Friend and fellow-writer Vic Milan has been co-hosting a monthly 1950's film festival at Gail and my house this winter. We show three movies dealing with a similar theme, such as (in past months) Creatures (Mostly) From the Sea, BIG Bugs, and this month (tomorrow) Alien Invasions (Part 1). It takes a hardy soul to make it through all three, usually two well (or fairly well) done efforts, and then a third craptacular epic after all our critical processes have been suspended (or beaten into submission) by the end of the evening. To introduce the viewers, not all of whom have seen these, to the evening's films, I write up quick and dirty movie notes. They are hardly exhaustive, but are, I hope, entertaining and informative. The following notes are for the movies we'll be seeing tommorow: EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS, THE TROLLENBERG TERROR (known to the less-sophisticated American audience as THE CRAWLING EYE), and, finally, THE INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN.
Welcome to the Movie Notes for the February 2008 session of the Milan and Millers 1950's SF Film Festival. The theme for this month is Alien Invasions. There were so many alien invasions in the 1950's (and so many of them were documented on film) that I’m considering bringing back this theme for another month as well. But for now we’ll content ourselves with EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS, THE CRAWLING EYE, and INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN.
First up is 1956's EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS, which is probably the only science fiction movie of the 1950's based on a non-fiction book. The source material for this movie came from Major Donald Keyhoe’s 1953 volume Flying Saucers From Outer Space. I believe I read this book while I was in the fourth grade (no, not in 1953), but at this late date I couldn’t swear as to whether it was actual non fiction, or more in the speculative fiction line. Still, the author was in the military, and they wouldn’t lie to us, would they?
This film comes in at an underrated 6.2 in the IMDB poll, which makes it rather under-appreciated in my opinion, which would peg it at an 8. The acting is believable, the tone is almost documentary at times, and the special effects (by good old Ray Harryhausen) are at the same time understated and realistic. There’s very little to gripe at in this film, so the mediocre rating mystifies me a bit. Of course, it is in black and white.
The director was Fred Sears, who helmed over fifty movies, most of them westerns. His one other genre piece was THE GIANT CLAW, which might someday make this festival as the comic relief final feature if we ever revisit the Giant Creature theme. The writer was the acclaimed Curt Siodmak, who wrote over 65 screenplays, many of them genre classics (or, at least fondly remembered) including HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, SON OF DRACULA, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (great movie!), FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN, and, of course the original THE WOLFMAN ("Even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers at night," etc.). Siodmak also appeared as an actor in the silent classic METROPOLIS. George Worthing Yates (who penned one of the BIG BUG classics we saw, EARTH VS THE SPIDER) also contributed to the screenplay. I’m not exactly sure what, but perhaps he came up with the film’s title. Hmm. EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS. EARTH VS THE SPIDER. I do see certain similarities.
The acting is at least competent and solid. Hugh Marlowe plays Dr. Russell Marvin (the scientist). His other genre effort was THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, another Alien Invasion movie, but of a totally different sort. Joan Taylor plays his secretary-love interest. She was also seen in 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH. Morris Ankrum played the General, as he also did in THE GIANT CLAW and THE BEGINNING OF THE END, arguably the worst BIG BUG movie of all time. The aliens were played by a bunch of guys in stiff suits. For once, they prove vulnerable to a well-placed bullet.
EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS clocks in at 83 minutes.
Our next film is THE CRAWLING EYE, also known under its somewhat more understated title as THE TROLLENBERG TERROR. This 1958 movie is British and comes in at a vastly under-appreciated 4.0 in the IMDB poll. Allowing even for a bit of nostalgic favoritism on my part, I would give it an 8 for its originality and a couple of authentically chilling scenes. Though, yes, I know...crawling eyes. ..Still, I absolutely loved it as a kid and revisit it frequently.
EYE was originally a BBC serial that ran for five or six consecutive Saturdays a year or two prior to its reincarnation as a feature film. Several of the actors from the serial reprise their roles for the film version. I would love to see the original version, but the only reference I’ve read about it stated casually that the tapes were wiped (and apparently reused). Pity.
Most of the talent associated with the film is British. It was directed by Quentin Lawrence, who was mostly a tv director. Peter Key wrote the original BBC version and well-known Hammer screenplay writer Jimmy Sangster (DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS and THE MUMMY, among numerous others) did the film version.
