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Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Flame Barrier

The spring of 1958 started with an obscure sci-fi movie, produced as the B half of a double bill with Return Of Dracula. As such, the intended market for The Flame Barrier (TFB) was more inclined towards shock and horror than science. The poster itself speaks to this, with much fire, some skeletons and a promise of hell on earth. Much about TFB shouts of low-budget, with all the usual pitfalls and shortcomings. The plot, for one, wavers between a traditional jungle flick, a mystery and comic commentary. Even though the sci-fi fan may find much in TFB to be tedious, confused, or slow, it has a few nuggets for the patient viewer.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A satellite is launched to go beyond a much vaunted "Flame Barrier" about 200 miles above the earth. The satellite is presumed lost to the barrier, but has instead crashed back to earth in the jungles of southern Mexico. Carol Dahlmann comes to seek her husband who went looking for the fallen satellite four months earlier, but has not returned. She hires a couple Americans working locally. There is abundant human drama involved. With the expedition underway, natives tell of strange things in the jungle. Further in, an abandoned village adds mystery. Frightened natives tell of the Dahlmann expedition going through. They press on, finding a skeleton (said to be burned). They later find the tents of Dahlmann's camp, all empty except for the chimp which rode in the satellite. Natives drag in a wounded native, burns on his chest. He stammers of a fire god, then bursts into flame, reduced to a skeleton. Dave, Carol and Matt press on to the cave of this fire god. They find another skeleton, but also Mr. Dahlmann, frozen inside a glowing blob of goo which spread from the Sputnik-like satellite. The chimp runs forward and is vaporized by an electric field. This field doubles in size every 2 hours. They can't flee, so set about trying to electrocute the blob via metal ore veins in the cave walls. Time runs out before the next field increase. Matt gives his life to give Dave time to act. He does. The blob is electrocuted. Dave and Carol leave arm in arm. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
While there's not a big fun factor, it is interesting to see another installment of the blob-from-space trope. It's the usual man vs. monster story.

Cold War Angle
As more of a monster/horror movie with just a dash of sci-fi, there's little of the Cold War mood involved. Instead, TFB draws from pre-Cold War themes in its patchwork plot.

Notes
Plot Medley -- TFB hints at its quick creation and low budget for having recycled several well-worn plot elements. George Worthing Yates wrote for many other sci-fi films, such as Them! ('54) and Earth vs The Flying Saucers ('56). Yates' nugget of a story might have been more sci-fi if there was time and/or budget. Pat Fielder wrote the screenplay for the top-of-the-bill movie Return of Dracula and may have been pressed by United Artists to whip up a B script. Ample use of copy-and-paste is evident. TFB is 70% a cliche jungle flick with the main characters spending a lot of time hacking through brush or camping or dealing with natives. Interwoven are some predictable comic moments and the traditional sissy-woman in the wild moments. The sci-fi last act is also fairly traditional stuff. Plot holes (such as why the natives burst into flame, and what's that electric force field all about?) abound. Not Fielder's best work, but it satisfied his bosses.

Space Contagion Angst -- When the movie gets down to the sci-fi element, it is a continuation of the theme of deadly contamination coming from man's ventures into space. We saw this in The Quatermass Xperiment ('53 UK, '55 USA). We'll see it again a couple more times later in 1958 with the "blood rust" in Space Master X-7 and the very famous The Blob. People in the 50s sincerely worried that traveling into space would bring back deadly dangers. Perhaps they recalled how contact with Europeans brought deadly small pox to Native Americans. Might not trips into space bring back a similar pox?

Kilowatt Savior -- Another well-worn plot element is that the protagonists "kill" the monster by electrocuting it. Ever since The Thing was fried with electricity in 1951, it's been the quick traditional solution.

Solar Cell First -- One item of interest is the debut of photovoltaic technology. Howard Dahlmann used a photocell array to charge his big battery box to power his camp. This is the power source which kills the monster. Photocells were very new in the late 50s, but they did exist. A solar powered car was exhibited in Chicago in 1955. Cells were being developed for future satellites. TFB gets some credit for being the first sci-fi to show off this new technology.

Bottom line? TFB will bore or annoy folks looking for aliens or saucers or even much action. A fan of B jungle flicks might find it appealing. The appearance of the space blob life form and the solar cells give the movie some historical value.

8 comments:

Mike Scott said...

The only one of the "Gramercy Four" that I've never seen (and isn't on DVD). Wish Midnite Movies had paired this with "The Monster That Challenged The World" (since they already had "The Return of Dracula" and "The Vampire" on another disc).

Nightowl said...

Hi Mike,
Yes, it would cool to have them paired. Flame Barrier is definitely the weaker of the four. I'm guessing it isn't seen has having much market attraction...beyond 50s sci-fi junkies, of course. :-)

Mike Scott said...

quote: I'm guessing it isn't seen has having much market attraction...

Yeh, that's the problem with getting several '50s sci-fi movies released on DVD, although I don't think "Flame Barrier" is any worse than a few other Midnite Movies titles.

Tim Aickin said...

I saw this movie when I was 10 years old. I'd never seen a B movie before. It scared me and I never forgot it. Thanks to your site I now know what it was.
Tim

SaturdayMorningFan said...

I had a similar experience to Tim Aikin's. I saw this on a local UHF station once when I was probably around 7-9 years old, and the thought of some invisible, destructive force doubling in size every few hours until it engulfed the whole world absolutely scared the crap out of me. I never saw it again, and when the internet came about I started searching for it. My extensive internet searches for all of the scenes I could remember and describe (which wasn't much) never amounted to anything, until today. Thank you for shedding light on a childhood mystery of mine.

photovoltaics said...

Hello,
This movie was great - even with its unanswered questions.
Typical of 50's scifi genre.
I saw it on tv in the early 60's.
It got me interested in solar electricity and I bought my first
solar cell (solar battery) in 1964.
We sell solar electricity components - it stuck with me all these
years.
Photovoltaics

John Drake said...

Howdy Movie Critics,


The best line in the movie is when a "deadly" lizard comes out of Carol's tent.
Matt is concerned about her safety and Dave says, "Don't worry, she will talk that thing to death."

Have a good time at the movies,
John

thingmaker said...

This is another of those '50s SF films set in exotic Mexico... The threshold of exotic places definitely changed with time. At least a more recent movie "The Ruins" (2008) had to work a bit to devise an exotic setting in Mexico. In this one, it's just a generic jungle pic, looking a lot like where Jungle Jim was hanging out, which I suppose means the arboretum and Griffith Park were fairly exotic.
Aside from that, I still like this movie. I guess I saw it young enough that it still has a creepy resonance.