Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Killers from Space (Planet Filmplays/RKO, 1954)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Killers from Space, a 1954 science-fiction film from producer-director W. Lee Wilder (Billy Wilder’s cousin, though his imdb.com page erroneously says they were brothers, and while he wasn’t anywhere nearly as formidable a talent he did make some surprisingly good low-budgeters, including this one and The Big Bluff), written by William Raynor from a story by W. Lee Wilder’s son Myles (that’s keeping it in the family!) and one of the first, if not the first, science-fiction film to use the premise of a protagonist whose mind and consciousness are taken over by aliens for use in a plot to conquer the earth — before The Quatermass Experiment, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, It Conquered the World, et al.

The film starts with a lot of stock footage of the nuclear weapons tests then going on in Nevada — including shots of the regiments of soldiers about to be marched into Ground Zero (many of whose bodies would become ticking time bombs killing them with cancer 20 to 30 years later) — and a plane flying overhead as part of the Air Force’s preparations to observe the test. Only after the weapon is detonated, the two people aboard the plane, a pilot and scientist Dr. Doug Martin (Peter Graves, top-billed and the only person in this cast who had much of a subsequent career), see a huge white ball of energy on the ground and their plane is irresistibly drawn to it. Unable to work the controls to get away, they crash and the pilot is killed instantly, but Dr. Martin returns to the base in what seems to be perfect health except for a crosswise star under his heart that looks like Piet Mondrian started sketches for a new painting on his chest.

The first half-hour of this 70-minute film is a quite effective suspense thriller, as Dr. Martin breaks into the office of his colleague Dr. Kreuger (Frank Gerstle) and steals top-secret information, though even before he actually does anything the base command and FBI agent Briggs (Steve Pendleton) are suspicious of him precisely because he returned from a plane crash that killed the other person in the plane while leaving him unscathed except for those two surgical scars. At certain points along his flight his actions are controlled by two giant white circles with black dots in the middle — they’re apparently supposed to represent eyes but at times it looks like he’s being mind-controlled by giant Life-Savers candies — and when he’s caught in the middle of one of the familiar Bronson Canyon Western locations sticking a piece of paper under a rock (I joked that his spy contact worked, as a cover, as a stunt man for Republic), he’s brought back to the base hospital and given an injection of sodium amytal, which it’s explained will make it impossible for him to lie by eliminating his imagination (which would have rendered him qualified to write quite a few “B” movies, though not this one).

Then Dr. Martin, under the drug’s influence, tells the doctors, FBI guy and base commanders what happened to him — he was kidnapped by aliens who wear black hoodies with sashes around their waists that make them look like traffic control cones, and though their faces are emblazoned with two huge, bulging eyes that look like someone painted black dots on golf balls, the rest of the makeup makes it look as if Our Hero has stumbled into a convention of Boris Karloff impersonators. The aliens have built a huge power generator with which they are enlarging normal earth life forms — insects, tarantulas, lizards (shown, natch, by microphotography of real insects, tarantulas, lizards, etc.) — with which they intend to depopulate the Earth so they can move the one billion people on their own planet here and take it over. Realizing that they’re getting their power from the nuclear tests and are storing it in devices underground, Dr. Martin tries to get the government to schedule another test immediately, which he believes will overload their circuits, collapse their power source and render them helpless. Unable to do that, he figures out another way to disarm them — cut off the power grid servicing the area for eight seconds, thereby taking out their source of control power (though why technologically advanced aliens would be dependent on earth energy sources to power their infernal gizmos is a mystery Wilder père et fils don’t bother to explain).

Despite the usual plot holes and signs of cheapness (for the first 10 to 15 minutes it looks as if Wilder has come close to achieving Ed Wood’s dream of making a movie entirely from stock footage), Killers from Space is actually an excellent movie by the standards of the genre and the time: it’s well staged, suspensefully directed and reliant on tight, dramatic action rather than special-effects gimcracks (which wouldn’t have come off well on Wilder’s low budget anyway), and it’s also well acted even though Graves is the only person in it who had a long-term career.