The Quatermass Xperiment

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(7/10) Released in the US as The Creeping Unknown, this British 1955 sci-fi horror film is a landmark of the genre. Based on a popular TV series, it was Hammer Films’ first horror movie and their first major hit film. American heavy Brian Donlevy stars as Quatermass, a bulldozer of a rocket scientist trying to solve the mystery of a returned astronaut being transformed from within by an alien life-force that threatens to release its spores all over London. A dark, unsettling sci-fi thriller that still resonates today.

The crashed Quatermass rocket.

The crashed Quatermass rocket.

The Quatermass Xperiment (1955, UK). Directed by Val Guest. Written by Val Guest & Richard Landau, based on the TV series The Quatermass Experiment, written by Nigel Kneale. Starring: Brian Donlevy, Richard Wordsworth, Jack Warner, Margia Dean, David King-Wood, Lionel Jeffries, Maurice Kaufmann, Thora Hird, Jane Asher. Produced by Anthony Hinds and Robert L. Lippert for Hammer Films and Exclusive Productions.
IMDb rating: 6.8/10. Tomatometer: 92% Fresh. Metascore: N/A. 

Blu-Ray sleeve.

Blu-Ray sleeve.

Ah! Young love. A starry summer night on the rural outskirts of London. A playful couple on their way home from a night on the town tease and giggle as they fall into each other’s arms in the hay. But that’s all the romance and peace we have time for in this movie. Because just as the young lovers settle into an embrace, something comes roaring across the night sky, and from there on this 80 minute movie never once lets up it relentless pace. ‘

”What is that?” asks the boy.

”Is it a jet?” replies the girl.

”That’s no jet!” exclamates the boy, then points to the sky, horrified.

”Look!”

Fear-struck the couple race for safety, getting called into a house by a frightened farmer. ”Dad!” shouts the girls as the trio ducks for cover. There’s a tremendous roar and a crash outside. The roof of the house collapses. All are fine, but dad grabs his rifle and decides to have a look outside, only to be stopped with a dumb-struck look on his face. The camera cuts to his field, where flames and smoke rise, and in the middle of it a huge rocket has crashed nose first into the ground. Continue reading

King Dinosaur

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(0/10) Forget Plan 9 from Outer Space, that charmingly childish fantasy from Ed Wood. Bert I. Gordon’s super-cheap directorial (solo) debut King Dinosaur is a much better contender for the title of worst film ever made. This story of four scientists battling a T.Rex on an unknown planet is inept in every single department and doesn’t even have a redeeming amateurish charm to it. The most interesting aspect of the movie is probably the life story of one of its stars, a jazz singer who kickstarted fashion guru Mr. Blackwell’s career and almost caused a diplomatic incident in Argentina.

Douglas Henderson and Patti Gallagher flee a "Tyrannosaurus Rex" in a promo photo. The actual effects of the film never look this good.

Douglas Henderson and Patti Gallagher flee a “Tyrannosaurus Rex” in a promo photo. The actual effects of the film never look this good.

King Dinosaur (1955, USA). Directed by Bert I. Gordon. Written by Tom Gries, Bert I. Gordon, Al Zimbalist. Starring: William Bryant, Wanda Curtis, Douglas Henderson, Patti Gallagher, Marvin Miller. Produced by Bert I. Gordon for Zimgor Productions. Executive producer: Al Zimbalist.
IMDb rating: 1.9/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.

Note the dissimilarity between the lizard in the photograph above and the one on the poster.

Note the dissimilarity between the lizard in the photograph above and the one on the poster. The poster also as five people in it. That’s more than the entire cast of the film.

