(2/10) In a nutshell: The second sci-fi film by Billy Wilder’s less talented brother Willie mashes up a cold war spy yarn with an alien abduction story and nuclear fright. The underlying story is a sound one, but it gets messed up by a thin script and a shoestring budget that relies on stock footage for filling time and has some of the most profoundly silly-looking aliens in film history. Future TV star Peter Graves of Mission: Impossible fame lends the film some dignity in the leading role, but it doesn’t help to save this ineptly produced and directed oddity. A must for lovers of bad B-movies, though.
Killers from Space (1954, USA). Directed by W. Lee Wilder. Written by Myles Wilder and William Raymond. Starring: Peter Graves, James Seay, Steve Pendleton, Frank Gerstle, John Frederick, Barbara Bestar, Shepard Menken. Produced by W. Lee Wilder for Planet Filmplays. IMDb: 3.1/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
This here is something of a cult classic with lovers of bad movies – mainly because of the hilarious look of the aliens. Once seen, they can never be unseen. First of all, there’s the ridiculous jumpsuits. But most of all, what we remember are the eyes – the wonderfully wacky ping pong ball eyes. This 1954 film was supposed to be serious – and the aliens were supposed to be frightening. And then they stuck ping pong balls on their eyes. It’s wonderful! Well, in fact, they are not ping pong balls at all. Director Willie Wilder had suggested ping pong balls, but makeup artist Harry Thomas thought that wouldn’t really look realistic, so he went to an actual optical shop to ask for glass eyes, that he could cut in half. But they cost 900 dollars apiece, which was probably more than Thomas’ entire makeup budget. John Johnson’s book Cheap Tricks and Class Acts quotes an article in Filmfax, where Thomas is interviewed. Thomas describes how after being turned down at the opticians’, he stayed up all night wrestling with the problem of the aliens’ eyes, and how to make them realistic, so he wouldn’t have to settle for Wilder’s idea with the ping pong balls: ”I was almost completely discouraged when I opened up the refrigerator to get something to drink, and there was my answer: a white plastic egg tray.” So there you have it. In your face, haters, those are not ping pong balls, they are very realistic egg tray bottoms. Good on you, Harry Thomas!
Well, I thought I should get the eyes out of the way before going into the rest of the film, because, really, that’s what the film is famous for. Here’s a brief recap of the plot: Nuclear scientist Dr. Douglas Martin’s (Peter Graves) plane flies through three opening minutes of stock footage of nuclear tests, when something takes control and forces it to crash. By some miracle Martin survives and comes stumbling back to the air base a day later, with no memory of what had happened, only a strange surgical scar on his chest.
The strange circumstances of his reappearance cause his superiors, led by base the commander (James Seay) and an FBI agent (Steve Pendleton) decide to basically ground him at home with his wife Ellen (Barbara Bestar). Dr. Martin becomes uncharacteristically aggressive and blunt, and demands to be allowed to work. And when he hears of another nuclear test, he sneaks back into the ultra-high-security air base, that seems to employ neither a gate, guards, nor locks of any sort, to steal some secret information on a small slip of paper, which he delivers to the Nevada desert where his plane crashed, and places it under a rock. Unfortunately he is followed by the FBI agent, who is able to overpower him. What the information was is apparently not of any importance, since the FBI agent decides to leave it under the rock, and it is never mentioned again.
Now back at the hospital, Martin is given truth serum by the air base physician (Shepard Menken), which leads to the second half of the film, which is a flashback. In it, Dr. Martin awakes in a cave after the crash, where aliens with egg trays for eyes perform open heart surgery on him, thus saving his life after his death in he crash. The big honcho alien Deneb (John Frederick, billed under his stage name John Merrick) explains that they are from the planet Astron Delta, and plan to colonise Earth, and are siphoning the power from the nuclear tests. In classic James Bond villain style, Deneb explains their plan and enough of their technology and methods, so that Martin can get a fairly good idea of how to stop them. In an attempt to pad out the running time of the film, screenwriters Myles Wilder and William Raynor have Martin trying to escape through the tunnels, only to run into the aliens’ giant monsters – which are in fact blown-up stock footage of critters like spiders, lizards and grasshoppers, which are awkwardly spliced in between shots of Graves running around Bronson Canyon. As Martin is forced to return to the aliens’ lab, Deneb explains that the animals have been enlarged through radiation, and will be the doom of mankind. Then Martin is hypnotised, and sent back to the air base to become a spy for the aliens. End of flashback.
