Saturday, May 25, 2013

Missile to the Moon (Layton Productions/Astor Pictures, 1958)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched two of the four films in the Alien Attacks four-DVD boxed set — which turned out to be one of the weirdest packaging ideas I’d seen: instead of what I’d expected, which was two movies on each disc packaged in a conventional double-DVD box, it was each of four movies on a single DVD packaged in a normal-sized DVD container with an especially long spindle so the four discs could be stacked on top of each other. The films were Cat Women of the Moon from 1953 (though apparently not in the original 3-D version); its 1958 semi-remake Missile to the Moon; The Brain from Planet Arous from 1957, hilariously described in Harry and Michael Medved’s book The Golden Turkey Awards; and the “ringer” in the bunch, one I’d neither seen nor heard of before, The Day It Came to Earth. “It,” according to the DVD box, is a “flaming monster” (sounds like an especially obnoxious drag queen!) which “crash-lands in a small swamp town and unleashes a shambling zombie terror.” Cat Women was the only film in this package I’d seen before last night, an unspeakable bore which I hadn’t watched since September 1997, when I wrote the following about it:

I headed over to Charles with the videos of Cat Women of the Moon (not Cat Women on the Moon, which I’ve seen cited as the title and which actually made a good deal more sense) and The Conqueror Worm (the movie formerly known as Witchfinder General), but we only watched the former. Cat Women of the Moon was one of Rhino’s 3-D releases, along with The Mask (the 1961 Canadian version, which is actually a pretty good movie for the budget and for the time — Slavko Vorkapich’s proto-psychedelic dream sequences are excellent and the framing scenes are poverty-stricken and mediocrely acted but are still legitimate) and Robot Monster, a legendary good/bad movie I’d very much like to see (enough to shell out $12.98 plus tax for the tape should I ever find it on sale). Alas, much of Cat Women was printed badly out of registration, so by the technological magic of videotape and 3-D the image looked like a bad old over-the-air TV picture with heavy ghosting — it was difficult to sit through these sequences and later on I joked to Charles about how if I felt any worse I’d start seeing four of him in bed with me!

Even when the technology was working effectively (which gave a mild 3-D effect and an overall reddish tinge to the picture), Cat Women of the Moon turned out to be a consummately boring movie (just as I’d remembered it when I caught it on the old Channel 36 out of San José early one morning during the early 1970’s under its less florid alternate title, Rocket to the Moon). It was one of those films that actually lasted just a shade over an hour but actually felt like two hours — “or a lifetime,” Charles joked. In fact, I ran the Rhino video edition of Plan Nine from Outer Space this morning, and next to Cat Women of the Moon, Plan Nine looked like a deathless masterpiece, if only because at least Edward D. Wood, Jr. had a certain stylistic flair that makes his movies most entertaining, even though hardly in the sense he intended them to be! Lacking any discernible directorial talent or even the sort of bad-movie flair Wood or Ray Dennis Steckler had, Arthur Hilton’s direction of Cat Women plodded onward through the ridiculous script by Roy Hamilton (presumably not the same Roy Hamilton as the singer who had the first hit on “Ebb Tide”), pointing his camera in the relevant direction of most of the action but otherwise adding nothing to this ridiculous movie (when he tried for an impressive effect — like his occasional shots of the cat women’s shadows lurking about — he ended up with a yawn). The plot, if it can be called that, is about a secret pocket of atmosphere in a cave under the dark side of the moon and a race of cat women (who have progressively eliminated all men from their society — “A Lesbian separatist’s paradise!” I joked) who plan to hijack the spaceship of the first humans to land on the moon (commanded by Victor Jory and Sonny Tufts) by telepathically taking over the brain of the ship’s one female crew member (Marie Windsor, who actually turns in one of the closest approximations to acting in the film — not that she approximates it by much, but at least she and Jory come closer than the rest of the principals).

