Mars Needs Women (1967) -**
In 1964, American International Pictures released a movie called Pajama Party. The first of the inexcusably numerous 60’s beach party musical comedies to dispense with usual star Frankie Avalon, its borderline-psychotic plot involved, among other things, a Martian agent who had been sent to Earth to study the planet’s teenagers, for reasons I don’t recall having been very well explained. Three years later, elsewhere in the studio’s corporate structure, Larry Buchanan had just about run out of 50’s-vintage AIP films that could plausibly be remade on less than half of their original budgets for the company’s TV department, but Nicholson and Arkoff wanted still more movies out of him. In true Buchanan fashion, old Larry did just about the strangest thing imaginable in response to his bosses’ directives. He took the Martian plot thread from Pajama Party— which, remember, was at least nominally a comedy— and expanded it into a completely serious 50’s-style alien invasion flick with one of the greatest exploitation titles of all time: Mars Needs Women. And just to make sure you couldn’t miss the new film’s derivation from a movie the studio had put out for theatrical release only three years before, Buchanan cast Tommy Kirk, the talentless young actor who had played Gogo the Martian in Pajama Party, in the role of the alien leader.
Like most self-respecting shitty old movies about alien invasions, Mars Needs Women begins with stock footage— of humongous radio dishes out in the arid Texas countryside, specifically. These devices, as we shall soon learn, have been picking up the same coded message from some unknown transmitter over and over again for the past three days. When Colonel Page (Bryon Lord, who played the monsters in Buchanan’s earlier Creature of Destruction and In the Year 2889), the big cheese at the Air Force base where those dishes are located, arrives at work, he is told that there has been a breakthrough— the cryptographers have decoded the mysterious transmissions. It sounds crazy, but the crypto guys have “checked and double-checked,” and there’s no question but that the message reads: “Mars needs women.” And sure enough, we are soon treated to a trio of budget-conscious alien abduction scenes, in which attractive young women vanish between frames while going about their day-to-day business— going out to dinner, say, or taking a shower. (What? You seriously thought Buchanan would let slip a chance to throw in as much skin as the FCC would allow? You obviously don’t understand the sort of man we’re dealing with here...)
Colonel Page doesn’t get much time to scoff at the code-breakers’ report, because just a few hours later, the enigmatically repeated transmission is replaced by an announcement that the Martians want to speak with the people of Earth directly, but that they will do so only on the condition that any air-search equipment that might be used to locate their ship be turned off. We won’t go into the reasons why an Air Force colonel might have a hard time complying with such a sweeping request, because Page somehow finds a way to circumvent them so swiftly that one is tempted to conclude that they had never occurred to Larry Buchanan in the first place. The leader of the Martians begins broadcasting over the PA system in the cryptography room at Page’s base, informing everyone that they are to stand aside in preparation for materialization. And what do you know, no sooner have they done so than Dop, Fellow 1 of the Martians (Tommy Kirk, from Blood of Ghastly Horror and Buchanan’s "It’s Alive!"— which should under no circumstances be confused with Larry Cohen’s good movie of the same name), appears cheaply in the middle of the room. Dop explains that Mars is suffering from a genetic mishap that has somehow resulted in a male-to-female population ratio of roughly 100:1. This is obviously a demographic crisis of the first order, and so the Martian people have sent Dop and his four comrades to Earth to recruit healthy female breeding stock. Think of it as I Married a Monster from Outer Space, only stupid. Well, Colonel Page doesn’t like the Martians’ plan, and (evidently exercising that unexplained authority that let him shut down every piece of electronic scanning equipment in the world) he refuses on behalf of our planet to allow Dop to go canvassing for volunteers. Dop, unsurprisingly, vows to return to Mars with Earth women, even if it means taking them by force. (Buchanan seems to have forgotten that the Martians have already taken three women by force!)
And thus begins one of the most amazing misuses of stock footage I’ve ever witnessed. NORAD’s air defense systems find the Martian ship after all, and aircraft are scrambled to intercept it. We’ve seen this scenario played out countless times in countless cheap old sci-fi movies, but never like this. You see, the stock footage of the “attacking” airplanes is intercut, not with miniature shots depicting the battle between them and the flying saucer, but with footage of Page and his men standing around in their control room, gazing expressionlessly at the PA speaker, over which a chorus of voices describes the planes’ efforts to destroy the invaders! Not only that, the stock footage itself is wildly inappropriate. How? Well, the first plane to attack Dop’s ship is the X-15. For those of you who have forgotten all those airplane specs you memorized back when you were 12 years old (if every single boy in my sixth grade class was a military gear geek, I’m sure most of you were, too), the X-15 was, like all the other X-planes, nothing but a test-bed for advanced propulsion technology and cutting-edge aerodynamic concepts. As such, it was designed to do one thing and one thing only— go that way, really fast. It carried no weapons, nor any sensors that could be remotely useful in a fight. And as for the second aircraft Buchanan pits against the Martians, it’s one of the prototypes of the then-new F-111A. At least this time it’s an actual warplane, but we’re still no closer to achieving the stated mission, because the F-111A was, despite its “fighter” designation, really just a supersonic, low-altitude medium bomber. It wasn’t until the F-111F entered service in the 1980’s that there was a full-production subtype capable of attacking an airborne target. Given what Colonel Page is throwing at them, you have to wonder why Dop and his people even bother using the deflector beam that prevents the Air Force jets from climbing above 20,000 feet to engage them...