Now free from the hypnosis after the truth serum, Martin tries to convince his co-workers that he hasn’t been hallucinating, and that the world (or at least the United States) is in terrible danger, and only he knows how to stop it. But of course they are all thinking that his story about aliens in silly jump suits and egg trays for eyes is a little on the richer side. So our hero has to go it alone. But will he succeed? Well, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out.
In truth, Killers from Space has all the makings of a good B movie. The story, concocted by director William Lee Wilder’s son, Myles Wilder, is not a bad one. The attempt to meld a spy thriller with an alien abduction scheme has worked up to this day, with X-Files as the penultimate example. Wilder takes his cues off alien mind control stories such as the one found in Invaders from Mars (1953, review) and combines it with the always popular amnesia trope (done to perfection in Richard Condon’s 1959 novel The Manchurian Candidate and carried on in Robert Ludlum’s 1980 book The Bourne Identity), and is careful not to reveal the aliens until halfway through the film. Granted – the script is clumsy and illogical and the dialogue, especially the one involving the aliens, is disastrous, but Myles Wilder and his tag-team buddy William Raynor weren’t totally useless writers, as they proved with their successful TV work later on. With even a semi-decent budget and a good director, say like Jack Arnold or William Cameron Menzies, this could have been a minor science fiction classic in the vein of It Came from Outer Space (1953, review).
But, alas, they are stuck with a shoestring budget and Willie Wilder. I have written in length about Wilder Sr. and Jr. in my review of their previous film Phantom from Space (1953, review), so head over there for some more insight. But briefly: William Wilder was the older brother of the accomplished Austrian writer-director Billy Wilder. In 1945 Billy’s estranged brother Willie 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 a dozen short films. In 1950 he directed his first full-length feature, the noir Once a Thief, following up with Three Steps North. 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 the sci-fi tinged The Man Without a Body (1957) and a last science fiction-ish movie called The Omegans (1968).
Myles Wilder and William Raynor wrote Willie’s two other early sci-fi movies, but Raynor parted ways with Myles 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 series 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).
Billy Wilder (born Samuel) is of course regarded as one of the top directors in Hollywood during the forties and fifties, while Willie (born Wilhelm) is regarded as the talent-deprived embarrassment of the family. Willie helped out the penniless Billy when he arrived in Hollywood from Nazi Germany, but for some reason the two brothers didn’t seem to get along – they never collaborated, and rarely spoke of each other in public. One of the few times Billy mentioned Willie, he jokingly called him ”a dull son of a bitch”. According to Willie’s granddaughter Kim Wilder, who writes about her granddad at Kid in the Front Row Film Blog, there wasn’t any special reason for the animosity between the two, other than the fact that Billy Wilder was a difficult and self-absorbed man, who was more interested in his own art and his ”rich Hollywood friends” than his family. However, there is a connection between the two Wilders in Killers from Space, and that is lead actor Peter Graves.
Peter Graves was an up-and-coming actor who got something of a breakthrough in Billy Wilder’s lauded WWII drama Stalag 17, released the same year as Killers from Space. I have covered Graves earlier on the blog, in my review of the terrible 1952 movie Red Planet Mars. Graves was never the most versatile of actors, but did a good enough job within his own parameters, that with the help his athletic build, his ruggedly handsome features and his stern blue eyes and blonde hair, he was able to carve out a rather successful Hollywood career, but as the blog X-Entertainment puts it: more in a ”’you’re supposed to know what he’s done’ way than an actual ‘you know what he’s done’ way”.
During the fifties Graves trudged on in supporting roles in A-films like The Night of the Hunter (1955) and The Naked Street (1955), and played leads in a number of B movies, including a few sci-fis. But he found his real success in TV, starting with the lead in the western drama Fury (1955-1960), following up with the Australian western series Whiplash (1960-1961) and the British Court Marshal (1965-1966). To baby boomers, however, his real claim to fame is as the grey-haired leader of a team of American agents infiltrating foreign baddies all over the world. As Jim Phelps in the groundbreaking spy series Mission: Impossible (1967-1973) Peter Graves became an A-list celebrity worldwide, and the role landed him a Golden Globe in 1971. He reprised his role in the remake (1988-1990), but turned down the role in the Tom Cruise movie in 1996, because the script revealed Jim Phelps as a traitor.