They probably stuck in Forrest Tucker (U.N. investigator Alan Brooks) to make the film more appealing (like the title change) for the American release. Tucker, perhaps best known for his portrayal of Sgt. O’Rourke in 65 episodes of the mid-1960's television show F-TROOP (personally, I loved character actor Edward Everett Horton effort on the show as the Indian medicine man Screaming Chicken, or something equally implausible). Tucker does some good work in this, even if he does simply cover his face with his hands when he’s supposed to do heavy emoting. The other British actors are excellent. Laurence Payne (Phillip Trescott) was a BBC actor who played Sexton Blake for 50 episodes in a long-running series, and has also appeared on multiple episodes of DR. WHO. He was also in the original BBC serial. Jennifer Jayne (Sarah Pilgrim) was a long-time BBC actress. Warren Mitchell (Dr. Crevett) who plays a somewhat elderly and completely eccentric scientist, is still working today in British television. Janet Monroe (who played the psychic Anne Pilgrim) grew up on BBC television and moved on to Disney movies. When she tried to assay adult roles she was less successful and died at the young age of 38 in 1972. Look also for Andrew Faulds, who does a really fine and creepy supporting turn as the mountain climber Brett. He turned to politics and served 30 years in Parliament as a strong anti-racist Labour politician.
In the beginning train sequence, keep your eyes on the newspaper Forrest Tucker is reading.
THE CRAWLING EYE comes in at 84 minutes.
Our final film for the evening is the truly craptacular INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN. This 1957 film is inexplicably rated higher on the IMDB poll than THE CRAWLING EYE at 4.6. A modicum of moderately successful comic relief (especially the dialog of the ad man turned military guy who has to cover the whole thing up) gives it a 4 on my personal scale.
There’s probably only one person you’ve ever heard of associated with the film. We’ll get to him a little later on.
Edward Cahn was the director. He helmed an incredible 131 movies (since 1931), most of them western programmers. His genre work included the tolerable IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE, and the somewhat-less tolerable CREATURE WITH THE ATOMIC BRAIN. He also directed the immortal DRAGSTRIP GIRL, whose impact on this feature is discussed below. The screenplay was based on a story by Paul Fairman, who, as I've said elsewhere, is possibly the worst widely published (87 stories in my database, though that total is incomplete and likely to remain so because he hid under a vast array of pseudonyms) science fiction writer of all time. (Oddly, enough, I discovered while researching these notes that the one story of his that I thought was truly excellent "Some Day They May Give Us Guns," was also turned into a teleplay for one of the 1950's anthology television shows.) The screenplay for INVASION was written by Robert Gurney, who really didn’t have much of a film career.
Cahn, fresh from his triumph of DRAGSTRIP GIRL, brought most of his previous cinematic effort’s cast with him for Invasion, including Steven Terrell and Gloria Castillo, who play the teen couple who encounter the aliens and can get no one in authority to believe their story. Two somewhat older drifters played by Frank Gorshin (the one guy associated with this movie that you have heard of) and Lyn Osborn, who, unfortunately, bears an uncanny to a young Garrison Keillor, become involved in the thin plot which relies over-heavily on drunk cows. Gorshin, who had also been in DRAGSTRIP GIRL, was active in television as late as 2005, and is perhaps best remembered for playing the Riddler in eleven episodes of the mid-1960's tv show BATMAN. Terrell and Castillo also had fairly long television careers. Osborn, sadly, passed away in 1958 following brain surgery. He had played Cadet Happy on the Space Patrol radio show from 1951-1955 for 156 episodes.
Every now and then while researching these films, you run into something that makes you go, huh, interesting. My huh, interesting moment for this one was Raymond Hatton, who plays the old coot, Farmer Larkin. This guy had 401 credits in the IMDB as an actor, maybe more than any I’ve ever seen, ranging from 1909 (1909!) to 1967. Many were bits roles, though from 1941 to 1946 he made 28 westerns (28!) as Johnny Mack Brown’s sidekick. 28! I still can’t get over that. I would love to read his reminiscences. He seems as if he was a hard-working stiff who loved the movies and stuck with it for what must have been year after rather lean year. I’d like to, respectfully, dedicate this evening’s viewing to his memory.
Another thing I learned while researching this film. I always figured that this movie was done as a quick rip-off of THE BLOB, the vastly superior Steve McQueen odd-alien-invades-the-earth-and-the-kids-have-to-do-something-about-it-because-the-adults-are-too-frigging-dense-to-believe-them movie. Turns out that it actually predates THE BLOB by like a year and a half. So maybe it does deserve a 4, at least.
INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN clocks in at a too-long 69 minutes. It would have made a somewhat more entertaining episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE at twenty-six or so minutes.