Sunday, January 17, 2016

Target Earth (Abtcon Pictures, Herman Cohen Productions, Allied Artists, 1954)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The films at last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi series in Golden Hill were quite different on the quality scale and also very different movies — apparently their sole point of commonality, which led the proprietor to schedule them together, was that both featured giant robots as major characters. Of course the program wasn’t just two movies: it also included some movie trailers (including one for the upcoming Batman v. Superman and another from Deadpool, Marvel’s surprisingly scatological spoof of its own superheroes), a couple of bizarre shorts called They’re All Made of Meat (the one he’d shown the night before about two guys from another planet hanging out at a diner and marveling at the fact that everyone on the planet they’ve met so far is made entirely of meat) and Troops (a quite amusing mash-up of the TV show Cops and the Star Wars movies), and a music video of David Bowie singing his song “Space Oddity” — the copyright date was 1969 but this isn’t the version of the song I remember from the early 1970’s, when his Mercury album Man of Words — Man of Music was acquired by RCA Victor (as well as its immediate follow-up, The Man Who Sold the World) and reissued under the title Space Oddity with a cover photo c. 1972. Did the folks at RCA Victor remix it? Were additional string parts added? (There’s a third version Bowie put out at the very end of his RCA Victor contract in 1990, backed with just acoustic guitar, as the flip side of his final RCA Victor release, a wretched cover of Kurt Weill’s “Alabama Song,” drenched in phony cabaret-singer mannerisms that projected the song less well than Jim Morrison’s cool singing on the Doors’ version from 1966.) The night before, the proprietor had shown Bowie’s video of his 1971 song “Life on Mars,” thus paying tribute to this fascinating artist with two of his best songs and ones which actually related to the overall theme of the event.

Of the two feature films shown last night, Target Earth (1954) was actually quite good: though it suffered from a few risible moments, notably when the alien creature (actually a robot, part of an invading army of electromechanical devices controlled from a central location that, as the scientific experts working with the U.S. Army to destroy it, admit, could be a few miles away or millions of miles away on the aliens’ home planet) shows up and it’s a giant white spic-’n’-span contraption looking like the props department made it out of cardboard and spray-painted it just before use. But for the most part it’s a nice, taut suspense tale of five of the usual human flotsam and jetsam in these sorts of dramas — out-of-towner Frank Brooks (Richard Denning), who’s just got in from Detroit (home town of the film’s producer, Herman Cohen); Nora King (Kathleen Crowley), who missed the Army’s evacuation order because she slept through the whole thing — her life had been miserable since her husband’s death in a car accident six months earlier, for which she blamed herself since she’d been driving at the time, and she had determined to O.D. on sleeping pills and end it — barflies Vicki Harris (Virginia Grey, who in a generally quite good cast creates the most indelible characterization) and her boyfriend Jim Wilson (Richard Reeves); as well as Davis (Robert Roark), a psycho killer who enters the action about two-thirds of the way through — waking up to find that their entire city (it’s unidentified but the film was shot in Los Angeles, natch) has been evacuated overnight to get its inhabitants away from some horrible menace that appears to have come from Venus (yes, the planet Venus!) and has taken the form of an invading army of robots who are apparently invulnerable to all human weapons.

Had the story stayed on the five principals and had the Lewtonian stylistics of the opening been maintained throughout, with the alien invader not shown on screen but depicted by sound alone, Target Earth would be an even better film than it is — but it’s still quite good. It’s tightly constructed (the director was Sherman A. Rose and the writing committee included Paul W. Fairman, who wrote the source story, “The Deadly City,” as well as William Raynor, Wyott Ordung — thoroughly redeeming himself from having written Robot Monster — and future American International co-president James A. Nicholson), well directed and well acted; true, Virginia Grey plays the only really multidimensional character and thereby takes the honors, but all the principals acquit themselves well and it seems a shame that in a cast list this good, Richard Denning was the only “name,” then or now, and a movie with several performances that should have turned their creators towards stardom didn’t seem to. In the end, in case you cared, Grey gives her life to save her boyfriend and the two others — who’ve shown a definite attraction to each other in case they decide to try coupling off camera — from the rampage of the psycho, while the Army figures out a way to send radio frequencies that will damage the televisors that are not only the way the robots “see” but also the way they get their relayed instructions from their home world, without which they are helpless since for all their elaborate programming they are essentially blind terminals, and once the Army figures out a way to jam their instructions, they just stop. It’s one of those occasional science-fiction films from the 1950’s that grounded itself in the Middle America of today and sent its fantastical (or historical) nemeses loose in a realistic world — by far the best of these is Don Siegel’s 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but this one is really quite good and a far cry from what you’d expect from the people who, no matter who released this one (Allied Artists, née Monogram), eventually became the nucleus behind American International Pictures, the studio every moviegoer 20 or older seemed to be able to love to hate.