Phantom from Space (1953) *
Guess what, kids— it’s another boring-ass monster movie from W. Lee Wilder and son! This time, that less-than-dynamic duo have brought us their take on the ever-popular misunderstood extraterrestrial theme, and let’s just say that Robert Wise doesn’t have a thing to worry about. Though Phantom from Space reaches with all its might for the Day the Earth Stood Still high ground, it ends up merely floundering in a sewer all its own.
It’s a UFO sighting that sets the story in motion. At about a quarter after seven one evening, some stock-footage radar rigs (a sizeable amount of this stock footage would resurface the next year in Killers from Space, by the way) pick up something in the air some 200 miles off the coast of Alaska. When it is first detected, the object is flying at roughly 5000 miles per hour, at an altitude of 70,000 feet— as if it needed to be said, that would have been a pretty neat trick in 1953. Whatever it is, it’s holding a more or less steady course not quite parallel to the west coast of North America, and though its altitude is decreasing steadily, it isn’t doing so at nearly the rate one would expect of a meteor. That makes some highly decorated men extremely nervous, and a flight of fighter planes is dispatched to intercept. Yeah. A bunch of Saberjets against a mach-seven UFO. Good luck with that, guys. Inevitably, the UFO blows past the projected intercept point while the planes are barely off the runway, and the radar operators on the ground lose track of it a bit more than an hour after first contact in the vicinity of Santa Monica, California. The final readings had the object descending to 10,000 feet and slowing to a comparatively sedate 1.8 times the speed of sound.
The disappearance of the UFO coincides with a sudden outbreak of radio and television interference in the Santa Monica area. Incredibly, no one will make the connection between the two strange occurrences until much, much later. For now, the federal government contents itself with dispatching a fleet of cars equipped with radio direction-finding gear to track down the source of the interference. Lieutenant Hazen (Ted Cooper, who can more often be seen standing in the background in movies like The Thing and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) is driving one such car when he blunders into the night’s third bit of weirdness. Hazen and his partner (Tom Daly, of The Spider Woman Strikes Back and The Angry Red Planet) stop to take some more detailed readings just as a woman (Lela Nelson) in an obvious state of shock comes staggering out of the brush beside the road. She announces that her husband and their mutual friend, Pete Darrow, have both been hurt in some kind of altercation with a third man. Hazen summons the regular police, and then rushes to the woman’s assistance, getting out of her at some point the information that she is named Betty Evans. That’s about the one intelligible thing Betty does tell him, however, and it isn’t until Darrow (Burt Arnold) recovers from his blow to the head that a coherent story emerges. That is not to say, however, that Lieutenant Bowers (Harry Landers)— the cop who questions Darrow— actually believes that story. Darrow reports that he and the Evanses were having a moonlight picnic in the park when they were accosted by a huge man wearing what appeared to be a diving suit. Evans was alarmed by the man’s demeanor, and fearing that he and his companions were about to be attacked, he made the first move, swinging at the stranger with a handy piece of wood. The man in the diving suit was not fazed by the blow, however, and he made short work of both Evans and Darrow; in fact, Evans died of his injuries by the time the police arrived on the scene. But the weirdest thing about the whole encounter, says Darrow, was what he saw when he caught a glimpse through the helmet’s visor. So far as he could see, there was no head in there! What makes Bowers doubt Darrow’s honesty (beyond the obvious, I mean) is the relationship between him and Mrs. Evans. The two were old friends, having known each other much longer than Betty knew her husband, and Darrow even boarded with the Evanses. For the time being, Bowers is going to proceed on the assumption that Darrow killed Evans himself out of romantic rivalry, possibly even at Betty’s incitement.
That assumption has to be discarded almost immediately, however, for soon reports come in of two more killings, both said to have been committed by a man wearing something like a diving helmet. The second occurred at an oil refinery, accompanied by a small but serious fire, and happened recently enough that Bowers and his men hope to catch the culprit at the scene. Helmet Guy is there, alright, and a long and incredibly monotonous chase ensues. (Try to count how many times you see the exact same footage of people running back and forth down an alley.) Eventually, just when the police think they have the killer cornered, he slips their grasp completely. Underneath that suit, you see, Helmet Guy is invisible, and so long as he doesn’t mind running around naked, nobody on Earth is going to be able to catch him. The authorities are forced to content themselves with confiscating his suit as evidence.
