Phantom from Space

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(1/10) In a nutshell: For a no-budget effort, this 1951 invisible alien film by Billy Wilder’s elder brother Willie has impressive visual effects. But that’s also pretty much all that is good about this talky, illogical and slow-moving exploitation flick. Noreen Nash as the female heroine stands out, and there’s Harry Landers of Ben Casey fame.

Phantom from Space (1953). Directed by W. Lee Wilder. Written by William Raynor & Myles Wilder. Starring: Ted Cooper, Tom Daly, Noreen Nash, Dick Sands, Harry Landers, James Seay, Rudolph Anders, Steven Clark, Jim Bannon. Produced by W. Lee Wilder for Planet Filmways. IMDb score: 4.0

A colourised image of Dick Sands in the spacesuit of the alien in Phantom from Space.

A colourised image of Dick Sands in the spacesuit of the alien in Phantom from Space.

The problem with a genre that gets big is that apart from the great films, there’s always a trail of bad exploitation films that follow in their wake. Some of them can rise up to become classics in their own right, like Invaders from Mars (1953, review), released just a month before this movie. Others defy their minuscule budgets with staggeringly weird solutions, relentless visions and more heart than a hundred Hollywood blockbusters put together, like Robot Monster (1953, review) and the works of Ed Wood, Jr. Then there’s the ilk of Phantom from Space, that just don’t cut the mustard, in any way or fashion, except for being a so-bad-it’s-good film.

Poster.

Poster.

I’ll let Carroll Jenkins of 10,000 Bullets explain the proceedings: ”This movie has it all. Non-stop dialog that makes sense but is totally uninteresting. Extreme fast cuts within scenes that hop around like a frog in a blender. A large cast of characters that all deliver their reams of dialog in a stuporous drone. Lots of invisible man [alien] effects such as doors opening and chairs spinning. Lots of driving around listening to static, walking around listening to Geiger counters, and standing around in offices smoking cigarettes.”

In fact, the film opens with a long stretch of US Navy and radar stock footage, much of which would reappear in director W. Lee Wilder’s next sci-fi film Killers from Space (1954, review). A voice-over tries to insert a sense of realism and danger by explaining how an unidentified flying object is observed over the west coast of USA, until it disappears over Santa Monica Beach, California. We then cut to the agents of the all-powerful Communications Commission, in fact it is cars with big antennae on their roofs driving round and round, looking for the source of some strange radio and TV interference. They stumble upon a number of strange deaths, where witnesses claim to have seen a man in a diving suit without a face kill their friends. Communications agents Hazen (Ted Cooper), Charlie (Tom Daly) and police officer Bowers (Harry Landers) are on the case.

Barbara (Noreen Nash), Major Andrews (James Seay) and Dr. Wyatt (Rudolph Anders) examining the spacesuit.

Barbara (Noreen Nash), Major Andrews (James Seay) and Dr. Wyatt (Rudolph Anders) examining the spacesuit.

It actually takes a real scientist with a German accent, such as Dr. Wyatt (Rudolph Anders) to suggest that the killings, the faceless diver, the strange interference and the landing of a suspected UFO may in fact be linked. It takes another 20 minuted for all involved to come to the conclusion that we are actually dealing with a Phantom from Space.

An antenna car of the communications office.

An antenna car of the communications office.

Turns out the alien in question is invisible, and when cornered in a woodshed, he simply sheds his spacesuit for the befuddled investigators to find. The suit turns out to be radioactive (but not the helmet!), and made out of some unbreakable metal alloy. The helmet contains gas lethal to humans, but the scientists figure it must be what the phantom breaths – although like a fish out of water he may survive for some hours in Earth’s atmosphere. Thus becomes the pivotal point in the story, as the phantom keeps coming back to the lab for some whiffs from his helmet, surprising the female scientist Barbara Randall (Noreen Nash).

