The Angry Red Planet (1960) ***˝
There will always be a place in my heart for this under-appreciated little gem. I think it’s one of the few films that can compare with Forbidden Planet as an example of everything that was good about science fiction movies in the 1950’s. Naturally, it seems more than a little hokey today, what with its straight-out-of-a-John-Wayne-war-movie acting, its excessive use of stock footage, its bizarre infatuation with air-search radars and optical surface-to-air range finding gear, and its fanciful speculation about extraterrestrial environments with which we are now quite familiar, but it holds a warm, intense fascination for me. I think it’s related to the attraction I feel toward things like old-fashioned mechanical adding machines or old, analog-display clocks with exposed cogs and gears; there’s something about high-tech obsolescence that enthralls me. If someone were to make this movie today, they would doubtless use CGI, advanced computer-controlled animatronic puppets, and what-have-you, but none of that stuff existed in 1960. All they had access to were things like primitive marionettes, back-projection techniques, and optical effects that could be added as the film was developed. Sure, all of it looks screamingly phony today, but it’s frankly amazing what Ib Melchior and Sid Pink were able to accomplish in The Angry Red Planet given the severe limitations under which they had to operate.
The movie begins on Earth, amid a veritable orgy of stock footage, with the discovery by the military of Mars Rocket X-1 adrift just inside the Moon’s orbit. This is an exciting discovery, because Earth Base lost contact with the rocket more than a month earlier, and the vessel was believed to have been destroyed. But because there is as yet no radio contact with the ship, it is unclear whether any of its crew are still alive. After consulting with the space program’s top scientists, the general in charge of Earth Base decides to bring the rocket in for a remote-controlled landing as soon as it comes within range. (The rocket’s landing is a perfect example of what I was talking about in the first paragraph. Faced with the practical impossibility of creating a convincing landing sequence with their miniatures, the filmmakers opted to use color stock footage of NASA rocket launches run backwards to create the illusion of the rocket setting down in the desert, using its retros to slow its descent. Of course, it might have looked a little better had they built the model rocket used in other shots to resemble the real one seen here in some way...) What the salvage crew finds is bad, but it isn’t as bad as it could have been. Of the rocket’s original crew of four, radar and communications officer Sam Jacobs (Jack Kruschen, of Cape Fear, who’d already been to Mars once with Abbot and Costello) is unaccounted for, physicist Theodore Gattell (Les Tremayne, of The Monolith Monsters and The Slime People) is dead, biologist Iris Ryan (Nora Hayden) is in shock, and mission commander Colonel Tom O’Banyon (Gerald Mohr, from the original Invasion U.S.A.) is unconscious, with some sort of green, fungusy material growing all over his skin. O’Banyon’s infection will not respond to any known treatment, and because all of the rocket’s taped logs have been erased by exposure to a powerful magnetic field, the colonel’s only apparent hope is for Dr. Ryan to overcome her shock-induced amnesia and tell the Earth Base doctors how he contracted the disease in the first place. That means using an experimental memory-recovery drug-- a sort of psychochemical hypnosis-- which may be too much for Ryan’s already-strained nervous system to handle. Ryan insists that the doctors try, however, and the majority of the film consists of her recovered memories of the voyage to Mars.
The trip out was entirely routine; the only rough spot came on the first day, when a radioactive meteor crossed the ship’s trajectory. When the ship landed on Mars, however, the trouble began. (Take a close look at the viewscreen in the background as the ship lands, and you’ll see the ever-popular camera-strapped-to-a-V-2’s-tail-fin film, as seen in It Conquered the World and Destination Moon, run backwards and tinted red.) First, the crew discovered that Mars’s atmosphere contains a strongly ionized layer impenetrable by radio waves, meaning that the astronauts had no way of contacting Earth. Everyone was prepared for something like this, however, so Colonel O’Banyon decided to stick to the previously-determined five-day exploration schedule. What no one was fully prepared for was what a fucking eerie place the Red Planet turned out to be. The planet’s atmospheric density was so low as to muffle all sound and to prevent even the weakest breeze from forming, while the ionization of the atmosphere played all manner of tricks on Earth-bred eyes. (This is another fabulous gimmick. The scenes that take place on Earth or inside the ship were filmed in full color. All “outdoor” footage was shot in black and white, solarized, and tinted red or blue, depending on whether the scene takes place by day or night.) The total effect was that of a still, silent world, whose glowing air made everything appear blurred and distorted.
And then there were the Martians themselves. Iris Ryan was the first to see one, peering with its three bulging eyes through the ship’s viewport shortly after landing. The creature was nowhere to be seen when the crew went outside to make contact, however. The next day, the crew encountered Martian wildlife more directly, when Ryan was nearly eaten by a carnivorous plant the size of a small truck. The explorers had a real fight on their hands with this one, as it turned out that Martian flora, while unmistakably plant-like in its cellular structure, possessed the rudiments of both muscular and nervous systems, allowing the plants to move and control their various stems and tendrils. Fortunately, Jacobs’s ultrasonic freeze gun (I’m not even going to guess how it’s supposed to work) proved more than a match for the killer cauliflower, and all four crewmembers returned to the ship unharmed.
