Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Cardboard Science: Stay off the moors!


To a historian, the word "important" means something different, but even by that standard, this movie, that influenced practically nobody, and is remembered now only by the likes of Joe Dante and me, still isn't anywhere close.  Not even when the calendar says it ought to be.

Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
Written by Aubrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen
Robert Clarke (John Lawrence), Margaret Field (Enid Eliot), Raymond Bond (Prof. Eliot), William Schallert (Dr. Mears), and an unknown subject (the Man From Planet X)

Spoiler alert: high

When one talks about The Thing From Another World, it's easy to call it the first film in its field, because it actually was worthy of being first.  But that misleads you; and while you'd have to be pretty damned deep into the weeds to ever notice, the truth is the truth, and though The Man From Planet X wasn't the first feature about an alien invader to begin, it was the first to finish.

So: while the big studio offerings The Thing and The Day the Earth Stood Still were marshaling their actual budgets and their actual screenplays and their actual post-production cycles (and, in The Thing's case, while the cast and crew waited for a little bit of actual snow to fall in the actual Glacier National Park), a certain independent production, the brainchild of producer-writers Jack Pollexfen and Aubrey Wisberg, took advantage of their actual publicity.  The pair raced from their typewriter to finished product, and in the early days of March 1951, they held their film's world premiere on a screen in San Francisco—and that's how Planet X beat The Thing to a theater, anyway, by some four weeks.  Those who saw both, as their prints spread from the cities to the countryside like a virus, may well have even seen them on the very same screens; who can say, now, which they saw first?  Most of those screens are gone; most of those people are dead.  And thus did Planet X make its small mark on film history, as well as a stupendous profit—$1.2m on a $51k budget—that one likewise doubts it would've gotten without its head start.

Planet X achieved priority, despite its several handicaps, through a variety of expedients, but besides an obviously-abbreviated screenwriting process, the biggest was wrapping principal photography in only six days—that is, the time it took God to make the Earth, or, a lot more aptly for this film, barely more than an ordinary work week—and I have to tell you, friend, it shows.  Maybe it shows less than you'd think, but you'd be putting an awfully low bar in front of this movie, if that's all it took to call it a "success."

We begin after almost everything has already happened, and our man, a reporter named John Lawrence, sits down at a table in a black room to scrawl down the last story he may ever write—the story of how he was enticed to cross the Atlantic to the remote Scottish hamlet of Burry, where Lawrence's wartime friend from the Eighth Air Force, Professor Eliot, formerly a meteorologist, and now watching the skies in a different capacity, had secreted himself away to be at the single point on Earth's globe that shall come the closest to the runaway planet he had observed hurtling its way through our solar system.  So begin again.

Upon his arrival in Burry, Lawrence is pleased to discover that Eliot has also brought his daughter Enid along to the ancient Scottish fortress he's made into his home away from home; and, finding that she has indeed grown up well, Lawrence isn't too ashamed to kickstart the screenplay's romance module and remind her of her childhood crush on him.  He's less pleased to meet the professor's other associate, Dr. Mears, a man whose reputation, and evil beard, precede him, and although Lawrence never dares spell out precisely what hideous crime Mears committed to earn his scorn, his expressions of pained disgust say enough.  However, while they anxiously await the celestial display, and perhaps terrestrial fireworks, too (for this "Planet X" is coming mightily close), our cast gets more than they bargained for when one of its inhabitants arrives to make contact with the Earthlings below.  Communication is not instantly feasible, and in fact their initial reactions are to either scream at it (Enid) or gape slackjawed at it (Lawrence and the professor), but eventually they get it together enough to return to the alien's landing site and, rescuing him from a malfunction of his breathing appartus, make their friendly intentions known, bringing him back to the castle.  That's when Mears, desiring the alien's advanced technology, and under the guise of establishing a basis of conversation with the universal language of geometry, reveals his true colors.  Now the creature's interrogation begins—just enough of it for him to get a real taste of humanity's dark side, so that when he escapes, the first thing he does is brain-ray every human he sees, starting with Enid, in pursuit of the conquest of planet Earth.  And now we're caught up.

