Two W. Lee Wilder sci-fi "classics" from the early 1950s
Daniel Jolley | Shelby, North Carolina USA | 12/19/2005
(3 out of 5 stars)
"W. Lee Wilder had a penchant for making enjoyably average yet largely forgettable science fiction films. In Phantom From Space (1953), Wilder introduces us to a much more agreeable alien than that found in his more familiar Killers From Space of the following year. Okay, so the phantom does kill a few people and cause some serious oil fires, but it's not all his fault. He's just not a people person, you see, what with being invisible and all. He's also not that bright, choosing to ditch his spacesuit and helmet rather than fall into the clutches of the humans on his tail. He needs something akin to a methane gas atmosphere in order to breathe, and a helmet-less jaunt on earth with its oxygen-based atmosphere threatens to cut short his visit in a most significant way.
The film starts out with an unidentified object hurtling from Alaska to the California coast, where the object seems to disappear. Mobile communications folks are sent out to determine the source of interference suddenly wreaking havoc in the area, and these guys keep bumping into cops investigating murders and other acts of destruction. Soon, these different forces team up with an army man and a scientist, and everyone eventually comes to the amazing conclusion that the source of all the trouble is actually a humanoid not of this world. The ending is not exactly a bright and chipper one, but it is just about the only plausible ending possible and, in its own way, it works pretty effectively.
I actually enjoyed Phantom From Space, despite a number of slow scenes in the first half of the film. The actors are reasonably good albeit colorless, and I was amused at the way the lead scientist seemed to become more and more German as the action progressed. There are certain limited parallels between this movie and Monster a Go-Go, and I feel compelled to state that the conclusion of Phantom From Space is far, far better than what you will find in its B-movie cousin. There's nothing here to make this film stand out, but it is a relatively painless and occasionally interesting cinematic diversion.
According to some, 1954's Killers From Space is so bad that it's good; some would even grant it B movie cult status. I take more of a middle ground because, to me, the movie isn't really that bad. Sure, it has some silly aspects to it, but it's a lot more enjoyable than many a 1950s science fiction thriller you can find out there in the wild. Admittedly, the prominence of Peter Graves also helps because I can't help but think of him as a legitimate actor despite a good bit of evidence to the contrary.
As for the plot, it all starts on a gorgeous day with a lot of folks coming together to watch the detonation of an atomic bomb - don't worry, they are all wearing goggles, so I'm sure they are in no danger whatsoever; as we all learned on MST3K, radiation can only hurt you if you touch it. Anyway, Dr. Douglas Martin (Peter Graves) is flying around above the explosion taking readings when his pilot spots a glowing object below and commences to take the plane into a vertical dive toward the earth. There is no sign of Martin's body in the wreckage, but no one could have survived the crash. Then, shortly thereafter, who should come wandering up to the gate of the local military base but Dr. Martin himself. He returns with no memory of what happened, but he does have a shiny new surgical scar covering the left upper side of his chest. He soon begins acting strangely, and ultimately he gets nabbed hiding some secret information about the next atomic test under a rock in the desert. In with the truth serum, and out comes a story of aliens with hard-boiled eggs for eyes breeding a zoo of genetically mutated super-sized critters. He insists that the future of the planet is in grave peril, but no one believes him. Thus, as is always the case, it's up to Peter Graves to save the world single-handedly (and, as luck would have it, the aliens were stupid enough to pretty much tell him how to destroy them).
Some individuals have posited that this film helped create a template for future alien abduction accounts. This idea is pure rubbish, in my opinion. Sure, the aliens have huge eyes that seem to haunt Martin, but no E.T. ever looked as stupid as these guys; Martin also wakes up on a table surrounded by aliens performing some kind of medical procedure on him, but the scenes in this movie are by and large pretty laughable. Besides the aliens, the other thing this movie is known for is its whole giant insect montage. When Martin tries to escape from the aliens, he winds up running around in their menagerie - in other words, he runs back and forth between some projection screens showing extreme close-ups of spiders, lizards, and other creepy-crawlies. This scene would have been fairly effective had the director shown any restraint, but these shots just continue for far too long. If you've seen Peter Graves in The Beginning of the End, you will feel quite at home here. In the final analysis, Killers From Space is obviously not a great movie, but I personally don't think it is quite bad enough to be considered a full-fledged "bad movie.""