A younger audience may know Graves from his legendary turn as Captain Clarence Oveur in the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedy Airplane! (1980), where he asks a young boy if he’s ”ever seen a grown man naked”, and in the sequel from 1982. In an interview Graves confesses that at first he threw the script for Airplane! across the room, as he thought it was rubbish, but upon second reading he realised how the role made fun of his history of steely, stone-faced hero types, and he slowly started to chuckle. Graves is treasured in sci-fi circles because of his appearance in a number of bad B movies, like It Conquered the World (1956) and Beginning of the End (1957). He had the leading role in The Clonus Horror (1979) and had a cameo as himself in Men in Black II (2002). He also appeared in a few TV films, including The Eye Creatures (1965) where he did an uncredited voice-over, and the interactive movie/computer game Darkstar: The Interactive Movie (2010), where he acted as narrator. Graves’ real name was Peter Duesler Aurness. Sci-fi fans may know his brother James Arness as the Thing in The Thing from Another World (1951, review).
Peter Graves really carries Killers from Space on his shoulders. As stated, he was not the most versatile of actors, and is sometimes prone to overacting in the movie, especially in scenes where he is reacting to things that are not on screen, or fleeing from rear-projected gigantic critters. But he never lets on that he is working in a basement-studio production or that the proceedings are sometimes downright silly. Thus he lends an air of dignity and realism to the movie, and never seems to be phoning in his performance.
There isn’t much in the way of special effects in the film – apart from the strange equipment in the alien lab and the rear-projected critters. So little, in fact, that the film doesn’t even have a credited special effects crew. The stacks of machines appearing in the aliens’ cave were probably salvaged from some other film, and blinking neon tubes and arc generators were not hard to come by in Hollywood in the fifties. At least in Phantom from Space, there were some rather impressive invisibility effects, here all effects shots are stock photo explosions, stock photo animals or bits and pieces cobbled together from other films, mainly a few miniature shots of rockets, space stations and alien cities – I can distinctly make out the Martian city from the 1951 film Flight to Mars (review), one of the most re-used miniature shots in sci-fi history.
The rear-projected shots of the spiders and lizards and bugs behind Peter Graves are very clumsily done, and Graves is given very little direction about what he should be doing. The whole sequence with Dr. Martin running around in the caves is painful to watch, as it is clear that nobody on set had any sense of what was supposed to be going on, other than having Graves running back and forth in Bronson Canyon, frowning. The change in film quality when mixing actual film footage and stock footage is blatant throughout the movie, even from looking at the grainy version I watched online. When a nuclear explosion is supposed to go off in the desert, one can clearly see that it is a US atom bomb test. At sea. With ships in the sea.
The film was clearly shot in a rush, since Wilder and cinematographer William H. Clothier seem to settle for as few set-ups of each scene as possible, and some scenes are simply done with one single, static camera shot. To the film’s credit, we do see a little more than bare offices, like some low-budget movies show, as Wilder does try to take us out in the open and change locations as much as possible. Still, there’s no escaping the dreary scenes where actors stand lined up against a white wall with a chair and a desk to make it look like an office. For one scene we get little more than two people talking to each other from separate corners of the screen, while the camera centres in of a portrait of president Eisenhower. For five minutes or so. For the final climactic scene, Wilder has the privilege to film at an actual power plant, and the surroundings are pretty impressive. Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite manage to use the camera with any sort of imagination, to take advantage of the location, instead we get people running through one static shot into the next one.
All characters in the film are extremely flat and one-dimensional, and there is no character development to speak of. The film is only 70 minutes long, but the lack lack of any sort of subplot or dialogue outside of the what is necessary to move the plot along force the filmmakers to pad out the movie with stock footage and endless silent stretches of people running, driving and walking. The plot could easily have been condensed into a 30 minute TV episode.
Thematically, the film follows the issues of the time without much deviation. This was the height of McCarthyism, when Americans were looking for Russian spies under every bed. However, for diplomatic reasons censors didn’t want creators of fiction to actually say they were looking for Russian spies under every bed, hence the many creative metaphors we see in films from this era, where people are talking about ”foreign powers” or ”the enemy”. Some went as far as creating whole new Eastern-sounding countries, a popular trope in spy series of the fifties and sixties – and in science fiction space aliens were often stand-ins for communists. In Killers from Space, it isn’t hard to see the the mind-controlling aliens as a metaphor for the communists, secretly building up their army for an invasion, but the script is so thin that not even this simplest of sci-fi tropes gets any real footing, as the screenwriters never stop long enough to ponder the issue. Instead the aliens’ motives are on a first-grader’s level: our planet is dying, we will kill everyone and take over the Earth. Period.