At least I think that's how it goes: while we never do learn exactly what the enigmatic Xian's intentions are from a wholly trustworthy source, dialogue makes it reasonably plain he was sent as an invasion party scout, with the usual SF motivations (a dying planet, etc.).  Either way, what we effectively get is an extraterrestrial visitor who splits the difference pretty exactly between the two big pictures just about to change the face of cinema for a decade: the good alien of The Day the Earth Stood Still and the bad alien of The Thing.  (It is, of course, not so entirely clear-cut in either of those films, too; but the general statement holds as a description of the impression they're supposed to leave.)  And, in playing it right down the middle between those extremely distinct alien encounter films, Planet X falls straight in.

The finer qualities of the film are limited, but they are present.  For one thing, it's not as badly acted as "six-day shooting schedule" would imply, even if nobody was seeking any awards (still, William Schallert, as Mears, is even legitimately good, creeping around with a slimy, retiring loathsomeness that explodes almost too naturally into violence when he thinks he's got the upper hand).  For another thing, Planet X is a genuinely atmospheric picture (maybe to a fault, in fact), and it owes a lot more to the tradition of Universal Horror and its lower-budget followers than to the parade of clearer-eyed and more stolidly-handsome black-and-white pictures that would come later in the genre.

For this we can thank director Edgar Ulmer, a living reminder that Universal Horror had taken its cues from German Expressionism, often enough with the same exact personnel.  Ulmer was the real deal, an understudy and set designer for all sorts of Mitteleuropan directors on all sorts of projects, including Murnau's and Lang's.  As director, he even had a branded Universal Horror picture of his own under his belt, The Black Cat.  Unfortunately, Ulmer was not long for Universal, thanks to an adulterous tryst that became a marriage with the niece-in-law of a grudge-carrying Carl Laemmle.

Now working the independent circuit, Ulmer had neither time nor budget nor much to work with on Planet X, but he did do his best to make what he had count, salvaging a standing set from the '48 Joan of Arc to serve as his gothicky Scottish fastness, using miniatures for long shots that don't look much like a real castle but do enhance the otherwordly feel of the thing, and bathing his stagebound "moors" (almost large enough to accommodate a whole automobile!) in what looks like a literal ton of dry ice for an extra-misty mood.  Most noticeably, he plunged the whole affair into a spooky, dreamy kind of darkness, that would probably have looked even better if his cinematographer John L. Russell (that is, Psycho's John L. Russell, so there was at least one non-chump gig in this DP's future, if, it must be said, not many more than one) had had the opportunity to actually think about his set-ups before he shot them.

And, of course, there is Ulmer's titular visitor/monster, and that's the one thing that's really memorable about Planet X.  It is not actually a good monster, as such: the Xian was played by an unknown actor, whose range of body language appears to go all the way up to "can mime being unable to breathe," but that Expressionistic minimalism mostly works in the creature's favor, just like the beyond-the-infinite minimalism of the actual costume, a spacesuit that looks like it was designed in 1899—scarcely more than an urgently rectangular box for its chest, an eerie light under its chin, and a big teardrop-shaped plastic helmet—plus a hairless, featureless, oversized cranial prosthetic that the actor couldn't have acted through even if he could've acted at all, because it literally could not move.  Rather, it just sits over his face like a Greek "tragedy" mask with a slightly open mouth and unnervingly empty eyes.  At the time, and for a little while, Planet X's alien really was "the weirdest visitor the Earth [had] ever seen."

I just don't trust Facebook with my information anymore, Mark.

