Pants From Space

“How would you feel if someone with a crazy helmet with pipes sticking out of it came at you in the dark?”

I watched PHANTOM FROM SPACE with the usual excuse: it’s depicted in Denis Gifford’s horror movie book. A still shows a muscleman with a big bald dome, wearing jockey shorts and raising his arms in a lackadaisical mime of threat. Since he’s obviously standing quite still, at some distance from anybody else, the raised hands fail to terrify. It looks like he’s been the victim of a stick-up, and his clothes have been stolen.

Grabbing a copy of the film, I watched to the end without having actually researched who made it. It’s obviously a cheapie independent job, as Gifford notes. Then the credits appear: “Produced and Directed by W. Lee Wilder.” It’s like the funeral at the end of DON’T LOOK NOW where everything we’ve seen suddenly makes sense. The am-dram acting, the cheap-ass FX work, the static camerawork (our space-suit monster is seen almost exclusively in extreme long shot, a shiny dot): all of these cease to be puzzling aberrations and become at once the signature of an auteur with a consistent stylistic approach. Consistently poor.

Actually, as noted here, Wilder’s noirs are a good bit better than his sci-fi/horror work, and even in that genre he’s surprisingly variable. THE MAN WITHOUT A BODY is consistently hilarious, whereas THE SNOW CREATURE is so dull, if you start watching it at 7 O’clock, by 7.05 you’re wishing it had ended at 6.30. KILLERS FROM SPACE is uninteresting apart from a psychedelic sequence in a cave full of enlarged bugs, which goes on so long and so plotlessly that a kind of narcoleptic fascination sets in.

This one starts with so much stock footage that for minutes on end it seems like Wilder has succeeded where Ed Wood failed, in his mad dream to make a film without any original film. But then the shots of whirling radar dishes run out, as they must in any film (I like the huge variety and impressive size of outmoded radar equipment, I really get a kick out of it, but every film it features in seems to be lousy, even if it’s by Anthony Mann) and actors start acting, and the level of conviction plummets faster than the Phantom’s UFO (a glowing dot which looks like it’s en route to a yet-to-be-invented game of Pong).

Crashed UFO causes TV interference. Govt. mobile detector units (station wagons with big aerials) try to track down the static. For the only time in the movie, Wilder attempts actual cinematic technique, shooting the cars with Dutch tilts. It merely looks like they’re parked on steep hills.

Soon the source of interference has committed two murders, and police are baffled. They remain baffled throughout the film, and so does everybody else, except when they’re making gigantic and unjustified leaps of reasoning which always prove correct: that’s the only way the writers can get any exposition into this stalled torso of a flick. Ah, the writers: one is Myles Wilder, the director’s son. So Billy Wilder’s idiot brother is joined by an idiot nephew…

An interesting familial resemblance: Billy Wilder was a no-nonsense liberal, by and large, and maybe his brother was too: unlike in most spaceman movies of the era, our invader is benign, just looking for help with his faulty technology. He only hurts the panicky macho types who attack him first. And the humans eventually recognize this and try to help him out. It’s vaguely sweet.

Asides from this refreshing deviation from the red scare psychology informing most ’50s B-movie sci-fi, the film is undramatic and inefficient. Once he removes his boiler suit, the extraterrestrial is invisible, which gives us more opportunity to admire the cheap sets and actors positioned behind him. The action shifts to Griffith Observatory, but Wilder forgets to film the famous dome in his establishing shots, so what we see is just a bland, boxy structure, like all the buildings and most of the thesps in the movie. This is a director who moved from manufacturing handbags to making movies. If this one is anything to go by, I bet the handles came off his bags before you got them home.

(Griffith Observatory is in so many movies one wonders how they ever got any observing done. They seem to have been busy stargazing at James Dean and Natalie Wood rather than at the quasars and novas that should rightly make up their bread and butter.)

Finally the alien is exposed by ultraviolet light, lips working silently. Only the dog can hear him! This muscular fellow has an incredibly high-pitched voice, like Treat Williams in THE RITZ. And it seems the movie still of the Phantom in boxers in Gifford’s Pictorial History is not an accurate representation of the film’s contents, since this Phantom is NUDE. And then he drops dead, of his own accord.

“So he came here, wherever from,” say the film’s wise prof (who counsels non-violence and is RIGHT and they actually LISTEN to him!), “and right before our eyes, his body went through the final phases of life.” Nobody has anything to say in reply to that, so the film stops.

College is ending for the summer, so in theory I have a bit more mental energy, so next week I swear to watch some more dignified arthouse type films and write about them. Class this place up a bit.

21 Responses to “Pants From Space”

  1. A nice bit of Pinter:

  2. Lying on the floor there he resembles David Bowie in the flashback scenes of The Man Who Fell To Earth

  3. The bald head no ears look is a design classic — the TV version of The Martian Chronicles brought it back in the 80s. I guess James Arness in The Thing from Another World was the big influence on this one, and the movie plays like a sort of anti-Thing, only made by idiots.

  4. I interviewed Norren nash severla years back for a piece I was writing on Lucille Bremer. Lovely woman. She was one fo the dnacers in the “This Heart of Mine” number in Ziegfeld Follies, and appeared with Lucille in The Adventures of Casanova, a rather lavish Mexican-made A/B she starred in after MGM sold her contract to Eagle-Lion. It was during the shooting of that film she met, and shortly thereafter married her husband — the son of the Vice President of Mexico. Noreen was her Maid of Honor.