While all the male hotshots do little more than run around aimlessly and sit in tiny, tiny, badly made sets talking about the proceedings and making serious expositional and pseudo-scientific talk, Randall seems to be the only person on the film with a head on her shoulders. Instead of screaming and fainting as most female scientists in these films tend to do, she actually tries to communicate with the alien, who at one point uses a pair of scissors to try and tap out some sort of code. She also realises that the alien is visible under UV light, although all we get to see is what looks like a human hand.

The prominently featured helmet.

The prominently featured helmet.

The scientists reason that since the alien is not breathing air, and is invisible, he is not a carbon-based life form. Further, glass is invisible, and glass is made out of silicon. Therefore, if the alien weighs the same as a duck, he floats, and is therefore A WITCH! no sorry, also made out of silicon.

The showdown comes in the Griffith Observatory (used in a number of films), where the alien runs around, and the scientists and agents and cops helplessly after him. Finally he climbs the telescope, and becomes visible – a pale humanoid creature with a head reminiscent of the Thing in Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World (1951, review) – actually in the semi-naked shape of actor Dick Sands. He glows eerily and tries to communicate something before dying from lack of his own atmosphere. As he disintegrates into thin air, the audience is stunned. Who was he, what was he, why did he come to Earth, what did he want? No asnwers are given. Instead Dr. Wyatt voices some plattitude to try and cover up the fact that the film actually resolved nothing at all, and opens the observatory with feeble gravitas: ”It’s morning.”

Dick Sands glowing in the dark.

Dick Sands glowing in the dark.

The film has some things going for it. It lines up with movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, review) and The Man from Planet X (1951, review) as a film about a benign, but misunderstood alien. The idea of an invisible humanoid alien is tantalising, and the fact that he tries to make contact with one of the scientists could have been an interesting starting point. Even the fact that the female scientist is the smartest and most level-headed of the bunch is certainly novel in a film of this era. The problem is that screenwriters Myles Wilder and William Raynor fail to do anything interesting with all this. Instead, all the agents and scientists and cops show off their utter ineptitude: in putting two and two together, in catching the alien, and in trying to make any sort of communication with it. All bungled efforts to catch and talk with the guy also leads to a bungled film, where audiences are left with no more answers than they had in the beginning.

A colourised image of Noreen Nash as Barbara Randall, female scientist.

A colourised image of Noreen Nash as Barbara Randall, female scientist.

Open-ended endings are great when they work. And they work primarily because of five reasons: 1. We are so heavily invested in the characters, that their welfare is more important to us than the larger plot at hand. If they survive a dangerous ordeal in an ending that brings a certain plotline to a conclusion, the broader fate of whatever is going on in the background becomes less important. Unknown World (1951, review) is an example of this; the film opens with a group of people fleeing underground from the threat of nuclear war. When they make it back to the surface in the end, the threat has not disappeared, but we don’t really care – the main thing is that the characters are alive. 2. The open ending suggests a new chapter in a larger story, and the film’s plot has come to affect how this new chapter is going to play out. The Day the Earth Stood Still works because Klaatu is done with his mission to Earth, and now the next chapter concerns whether we take heed of Klaatu’s warning, but that’s a different story. 3. The open ending suggests that the film is really asking a question, rather than giving an answer. 2001: A Space Odyssey is of course the type example of this kind of a film. 4. The open ending is more of a shock twist, often involving a villain we thought was vanquished returning in the movie’s last frame. Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is one of the best known examples of this. 5. It’s a cliffhanger. Used in abundance today in the end of the franchise – we can live with unanswered questions when we know there’s a sequel coming up – Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens (2015) is a classic example of a film raising more questions that it gives answers.

Police sketch artist rendition of the suspect.

Police sketch artist rendition of the suspect.