It is truly unsettling, probably because it's so fake.  It gives you nothing whatsoever—no emotion, not even motion, at least beyond the actor apparently pretending he's walking underwater, and the creature winds up not registering as really "alive" as we would ordinarily have it, crossing back and forth over the uncanny threshold from "something that should not be allowed to exist" to "a pathetic broken doll you feel sorry for, in a distant kind of way, and mostly because of the pitiful noises it makes."  Altogether, there really is something of a pulp cover come to life (at least in semi-artful black-and-white) to The Man From Planet X, and even if it's hard to really account for more than about half of its $51,000 price tag, it's equally hard not to dig its bridging of Gothic horror and sci-fi aesthetics, at least a little.

But then there's the actual movie, as opposed to "a collection of slightly creepy shots of Before Times no-budget makeup effects and set design, slathered in ebon and untold amounts of boiling carbon dioxide."  And what my synopsis maybe didn't get across is how little movie there is, and how repetitive that lack of movie winds up getting by the halfway mark, if not earlier than that.  And God! how repetitive it is, with every bit of development and momentum replaced around 30 minutes in with a horrible fixation on having its characters wear out a veritable ditch between the castle and the moor the alien landed in—for the film can be described, not unfaithfully, as a series of alternating scenes where someone sees the alien's spaceship, runs away, talks about the alien, gets someone else to come back to the spaceship with them, repeat.  Since we eventually run out of principals to bring back to the spaceship, finally we just start introducing semi-major characters twenty minutes before the movie ends; and that ending is manifestly unacceptable, basically involving turning the Xian's hypnosis beam against him by—well, by walking up to his brainwashed victims and giving them orders to clear out before the army can start shooting at him.  That's it; that's the climax.  Yet, to its credit, the ending cannot be said to betray Planet X: for it is well in keeping with the general aimlessness and nonsensicality of everything that's come before.

There is a reason people remember The Thing From Another World as the first of its kind, because, in truth, it is; Planet X is absolutely of the same genre and subgenre, sure, that's just more-or-less objective fact.  But it is certainly not of the same kind: in the decade ahead, there would be many sci-fi thrillers that legitimately chilled the bones, and at least as many that maybe weren't scary, but at least made themselves fascinating; but there would be even more that would only plod and circle around and nod off halfway through their runtime and barely manage to fill their 70 or so minutes with enough frames that, legally, you'd still have to call them movies.  And that is the line of motion pictures that The Man From Planet X began when it bowed for the first time, in those early days of March 1951.

Score: 3/10

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • One appreciates any sci-fi film that grapples with a first contact language barrier, though one has to ask how Mears, who has gotten just to the point where he and the Xian can agree, "yes, this is a circle," expects the fellow to reveal to him the formula for his advanced space-age metal.  Which, incidentally, is amusing in itself, and not unlike a moonman kidnapping Neil Armstrong and expecting to torture the process for aluminum-smelting out of him, because he obviously must know.  It's what his ship's made of!
  • So a planet's crashing through our solar system, eh?  Well, we're all dead.  Who cares what happens to Enid?
  • When I'm out trying to find a new planet to colonize, my first choice is a planet whose atmosphere is poisonous to me.  (You will run into people who describe this movie's screenplay as "intelligent.")
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • The first person to find the spaceship, in a long, long line of people to find the spaceship, is Enid, and after screaming her head off and running away, calms down and explains precisely what she saw out on the moors to her father.  He warmly listens to her story, and says, "You're not usually prone to hysteria, but..."  Professor Eliot has been tracking a rogue planet with earthlike conditions for months and was also examining an alien artifact from that planet literally two scenes earlier.  (You will run into people who describe this movie's screenplay as "intelligent.")
  • Mears' stated motivation, making money off of alien technology, is impressively, almost refreshingly crass in a sci-fi movie.  God complex?  Nope; apparently, the dude just wants a nice house in a posh neighborhood, and he's absolutely willing to kill a representative of a spacefaring civilization, who'll probably be kind of pissed at him, to get it.
  • Again, I like the miniatures.

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