  5. Noreen is one of the more competent actors in PFS, and I liked her tiny, short-sleeved, very tight and low-cut lab coat. Somebody somewhere wasn’t taking this movie too seriously.

  6. Christopher Says:

    looks a bit like David Prowse in The Horror of Frankenstein up top picture in his underwear…

  7. Or, if you stuck a wig on him, like Rocky in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

  8. > refreshing deviation from the red-scare
    > psychology infroming most ’50s B-movie sci-fi
    > […] counsels non-violence and is RIGHT

    Another example of ’50s B-movie science-fiction with this kind of attitude is “It Came From Outer Space,” where the aliens are basically benign. Peter Biskind pointed this out, a while back, and at least in this I’m willing to go with Biskind.

    The initial photo puts one in mind of a film called “I Married A Body-Builder From Outer Space.”

  9. Christopher Says:

    I watched Souls for Sale night before last and found it immensely entertaining!..As if the delighful Eleanor Boardman wasn’t enough(she somewhat resembles Helen Hunt)..there was the tragic Herion beauty,Barbara La Marr…and the seductive Aileen Pringle oozing with sex appeal ever so briefly..Very satisfying”epic” little drama of the tight knit family of film people,that really didn’t need Chaplin or Stroheim to spice it up..Lew Cody is a fun villain..and theres even a pre-Indiana Jones death by Propeller!

  10. I Married a Monster… is a lot better than its title suggests… although it’s a fun title. Tom Tryon is very well cast!

    Souls for Sale is like the film with EVERYTHING: searing melodrama, behind-the-scenes glimpses, scandal, crime, murder, and a scalping by wind machine. I think that covers all the things you can have in a film, doesn’t it?

    The Man from Planet X
    toys with the idea that he might be benign, so that wasn’t an unknown idea by any means. This one probably goes furthest into ambivalence by having him kill a bunch of people, and so the heroes have to make a bigger leap of faith by trusting that he might not really be evil…

  11. Tryon had such a weird career. He seemed to be bland leadign man in the John Gavin mold. But in The Cardinal he shows a lot of depth. Preminger, however, made the experiece hell for him and so he left acting to become an incredibly successful novelist. Robert Mulligan made quite a good film of his thriller The Other and Billy Wilder made le plus maudit des maudits of his short story (from the collection Crowned Heads ) Fedora .

  12. I’ve told this one before, but what the hell: John Huston noticed how miserable and nervous Tryon was looking on The Cardinal and suggested Otto have a word. Otto crept up behind his lead and bellowed “RELAX!!!”

    I should read some Tryon sometime because I like both those movies based on his books. The Other is devastating, and has almost a Ray Bradbury vibe — but darker.

  13. Don’t know if it’s any good, but there was a ’70s TV movie, “The Dark Secret of Harvest Home,” taken from Tryon’s “Harvest Home” novel. The cast includes Bette Davis, Rosanna Arquette, Rene Auberjonois, and Norman Lloyd — plus Donald Pleasance for narration.

    One source describes it as “something like THE WICKER MAN filtered through THE STEPFORD WIVES and CROWHAVEN FARM.”

  14. When I worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the early 70’s I used to see Tryon a lot with his boyfriend Cal Culver (aka. “Casey Donovan” of Boys in the Sand fame) They would come with their friend Richard Deacon (“Mel Cooley” of The Dick Van Dyke Show</i) who was quie knowledgible about art and would give them custom made guided tours.

  15. Class this joint up? Uh oh.

  16. Danielle Says:

    Okay, David. It’s official. You are now my favorite reviewer! I may never see this movie, but having seen it through your eyes I am content.

    The ability to analyze and critique is a huge talent in itself (not many do it well, in my opinion), but when you add that to your innate sense of the ridiculous, combined with a brilliant ability to put it into words, well, it gets full marks from me! I am, literally, in tears from laughter!

    Any chance of you posting a bio on yourself one of these days? At which college do you teach?

  17. Thanks for all the praise, glad to know I’m getting laughs.

    I’ve probably told half my life story here via the films I’ve seen, but it’s scattered and out of sequence. I teach at Edinburgh College of Art and am still waiting to be famous enough to turn up on Wikipedia so I can insert lies about myself (I refuse to put the article up but I look forward to tampering with it).

    I’ve made short films also, some of which are on YouTube. I tweet, occasionally, as dcairns, and am on FaceBook. Have written for britmovie, Senses of Cinema, Moving Image Source, Masters of Cinema DVDs and The Criterion Collection.


  18. If we find a scattered, out of sequence bio up on Wikipedia, then we’ll know you broke down and wrote it. I find people who write and jealously guard bios from all criticism to be hilarious, sometimes nothing is funnier than a humorless person fending off all who dare criticize, whether it be the person themself or a slavering acolyte.

  19. You can see that the Wagner police have been all over the Wikipedia entry, I seem to recall. Readers add in the scurrilous Nazi stuff, and the Wagner police take it out.

  20. That’s one. Sometimes the edits are more entertaining to read than the bios.

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