They encountered something even nastier on their second day of exploration. O’Banyon noticed what he took to be an isolated grove of trees that were strange, even by Martian standards. When he and Ryan went to investigate, they found to their great dismay that the trees were actually the legs of this 40-odd-foot-tall rat-bat-spider thing, and that giant rat-bat-spider things don’t take kindly to having their legs struck with machetes. (Anyone who’s into punk rock is probably familiar with this monster. It appears on the front cover of the Misfits’ Walk Among Us LP, beneath a formation of alien warships from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.) And, wouldn’t you know it, this monster was none too impressed with Jacobs’s fancy rifle. It took a direct hit to the creature’s eyes to get it to lose interest in eating the astronauts. They forged onward after their narrow escape, turning back only when they reached the shore of a completely motionless lake, whose waters had roughly the consistency of rubbing alcohol. They hadn’t thought to bring their raft along, and it was, in any event, approaching nightfall, so O’Banyon and company decided to call it a day.
That night, Dr. Gattell convinced the colonel that it was simply too dangerous to remain on Mars for the full five days. They had, after all, accomplished the primary goal of their mission, to land on Mars and make a preliminary survey of its terrain and life-forms, if any existed. Their operational orders also specified that they were to avoid unnecessary risks, and it could be argued quite convincingly that hanging out in a neighborhood where one could expect daily encounters with well-nigh indestructible monsters constituted an unnecessary risk. O’Banyon informed the rest of the crew, and they strapped themselves in for take-off. No such luck. The rocket had plenty of fuel, but it seemed that some mysterious force was holding the ship down; Gattell calculated that they would need 100 times the power of their main thrusters to overcome that force. Well, then... trip to the beach, anyone?
The explorers got the raft, and set off across the lake that they had discovered the previous day. In the center of this lake was an island, every square inch of which was covered with vast skyscrapers, the tallest at least half a mile high. Oddly enough, there was no sign of life anywhere in the city. Not so for the lake as a whole, though. As the rocket’s crew gawked at the Martian city, an organism surfaced behind them that I can only describe as resembling 45,000 tons of decaying leftovers from a public school cafeteria. Our intrepid heroes were understandably reluctant to stick around. Such a pity, then, that the moving mold mountain proved perfectly equal to the task of operating on dry land. By the scene’s end, Jacobs, the raft, and the ray-gun had all been eaten by the monster, O’Banyon had a nice colony of its spores growing on his arm, and the monster itself had settled down to slowly digest the rocket. Of course, we know that the ship and its remaining crewmembers survived, at least in body, so what happened? It seems that three-eyed peeping Tom that Iris saw upon landing was a sort of spokesman for the hive-mind to which all Martian organisms belong. Gattell was right about the planet as a whole not wanting to be disturbed by Earthlings, and not long before the ship and its occupants would have been absorbed into the giant mass of rotten Mexican Pizzas and chicken bones, that hive-mind came to the conclusion that it would have better luck keeping humans the hell off of its planet if it let these three return home with a warning to beware of slime monster. Just to make sure, it left a recorded message to that effect on the last reel of the ship’s log before it allowed Mars Rocket X-1 to lift off. As for Dr. Gattell, he seems to have died of a heart attack on the trip home, and that’s pretty much the last thing that Ryan can be induced to remember from before she went into shock. It’s more than enough to save O’Banyon, though. First of all, it revealed that the slime monster was the source of the infection. Secondly, it suggested an antidote. You see, not long before they were contacted by the hive-mind, the colonel and Dr. Gattell attempted to kill the thing by electrifying the ship’s outer hull. They couldn’t kill it, by they did hurt it enough that it withdrew, freeing most of the ship from its body. Ryan postulates, correctly it turns out, that by applying a sustained electrical charge to the fungus, they can force it to extricate itself from O’Banyon’s tissues. Now, it seems to me that this plan fails to address the very important point that the fungus looks already to have eaten most of the man’s skin, but what can you do? This was 1960, after all.
Oh, yeah, this is a fine one. It has more jury-rigged gimmickry per unit time than any other movie I’ve ever seen, it has some of the most wildly imaginative monsters ever, and it even has a not-completely-unintelligent story with a hint of social import. (I grant you, its social import is plagiarized from The Day the Earth Stood Still, but it’s there nevertheless.) It’s a shame that The Angry Red Planet never seems to receive the attention that, say, Forbidden Planet or This Island Earth do. But at least Glenn Danzig appreciates it.