Killers from Space (1954) -*½
Though hardly a household name these days, Billy Wilder is still a fairly well respected filmmaker. With weighty dramas like Stalag 17, big-ticket romantic comedies like Irma la Douce, and even a couple of Marilyn Monroe vehicles under his belt, Wilder’s reputation as a writer/director to be reckoned with will no doubt remain secure for generations to come. It isn’t Billy Wilder that we’re here to talk about today, however, but his brother, W. Lee Wilder. As is so often the case among movie-industry siblings, the talent genes were by no means evenly distributed within the Wilder family. W. Lee is the Frank Stallone to Billy’s Sylvester, the Joe Estevez to his brother’s Martin Sheen. And while Billy was directing Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina, W. Lee was wandering around in Bronson Canyon with Peter Graves, shooting Killers from Space from a typically lethargic script by his son and frequent collaborator, Myles.
Would you believe the movie starts with a stock-footage nuclear weapons test? Exactly what the Air Force is studying this time is a little vague, but after the bomb goes off, a pilot takes Dr. Doug Martin (Peter Graves, from Parts: The Clonus Horror and It Conquered the World) aloft to circle the mushroom cloud and take readings. While he’s up there, Martin notices something glowing amid a pile of rocks, and tells his pilot to bring the plane in low so that he can investigate. The controls seize up during the dive, however, and the aircraft smashes itself to pieces among the rocks of Soledad Flats. The Air Force base’s rescue team finds the body of the pilot amid the wreckage, but there is no sign of Dr. Martin, alive or dead. Nevertheless, it seems impossible that he could have survived the crash.
Consequently, you can imagine the astonishment of all concerned when Martin comes limping back to the base several days later. He can remember nothing of the crash itself, nor of how he escaped from the shattered plane in one piece— and as base physician Major Clift (Shepard Menken) is able to attest, Martin is indeed in one piece. In fact, he shows no sign of injury at all except for a curious L-shaped scar on the left side of his chest. What makes this even stranger is that Clift is certain the scar could only be the result of surgery, and Dr. Martin has never had an operation in his life. And even if Martin could somehow have received such a clean chest-wound in an airplane crash, the injury couldn’t possibly have healed so completely in so little time, especially without any medical attention. All in all, it’s enough to make Clift want to keep Martin under observation for a while. His commanding officer, Colonel Banks (James Seay, of Phantom from Space and The Beginning of the End), agrees, and not just out of concern for the scientist’s health. There are security considerations, too, for Dr. Martin has a top-secret clearance ranking, and it makes the military very nervous when people who are privy to so much sensitive information go missing and unaccounted for. Banks puts Martin on leave until such time as it can be figured out just where he went— and whom, if anyone, he saw— during his days-long trek across the desert. He also calls in an FBI agent named Briggs (Target Earth’s Steve Pendleton) to help him solve that puzzle.
Martin, for his part, is not at all happy to be put in cold storage. There’s nothing wrong with him so far as he can see, and he thinks Banks, Briggs, and the rest are being ridiculous in considering him a security risk. He finds it especially galling that the brass have the apparently willing cooperation of both his wife, Ellen (Barbara Bestar), and his friend and colleague, Dr. Curt Kruger (Frank Gerstle, from The Magnetic Monster and Monstrosity). But the truth is that Martin really is behaving suspiciously, even leaving aside any worries related to three or four days worth of missing memories and an unexplainable surgical scar. For one thing, he isn’t sleeping well, tormented by dreams of bulging, bloodshot eyes. For another, when he reads in the newspaper that there’s been another nuclear test without anyone telling him about it, he drives over to the lab in a major huff, and as soon as he and the brass are through telling each other off, he hides in his office until quitting time, then lets himself into the giant wall-safe where the project scientists store all their most sensitive findings. Martin snags a little piece of paper out of the safe and hits the road in the direction of Soledad Flats. It doesn’t take long for somebody to notice the door to the safe hanging open, and some quick sleuthing by Briggs fingers Martin as the only possible culprit. A manhunt swings into action, and Martin is apprehended after leaving the stolen paper among the rocks where his plane had crashed earlier. (Don’t trouble yourself wondering about the precise significance of that paper though; Briggs doesn’t bother collecting it, and the subject never comes up again. W. Lee Wilder and Son, Masters of Continuity…)