However, Wilder and Raynor really don’t raise any questions, other that ”what the fuck is going on?” The alien fails to deliver any sort of information about itself, it basically just lands and dies, and its coming to Earth seems more of a fluke crash-landing than any foreboding. There may have been a point here to be made about how we treat the ”Other”, the unknown, but the script has no time to get into that, since it is too preoccupied with pseudo-scientific techno-babble. None of our heroes were really in any danger at any point, and the ending shows just how helpless the alien is, so there’s not even the relief of the protagonists surviving – not that we care one bit for any of them, as they are just as engaging as cardboard cutouts.

So regarding plot, themes and such, there’s really not much more here to sink our teeth into. Indeed, the film is more interesting for the people behind it. Director William Wilder was the older brother of the accomplished Austrian (or Austro-Hungarian to be precise) writer-director Billy Wilder. Billy would become a darling of Hollywood with film-noirs like Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Blvd. (1950) and Ace in the Hole (1951), not to mention the POW film Stalag 17 (1953), the Marilyn Monroe comedy Some Like It Hot (1959) and the rom-com The Apartment (1960). But he had an even longer history as a screenwriter both in Europe and USA. It was about the same time as he got his breakthrough as a director that his ”estranged” brother decided that he, too, wanted a slice of the Hollywood pie.

W. Lee Wilder.

W. Lee Wilder.

In 1945 Willie Wilder took some of the money he had made as a successful handbag manufacturer in New York and set himself up as a film producer in Los Angeles. He produced two low-budget film-noirs, and then decided to hone his directorial skills with a dozen short films. In 1950 he directed his first full-length feature, the noir Once a Thief, starring Latin heartthrob Cesar Romero, following up with Three Steps North, with occasional sci-fi actor Lloyd Brigdes. Phantom from Space was his third full-length film, and the first of his early fifties sci-fi trilogy, the others being Killers from Space and The Snow Creature (1954, review). These three have become his most lasting legacy, and are often considered among the worst of all the inane science fiction cheapos made in the decade. He directed eight more films in the fifties and sixties, including more noirs, retro-horrors, like the sci-fi tinged The Man Without a Body (1957) and a last science fiction movie called The Omegans (1968). To differentiate himself from his brother Billy, Willie chose to credit himself as W. Lee Wilder. There are a few out there who consider him an overlooked treasure, hampered only by low production values, and certainly Phantom from Space has enough close-ups and varying angles and special effects that he shouldn’t be lumped in with some of the amateur filmmakers that tried their hand at Hollywood in the era.

Myles Wilder.

Myles Wilder.

Many of Wilder’s films of the fifties were penned by the duo Myles Wilder and William Raynor. Myles was Willie’s son, and was barely twenty when he and his friend, 31-year old Raynor wrote Phantom from Space. They also wrote Willie’s two other early sci-fi movies, but Raynor parted ways with him after that. Raynor was already a seasoned screenwriter in 1953, having written a bunch of westerns and Canadian mountie films. He continued to write without Myles Wilder throughout the fifties, while Myles honed his own skills primarily on his father’s films until the beginning of the sixties.

Raynor and Wilder found each other again in 1960, when they began writing scripts for TV. They started off as one-off guest writers on Bonanza, the occasionally sci-fi-tinted serial The Aquanauts and The Real McCoys, and after that they were inseparable, slowly veering more and more into comedy territory. Their real breakthrough came on McHale’s Navy (1963-1966), overshadowed perhaps only by their extensive work on The Dukes of Hazzard (1981-1985). Considering the comic quality of most of their later work, it is surprising how little comedy (apart from unintended) there is to be found in the films they wrote for Willie Wilder. Then again, Billy once called his brother ”a dull son of a bitch”.

Noreen Nash as Barbara Randall.

Noreen Nash as Barbara Randall.

The cast is your usual fare of B movie talent: none of them bad enough to ruin the film, neither is anyone good enough to lift the movie from its drudgery. The highlight is Noreen Nash as the female scientist Barbara Randall, perhaps hers is the only character that isn’t a complete dimwit, and for a woman in a B sci-fi film of the fifties, she gets an unusually strong female character, although that doesn’t prevent her from being knocked out and carried away by the invisible monster in classic monster movie fashion. Nash left no great mark on Hollywood history, but had a decent career in B movies. Hired as a showgirl under her real name Norabelle Roth in the mid-forties after winning a beauty contest, she quickly worked her way up from bit-parts to leading lady roles in cheap programmers.

