Invasion of the Star Creatures (1963) 0
We’ve all heard the derisive cliche about actors who really want to direct, and we’ve all probably also seen enough movies helmed by such characters to know that there’s more than a little truth behind the cheap laughs. A few actors-turned-directors (Clint Eastwood, for example) manage to pull it off, but for every Play Misty for Me, there are at least several dozen of Mel Gibson’s The Gospel According to Leatherface. So now imagine how the same process plays out when it’s Bruno VeSota switching to the other end of the camera. You remember Bruno VeSota, right? The fat guy with the moustache who shows up for 30 seconds in just about every movie Roger Corman made during the 1950’s? The guy whose turn as the cuckolded shopkeeper in The Giant Leeches amounted to one of the meatier gigs of his career? Yeah, him. Invasion of the Star Creatures was VeSota’s attempt to do an alien invasion movie in the style of Creature from the Haunted Sea, and had it been (as was originally intended) a vehicle for Jonathan Haze and Dick Miller (the former of whom wrote the screenplay), it might perhaps have turned out minimally watchable. But instead, Bob Ball and Frankie Ray got the lead roles, and the result is simply insufferable.
What’s that you say? You’ve never heard of Bob Ball or Frankie Ray? Don’t feel bad— nobody else has, either. Even those who saw Ball in The Brain Eaters or Dr. Death, Seeker of Souls were probably in a pretty big hurry to forget him. The best way to get a fix on these fools is to select your two least favorite Bowery Boys, and then imagine them trying to carry a film all by themselves. Alternately, you might try the same thought experiment with two of the Lesser Stooges— say, Shemp and Curly Joe. Isn’t a pretty picture, is it? In Invasion of the Star Creatures, Ball and Ray play Philbrick and Penn, the very worst soldiers in the United States Army. The two men are stationed at Fort Nicholson, a surface-to-air missile base not far from Nicholson Mesa, where they spend their days engaged in the sort of antics that are amusing only when coming from an anthropomorphic rabbit with a Brooklyn accent. One morning, their sergeant (probably Slick Slavin, of The Bride and the Beast and The Atomic Kid)— who speaks in exaggerated 50’s beatnik slang— summons them to the office of Colonel Thomas Awol (Mark Ferris), Fort Nicholson’s commander. Awol has selected Penn and Philbrick to participate in an important scouting mission. Recent nuclear weapons tests have uncovered a cave in the desert around Nicholson Mesa, and the colonel wants the cavern explored at once. Don’t ask me why.
When Philbrick, Penn, and several other unnamed soldiers reach the cave (Yep. That’s Bronson Canyon, alright.), our worthless heroes are deservedly left behind to watch the entrance while the rest of the men proceed below. Penn and Philbrick fall asleep immediately, causing me to spend the whole of the ensuing hour anticipating an “it was all just a dream” denouement. I suppose VeSota and Haze deserve a tiny bit of credit for not going that route. Meanwhile, the more competent men penetrate the cavern, and are surprised to discover the mummified carcass of a large humanoid whose body appears to be composed of plant matter. Needless to say, the monster suit is significantly less impressive than the one worn by James Arness twelve years earlier. Then a bunch of live plant monsters show up, overwhelm the soldiers underground, and send one of their number to the surface to collect Philbrick and Penn.
The plant men, it is now revealed, are merely the hired— or rather, gardened— muscle here. The real space invaders are a pair of towering Amazons who call themselves Professor Puna (Dolores Reed) and Dr. Tanga (Gloria Victor), hailing from the planet Chalar. Their purpose on Earth is to study the place in preparation for full-scale interstellar conquest, and they are nearing the point at which they will have gathered sufficient data to return home aboard a spaceship that I strongly suspect of being recycled from some late-50’s Roger Corman production. With the non-useless soldiers all zombified and hidden away somewhere, that leaves only Penn and Philbrick to prevent the launch and save our planet from being enslaved by seven-foot women in naugahide bikinis— which would seem at first glance to mean that the human race is fucked. But when Penn unexpectedly discovers that kissing the alien women gives them an electrochemical shock that temporarily disrupts all their higher brain functions, an avenue of escape presents itself. Assuming they can fight their way past the Vegemen, convince Colonel Awol of the danger at hand, and keep from running too seriously afoul of the abominably stereotyped Indian tribe that shows up for no fucking reason during the final act, the two worst soldiers in the US Army have a shot at becoming bona fide heroes.
It isn’t easy to be the worst movie on a given B-Fest schedule, but Invasion of the Star Creatures left all the rest of the 2007 lineup in the dust. What makes it so hellish is that it was intended to be a comedy, but there is absolutely nothing funny about it. Horror, sci-fi, action, romance— movies in those genres can fail at their intended purpose, and still succeed as accidental comedy. But if you aim for laughs and fail, there really is nowhere else to go from there (unless possibly you’re making a sex farce, in which case you might still have an outside chance of getting by on sheer cheesecake). Invasion of the Star Creatures fails in every way open to it, having scarcely a joke to its name that isn’t older than the fossils in the Burgess Shales, and repeating its superannuated gags again and again and again. Its satire is at the seventh-grade level at best, its slapstick makes one long for the sophistication of the Ritz Brothers, its ethnic humor would be considered a hate-crime in some circles, and what little original material it possesses feels a day late and a dollar short. The beatnik sergeant, for example, might perhaps have been mildly amusing ten years earlier, but not in 1963. I mean, the joke seems to be that the sergeant, traditionally a figure of dour and inflexible conservatism, is instead the hippest cool cat in Fort Nicholson, daddy-o! But the gag doesn’t work very well when the character in question is an overdone caricature of the previous decade’s counterculture. Youth rebellion mutates rapidly; either keep up with the changes or make fun of something else instead.