Once the rocket arrives on the moon, the cat women (played by the Hollywood Cover Girls, whoever they may have been, whose ensemble work is actually better than that of the billed players!) attempt to maintain a united front against Our Heroes (while simultaneously cavorting on what looks like an old Jon Hall/Maria Montez set and may very well be an old Jon Hall/Maria Montez set, borrowed from Universal-International for the occasion) but naturally enough are sabotaged when one of their number, Lambda (there would be a Lambda — in fact, all the cat women are named after letters of the Greek alphabet; not surprisingly the queen of the cat women is Alpha and her second-in-command is Beta), falls in love with one of the more nondescript of the male crew members and betrays the whole enterprise. The idea was that three of the cat women would fly the rocket back to earth along with Marie Windsor, leaving the male earthlings stranded up on the moon, and thereby re-establish their civilization (which in the absence either of men or of any indication that they had invented parthenogenesis was on pretty shaky ground to begin with!). Not that any of this makes sense; Roy Hamilton’s screenplay proceeded from beginning to end without even any major attempt at narrative consistency, sporadically remembering that there is no atmosphere on the moon and then forgetting it again (as when he has the heat of the sun spontaneously ignite a cigarette left on the lunar surface) — and as I already wrote in connection with the Commando Cody serials made at Republic, three years after the success of Destination Moon there was no excuse for a movie about space travel to ignore the reality of weightlessness!

Missile to the Moon proved quite a surprise: a much better movie than Cat Women (but then I was already on record as saying that Plan Nine from Outer Space is a better movie than Cat Women!) from the producer-director team of Marc Frederic and Richard Cunha, respectively, a Layton Film Production released through Astor Pictures (which was generally a TV reissue label for old Monogram and PRC product). Those were the same people behind Frankenstein’s Daughter, released the same year (1958) and also a better-than-average 1950’s sci-fi indie which I described as “an intriguing film that definitely shows its origins for the drive-in market but manages to be a little bit better than that despite some pretty risible elements.” That could apply to Missile to the Moon as well even though Cat Women was obviously a less powerful source of inspiration than Mary Shelley’s classic novel and James Whale’s great films! The script for Missile by H. E. Barrie (who also worked on Frankenstein’s Daughter) and Vincent Fotre added some intriguing variants to Roy Hamilton’s tale: it opens at a privately funded missile base on whose launching pad sits a moon rocket designed and built by eccentric genius Dirk Green (Michael Whalen).

Dirk’s friend and collaborator Steve Dayton (Richard Travis, top-billed and an actor with some pretty respectable credits on his résumé; he started in the Warners meatgrinder and got supporting parts in classics like The Bride Came C.O.D., The Man Who Came to Dinner and Humphrey Bogart’s underrated The Big Shot) has come to tell him that his project is being taken over by NASA and that they’ll have the entire infrastructure of the U.S. government to improve their rocket and ensure it will actually get to the moon as planned. Sounding a good deal like an Ayn Rand hero, Dirk is so unthrilled with this news that for a moment I thought he was going to tell Steve that if the government tried to take over his rocket, he’d blow it up à la Howard Roark in The Fountainhead. Instead he determines to take the rocket up himself before he has to hand it over. Meanwhile, two convicts, Gene Fennell (Tommy Cook) and Lon (Gary Clarke, yet one more James Dean wanna-be who hoped the tragic death of the original would open doors for him career-wise), have just escaped from a nearby prison and Gene gets the bright idea to hide inside the moon rocket. Dirk discovers them there but instead of turning them in, he essentially requisitions them to be his crew, holding a gun on them to force them to help him fly his missile to the moon. Steve and his girlfriend, fellow scientist June Saxton (Cathy Downs), enter the missile to find out what’s going on, and they also end up as reluctant astronauts on Dirk’s moon mission. During the trip to the moon Gene tries to rape June and Dirk successfully defends her honor, but at the cost of his life; a weird box that looks like a radio falls on his head and injures him fatally. (One “Goofs” poster on noted that there’s no indication of what the other astronauts did with his body.) Before he expires he gives Steve a medallion — it looks from afar like a St. Christopher’s medal but he says it’s important and will save his life once he lands on the moon — and he also tells Steve to make sure the ship lands exactly where he programmed it to on the moon’s surface. Then he starts mumbling something about missing someone named “Lido” before finally dying — as I joked to Charles, I’ve seen operas in which the death scenes were quicker than this!