The other Big Issue of sci-fi in the fifties was nuclear power and the atom bomb. More often than not, the fear was that the Soviets might develop long-range missiles armed with nuclear warheads, capable of launching them across the Pacific of the Atlantic ocean. Furthermore, advances in rocketry, such as the development of the V2 rocket and other technology sparked the idea that the first country to conquer space would be able to place nuclear weapon platforms either on the moon or in orbit around the Earth. Such worries were the driving force behind films like Destination Moon (1950, review) and Project Moon Base (1953, review). In these kinds of films, the fear of nuclear weapons was strictly that atom bombs were incredibly powerful bombs that could lay waste to whole cities. Very few at the time – even among scientists – understood the long-term danger of radiation and radioactive fallout. There were films that dealt with the dangers of atomic power, such as Five (1951, review) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, review), but not even their bleak visions could do justice to the real horrors of a nuclear explosion. Unsurprisingly, Killers from Space doesn’t get it either, with our heroes peacefully watching a nuclear detonation from a window.
All in all, Killers from Space is a film where the hot topics of the time informs the storytelling more than the other way around. Whether or not Wilder & Wilder had any intent to comment on either of the topics listed above is unclear, but whatever the case, these discussions are lost in the thinness of the script. As such, the film has more in common with the juvenile entertainment of the Flash Gordons (1936, review) of the thirties and forties than with afore-mentioned socially charged movies.
Among the many mundane camera setups are moments of brilliance, however. Phantom from Space and Killers from Space were among the first films as director of photography for William H. Clothier, a 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. In Killers from Space especially two shots stand out; both POV shots. The first one is the air base doctor checking Dr. Martin’s eyes, which is a very eerie close-up of Shepard Menken’s face, and the other is the shot of Martin waking up after his crash, seeing three strange aliens doing something with scare, smoking instruments, then the shot switches so we see Martin’s own heart beating on top of his chest.
The editing is ghastly. People appear from out of nowhere and there is shot after shot of people running from one static shot through another. This is most tiresome in the underground sequences and in the sequences at the power plant. The pacing is constantly off and there are too many unedited stretches of single takes. Killers from Space is probably the best known of editor William Faris’ films, which more or less tells the whole story.
Makeup artist Harry Thomas (the one with the egg trays) did work as part of larger makeup teams on a few A-listers like George Cukor’s Camille (1936) Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), but the rest of his resumé almost reads like a list of the 50 worst movies ever made. Thomas worked on a total of 21 science fiction films, starting with Superman and the Mole-Men (1951, review), Red Snow (1952) and Invasion U.S.A. (1952, review). He then moved on to films like Project Moon Base, Cat-Women of the Moon (1953, review), The Neanderthal Man (1931, review), Jungle Hell, Voodoo Woman (1957), The Unearthly (1957), From Hell It Came (1957), Frankenstein’s Daughter (1958), Night of the Blood Beast (1958), Missile to the Moon (1958), Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), Flight that Disappeared (1961), Space Probe Taurus (1965), Navy vs. the Night Monsters (1966), The Bubble (1966), and The Curious Female (1970). He also worked on many episodes of the TV series Adventures of Superman.
The one thing that stands out surprisingly well in the movie is the music, composed by Manuel Compinsky. A renowned violinist, conductor and music teacher, like many musicians in Los Angeles, he contributed to the film industry, although mostly as a musician. He composed music for three of W. Lee Wilder’s movies, though: Killers from Space, The Snow Creature and The Big Bluff (1955). His brother, Alec Compinsky was music supervisor on Killers from Space, and worked in this capacity on a handful of other films, but most notably on a good dozen TV-series. The music in the film is suitably eerie, with a hint of modernism, and covers long stretches without dialogue.
Regarding the cast, there are few worthy of much mention apart from Peter Graves. However, credit must be given to John Frederick, who plays the leader of the aliens with a completely straight face, not that this makes the performance any better. This was probably one of his largest roles, as his 70 film and TV roles are mostly of the ”2nd officer of Wehrmacht” or ”Police officer in car” variety. As in most of his movies, he was credited as John Merrick. James Seay, who plays the air base commander, is wooden as a plank. He had tiny roles in When Worlds Collide (1951, review), The Day the Earth Stood Still, The War of the Worlds (1953, review). He also had a supporting role in Phantom 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).
