Target Earth (1954) ***
Most of the time, it’s a very bad thing when a movie could have worked just as well had it been a stage play. The cinema is inherently a more flexible medium, so by filming a movie that would fit on a stage, a director is, in essence, limiting himself right from the get-go. But if handled with sufficient care, a play-like movie doesn’t have to come out as boring and lifeless as most such films do. In the case of Target Earth, the first offering from subsequently prolific producer Herman Cohen, my guess is director Sherman Rose and writer William Raynor took the approach they did mainly to save money. After all, it isn’t easy to shoot an alien invasion movie on less than $100,000, and limiting the action to just a couple of settings would have promised all sorts of major economies. But unlike the makers of the somewhat later and structurally similar The Day the World Ended, they seem to have thought hard about how to use the confinement built into the story to their advantage. Target Earth may be just as slow-moving and constricted in scope as the aforementioned Corman film, but it comes across as tense and claustrophobic rather than merely dull.
Everything I’ve turned up in my research identifies the setting as Chicago, despite the facts that it is never identified by name and that all the street scenes were filmed on Sunday mornings in Los Angeles. Either way, when Nora King (Kathleen Crowley, from Curse of the Undead and The Flame Barrier) comes out from under the effects of a pile of sleeping pills, it’s 1:00 in the afternoon, but the streets outside her window seem strangely vacant, and there’s nobody else around in the tenement building where she rents an apartment. Becoming alarmed, Nora gets dressed and goes outside; the city is just as desolate as it seemed from inside her bedroom. Nora runs from corner to corner in an escalating panic, looking for some sign of the millions of other people who should be out on the town with her, but when she finally does run across somebody, he’s lying dead in the gutter with no visible injuries and a look of not-quite-natural terror on his face. That’s when Nora turns around, and bumps into Frank Brooks (Richard Denning, of Creature with the Atom Brain and Twice-Told Tales). Taking him at first for the other man’s killer, Nora runs away from him, but Frank catches up to her after a short chase and convinces her that she has nothing to fear from him. Like her, he slept late, if you can call it that. He’d been in town on business, and was having a few drinks in celebration of his success when he caught the eye of a mugger who beat him up and ran off with his wallet on the walk back to his hotel. When he came around, it was shortly after noon, and the city was inexplicably empty. The upshot of it all is that Frank is just as bewildered as Nora, though he’s thus far done a somewhat better job of keeping a handle on his emotions.
Suddenly, the couple hear the sounds of a piano drifting down the street toward them. They follow it to an expensive nightclub, wherein they encounter Vicky Harris (Virginia Grey, from House of Horrors and Unknown Island) and her boyfriend of ten years, Jim Wilson (Richard Reeves). Vicky was the one playing the piano; both of them have been drinking like Vikings since yesterday evening, and are now totally wasted. Evidently Jim won some kind of lottery, and had taken Vicky out on his winnings, and by the time they had slept off their drunk, they too had missed what Frank figures must have been some sort of official evacuation order. With the city all to themselves and no law enforcement presence to stand in their way, Jim and Vicky figured they might just as well pick up their bar-hopping where they’d left off. But if Brooks is right, and the city’s desertion is due to an evacuation, that must mean it is or soon will be unsafe to remain in town. Neither of the revelers is thinking clearly enough to follow that line of reasoning, but they agree to come along when Frank rephrases his argument for leaving the bar into a suggestion that there are other places to drink along the route to the city limits.
Of course, if Frank, Nora, Jim, and Vicky are going to get anywhere within a reasonable amount of time, they’re going to need a car. The first one they try won’t start, however, for somebody has come along and removed its distributor cap. And if Charles Otis (Mort Marshall)— the man who accosts them while Brooks and Wilson look over the engine— is to be believed, that goes for every other car in the city too, or for close enough to all of them as makes no difference. That gets Brooks thinking. When he was in Britain during the war, he heard that the people of London had done the same thing to their cars during the Blitz, when it was expected that the Nazis could land an invasion force on British soil at any time. The idea was to deny the invading army the mobility that a large number of captured automobiles would have afforded them. That the same pattern can be seen here and now suggests that his intuition about an evacuation is on target, and that the reason behind that evacuation is that somebody has deployed a hostile army on American territory. From there, it follows that fleeing the city is the worst thing they could do— likely as not, they’d just end up marching right on into the enemy lines. So instead, Frank gets everybody to come along with him to the nearest hotel, where they should be reasonably safe, at least until the fighting starts. The question is, who could have invaded the US overnight, without giving any kind of warning that they were coming?
