seat and travels with them to the Griffith Observatory labs.
There, the suit is brought in and given a full battery of tests. We also meet two other scientists here, a husband and wife team named Bill and Barbara Randall.
Bill is a nobody, but Barbara is played by 29-year old Noreen Nash. Nash made a number of films in the 1940s and 50s, but never really had a breakout role, though she was Lona Lane in 1956's Giant with James Dean. She's a pretty girl in real life, though the horrid film stock here is no proof of that.
They run a full series of tests on the suit, trying everything from acid drips, bunsen burners, sharp shears, exacto knives and even brute force to try and rip or puncture the fabric. Nothing works at all, "Tougher than nylon!", says the Major. Must be Morrow-issue Resistweave... They do determine that the alien probably can't live long without his suit and he'll be coming back for it eventually. The air inside the tanks is so unique (11% methane!) that certainly the alien can't survive without it.
While they talk, a reporter from the Chronicle arrives downstairs to talk with them. The men leave, and Barbara stays behind with the suit to run some more tests. You see where this is leading, don't you? The invisible alien enters the lab and locks the door, freaking Barbara out. [Editor Pam: I wonder how an alien would know how to lock an Earth door?]
We don't see what actually happens here, but he apparently knocks Barbara out and takes her out of the room when her husband Bill returns to find the door locked. Why he didn't just put on his suit is beyond me. Sure, he was a little interrupted by Bill returning, but he had more than enough time to put on the suit. Maybe he realized that staying invisible for now was his best chance at escape.
The optical effects for showing the invisible man are simple, just fishing line holding up objects and clothes to make it appear to be floating. With the minuscule budget of this movie, this was the best they could do. There are several neat matte produced shots, such as the key being pulled out of the door lock, but generally nothing stands out as really exciting or chilling.
Spooky floating helmet...
So, the alien takes the unconscious Barbara out and hides inside the huge observatory. Bill, Major Andrews and Doctor Wyatt all search frantically for her, but have no luck. Watch as they all run around the Observatory, up and down stairs, constantly yelling "Barbara!". For having his wife possibly kidnapped, Bill seems fairly controlled. Maybe they don't have the best marriage, or maybe Bill is just a wimp.
Eventually, the alien manages to make it back to the lab where his suit is and lock them both in again. Barbara regains her senses then, in time to see the invisible alien put his helmet back on. Freaked even more, she demands that the alien tell her who he's and what he wants with her. Kudos to the script for not having Barbara faint dead away every other scene, like most 1950s women were known to do.
"I worked with James Dean!"
Apparently lacking the faculties for human speech, the alien picks up a pair of shears and uses them to tap out a series of numbers. This is assumed to be a crude attempt at communication, but never really plays much a part. Barbara scares the alien off once again, this time by shining an ultra-violet lamp on his hand, which exposes him as a humanoid with human-like limbs. So the alien runs out of the Observatory and into the woods surrounding it. [Editor Pam: He knows how Earth windows open, too! He didn't so much as hesitate to figure out how to open it.]
More endless banter with our cast. They discuss the alien and his morphology, coming to the wild conclusion that he's silicon-based, and his cellular structure somehow interacts with earth gases to make him invisible. Sure. They decide that the poor alien is just shipwrecked here, lost and alone. He killed those two men because they attacked him first, and then blew up the oil tank trying to get some more gasses to breathe. They're also sure that he will be back for his helmet, so they all camp out around the Observatory waiting for him. They don't want to kill the alien, just to capture and study him.
After several hours of waiting, the alien trips an alarm, he's back in the building. So for the next ten minutes or so we are treated to seemingly-endless scenes of people running around the cavernous Griffith Observatory chasing the invisible alien. Eventually they corner him back in the lab with his helmet. They seem to be having some luck talking the alien down calmly when a dumbass reporter snaps a photo. The flash freaks out the alien, who rips off his helmet and flees the room. The helmet crashes to the floor, shattering and ending any chance the poor alien has of surviving.
More chasing and running, the alien on the loose. Before too long they trap him again, this time high on the gantry around the telescope. They shine their ultra-violet lamps on him and his true form is revealed. Pretty much just a tall pasty white nekkid dude with no hair. I should note here that the UV lamps they carry around have no power cords, they just hold the lamp and shield in their hands. They look cool, yes, but they have to be plugged into a wall socket to actually work. The prop master probably didn't think we would catch that, but I guess you can't be running around like that with a cord running behind you.
Gasping for his final breaths, the alien falls to his demise. Our cast rushes up, but he's too far gone. He is, however, now fully visible, his leg pulled up to discreetly hide his crotch. A lame attempt at scientifically justifying his loss of invisibility is mounted, but fails the logic test. As they lament the great loss to science, the body begins to disintegrate (!) and is soon completely gone. It's hard not to feel quite bad for the alien, especially watching his desperate attempts to retrieve his suit and helmet so he could live. [Editor Pam: His disintegration looks interestingly spooky, but I can think of no physical reason why any sort of living being would be invisible while he was alive, then turn visible and dissolve immediately once his heart stops beating.]
The alien breathes its last.
Ok, then, that's the end. Not too bad a little film, some nice ideas, just not enough there to keep most people awake. See it while you still can.
[Editor Pam: It's not that bad a movie, but as I watched it, I kept thinking how much better "Outer Limits" or "Twilight Zone" could have done this. There are too many things that are never explained, and too many dull stretches where nothing happens.]
Bonus! Some handy statistics for you.
32: Number of cigarettes smoked by our cast. Christ, all these actors must have died of lung cancer by the end of the shoot.
18: Number of times they shout "Barbara!" while searching for her, which really got annoying after awhile.
2: Number of people killed, both offscreen.
1: Number of moments of levity or humor, making this the most earnest, serious movie I've seen in a while. And that's not a good thing.
1: Movies I've seen (this one) that had normally uber-geeky Federal Communications Commission agents as main characters, and not as skinny tie-wearing losers who never gave up their AV Club membership cards.
Typical FCC geek.
Written in September 2005 by Nathan Decker and edited by Pam Burda.
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