Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Mars Movie Binge: The Angry Red Planet (1959)

Unlike Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), Ib Melchior’s The Angry Red Planet (1959) didn’t earn many positive reviews from critics of its day, or afterwards, either, for that matter.  

The low-budget AIP film was shot in just ten days on a budget of two-hundred thousand dollars and its primary visual gimmick -- a technique called Cinemagic which was to render two-dimensional drawings 3-D in appearance -- never quite worked. The film’s big visual conceit is thus a red filter slathered over all the sequences set on the Martian surface. Commendably, the red tint hides many trespasses, including painted backdrops

Yet in a way, it’s a shame that The Angry Red Planet isn’t more fondly remembered today. The film is very static, and even cramped visually-speaking, it’s true, yet it nonetheless possesses a rich sense of imagination, and its story of a doomed space mission is both mysterious and suspenseful. The narrative twists and turns keep creating new and more menacing challenges for the astronaut characters to face and defeat.  In the end all the pieces fit together nicely into a unified whole; a complete story that makes sense and even proves chilling.

I’ve noted before that I’m a sucker for space mystery/doomed-expedition cinematic stories; adventures in which human astronauts travel to the stars and find terror and awe there. The Angry Red Planet fits right in with that template. The acting is no great shakes, and some of the special effects don’t come off that well, but the film is fast-moving, and maintains the sense of mystery and grandeur that I find so irresistible about these tales.

There be dragons over that next hill. Or across that sea.  Or on that dark plain, just beyond the landing site…

The Angry Red Planet and movies (and TV shows like it…) are thus pioneer tales; stories of man perched on the edge of known territory, venturing out into realms new, mysterious, wondrous and terrifying. Man could meet anyone out there, on that frontier…or anything. The limit of the storytelling is thus, simply, the imagination of the storyteller

The Angry Red Planet veritably bristles with the uncertainty and thrills of a manned landing on Mars, and despite the dated aspects of the film’s visualizations and screenplay, still holds together remarkably well. One scene involving a forty-foot denizen of Mars -- a sort of crab/rat/spider-thing -- still manages to forge a sense of real terror.  Another monster, a giant amoeba, proves almost as disturbing to the psyche.  Regardless of all the film’s deficits in terms of characterizations and visualizations, there is the feel of a legitimate, alien ecosystem broached here, and that vibe works immeasurably in the film’s favor.

How to say this? The Angry Red Planet succeeds almost in spite of itself, and again, I credit the imagination of the screen-writers, Ib Melchoir and Sidney W. Pink, for that quality.

“Mars…the red planet…our destination.”

On Earth, Major General Treager (Paul Hahn) recalls the long-missing MR (Mars Rocket) 1. He orders his men to bring the vehicle back to terra firma via remote control, and land it in the Nevada Desert.  

There, it is soon revealed that only two of the crew, Colon Tom O’Bannion (Gerald Mohr) and Dr. Iris Ryan (Naura Hayden) remain alive. However, O’Bannion has some kind of infectious and deadly growth covering one of his arms.

With the mission tapes mysteriously erased, the traumatized Ryan must recount to Treager and her doctors the story of the landing on Mars if there is any hope to diagnosis and reverse Tom’s grave condition.  She attempts to remember everything, and explains how, after forty-seven days in flight, the rocket touched down on a still, silent Martian surface.

Exploratory teams to the surface discovered strange, man-eating fauna, and weird life-forms, like a giant carnivorous rat-spider, there.  

Soon, the team’s scientist, Professor Gettell (Les Tremayne) realized that the Earth crew was being tested by such challenges and confrontations, and urged the mission to depart for home. Unfortunately, as the crew learned, a force-field was holding their rocket back.

Hoping to find and reason with the intelligence behind that force-field, the four man crew set out via inflatable raft across a Martian ocean. There, the astronauts spotted a magnificent, highly-advanced city, but one guarded by a colossal, hungry amoeba.  Chief Warrant Officer Sam Jacobs (Jack Kruschen) was absorbed and consumed by the amoeba as the others returned safely to the ship. Attempting to save him, Tom’s arm was infected by the green substance.

After electrifying the hull, and repelling the amoeba, the rocket returned to the stars, but not before the Martian intelligence, perhaps a “super intelligent community mind” issued a warning to the crew -- and to all mankind -- about returning to the angry red planet unbidden.

“I wonder if some things are better left unknown.”

The Angry Red Planet reveals its low-budget origins in myriad ways. For example, the opening sequences of the film cut repeatedly to stock-footage of real mission control rooms, a ploy which makes the movie’s small mission control “corner” look all the more pitiful by comparison. This early sequence features shot after shot of technicians turning knobs, moving dials, adjusting head-sets and otherwise working in mission control.

Similarly, all views of the MR-1 in space are…cartoons. The ship is literally animated as it moves through space.

And finally, once the ship has landed on Mars, those 2-D drawings (which were supposed to become 3-D with Cinemagic) are displayed front-and-center. We see a close-up of an alien plant or flower that is clearly just a two-dimensional illustration. And we get a view of Martian landscape (and road?) that similarly fails to convince, let alone impress.