Photo of Noreen Nash taken by the great Frank Roth.

Photo of Noreen Nash taken by the great Frank Roth.

One of Nash’s more famous roles was the female lead in The Devil on Wheels (1947), the first street-racing film. Some commentators describe it as one of the first US films after the introduction of the Hays Code to show a woman in what resembled a bikini top – but in fact Nash wore a more traditional two-piece swimsuit common to the forties in the movie. She also had minor roles in a number of big movies, like The Southerner (1945), Giant (1956) and The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold (1958), despite the fact that her movie career had more or less dried up in the fifties, and she was a more common sight on TV, where she worked until the early sixties. According to an interview at Western Clippings by John Fitzgerald, she left the business in the sixties to study French in college, from which she graduated in her forties. In 1980 she published a historical romance novel set in France called By Love Fulfilled. She picked up her authorship again lately, with another historical novel, again set in France, in 2013, and two books in 2015, one about her friends Jean Renoir and Henry Miller, and one diet book called The Paris Diet. Nash was married for over forty years to Hollywood physician Lee Siegel and later to actor James Whitmore. She is 91 today, and judging by this 2012 interview and her recent books, seems to be having the time of her life as grandmother, author and French tutor. Here’s another interview that goes more into her western caree.

James Seay, Rudoplh Anders and probably Ted Cooper and Tom Daly.

James Seay, Rudoplh Anders and probably Ted Cooper and Tom Daly.

In the role of Dr. Wyatt we get an unusual non-Nazi role for Rudolph Anders, a German expat who made a decent living out of accent roles as Gestapo officers, Nazi captains and occasional mad scientists in Hollywood in the thirties and forties. He even started out a peg lower, acting in so-called Latin movies aimed primarily at the Mexican market during the thirties. He started his career under his birth name Rudolph Amendt as a theatrical actor and occasionally appeared on film in Germany. Upon his arrival he soon changed his artist name to Robert O. Davis, but dropped the moniker after the end of WWII. He then changed his last name to Anders, for some reason, perhaps because Amendt proved difficult for English speakers (he was once credited as ”Amenut” in his early Hollywood career), or because Anders had a more Scandinavian that Teutonic ring. Perhaps it was also a sly play on words: Anders in German actually means ”something different” or ”something else”. One of his more famous roles was as the evil scientist Colonel Karl Osler in the 1959 film She Demons – a throwback to the ”glandular extract” sci-fi of the forties.

The rest of the main cast is more or less interchangeable: plain-looking middle-aged men playing flavourless roles without much conviction. The two bumbling communications agents who serve as leading men in the movie are played by bit-part actors Tom Daly and Ted Cooper. Daly was usually relegated to uncredited bit-parts in B movies, and appeared in The Man from Planet X, Captive Women (1952), Gog (1954, review) and The 27th Day (1957). One of his few more substantial roles came in Ib Melchior’s psychedelic Angry Red Planet (1958). Ted Cooper only has 10 other bit-part credits listed in IMDb.

Harry Landers, Tom Daly and Lela Nelson.

Harry Landers, Tom Daly and Lela Nelson.

Perhaps the most convincing of the male actors is Harry Landers as the leading police officer on the case. Landers was a stage and TV actor in the fifties and sixties, who often had uncredited roles as extras or bit-parts, but sometimes even played the lead in certain TV episodes. He is best known to a certain generation from a TV commercial for coffee in in the US in the sixties and seventies, or from his five-year stint (1961-1966) as Dr. Ted Hoffman on the medical drama Ben Casey, where he played the sidekick of the brain surgeon of the title. He also did some directing on the show. Ben Casey, although forgotten by a younger generation, was a huge show in the first half of the sixties, and made Landers something of a celebrity, “a half-assed movie star”, as he himself put it in this rather wonderful interview by Stephen Bowie at the Classic TV History Blog. Unfortunately, it sheds no new information on Phantom.

