“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.