Anyway, the Martians lose their pursuers, and land their ship at an old, abandoned ice plant somewhere in Houston. Disembarking with his fellows, Dop goes over The Plan. First, they will acquire the chemicals they will need for some nefarious purpose that will go unexplained until the movie is well-nigh over. Then, they will procure Earth currency, Earth clothes, and a car. Having achieved all these things, they will set out to recruit— by hypnosis if necessary— one Earth woman each to be taken back to Mars. Jesus, they haven’t even started yet, and already I can tell this is a stupid plan. Not two scenes ago, Dop told Colonel Page that the male-to-female ratio on Mars was around 100:1. If that’s so, then what’s the fucking point of bringing home five measly chicks?!?! Even if there weren’t but 100 men on Mars to begin with (in which case a gender imbalance is the least of their demographic worries), that still leaves the ratio at 16:1!
Be that as it may, Dop and his men set to work. After emptying the cash register of a gas station mini-mart, swiping a few suits from a stuffy men’s clothing store, and “borrowing” a really swank 1967 Buick Electra from an airport parking lot, the Martians fan out into the city, looking to score. One agent brings home an airline stewardess; another hooks himself up with a college homecoming queen; the third— in my favorite scene in the movie— sets his sights on one of the dancers at a strip club. (Leave it to Larry Buchanan to find a way to put a stripper on TV in 1967!) Dop himself has higher standards. While prowling around Houston with the fifth Martian agent— the ship’s doctor/science officer— Dop discovers that a renowned scientist named Marjorie Bolen (Yvonne Craig— Batgirl on the old “Batman” TV show) is in town to help the military come to grips with the Martian menace (in which case you’d think she’d be going to Washington instead...). This Dr. Bolen is a real piece of work. Not only is she an astrophysicist, she’s also an expert on “space genetics” (mighty impressive, seeing as we have yet to find anything in space with genes to study!), and she’s managed to do it all before her 30th birthday. Plus, she’s way hot, at least by late-60’s standards, and she’s single. Obviously, Mars needs Dr. Bolen. So Dop comes on to her, and enjoys a tremendous amount of success. But because Bolen is working closely with Colonel Page, that also means that her formidable mind has been set to the task of figuring out where the aliens are and how to stop them. And because such things always turn out this way, it’s inevitable that Bolen is going to outsmart the Martians before Dop has finished working on her, forcing him to choose between betraying her and betraying his comrades.
Oww... Jeez, my brain hurts now. Looking back from the turn of the 21st century, its hard to believe a movie this dauntingly bad would have been considered acceptable for release, even in the made-for-TV market. Sure, TV movies are fucking terrible even today, but at least their producers hold them to certain minimum standards of technical quality. They Nest and Silent Predators probably aren’t actually any smarter than Mars Needs Women in the final assessment, but these days not even the worst TV actor would be allowed to get away with a performance like Byron Lord’s as Colonel Page. Seriously, this guy even makes the cast of Reptilicus look good, and the amazing thing is that, of his fellow players in Mars Needs Women, only Yvonne Craig is all that much better. Even top-billed Tommy Kirk would be booed off the stage of your average high school drama club production.
Beyond the performances, Mars Needs Women also suffers from the same fault that plagues all of Buchanan’s movies. With only $30-40,000 in the budget, Buchanan always had to heed well the maxim that talk is cheap, while action costs money. Mars Needs Women is ludicrously padded— the industry standard is for a page of script to translate into about a minute of screen-time, but I’m fairly certain Buchanan was stretching his pages out to three or four minutes apiece. Scenes are prolonged to inexcusable lengths by such measures as having the characters slowly mix themselves drinks or walk around the room for a while, trying to look busy even long after those scenes’ purpose in the plot has already been served. The pity of it is that this ends up costing the movie dearly in terms of entertainment value, even from a so-bad-it’s-good perspective. Much of the potential fun of Mars Needs Women is scuttled by the sheer listlessness of the proceedings; it’s an absolute riot whenever anything happens, but entirely too much of the film spools endlessly by with nothing at all going on. Still, anybody with an abiding interest in movies from the left tail of the cinematic bell curve probably ought to make themselves sit through Mars Needs Women at least once.