Charles ends up answering that question, or at least hinting at its answer, when he gets himself killed about an hour later. Never a big fan of holing up inside the hotel, he bolts, and runs straight into one of the scouts for the mysterious invasion force. It’s a robot a bit more than six feet high, and it blasts Otis with a death ray fired from its head the moment it sees him. Well at least that explains the dead guy Nora found lying in the gutter without a mark on him earlier in the afternoon.
Meanwhile, at the field headquarters for the military outfit charged with defending against the robot invaders, General Wood (Arthur Space, from Panther Girl of the Congo and 20 Million Miles to Earth) is briefing his top subordinates about the situation on the ground. The invasion force seems to consist of just a few hundred troops, but that few hundred have already made mincemeat of an entire armored division. No one knows who the invaders are, but the nearly miraculous advancement of their military technology would seem to rule out the Russians, or indeed anybody else on Earth. The scientist attached to Wood’s unit (Whit Bissell, of Monster on the Campus and Creature from the Black Lagoon) believes that they may have come from Venus, which is not only closer to Earth than any other planet, but is also the only other non-gaseous planet in the solar system with an atmosphere thick enough to support life easily. (I can only assume that it was not yet widely known in 1954 that the Venusian atmosphere is composed mainly of carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid…) The scientist is also able to tell Wood that more answers may soon be forthcoming. A team of soldiers has captured one of the alien robots, and is bringing it to his laboratory even now. If he and his colleagues can figure out what makes the things tick (and what might plausibly make them stop ticking), there’s a chance the artillery battery Wood has just brought in to surround the city won’t have to let fly with those atomic shells they’ve been issued for the attack.
That, of course, would be good news for Nora, Frank, Jim, and Vicky, but getting caught in a crossfire between the aliens and the army is far from their only worry just now. Their party has taken on a fifth member to replace the slain Otis, but Davis the new guy (Robert Roark, of Killers from Space) is not somebody they’d want keeping them company if they had any choice in the matter. Davis makes his entrance by breaking into the hotel suite where the other refugees had been staying, and waving his pistol in everybody’s faces. He’s not just some small-time crook, either. Davis is wanted for murder, and he hopes to use the confusion attendant upon the invasion from space to cover his escape from the authorities. But in order to do that, he’ll need something to divert the invaders’ attention away from him too, and that’s where his four unwilling roommates come in. Davis plans on forcing them out of the hotel to draw the robots’ fire, while he sneaks away behind the aliens’ lines. That can wait ‘til tomorrow, though. Right now, Davis wants to have a little fun, and he wants to have it with Nora specifically.
One way Target Earth uses its low-key treatment of the invasion to its advantage is by making the aliens a looming threat rather than a direct presence. The robot suits are honestly pretty cheesy, as is only to be expected given that Allied Artists, the studio that picked up Target Earth for distribution, had been Monogram Pictures up until the year before. It hardly pays to expect top-notch robots from the people who once brought us The Ape Man. With the aliens offscreen most of the time, it remains possible to take them more or less seriously, which would not have been the case had we been confronted with the effects team’s lackluster handiwork at every turn. Handling the invasion that way also puts the audience in much the same position as the movie’s characters— they don’t really know what they’re up against, and neither do we— which makes it easier to become involved in their situation. It deprives us of the ability to sit back and smugly ask why they haven’t yet figured out what we already know from watching a scene set on the bridge of the aliens’ flagship, or in the throne room of Ming the Merciless.
The sense of helplessness that pervades the movie as a result of the aliens’ inscrutability is then heightened by the fact that General Wood and his soldiers pose just as big a threat to the people trapped in that hotel as do the robots from Venus (or wherever). The subject first comes up when Nora and the others watch a flight of bombers cruise over the city toward the enemy lines, but it isn’t until Wood puts his artillery on standby to tac-nuke the city that the threat of friendly fire really hits home. And the fact that our heroes downtown don’t realize that the city could erupt in a gigantic mushroom cloud all around them at any moment ratchets the suspense up even further. While they’re trying to survive Davis and his deadly mood swings, worrying all the while about keeping out of sight of the killer robots, Wood is back at his desk plotting their doom without the faintest notion that he’s doing it. So while Target Earth may not deliver the “Raw Panic!” promised by the movie posters, it accomplishes much more through subtlety than its budget would ever have allowed had its creators aimed for spectacle instead.