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Saturday, December 1, 2007

Phantom from Space

Released in May of 1953, Phantom from Space (PFS) was quickly overshadowed by that year's more notable sci-fi films. Compared to Invaders From Mars and War of the Worlds, PFS is a rather dowdy B-film. This is the first effort of father-and-son team of W. Lee Wilder (director) and his son Myles as writer. This team would go on to produce several similarly dowdy B-films, not all of the sci-fi genre, but a few within it.

For most of the film, the structure is more of a crime drama, with a murder, suspects, witnesses and teams of investigators coming up empty. Only much later in the movie does the alien become one of the actors. In fact, the second half of the movie almost seems like a separate production. While almost forgettable, PFS has a couple of merits. More on those below.

The ending is almost flat. Once the alien dies, there is almost NO philosophizing or musing over the fact that they've just made contact with an advance alien life form. It's all rather humdrum. "Oh look, it's morning..." and everyone leaves. (???)

Quick Plot Synopsis
An unidentified flying object is spotted over Alaska, flying at 5,000 mph. It eventually disappears from radar off the California coast.
Shortly afterward, strange interferences with radio and TV are reported. A man is killed on the beach. Later, a shop owner is found dead too. A mysterious explosion and fire at a nearby oil field has all investigators in the area. They corner the alien in a store room. The alien takes off his space suit and helmet to reveal that he's invisible! From there, the action shift to the lab where scientists try to analyze his suit without success. Eventually the female lead encounters the alien who seems intent on trying to communicate, perhaps about his running out of "his" air supply. Everyone chases him up into the observatory's telescope room where they can "see" him with UV light. The alien dies for lack of "air" then evaporates. All is safe again.

Why is this movie fun?
Actually, there's not a whole lot of fun in PFS, but there are a couple points. The beginning is ponderously slow, but the idea that there is a Communication Commission which goes around in cars with big antennae on their hoods is kinda fun. Big Brother was "cool" back then. Another fun bit is that the alien's space suit was a re-use of the suits from Destination Moon (1950). Those suits show up in a lot of B-movies, so spotting this one is like seeing a friend on TV. The helmet too, may be a modified Destination Moon prop, but really reminds me of the one in Robot Monster which was only a month away. Finally, the heavy use of the Theremin for "mood" music is amusing. In case you didn't know the name, the Theremin was that electronic synthesizer (invented in 1919) which made those creepy "Oh-WEE-oh-ooooo" sound effects. It gets a lot of use in PFS.

A fun bit for B-movie fans is to watch the actors closely. Yes, their acting is wooden and emotionless. But, watch how they deliver their lines. They say their line, then sit back waiting for their next line. You'd think an alien from another world was just another petty criminal. No big deal. Seen it all before, ma'am.

Cold War Angle?
The Russians aren't cited specifically, but are alluded to. When the "action" shifts from simple crime drama to spy drama, the investigators say things like: "That outfit doesn't look like one of ours." To which another replies, "You mean...sabotage?" The writer and producer were banking on audiences having a heightened sensitivity to spies and sabotage to keep interest up.

The Misunderstood Alien -- While aliens were shaping up to be the bad guys (by and large) by this point, PFS still plays on the earlier ambivalence. Were aliens good or bad? In this regard, PFS is akin to 1951's Man From Planet X in having the poor misunderstood alien.

They're After Our Women -- PFS has a brief scene which fits the iconic plot device of They're After Our Women. The posters show the alien in his spacesuit, carrying the woman, but in the movie it is the invisible alien who carries an unconscious Barbara from one lab to another. Even though his intentions seem benign enough, her lab coat is torn, completing the abduction/ravage icon elements.

More To Come -- The Wilder team would go on to produce Killers From Space and The Snow Creature in 1954, but these would have the same weak B-film qualities as PFS. Killers, however, would at least become more memorable, if only for it's more over-the-top hokeyness.

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