William Shatner and Harry Landers in Star Trek in 1969.

William Shatner and Harry Landers in Star Trek in 1969.

Others may known him primarily for appearing in the final episode of the original Star Trek series in 1969. He also had bit-parts in a number of big movies, like The Wild One (1953), starring Marlon Brando, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956). He was on dozens and dozens of the early live TV shows, including Captain Video and His Video Rangers (1950, review) and Tales of Tomorrow (1951-1953, review).

Jack Daly had small roles in The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Rocket Man (1954), Killers from Space and Return of the Fly. Jim Bannon actually turned up in one of the main roles in Unknown World. Bannon was an athlete who had a stint of low-budget fame in the late forties when he was chosen as the fourth actor to play western hero Red Ryder in the franchise’s last four films. In 1951 he appeared as Jim Bannon, US Marshal, sidekick of Whip Wilson in five movies, and had a number of guest star or recurring roles on TV, mostly in westerns, in the fifties and sixties, and the odd film role here and there.

Michael Mark in Frankenstein.

Michael Mark in Frankenstein.

Michael Mark appeared up in four original Universal Frankenstein films: Frankenstein (1931, review), Son of Frankenstein (1939, review), The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942, review) and House of Frankenstein (1944, review). The first film had him doing one of the film’s pivotal – albeit small – role, as the father of little Maria, who is accidentally drowned by the Frankenstein creature played by Boris Karloff. The image of Mark carrying the limp Maria in his arms, demanding vengeance, is film legend. He also had barely noticeable parts in sci-fis like 6 Hours to Live (1932) and Return of the Fly. Then suddenly he was upgraded to substantial supporting roles in Attack of the Puppet People (1958), and The Wasp Woman (1959).

Prolific bit-part actor James Seay might be familiar as the friendly doctor who expounds on Kris Kringle’s mental condition in Miracle on 34th Street (1947) or as Judge Spicer in 26 episodes of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955-1961). He had tiny roles in When Worlds Collide (1951, review), The Day the Earth Stood Still, The War of the Worlds (1953, review). He apparently made an impact on Willie Wilder, as he had Seay second-billed in Killers from Space, and he was at least credited in The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), Beginning of the End, The Destructors (1968) and Panic in the City (1968).

Dick Sands as the alien with Noreen Nash in a publicity shot.

Dick Sands as the alien with Noreen Nash in a publicity shot.

Richard “Dick” Sands was a big man of body-builder physique, who has only 5 IMDb credits, including one as a gladiator in Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954). There’s some controversy over whether he played the Yeti in Willie Wilder’s The Snow Creature in 1954. IMDb gives the role (unconfirmed) to Lock Martin, who played Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still – but the New York Times and Howard Hughes in his sci-fi guidebook give the role to Dick Sands – which would make sense as he already had a working relationship with Wilder, who re-used much of his cast in many movies.

However, B movie historian Tom Weaver has it from sci-fi collector and expert Bob Burns that Lock Martin told him personally that he worked on Snow Creature, and Martin’s granddaughter also reportedly has recollections of him talking about the film. Furthermore, even though Sands was big, he simply doesn’t look tall enough in productions stills from Phantom to have been able to play the Yeti. Had he actually been the tower of a man that plays the Yeti – AND possessed the muscular physique we see in Phantom, he most certainly would have made more of a splash in Hollywood. These guys simply weren’t around in those days. I can’t think of a sword-and-sandal director who could have resisted the urge to cast him as Goliath or some unearthly gladiator. Just to get this straight I watched a clip from Confidentially Connie (1953), where Sands plays the jock Moska. Sands is barely taller than lead actor Van Johnson, and can’t have been much more than 190 cm tall, whereas the the Yeti in The Snow Creature looks more like the 220-230 reported cm of Lock Martin (depending on source). There is no way that Sands played the Yeti. Well that was two hours of research well spent when I just could have watched a three minute movie clip …

Dick Sands as Moska in Confidentially Connie in 1953.

