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Monday, January 12, 2009

Space Master X-7

This obscure movie ran as the B half of a double feature with 20th Century Fox's bigger budget (and color) "A" film,The Fly. X7 starts out as a fairly typical 50s sci-fi tale, with rockets, satellites and alien life forms -- a protein-eating fungus. About a third of the way through, it shifts into a detective drama. The killer fungus pops up from time to time, keeping up a faint sci-fi flavor. Overall, it's a fairly entertaining mix. The writers were no strangers to sci-fi. George Worthing Yates had a hand in many including Them! ('54), Conquest of Space ('55) and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers ('56). His fondness for the narrative "Dragnet" style is evident.

Quick Plot Synopsis
An earnest-looking narrator purports to tell a "true" story of a satellite mission (XN-712) returns to earth. A biologist examines "samples of outer space." In his home lab, he is confronted by a former lover who wants custody of their son. He studies the rusty red spores which reproduce quickly. He calls it "blood rust," and theorizes that it is what makes Mars red. In a short while, he's grown several large blobs in jars. He is tape recording his notes. The man and former lover fight, and she leaves in a cab. Later, he calls the research center, near death. John Hand and Private Rattigen drive out to investigate. The lab is covered in oozing fungus blobs. The doctor is dead. They get his tape, then burn the house down. Listening to the tape, they hear the woman's voice. An unknown carrier of the fungus is loose. Hand finds the cab driver who reluctantly tells all he knows. She's traveling by train to LA. Laura reads of the doctor's death and thinks she's wanted for murder. She evades the police and hides out. The train baggage car was overrun with blood rust. She changes her appearance in a hotel and boards a flight to Honolulu. Rattigen follows, investigating the three women matching the APB. Laura confesses. The plane's cargo hold fills with blood rust. They turn back, but must belly land as the fungus damaged the gear. Everyone gets off safely and heads for decontamination. The world is safe. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The pacing is fairly brisk. The writers and director avoided long talky scenes. Nor did they rely too heavily on stock footage, (except for the beginning). It's fun to see Paul Frees in an acting role, however brief. His sonorous narrator's voice was featured in many sci-fi movies. You can't miss Moe Howard in a non-stooge role as Mr. Retlinger, the cab driver.

Cold War Angle
This is tale more about the dangers of space than communism. The Cold War environment, however, is not too far away. Hand (and thereby Private Rattigen) are 'agents' with the "Office of Internal Security" who are able to do just about anything (trump local police, order just about anything burned, get free airfare, etc.) in the name of national security.

Notes
Terror for Today -- A central feature in Space master is the danger of contagion. This is a more timeless plot element than the usual Cold War angst. The near-panic over SARS in early 2003 makes the plot salient for today. In fact, the tracking down of Laura, including the airline jaunt, was played out in the headlines of 2007 when federal authorities sought an airline passenger infected with a rare form of TB.

Fungal Villain -- The "blood rust" from space is an alien fungus which more than thrives on protein-rich earth. It becomes a sort of proto-Blob thing as it grows. Fungi must have been a morbid fascination in the 50s. The space creature in The Quatermass Xperiment ('55) was a fungus-like thing. In Unknown Terror ('57) the evil doctor was experimenting with a rare jungle fungus. Toho Studios would put out Matango in 1962, in which people eat special mushrooms and then turn into Mushroom People!

Plane Crazy -- Note the rare stock footage of a DC-7 coming in for a belly landing. This may be newsreel footage from October 31, 1957. A United Airlines DC-7 had to belly land at Los Angeles International Airport. If you're quick on the pause button, you may be able to make out the United Airlines paint scheme. Definitely not your typical stock footage. For period flavor, there is a nice taste of "old fashioned" air travel before the modern airport design evolved. People walked out of a building, across the tarmac and up the stairs into the plane. 21st century air travelers rarely get this legacy experience. There is also a brief glimpse of a McDonnell F-101 fighter-bomber -- a fairly new Air Force jet in 1958.

