Thursday, September 25, 2014


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, psychological, sociological*

"I'm absolutely confident that nothing can go wrong"-- a fellow who clearly had not read the whole script of FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE SPACE MONSTER.

I should hate this movie. It's very much in the vein of other cheapjack films that padded their running-time with the copious use of stock footage, ranging from Coleman Francis'  1961 BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS to the 1965 Rebane/Lewis monstrosity MONSTER-A-GO-GO.  This sort of film was pretty much on the way to extinction by 1965, at least within the domain of mainstream cinema.  In many respects SPACE MONSTER is pretty much of a piece with the other two films, lacking even the eccentric POV of an Ed Wood to give the proceedings some demented inspiration.

SPACE MONSTER doesn't have a really demented outlook; the most it can muster is a sort of wry proto-campiness. And yet I like it. I like the ham-handed editing, as with the scene, not ten minutes into the story, where a military officer asks scientist Karen Grant how she's doing, and she's cut off by a cutaway to stock footage. I like the fact that almost all the normal people in SPACE MONSTER are either stupid or immoral, while the damaged android "Frank Saunders" is the hero.  And even though the film compromises Mary Shelley's creation by crossbreeding it with a bug-eyed monster, there are a few scenes-- spotty though they are-- that come much closer to the pathos of Shelley's shambling hulk than many films with better production values-- particularly three or four entries in Hammer's "Frankenstein" franchise.

We first meet Colonel Frank Saunders as he speaks before a press conference. The affable, handsome astronaut speaks modestly about his impending launch into space-- and then suddenly freezes. His fellow officers hustle him out of the room, claiming that he's overtired. The truth is that Saunders is an android, created by two scientists, the aforementioned Karen Grant and her senior collaborator, Adam Steele (virtually a double for his creation, since Saunders is an "Adam" made out of steel, among other things).  Steele has somehow convinced the U.S. military to send his android into space to spare human lives. Saunders' little seize-up is accomplished by a simple "freeze-frame," both the cheapest-- and yet the creepiest-- moment in the film. One might think that the military would instantly drop the android astronaut idea like the proverbial hot potato after this incident-- who wants to trust an ultra-expensive space-rocket to a robot that may seize up and cause untold damage that could devolve back onto the heads of those who approved it?  But everyone accepts Steele's assurances that it won't happen again, and the flight goes ahead as scheduled.

As it happens, when the flight goes wrong, it isn't the fault of Steele or his creation.  An alien ship from Mars begins orbiting Earth's atmosphere, commanded by the statuesque Princess Marcuzan and her counselor-figure, the aptly-named Doctor Nadir.  They and their men-- mostly garbed in what looks like earthly astronaut-costumes-- are the winners of an atomic conflict on Mars. However, their victory is an ambivalent one: the war somehow wipes out all Martian women save the Princess-- and since the Princess patently doesn't want to become the new "Eve" of her people, she and her followers come to Earth to gather them up some "sobbin' women."  There have certainly been much better "atomic-warning" films than SPACE MONSTER-- and yet one must admit that these Alex Raymond-aliens do mirror the possible follies of human beings tinkering around with the apocalypse.

Before they can do so, their orbit accidentally takes them straight into the path of Saunders' space-launch.  Despite the Martian's superior technology, they can't figure out the difference between a manned rocket and an attack-missile-- although the Princess roundly insults Nadir after they shoot down the rocket and see a man parachute free. Yet the blasting of the missile has no immediate ill-effect on their mission: apparently cloaked from radar, the Martians land their craft in an Earth-forest. Then the Martian flunkies go girl-hunting, armed with ray-guns and still garbed in their astronaut-gear-- in other words, apparently not the least bit concerned that anyone might track them and their conquests back to their base. There's not many movies that can make MARS NEEDS WOMEN look intelligent by comparison, but SPACE MONSTER succeeds at that rare task.

However, Nadir and Marcuzan create their own destined antagonist through their mammoth stupidity in shooting down the space-launch. The android is severely damaged by his forced landing, with half his face melted away and two big plastic wires sticking out of his chest like extensions from his man-tits.  He wanders around, his intelligence shattered like his body. He has a "James Whale" moment when he tries to get help from a pair of parked motorists. The man attacks the ugly monster, and Saunders kills him, though the android spares the woman, leaving her alone despite her continual shrieking at him.

Meanwhile back at the launch-site, Steele has no idea that aliens caused the catastrophe, though he thinks that Saunders' "master control" may guide him back to the base. However, Steele and Karen don't wait for this to happen, but go out hunting for their little lost android. Eventually they find him in a cave-- again, pretty much by dumb luck rather than as a result of people having seen the monster-naut wandering about.  There's another minor Whale-ism as Steele manages to calm the damaged creature, telling him to lower his hands-- a likely parallel to the "sit down" scene in 1931's FRANKENSTEIN. At this point Karen and Steele have this meaningful exchange:

KAREN: "Frank has become so real to me that I can't bear the thought of his being hurt!"
STEELE: "No one's going to destroy ten years of my work!"

Unlike many iterations of the Frankenstein myth, "Frank" has both a mother and a father, though the mother doesn't really do him much good, nor are there any establishing scenes that might suggest that Karen's had any maternal effect on Saunders. Steele is pretty much the same selfish jerk as the original Frankenstein, for all purposes blind to his creation's feelings. Steele sends Karen off to get help, but she crosses paths with the Martians, who add her to their collection.  Once Karen has been taken to the ship, the Princess subjects the lady scientist to being terrorized by Mull, a huge radiation-created mutant. I confess I forget what if any stated reason the Princess had for torturing Karen. Maybe I was busy trying to figure out why a group of radiation survivors would bring along with them a monster created by radiation. They do end up using Mull as a sort of guard-dog, but it begs the question: why do aliens with ray-guns need a big scary monster?

Again, while the rest of the military scurries about in impotent fashion, Steele finally decides to stop waiting for Karen, and ventures forth with Saunders in tow. Somehow Steele and Saunders stumble across the alien spaceship that no one else has managed to spot. Steele, having seen evidence that Karen was in the area, suspects that she's been taken aboard. While Steele goes for help, he tells Saunders to watch the ship, again showing boundless confidence in his creation, even when severely damaged. But after Steele departs, the aliens catch sight of their metal adversary. They subdue him rather easily, take him into a ship, and leave him laying on a table with no bonds or supervision.

Finally the military finds the ship and begins bombarding it. Steele belatedly shows up and tells them to back off to protect the hostages inside (I'm still not clear if he knows about the other abductees). Aboard the ship Saunders is awakened by Karen's pleas for help. He overcomes a Martian or two and frees all the prisoners, including Karen-- but one of the Martians frees the huge skull-faced monster Mull as well.

For a fight consisting mostly of wild camera-angles, the combat between Saunders and Mull is better than one might expect, though it still leaves me wondering that if the android is this strong, why couldn't he beat the crap out of the ordinary Martians? Anyway, Nadir and the Princess take off to escape the Earth-military, but Saunders manages a pyrrhic victory by blasting their control board and destroying the whole ship-- which may or may not be a tribute to James Whale's convenient "blow-everything-up switch."  The film ends quickly, with another segue to cheery pop music.

SPACE MONSTER isn't quite brain-fried enough to be ranked with the best of the "so bad it's good" crowd. But it does have a few lucid moments amid all the perhaps-intentional idiocies.

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