Dick Sands as Moska in Confidentially Connie in 1953.

According to some information I’ve found, Dick Sands could have been a former navy pilot and Stanford graduate, who went on to a successful career in advertisement, and was apparently a member of the prestigious Bohemian Club in San Fransisco, where he would entertain club members with stage plays, which he wrote, directed and acted in. He also seems to have been an accomplished musician. This information is not 100 percent solid, as the obit I read on “Richard A. ‘Dick’ Sands” doesn’t mention any Hollywood career, but the college yearbook photo attached to it seems to fit the actor. His short stint as Hollywood B movie extra might well have been left out.

The alien partially in view, effect courtesy of Howard A. Anderson Jr.

The alien partially in view, effect courtesy of Howard A. Anderson Jr.

The thing that actually works well on the film is the visual effects, and now we are of course talking about invisibility effects. Sure, there are a lot of cheap ”shock” effects like doors opening and closing, and chairs spinning and beakers falling from tables, that were easily created by just pulling wires. But there’s also some pretty nifty travelling matte (what we call green screen today) effects of the sort that was perfected by Universal effects guru John P. Fulton in The Invisible Man (1933, review). From the grainy print I saw, I can’t tell whether the many shots of the space helmet floating in mid-air were made by travelling matte or simply wireworks, but I should suspect the latter, and there’s a nice faded matte shot of Sands’ hand appearing under a UV light. The most impressive shot is probably the one where Barbara Randall is carried off by the invisible alien, which works quite seamlessly. In an interview in the book Screen Sirens Scream actress Noreen Nash described the process in the exact same terms as Claude Rains described the work on The Invisible Man, with Sands wrapped in a black body-suit, shot against a black background. It should not surprise me, though, if this was one of the few shots made with this rather time-consuming process, and it is impressive that such an effect would even turn up in a no-budget movie like this.

The shots of the glowing, fuzzy Sands atop the telescope in the end is also a rather nicely done little shot, and the end where the alien’s body disintegrates is not at all badly made. However, there’s some discrepancy regarding said alien – in some shots it appears to be wearing tight boxer briefs, in other shots (where his leg prudently covers all the nasty bits) the briefs are gone – even more bizarre is that his nipples keep disappearing and reappearing between cuts. The reason to the underwear discrepancy was that due to the Hays Code, nudity was not allowed on screen, thus the Dick had to be covered, if you’ll excuse the pun. The code did, however, state that some nudity was allowed, for example when it came to mannequins or statues, as long as it was done in the tasteful style of classical statues. So in some shots, Sands was replaced with a plaster cast of his own body, sans briefs and nipples.

Dick Sands, with nipples and briefs.

Dick Sands, with nipples and briefs.

This is not to say that this is a great effects film. All of the effects seen were done better in earlier Invisible Man films, even in the Egyptian version Min aina laka haza? (1952, review). But it is surprising to see effects of such quality pop up in a film like this. The quality is no surprise, however, once you know they were done by one of the great visual effects pioneers of Hollywood, Howard A. Anderson Jr. There’s no point in trying to list everything he worked on, as much of it was uncredited, and even that which was credited isn’t listed on his IMDb page, since he so often worked through his special effects company. Suffice to say he worked on hundreds of films and dozens of TV shows, and also created the titles for hundreds of TV shows. He did titles for shows such as The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, Mission: Impossible, The Invaders, My Favourite Martian and Wonder Woman.

Howard A. Anderson Jr.

Howard A. Anderson Jr.