I had just finished my one-star review of The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955), and thought it probably couldn’t get much worse, when King Dinosaur came along and proved me wrong. It seems that 1955 was the turning-point for sci-fi cinema in the sense that filmmakers realised that by running a shrewd marketing campaign promising monsters and babes, they could really film almost anything that had a fleeting resemblance to the poster, create a script that had a beginning and an end, and preferably some padding in the middle, and get the film released. And since the movies probably didn’t cost more than 30 000 dollars, a profit was almost inevitable. Continue reading

The Beast with a Million Eyes

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(1/10) Perhaps Roger Corman’s worst movie of the fifties, this slow-moving super-cheapo really has no redeeming qualities, despite a somewhat clever idea. A group of B-actors run around the Coachella valley trying to look afraid of the friendly animals that are supposed to attack them, controlled as they are by an evil hand-puppet from space, created by Paul Blaisdell for combined material costs of 200 dollars. Love triumphs over the evil that apparently traverses space in a tea kettle.

The monster hand-puppet from The Beast with a Million Eyes, designed by Paul Blaisdell. Never seen this clearly on screen.

The monster hand-puppet from The Beast with a Million Eyes, designed by Paul Blaisdell. Never seen this clearly on screen.

The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955, USA). Directed by David Kramarsky, Lou Place, Roger Corman. Written by Tom Filer. Starring: Paul Birch, Lorna Thayer, Dona Cole, Dick Sargent, Leonard Tarver. Produced by David Kramarsky & Samuel Z. Arkoff for American Releasing Company. Executive producer: Roger Corman.
IMDb rating: 3.4/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A. 

Poster.

Poster.

Let’s jump right in with the plot on this one. There really is no point in describing it in detail, so here’s the long and the short of it: an incorporeal alien arrives to Earth in a spaceship with the plan of taking over the minds of all its inhabitants. It will start with the animals and then move to feeble-minded humans. Through its host’s eyes it will see everything, and that is why we shall come to know it as THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES! This is not a spoiler. This is what the alien itself tells us even before the title sequence. Continue reading

Target Earth

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(5/10) Based on a short story by Paul Fairman, Target Earth is one of the first empty world movies of the fifties. Best remembered for its clunky robot and its opening shots of an empty city, the film stumbles on bad dialogue and a low budget. Good actors like Richard Denning and Kathleen Crowley give the film gravitas, but ultimately the film’s ingredients are too thin to elevate it above B movie status.

Target Earth (1954, USA). Directed by Sherman A. Rose. Written by William Raynor, James H. Nicholson, Wyatt Ordung. Based on the story Deadly City by Paul W. Fairman. Starring Richard Denning, Kathleen Crowley, Virginia Grey, Richard Reeves, Robert Roark, Arthur Space, Whit Bissell, Steve Calvert. Produced by Sherman Cohen for Abtcon Pictures and Herman Cohen Productions. IMDB rating: 5.7/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.

Kathleen Crowley and Richard Denning fighting the invader robot.

Kathleen Crowley and Richard Denning fighting the invader robot.

1954 was a year in sci-fi that gave us some of the great classics, like Creature from the Black Lagoon (review) and Them! (review), but also movies infamous for their cheap camp, like Killers from Space (review) and Devil Girl from Mars (review). But then there are also the pictures that, justly or unjustly, are more or less forgotten today by most except us aficionados, because they were neither good nor bad enough to become either classics nor cult films. One of those is Target Earth, an independently produced cheapo that one wishes would have had a little more time, a little more budget and a little better screenwriters. In a way it is a film that you would like to like a little more than you actually do, because there is an unfulfilled potential in the movie. Continue reading

Cat-Women of the Moon

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2/10 In a nutshell: Surely one of the most inept productions ever to get a theatrical release, this Poverty Row film from bad movie giants Al Zimbalist and Jack Rabin steals its sets and props from other movies and throws science and logic out the window as it presents the first Amazons-in-space film. If you can forgive its ineptitude and fifties sexism, it’s a highly enjoyable so-bad-it’s-good movie. And there’s giant moon spiders.

