“Atomic scientist Doug Martin is missing after his plane crashes on an reconnaissance mission after a nuclear test. Miraculously appearing unhurt at the base later, he is given sodium amethol, but authorities are skeptical of his story that he was captured by aliens determined to conquer the Earth with giant monsters and insects. Martin vows to use existing technology to destroy them.”
Though hardly a household name these days, Billy Wilder is still a respected filmmaker, and with weighty dramas like Stalag Seventeen (1953), major romantic comedies like I’m A La Douche…I mean, Irma La Douce (1963), and even a couple of Marilyn Monroe vehicles under his belt, Wilder’s reputation as a writer/director will no doubt remain secure for generations to come.
With an outstanding resumé like that, the news that this week’s film is one of his brother’s will certainly be a disappointment. W. Lee Wilder was living proof that talent genes are not evenly distributed among Hollywood siblings. While Billy was directing Bogart and Hepburn in Sabrina (1954), brother Lee was wandering around in Bronson Canyon shooting the obscure science fiction thriller Killers From Space (1954), with a typically lethargic script by his son and frequent collaborator, Myles Wilder.
Killers From Space is a film which, in other hands, might have turned out exceedingly well. Myles Wilder’s screenplay makes a good-faith effort to transform a fairly standard fifties alien paranoia plot into a deadly serious espionage thriller, taking the subtext of movies like The Thing (1951) or Invaders From Mars (1953) and bringing it right out into the open – like a rabbit in a mine field.
Killers From Space may well be the first alien abduction movie. UFOs were on people’s minds in 1954, and yet abductions were not the UFO headlines of the time. They were contactees like George Adamski, who met a peaceful long-haired blonde male alien from Venus out in the desert in 1952. His claim made the headlines less than two years after the movie The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). Killers From Space wants very badly to be a Martian Manchurian Candidate (1962), and with somebody like Jack Arnold in the director’s chair, there’s a good chance that that’s exactly what it would have been.
But instead, Killers From Space got stuck with W. Lee Wilder’s virtuoso tedium and half-assedness. Scarcely a moment goes by that doesn’t reveal some extraordinary creative misjudgment. Take the aliens, for example. Most contemporary filmmakers with no money were content to dress their spacemen up in peculiar costumes and let the audience assume that a planet with a similar environment to Earth’s would produce similar organisms. Wilder, however, wanted his aliens to look alien, but unfortunately all they could afford were ping-pong balls cut in half and painted to create the bulging eyes of the Astronites. An ineffectual effect, but notable for being one of the earliest uses of ping-pong balls in science fiction.
Speaking of special effects, check out the high-tech plasma screens the aliens use for surveillance and video-conferencing with their leader, as well as playing mpegs of the other planets they’ve visited. Very modern, except the controls seem to be some kind of telephone switchboard, and there’s a hideously dangerous and utterly pointless Jacobs Ladder attached, probably because it looks really important.
It would be terribly amiss of me if I didn’t mention our star, Peter Graves. His brother, James Arness, played the flaming carrot known as The Thing in the 1951 science fiction classic, and the government agent looking for Them! (1954) – but is most famous for playing Marshal Matt Dillon for about five million years in Gunsmoke. But Peter Graves, after a successful career of minor roles in major films like Stalag Seventeen, and major roles in minor films like tonight’s offering, was recruited by Desilu Studios in 1967 to replace Steven Hill as the lead actor on Mission: Impossible. Peter played Jim Phelps, the sometimes gruff leader of the Impossible Missions Force, for the remaining six seasons of the series. He was the last man to boss around Martin Landau, who was subsequently promoted to Commander and wisely shot into deep space.
After the series ended in 1973, Peter played a supporting role in the Australian film Sidecar Racers (1975) and promptly fell in love with the country. To prove his love, Peter even made a guest appearance in the teen soap opera Class Of ’74, playing himself. Couldn’t he drink poison or cut off his ear, like normal people? Mission: Impossible was revived in 1988 for two seasons, this time filmed in Australia with Graves the only returning cast member from the original series. He was reportedly offered the role again in the 1996 film remake, but refused to play Phelps as a murderous traitor. Jon Voight had no such qualms. More recently Peter can be spotted sending himself up in films like House On Haunted Hill (1999) and Men In Black II (2002). But better remembered are Peter’s previous genre efforts including Death Flight (1977), It Conquered The World (1956), The Beginning Of The End (1957), Parts: The Clonus Horror (1979) and of course tonight’s presentation, Killers From Space. We may consider it camp today, but in 1954 it filled the theatres with screaming little kids on Saturday afternoons. In fact, you can enhance your home-theatre-viewing pleasure by borrowing some children from a nearby neighbour, and making them scream by forcing them to watch Killers From Space!
Let me get this straight. Simply turning off the electricity for ten seconds starts a nuclear reaction that destroys the Killers From Space and their giant monsters? So, intergalactic travel? Yes. Batteries? No. Their superior technology is no match for our flakey power grids. How does he do it? Somehow director Lee Wilder finds a way to make a chase scene in the bowels of a power plant boring, and give a hostage situation all the tension of waiting for a bus. I hope you don’t find it too tedious, though. I wouldn’t want you to use that as an excuse for not returning next week. I’d miss you too much. So I’ll see you seven days from now, when I attempt to answer the eternal question “How Low Was My Budget?” for Horror News. Toodles!