The strangeness of the case is such that it rapidly attracts the notice of higher levels of officialdom. The military steps in, represented by Major Andrews (James Seay, of Killers from Space and The Amazing Colossal Man), and he in turn summons a scientist named Dr. Wyatt (Rudolph Anders, from The Snow Creature and Frankenstein 1970). Andrews fears that the killer is a saboteur from behind the Iron Curtain, mostly due to the fire at the refinery and the jamming of radio frequencies that began around the same time as the rest of the trouble. Dr. Wyatt has other ideas, though. The suit looks to him more like a space suit than any diving apparatus, and the atmosphere tanks on the helmet contain a mixture of gases that would instantly kill any human being who attempted to breath it. Furthermore, the suit itself seems to be the source of the radio interference, as it is throwing off a considerable amount of radiation. Finally, microscopic examination of the suit’s fabric reveals that is isn’t a fabric at all in the sense that we normally use the term— rather, it’s some sort of super-fine, one-piece extrusion of a metal unknown to terrestrial science. Wyatt doesn’t want to jump to any conclusions, but all the evidence at hand practically screams, “Man from outer space!”
Wyatt, Andrews, Hazen, Bowers, and the rest will all be meeting the extraterrestrial visitor in person soon enough. Unbeknownst to anybody, the alien hitched a ride in one of the cars when Bowers and his men left the refinery. It needs to be close to its space suit, for although it can survive in Earth’s atmosphere for an hour or two at a stretch, it really does need to breathe the air of its homeworld if it’s going to stay alive. The first among the main cast to encounter the spaceman is Wyatt’s assistant, Barbara Randall (Noreen Nash, from Aladdin and His Lamp). While she is alone in the lab running some manner of test on its suit, the alien sneaks in through another door and helps itself to a good, strong drag of the air from back home. Naturally, Barbara becomes somewhat alarmed when she sees the helmet float up from the workbench and hang in midair, but she manages to keep it together sufficiently to avoid running away or fainting or any of those other irritating things that B-movie heroines of this vintage usually do. In fact, she’s so on top of the game that she actually attempts communication with the visitor from space, and discovers that ultraviolet light will render the alien visible. The remainder of the film will see the men frantically scrambling to use Barbara’s insights to trap the creature and figure out what it wants. Unfortunately, Phantom from Space suddenly turns shockingly, counterproductively realistic during what was probably supposed to be the climax, stuttering its way to what might be the single most inconclusive conclusion I’ve ever seen.
As with most things, there are good ways and bad ways to do an open ending. A well-done open ending follows naturally from the events leading up to it, which will ideally have set up a situation that is too large or too complicated for the characters in the movie to resolve it on their own. Alternately, an effectively open-ended movie might depict the threat as being simply so powerful that the protagonists have little hope of accomplishing any more than escaping with their lives. Most importantly, a good open ending acknowledges its openness, and doesn’t try to pretend that all the problems have been safely solved. For some noteworthy examples of an open ending done right, see The Birds, the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and John Carpenter’s The Thing. Or— and this is maybe more to the point for our present purposes— check out The Day the Earth Stood Still for an ending that manages simultaneously to wrap up the story and to convey that what we just saw was really only the prelude to something much bigger and much more serious. If, on the other hand, you want to see an open ending utterly botched, then look no further than Phantom from Space. When this movie ends, the filmmakers have yet to bother answering any of the questions they raise about the alien’s nature or purpose in journeying to our planet, apparently hoping that nobody would notice the oversight if they gave Dr. Wyatt a sufficiently convincing platitude to mouth right before the closing credits. Phantom from Space reaches its unsatisfying conclusion as the capstone to a succession of mishaps and fuck-ups beginning when nobody thinks to draw a connection between the disappearance of the UFO and the advent of the radio interference, but the note on which it ends gives no indication that either W. Lee or Myles Wilder recognized or intended the driving force of the plot to be the ineptitude and sheer bad luck that bedevils the heroes’ efforts to communicate with the alien. As I said, the characters’ repeated failures— and their failure to learn from failure— are believable enough, but it would be nice to see some sort of nod from the Wilders to demonstrate that they knew they were making a movie about a bunch of boobs. Given that its disappointing non-ending comes at the far end of 70-odd minutes in which so very fucking little has happened, and in which even the endearingly cheap-ass alien space suit has gone mostly unseen, Phantom from Space leaves me in an extremely uncharitable mood.