Cat-Women of the Moon (1953, USA). Directed by Arthur Hilton. Written by Roy Hamilton, Al Zimbalist & Jack Rabin. Starring: Sonny Tufts, Marie Windsor, Victor Jory, William Phipps, Douglas Fowley, Carol Brewster, Susan Morrow. Prodcuced by Al Zimbalist and Jack Rabin for Z-M Productions. IMDb score: 3.6/10

The Cat-Women of the Moon.

The Cat-Women of the Moon.

In the fifties American manhood was threatened. When the men were off fighting WWII, women were called in to factories, retailers and institutions to take their place, and thus keep the wheels of society turning. In the process, many of them found that having a salary of their own greatly improved their freedom and made them independent of a male provider, which had been the norm up until then. As the men returned home, many women refused to let things slip back to the way it was before the war, and were backed up by a growing feminist movement. Suddenly women’s’ liberation was thing again, and companies that could hire women for a lesser salary than men, didn’t necessarily protest. But a lot of men felt threatened by the loosening of their control over women, and a lot of men dominated the media, the entertainment and the advertising industry, and this created a backlash, resulting in what we today loosely refer to as ”fifties values”, where great emphasis was laid on ”traditional” family values, Christianity, which stated that the man was the head of the family, chastity and female obedience. This was one of the driving forces in Hollywood behind an onslaught of ”Amazon Women” films, of which Cat-Women of the Moon is one of the best known examples. Continue reading

The War of the Worlds

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(8/10) In a nutshell: With his third try at a science fiction epic, producer George Pal finally ironed out some of the kinks that made his first two attempts fall below the mark. This adaptation of H.G. Wells’ alien invasion classic is a stunning tour de force of special effects, aided by a fast-paced script and beautiful design. The breezy plot helps to partly cover up that Pal has stripped Wells’ story of all ideology and satire, and reversed the author’s position on key issues, and Pal’s insistence on drowning his movies in schmarmy religious tirades makes for a cringe-worthy ending. Despite this, The War of the Worlds is a brilliantly entertaining nail-biter and visually a true masterpiece.

The War of the Worlds (1953). Directed by Byron Haskin. Written by Barré Lyndon. Based on the novel The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. Starring: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Robert Cornthwaite, Lewis Martin, Paul Frees, William Phipps, Cedric Harwicke, Charles Gemora, Carolyn Jones. Produced by George Pal, Frank Freeman Jr. & Cecil B. DeMille for Paramount Pictures. Tomatometer: 85%. IMDb score: 7.2/10

The iconic war machines of The War of the Worlds, designed by Albert Nozaki.

The iconic war machines of The War of the Worlds, designed by Albert Nozaki. Look closely and you see the wires.

There are a few films that stand towering over science fiction like giants in respect to their influence on the genre. George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902, review), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927, review), and Woman in the Moon (1929, review), James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931, review), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and the Wachowksi Brothers’ The Matrix (1999) are among these. They are not always the best in their subgenre and some of them are hampered by by serious problems. They are not always first in their field with their ideas, but execute them in ways that make them milestones to which you can pin flags and draw a line: this was science fiction film history before this-and-this film, and this is what it looks like afterwards. George Pal’s The War of the Worlds is one of these films, it is the Magnum Opus of a filmmaker that wasn’t always savvy to what made a good sci-fi script, but without question one of the great visionaries of movie history. Continue reading

The Quatermass Experiment

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(6/10) In a nutshell: Only two out of six episodes remain of this hugely influential British TV mini-series written by Nigel Kneale. Spawning three feature films, three more series, a number of ripoffs and laying the ground for a whole new subgenre, this series changed how TV was made in Britain. The execution is quaint and a bit stuffy today, but that doesn’t take away from the awesome impact of Kneale’s highly original writing and the story and the themes of an astronaut carrying a lethal danger within his body to Earth are still as strong today as they ever were.