He is probably best known for his pioneering work on the original Star Trek series (1966-1968), for which he not only created the titles, but also worked very closely with creator Gene Roddenberry to develop the visual effects. He created the star fields through which the Enterprise flies, which was very novel in a time when most star fields in space looked like Christmas lights on a blackboard. He created the famous beaming effects and many of the matte paintings for the alien worlds of the series.

Among Anderson’s films can be counted Prehistoric Women (1951), one of his first movie jobs, Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1957), Godzilla Raids Again (1955/1959, review), The Time Machine (1960), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) and Superman (1978). He also did effects for the epic Taras Bulba (1962) and the war film Tobruk (1967), for which he was nominated for an Oscar. He was awarded an Emmy lifetime achievement award in 2007. Anderson sadly passed away in September 2015. However, his company, founded by his special effects-producing father Howard Anderson in 1927, still exists today. It was taken over by his son Howard Anderson III and is currently run by his granddaughter Karen Anderson, although it has stopped producing VFX because of the stiff competition, and now provides shooting and editing services on the fringes of Hollywood, like last-minute shots second unit work, inserts, promotional interviews and so forth. The Howard Anderson company produced an optical printer that was purchased by George Lucas for the Star Wars (1977) special effects, and was subsequently used for most of Lucasfilms’ movies up until the digital age. Here you can watch a short interview clip with Howard Anderson Jr.

The discovery of the suit.

The discovery of the suit.

The practical effects, such as wirework, of Phantom from Space were done by Hungary-born Alex Weldon, who had worked on a handful of films prior to this. In 1961 Weldon was hired by Samuel Bronston to do the effects on King of Kings, that was shot in Spain. As Spain didn’t have much of a special effects business, Weldon hired a bunch of young, talented guys including Manuel Baquera and Antonio Parra, who would later found their own SFX workshop and work on a number of spaghetti westerns and big Hollywood productions in Spain.

The original Alex Weldon workshop worked on Spain-based productions like El Cid (1961), Crack in the World (1965), Patton (1970) and Papillon (1973). By 1978 he was already retired, but his wife urge him to do one more film when Paramount Pictures called and wanted him to supervise the effects of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). Weldon was nominated for two Oscars.

Phantom from Space was also one of the first films as director of photography for William H. Clothier, another Hollywood legend who worked on dozens on westerns with John Wayne and John Ford, including The Alamo (1960), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Cheyenne Autumn (1964) and Big Jake (1971). He was nominated for two Oscars.

Colourised radio car.

Colourised radio car.

Not that the quality of the cinematographer shows in Phantom from Space – there’s really only so much you can do with the time and money involved in a production like this. I can’t find reliable numbers, but the budget can’t have been many tens of thousands of dollars. Most of it was probably spent on the visual effects, and perhaps the spacesuit, if it wasn’t a hand-me-down. There’s a lot of repetition of shots, we see the same antenna cars going round the same bends at least three or four times, the same shots of communication officers listening to their radios, and so forth. In an interview Myles Wilder said that his father usually didn’t bother to pay for sets, but shot everything on location. All shots involving offices were shot in Willie Wilder’s own office, which would account for the cramped look of all the agents and scientists sitting like packed sardines along a single wall of an office – they couldn’t fit a camera in to shoot more than one wall at a time, and probably didn’t have time for blocking and changing setups. The main part of the film is shot at the Griffith observatory.

A typical scene in the film.

A typical scene in the film.

In sci-fi you take a certain amount of scientific error or at least speculation as a given. Sometimes science just goes out the window, and that’s fine if done in the right context. But when it’s jarring is when we deal with a film that tries very hard to be taken seriously as a science-based mystery, but gets all the basics wrong, without the veerings-off even being central for the plot to work. Case in point: the Monty Python logic about silicon-based lifeforms as stated above. Another jarring aspect is how radiation is handled. Here we must acknowledge that the general public didn’t know much about radioactivity at the time – as George Lucas pointed out in the documentary Watch the Skies!: we knew that it was deadly, we knew that it caused mutations and deformity, but that was really it. What little information science had, was often suppressed by a US government trying to win over hearts and minds in the nuclear race against the Soviet Union. But the film just goes beyond these borders of scientific un-knowledge and takes it to new heights of un-logic.