Beyond these obvious deficits, the movie does not vet its story adroitly or artistically in terms of the language of movies, or film grammar. The shots of the rocket interior during landing and lift-off look woefully static and sedate, failing to capture the idea of a desperate escape, or a daring descent into unknown territory. These shots do not suggest movement, velocity, gravity, or much of anything. Similarly, there is no sense of scope on the Martian surface. All the shots are tight and even cramped.

But, from the opposite point of view, these tight shots do convey a sense of claustrophobia, and, perhaps unintentionally, make the action feel more suspenseful. So much is out of our view, out of frame, that danger could appear suddenly from any direction. The film’s leitmotif, that man himself is under the Martian microscope, becomes more pronounced through the compositions which restrict the astronauts’ space in the frame. When they are on a raft in the ocean, for example, the frame does not extend much beyond their conveyance and oars. Everything else exists outside the rectangular screen frame, and therefore suggests a great unknown.

The issues tallied above all suggest significant problems and yet, in the final analysis, the film’s story itself carries the day, and one is drawn in a little at a time, hoping to discover the mystery behind Mars. 

In this case, that mystery is one that ties together the carnivorous plant, the giant bat-spider, the amoeba, the erased tapes, and the three-eyed being who noses into view occasionally. They are all part of a secret, carefully engineered agenda.

It’s a neat little conceit, and one that holds up well. As the Earth astronauts explore the surface of the Red Planet -- believing that that they are the ones conducting tests and gathering data -- the Martians are actually collecting data about them, and putting them through a dangerous series of paces. Mankind is under that microscope and he doesn’t realize it.  In fact, he is arrogantly progressing with the idea that he can land on another world, unbidden, and learn all about it.  Call this conceit ironic, or simply a reversal of expectations, but it adds a sinister feel to all the action in The Angry Red Planet.

I have described the visuals that don’t work in the film, mainly the 2-D drawings, the animated rocket footage, and the rocket interior shots during launch and touch-down. But this list does not tell the whole story.  Many images in the film are quite powerfully rendered.

Although the carnivorous plant looks largely lifeless, the bat-spider thing remains impressive and creepy today, in part because the red filter hides the seams in much the same way black-and-white photography would, and in part because of the bone-crunching sound-effects that accompany the creature. This horrible thing has sense of weight and physical presence to it that is hard to deny, and remains very unsettling. The set-up for the creature’s presence is good too. Iris mistakes one of the monster’s bony, crab-legs for a tree trunk and takes a machete to it. The creature suddenly howls in pain, and that tree trunk starts moving…

The amoeba -- which seems to serve as the guardian for the Martian metropolis -- is terrifying too.  

We see the thing chase the crew across the sea, and then devour their inflatable raft. It then eats Sam, consuming him a little at a time, and envelops the MR-1 itself.   The question, of course, is: was it unleashed or released by the Martians to prevent the humans from reaching the city, or was it happenstance that it blocked their path just as they were about to get answers?

That question aside, I can acknowledge this: had I seen The Angry Red Planet at age eight or nine, both the bat-spider-crab and the amoeba would have proven terrible nightmare fodder, and troubled my slumber.  I have no doubt the creatures did just that for the generation that first encountered them in theaters and on TV.

Using these weird monsters as dramatic stepping stone, The Angry Red Planet boasts a powerful structure in the way that danger keeps escalating (from man-eating plant to man-eating rat-spider, to giant, man-eating amoeba), and the scientists don’t realize until too late that they are the ones under a microscope.

The film’s final punctuation arrives in the form of a message for the human race taped by the Martians. The voice informs the humans that they are “spiritual and emotional infants,” and therefore not yet ready for contact with the planet Mars. 

Their words make sense in the film’s framework. Iris faints twice in the course of the story, horrified by the appearance of the alien creatures…and she’s a scientist who should know better!  And Sam doesn’t go anywhere without his sonic gun, taking a kind of glee from the destruction “Cleopatra”—the gun’s name -- causes. Professor Gettell, meanwhile, seems entirely consumed with fear throughout the mission. 

The underlying message here could be, indeed, that though man is technologically capable of visiting Mars (or another world), he may not be psychologically ready to do so. His science has grown faster than his wisdom. Beings who faint when confronted with a different form of life, and carry fearsome weapons into first-contact situations, shooting first and asking questions later, don’t belong in the wondrous, Oz-like spires of the Martian city, perhaps.

Like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, The Angry Red Planet features an old-fashioned or out-of-date view of what Mars physically like. Here, the red planet boasts thick vegetation with nervous systems, giant mammalian life-forms, vast cities, and wide oceans. At the very least, the film doesn’t suggest that Mars has a breathable atmosphere.  Still, again like the Pal film, it’s almost better to imagine that The Angry Red Planet is set on some other world, in a nearby solar system, rather than on Mars since the filmmakers get so much (we now know to be) wrong about our cosmic neighbor.

The Angry Red Planet is a cheap, 56-year old “B” movie, for certain, and one with legitimate deficiencies. Yet it occasionally reaches beyond that description -- and beyond the 1950s too, in fact -- to forge imagery of lasting terror and wonder. For that not inconsiderable accomplishment, this Ib Melchior effort probably deserves a bit more love than it has received.

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