It eventually turns out that Dirk is himself a moon person — apparently the last male who survived — and the Lido, or Queen, of the moon people (who live in a deep cave that contains normal air — a conceit of a lot of movies made about the moon before we actually got there, including Fritz Lang’s marvelous Woman on the Moon), was his wife. He built a rocket to get himself from the moon to earth to see what he could do to save the moon’s remaining population, which consists of a lot of beauty contest winners (they’re actually so billed in the opening credits — a definite step up from the Hollywood Cover Girls used as the lunar princesses in Cat Women!), from the impending disappearance of their remaining air and food supplies. The unlikely astronauts eventually land on the moon and have to fight off the Rock People — the materialization of one of these monsters from the moon’s rock surface is genuinely frightening and reveals Cunha’s flair as a director even though the Rock People themselves are all too clearly stunt people on stilts wearing baggy, ill-fitting costumes in which the folds in the cloth are all too visible — before they discover the cave and meet the Lido (K. T. Stevens, another cast member with an association with Hollywood’s greats — she acted with Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle and Joan Crawford in Harriet Craig). She’s blind, she immediately thinks Steve is the now-dead Dirk (after all, he’s wearing his medallion — which she recognizes by touch) and she’s hopeful that the moon people can finally evacuate their dying satellite and go either to earth or somewhere else (though exactly what other planet they might migrate to is carefully unspecified). Only the Lido’s second-in-command, Alpha (a surprisingly butch Nina Bara), is determined to marry Steve — apparently she was engaged to Dirk when he left and with him dead she’s willing to settle for sloppy seconds — and also to knife the Lido and take over. Steve tries to put her off but, when she sees Steve and Alpha together, June has a jealous hissy-fit that pisses off the new queen and leads her to condemn all three of the other earth people (aside from Steve, whom she’s still intent on marrying) to a pit where they’ll be devoured by a giant spider. (The giant spider is a papier-maché construction even less realistic than the rock people, and the wires moving its various body sections are all too visible on screen.)

Meanwhile, Gene is sneaking around the moon people’s encampment collecting diamonds, which on the moon are as common as pebbles on ours, thinking he’s going to go home to earth with millions of dollars worth of precious gems — and Lon has attracted the affections of moon person Zema (billed as Marjorie Hellen but identified on as Leslie Parrish), who in a surprisingly exciting climax decides that the only way her boyfriend and the other earthlings are ever going to get back to their home planet safely is if she breaks the window in the cave (a window in a cave?) that will release the cave’s atmosphere and annihilate the remaining moon people so they can’t stop the earthers from leaving. Alpha gets another protracted death scene (don’t moon people ever die quickly?) and the astronauts recover their spacesuits and escape, only Gene is slowed by the heavy bags of diamonds he’s carrying and is killed, not by the rock people (one of whom is taken out by a grenade the original Lido slipped Steve earlier on) but by the force of the sun, whose rays hit him without the protection of an atmosphere and vaporize him immediately. Missile to the Moon isn’t much as a movie, and it’s full of improbabilities and the kinds of bad science that make a lot of sci-fi films unintentionally hilarious — like Arthur Hilton on Cat Women, Richard Cunha doesn’t even try to do weightlessness, and when the astronauts first encounter the rock people on the moon’s surface they fire ordinary pistols at them and the bullets bounce off. The bullets shouldn’t have been able to come out at all, since gunpowder, like any other combustible material, can’t ignite in the absence of oxygen. But it’s also a good film within the limits of sci-fi cheapies c. 1958; though it’s 15 minutes longer than Cat Women it seems shorter because of the genuine flair for pacing, suspense and horror in Cunha’s direction. Oddly, Cunha only directed six films in his career: besides this one and Frankenstein’s Daughter they were She Demons, Giant from the Unknown, Girl in Room 13 and the English version of a German film called Einer Frisst den anderen. He really deserved a shot at better scripts and bigger budgets!