The plaster cast of the alien.

The plaster cast of the alien.

A great big point is made out of pointing out that the alien’s suit is highly radioactive, and that somehow explains that it would cope better with the vacuum and temperatures of space. How radioactivity has any bearing on pressure and temperature remains unclear. Another big point is made out of the fact that the suit IS radioactive but the helmet isn’t – again the filmmakers fail to point out why this is so important. The suit is initially handled by guys in haz-mat suits and tongs and put in a lead container, but later the scientists handle it without fear, with just the protection of latex gloves, as if radioactivity was dangerous just on touch. Neither does the highly radioactive suit seem to contaminate anything, least of all the alien himself, as there is no fear for Barbara after she has been carried away in his arms.

Logic is also bungled. The simple fact that not a single one of the involved government agents or officers manage to create any sort of decent trap for the alien is mind-boggling. We know he needs his helmet, and will eventually try to seek it out to breathe. Why is the helmet then left unguarded in a lab, instead of being used as bait? At one point this supposed threat to national security is running around the Griffith observatory. At this time the officials have had ample time to prepare and rack up their lines. But somehow they have failed to grasp the simple idea that the alien will come for the helmet, and could then be locked down in the observatory with some simple tools like a couple of hundred police officers, a little bit of barb-wire and some dogs. Dogs, for Chrissake! We even have a pet dog running around barking at the alien, why didn’t they bring out a bunch of police dogs to track him down? When they actually corner the alien the men completely fail to make any sort of communication, and instead scare the poor fellow off – and the fact that the six-odd guys can’t manage to keep one person – invisible or not – trapped inside a locked room with one window – TWICE! – is staggering. If the US authorities are really our last line of defence against an alien threat, we are all in big trouble, according to this film.

Dick Sands showing off.

Dick Sands showing off.

And then there is the fact that nothing really happens in the entire film. We go through half of it watching the leads trying to figure out what they are dealing with, basically running around like headless chickens. A bit of suspense is often good, but when you have a film called Phantom from Space, and we are treated to an unidentified flying object and a killer in a spacesuit in the first five minutes of the movie, it’s really just torture to base half of your film on trying to convince the main characters that we are actually dealing with a UFO and a killer alien in a spacesuit. Even when the plot gets going, most of the action consists of people talking in a cramped office – relating second-hand information about the actual plot, that happens off-screen most of the time.

All in all, a film with some good ideas, which are badly handled, and some neat special effects. But the film is killed by its low production values and slapdash feel, as well as a talky, boring and illogical script. It’s not funny enough to be camp and not artsy or well-crafted enough to be considered some sort of forgotten minor gem. The acting is mundane at best, uninspired for the most time and crappy at worst. The pace does pick up toward the end, and there’s even some hint at suspense, but it is all squandered in an unsatisfactory ending where it seems as if the screenwriters just ran out of time or simply didn’t know what to make of the whole thing. Well worth a watch for completists, others should not bother.

Janne Wass

Phantom from Space (1953). Directed by W. Lee Wilder. Written by William Raynor & Myles Wilder. Starring: Ted Cooper, Tom Daly, Noreen Nash, Dick Sands, Harry Landers, James Seay, Rudolph Anders, Steven Clark, Jim Bannon, Steve Acton, Burt Wenland, Lela Nelson, Bert Arnold, Sandy Sanders, Harry Strang, Jack Daly, Michael Mark. Music: William Lava. Cinematography: William H. Clothier. Editing: George Gale. Production supervisor: Bartlett A. Carre. Sound recordist: Jack Solomon. Special effects: Alex Weldon. Visual effects: Howard A. Anderson. Theremin: Samuel Hoffman. Produced by W. Lee Wilder for Planet Filmways.

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10 thoughts on “Phantom from Space

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