Frank Gerstle and Steve Pendleton, both in forgettable supporting roles, were prolific bit-part actors who appeared in both A and B movies, as well as TV series. Gerstle appeared in The Neanderthal Man, The Magnetic Monster (1953, review), Killers from Space, The Wasp Woman (1959), Monstrosity (1963), Murderer’s Row (1966), The Silencers (1966) and The Bamboo Saucer (1968), and Pendleton can be seen in Target Earth (1954, review). Shepard Menken, as the physician, is actually not that bad in his role, as the only one in the cast emitting anything close to naturalism. Menken struggled on with bit-parts in B movies up until the mid-fifties, when he almost exclusively switched to TV, and in the sixties he made something of a career in animation voice work. His greatest claim to fame is probably voicing Ricki-Ticki-Tavi in the film with the same name in 1975.
Barbara Bestar as Dr. Martin’s wife does show some emotion, but unfortunately too much, and she overacts all the way through. Bestar played the female lead in four B movies in the early fifties, and spent the rest of the decade as guest actor in a number of TV-series.
Among the smaller bit-part players are a few mildly interesting names to pick up as curiosities. Jack Daly had small roles in The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Rocket Man (1954), Tobor the Great (1954, review), Phantom from Space and Return of the Fly (1959). Ron Gans had quite a time on TV, playing several aliens in the series Lost in Space (1965-1967), the abominable snowman on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968), and later started doing voice work – he pops up in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), and had the honour of voicing the minor Decepticon robot Drag Strip, as well as a number of other voices on the original Transformers TV-series (1984-1987), as well as the straight-to-video movie Transformers: Five Faces of Darkness. X-Men fans might want to take note of the fact that he voiced none other than Magneto in the one-off TV short Pryde of the X-Men (1989). He also had bit-parts in the films The Curious Female (1970), The Thing with Two Heads (1972), Deathsport (1978), Heartbeeps (1981), and Not of this Earth (1988), starring former porn star Traci Lords. Robert Roark’s claim to fame is playing Davis, a psychopathic killer, in Target Earth.
Both Killers from Space and W. Lee Wilder have their genuine fans, even if they are few and far between. One of the most heartfelt praises of Wilder I’ve read comes from Jim Knipfel at Den of Geek, who writes that ”W. Lee was a much more interesting and adventurous filmmaker than his brother” and that ”he did have some fine, sharp little scripts (often written by his son Myles) and an undeniable cinematic flair. Somehow, perhaps pure chutzpah was behind it, or a touch of dark alchemy, or simple madness, all those sub-par onscreen elements came together into some mighty spellbinding wholes”. In Knipfel’s defense, I haven’t seen all of Wilder’s films, but I do feel that the praise he heaps on Phantom from Space and Killers from Space is a tad inflated. While it is true that both films have the feeling of being made by a mad scientist, the simple truth is that the quality just isn’t there. With both movies there is the nagging feeling that there’s a good premise in the original story – but that’s thanks to Myles and not Willie. Myles later proves himself as a quality player in Hollywood, Willie never did.
I would agree that W. Lee Wilder wasn’t the same sort of clumsy amateur that Ed Wood was, but there were a bunch of decent directors and producers in Hollywood in the forties, fifties and sixties that churned out pictures on shoestring budgets with far better results, even if they weren’t all as wacky as Wilder. Sam Newfield and William Beaudine, for example, and let’s not forget the king of the cheapo movies, Roger Corman, who worked on even smaller budgets than Wilder, often with better results. What Wilder did have in common with Wood was that his reach exceeded his grasp, which is why we remember him today. Trying to make Big Movies with Big Ideas with neither the talent nor the budgets to do so, his films are spectacularly memorable failures, rather than decent, but forgettable B movie fair. Another reason we remember Killers from Space is that the movie fell into the public domain quite early, since nobody renewed its copyright license, and because it was riffed on by the Film Crew, a MST3K-type group some years ago. And because of the egg trays. If you want to give the film some credit, then this is arguably the first movie in which aliens abduct a human being to put him on a slab – and when he wakes up the aliens stand over him with strange medical equipment. No probing, however, just some heart surgery.
By: Janne Wass
EDIT: October 6, 2016. 22.01: On second thought, I upgraded my rating of this film from 1 stars to 2 stars.
Killers from Space (1954, USA). Directed by W. Lee Wilder. Written by Myles Wilder and William Raymond. Cinematography: William H. Clothier. Editing: William Faris. Music: Manuel Compinsky. Makeup and egg trays: Harry Thomas. Sound recordist: George E.H. Hanson. Starring: Peter Graves, James Seay, Steve Pendleton, Frank Gerstle, John Frederick, Barbara Bestar, Shepard Menken, Jack Daly, Ron Gans, Ben Welden, Burt Wenland, Lester Dorr, Robert Roark, Ruth Bennett, Mark Scott. Produced by W. Lee Wilder for Planet Filmplays.