Curious Gap -- One shouldn't be too demanding of B sci-fi movies. Plot gaps happen. Still, it was a curiously easy happy ending when the plane landed and all the passengers were bussed away for decontamination. What happened to all the fungus that had been creeping over the outside of the plane? When it landed, there was none. Had it blown off, strewn over land and sea? Wouldn't that be a bigger problem than the passengers? What about all those hotel people and train passengers?

Bottom line? Space Master X-7 may be a little difficult to locate, but for the fan of 50s sci-fi, it's worth the search. It's a nice mix of sci-fi and detective drama. It also gives a hint of the fear people felt about the mysteries (and dangers) of man's venturing into space.

10 comments:

Mike Scott said...

Quote: The writers were no strangers to sci-fi. George Worthing Yates had a hand in many including Them! ('54), Conquest of Space ('55) and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers ('56).

The other being Daniel Mainwaring, who wrote the screenplay for "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and was no stranger to crime drama, either (the noir classic "Out of the Past").

Looks like I'm gonna have to go the boot route if I ever want to see SM X-7. How is the quality of the DVD you have?

Nightowl said...

True about Mainwaring. Many sci-fi screenplays were written from the crime drama point of view. I have to think that some crime story writers liked the avenues that sci-fi opened.

The stable of criminals (maniacs, cruel spouses, greedy business partners, etc.) was fairly predictable. Some of the better authors could only keep the mystery alive by giving the reader/viewer too many suspects to make the choice easy. Sci-fi gave them a whole new batch of baddies.

In the case of SM X-7, the fungus got to be the -real- killer for which Laura would feel falsely accused, etc.

>Looks like I'm gonna have to go the boot route
> if I ever want to see SM X-7. How is the quality
> of the DVD you have?

It's okay, I guess. I tend to be like the starving man. Any meal is a feast. I don't recall who I bought it from (DVD at home). I do recall that it was quite a chore to track down a copy. I see there are some on eBay now. $13 (w/shipping).

Luis Bueno said...

Thanks for this fascinating review, Nightowl.

I'd never heard of this film before, but I now know that I must watch it, and watch it soon, or else I'll wake up in a cold sweat wondering just how a Douglas DC-7 belly lands. *wink*

As a side-note, I wonder if the space mold idea would have been a better concept for that abortive "Snakes on a Plane" Samuel L. Jackson film. But knowing today's Hollywood producers, that fungus would have transformed those infected into zombies or something. Okay, then, never mind!

Nightowl said...

Hi Luis,
Yes, a real belly landing is not to be missed. And, you're probably right about modern Hollywood having to go all extreme if there was a remake. The menacing blob-like fungus was kind of interesting for its lack of malice.

Thanks for the thoughts.

Mike Scott said...

Quote: I don't recall who I bought it from (DVD at home). I do recall that it was quite a chore to track down a copy.

I'm pretty sure that boots of SM X-7 have been around since the VHS days. With no official home video release or even TV airings, that I know of, they must have been made from a film print.

Fox needs to release this and ON THE THRESHOLD OF SPACE and whatever else they're holding onto. Bring back "Midnite Movies"!

Luis Bueno said...

Mike, you're an evil git.

I've never heard of "On the Threshold of Space." Now I MUST own and watch this film, lest my fevered, B-movie obsessed brain implodes -- but it's nowhere to be found (so far)!

Grrr! Curses!

Nightowl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nightowl said...

Hi the Publish button too quickly.

As I was saying, I'd not heard of On The Threshold of Space before either. According to imdb, it wasn't a sci-fi, but more of a docu-drama film. Have you seen it, Mike?

From what I'd read of it, it reminds me of "Riders To The Stars" ('54)

Mike Scott said...

Quote: According to imdb, it wasn't a sci-fi, but more of a docu-drama film.

No, I haven't seen it and yes, it sounds more like "The Right Stuff" than "Attack Of The 100 FT Fill In The Blank".

Here's a fairly detailed synopsis:
http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title.jsp?stid=85592

A few stills and a cool French poster:
http://www.moviegoods.com/movie_poster/on_the_threshold_of_space_1956.htm

Randall Landers said...

A quick note: Turner Classic Movies runs this movie, along with many others from this blogsite, from time to time. Keep an eye out there if you want to catch this one.