Back at the base, Major Clift shoots Martin up with sodium amitol— truth serum— in the hope of getting to the bottom of his major malfunction. It’s quite a yarn the scientist spins. If Martin is to be believed (and it’s difficult to find an excuse not to believe him with all that amitol in his system), he did not technically survive the crash in the desert. Beneath Soledad flats is a network of hidden caverns, wherein aliens from the planet Astron Delta have set up an advance base for the conquest of the Earth, and these aliens recovered Martin’s body and restored him to life using some manner of open-heart surgery (thus accounting for the scar on his chest). Once he was back among the living, he was brought to see Deneb (John Frederick, of Prehistoric Women and The Alligator People), the leader of the aliens, who did what low-rent arch-villains usually do, and explained the invasion plan to Martin in such excruciating detail that he was able to figure out immediately what would be required to stop it. The Astronites, you see, have been harnessing the energy released by the local atomic tests, storing it, and using it to create an army of giant monsters from the native fauna of Soledad Flats. Obviously it takes a great deal of power to contain all that radiation, and Martin believes that the aliens are getting it by tapping into area’s electrical grid. But the scientist had no chance to do anything with that idea at the time, because his escape attempt was thwarted, and he was hypnotized by the aliens into becoming their sleeper agent on the staff of the nuclear test project. But now that he’s fulfilled his programming, the control has been broken, and Martin sees his chance to save the world and take his revenge on Deneb and his followers. What he wants is for Banks to arrange a brief shutdown at the power plant. Ten seconds without their stolen electricity, and the Astronites ought to be blown sky-high by their stockpile of siphoned atomic energy. The trouble is, Martin’s story is so bizarre that neither Banks nor Briggs nor even Kruger buys it, sodium amitol or no sodium amitol; if Martin wants to turn off the power to Deneb’s underground base, he’s just going to have to do it himself.
Killers from Space is a film which, in other hands, might have turned out exceedingly well. Myles Wilder’s screenplay makes a good-faith effort to transform a fairly standard 1950’s alien paranoia plot into a deadly serious espionage thriller, taking the subtext of movies like The Thing or Invaders from Mars and bringing it right out into the open. The film wants very badly to be The Manchurian Candidate with little green men, and with somebody like Jack Arnold— or even Ray Kellogg— in the director’s chair, there’s a good chance that that’s exactly what it would have been. But instead, Killers from Space got stuck with W. Lee Wilder, one of the era’s true virtuosos of tedium and half-assedness. Scarcely a moment goes by after the reasonably competent first act that does not reveal some extraordinary creative misjudgment. Take the aliens, for example. Most contemporary filmmakers with no money to spend on their spacemen were content to dress them up in peculiar costumes and leave it to the audience to assume that a planet with essentially the same environment as Earth’s would produce organisms that were also essentially similar. Wilder, however, apparently wanted his aliens to look alien; unfortunately, all the budget was good for was about half a gross of ping pong balls, which the makeup people sawed in half and painted to create the bulging eyes of the Astronites. Surely any fool could see that a bunch of guys in goofy futuristic jumpsuits make more convincing aliens than a bunch of guys in goofy futuristic jumpsuits, who have ping pong balls for eyes?!?! Then there’s the scene in which Martin breaks away from Deneb, and tries to escape from the Astronites’ headquarters. After running around for a bit, dodging and hiding from aliens, he takes a wrong turn straight into the pits where the invaders are breeding their army of monsters. For the next four minutes, Peter Graves cowers before back-projected images of spiders, grasshoppers, cockroaches, horned toads, skinks, monitor lizards, and Lord knows what else. Four minutes might not sound like a long time, but it really, really is. By the time it’s over, Deneb’s sad menagerie has more than worn out its welcome— by then, it isn’t even funny anymore. In the finale, Wilder finds a way to wring boredom from both a chase scene in the bowels of a power plant and a hostage situation in its control room. Not since The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues have I seen a more comprehensively failed attempt to fuse sci-fi with espionage.