The Quatermass Experiment (TV mini-series, 1953). Directed by Rudolph Cartier. Written by Nigel Kneale. Starring: Reginald Tate, Isabel Dean, Hugh Kelly, Paul Whitsun-Jones, Duncan Lamont, John Glen, Ian Colin, Frank Hawkins, Oliver Johnston, Katie Johnson, Christopher Rhodes, Peter Bathurst. Produced by Rudolph Cartier for BBC. IMDb score: 7.4/10

The alien plant of The Quatermass Experiment.

The alien plant of The Quatermass Experiment.

This is one of my rare TV reviews. Although I tend to stick to films, there is a broader point behind this blog, which is to create an Encyclopedia of sorts of the history of sci-fi films, and in that regard some TV series are simply too influential to be left out. One such as this is the BBC production The Quatermass Experiment, which was really the first TV serial aimed at an adult audience. Continue reading

It Came from Outer Space

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(7/10) In a nutshell: Sci-fi stalwart Jack Arnold directed this his first science fiction film as Universal’s 3-D splash for the summer of 1953. Prominent sci-fi leading man Richard Carlson plays a proto-Fox Mulder who tries to convince a small town in Arizona that he saw a UFO crash in the desert, while aliens kidnap and and assume the guises of the townspeople. Co-written by Ray Bradbury, this well-directed fable of xenophobia and cold war paranoia manages to both appeal to the pulpier parts of our brains and the intellectual grains of the mind.

It Came from Outer Space. Directed by Jack Arnold. Written by Ray Bradbury & Harry Essex. Starring: Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Charles Drake, Joe Sawyer, Russell Johnson, Kathleen Hughes, Virginia Mullen. Produced by William Alland for Universal-International. Tomatometer: 81 %. IMDb score: 6.6

Barbara Rush as Ellen in the xenomorph's view.

Barbara Rush as Ellen in the xenomorph’s view.

Acclaimed A movie directors like Howard Hawks, Robert Wise and Don Siegel, along with visionary producer-director George Pal, all did their best to coax the science fiction genre out of the B movie quagmire that refused to loosen its grip on it in the fifties. But equally important – if not even more so – for the genre was Jack Arnold, director of films like Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, review), Tarantula (1955, review) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), among others. Arnold acknowledged the genre’s pulpy roots, and instead of trying to transcend them, he embraced them, but brought a level of intelligence and refinement to his work, and made some of the most influential sci-fi films of the decade. It all started with a film that is often dropped from his resumé when counting his best films, and it is always a mistake: It Came from Outer Space. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Invaders from Mars

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(6/10) In a nutshell: This Hugo-nominated 1953 film by William Cameron Menzies is delightfully whimsy and disturbingly surreal, balancing between pure camp and serious psychological questions about adolescence. In a dreamlike reality (or a realistic dream) 10-year old David’s parents and friends are body-snatched by Martians who have landed in his backyard. It’s a race to see if David and his confidantes can blow up the UFO before the aliens have infiltrated the whole town.

Invaders from Mars (1953). Directed by William Cameron Menzies. Written by Richard Blake, John Tucker Battle, Arthur Gardner. Starring: Helena Carter, Arthur Franz, Jimmy Hunt, Leif Erickson, Hillary Brook, Morris Ankrum. Produced by Edward L. Alperson for Edward L. Alperson Productions. Tomatometer: 82 %. IMDb score: 6.5

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Publicity poster for Invaders from Mars, Luz Potter as “Martian Intelligence”.

1953 was the year when the floodgates finally opened for what we would call ”fifties camp” in science fiction – only three films into the year, I have already reviewed Robot Monster, and now we get to another cult classic: Invaders from Mars. While the former is an entity in and of itself, the latter also has some claim to uniqueness: it was the first alien film in colour. Rushed into theatres in April to beat the premiere of George Pal’s Magnum Opus The War of the Worlds (review), the movie is one of the more bizarre, and beloved, entries in fifties science fiction canon. Continue reading