Phantom From Space (1953)
Normally I would warn people of spoilers but it’s impossible to spoil his film.
Having just watched a film about nostalgia, I thought it appropriate to metaphorically travel back in time, to excavate a little truth from the past. I therefore searched out a film I missed at the cinema and which, for some reason, never seems to have been shown on terrestrial television. I suppose I should not be surprised it was so easy to find. There were hundreds of B movies made and, no matter how arrogant I feel at times, I can’t claim to have seen them all. The question that immediately comes to mind is why I should bother to watch Phantom From Space (1953) when I know it will be awful. In part, I’m acknowledging it’s therapeutic to cross back through time to remind myself of the state of cultural play sixty years ago. It’s far too easy to delude ourselves that most films of the day were actually movie classics that should be preserved for posterity. In reality, most were considered terrible at the time and deserve their fate in the rubbish tip of history. The second reason for watching it is to understand why it’s so awful. It’s not just the acting. We’ve grown used to seeing the wooden, rather mannered style that many actors affected. It’s the complete failure to develop the narrative in any convincing way. This is always surprising. There were some terrific novelists whose work has passed down the years. . . and then we remember all the thousands of titles that have mercifully passed into obscurity. At this point we look with clearer eyes at modern films and novels. In many ways, they are better, but we should also understand that most of today’s output will also end up discarded. We may live in a time when the marketers hype every last piece of content as being wonderful. Sadly, sugared words can never cover up the woeful deficiencies in much of today’s output. Very few of today’s films and novels will still be considered worthy in fifty years time.
Anyway, this science fiction epic on the theme of alien invasion starts off with the mandatory voiceover to reassure the increasingly paranoid US citizenry that its government is ever vigilant — its ships patrol the seas, its planes guard the skies and its technology is constantly on the alert for anything trying to sneak into Earth’s atmosphere — there’s no Commie threat that can’t be identified and neutralised before it can do any harm. On this day, at this time, an unidentified craft is detected. It’s whizzing along at 5,000 mph — no slouch, then — even if it can’t evade our primitive radar (shown on oscilloscopes as an example of high technology in action). Stock footage of ships and planes emphasises preparedness and the mysterious blob of light is shown in the sky. This is frightening stuff even for 1953. Where did they find all this stock footage? Then over Santa Monica it disappears. The Red Alert is called off which is strange. If you lose track of an alien craft over Santa Monica, you shouldn’t just give up and walk away. Even in 1953, Santa Monica was worth protecting. Fortunately the local people are outraged that something is interfering with their television reception. They are not getting their fix of I Love Lucy. So cars with big dishes clamped on top are sent out to triangulate the source of the interference. Thank God you can rely on the television companies even though the military gives up.
When the first body turns up, the police dismiss the story of a threatening figure wearing a frightening helmet and prefer the scenario of a love triangle gone wrong. Then there’s another murder nearby with the same television interference. The mobile receivers track the source to an oil field. There’s still no call for the army even though there’s a fire. An artist’s impression from witnesses shows a deep-sea diver. Ah ha. It’s a saboteur, parachuted into the area — sorry who swam across the Pacific to infiltrate America and blow it up. Send word to Washington. US leaders refer the police on to local scientists. Miraculously they link the unidentified object to the saboteur and start thinking a “space alien” is invading America. As the television company’s trackers begin to close in, the alien knows it will soon be caught so it plays its ace. After running around aimlessly for a few minutes to drag out the suspense, it takes off its helmet and suit, and shows itself to be invisible.
The female scientist asked to look at the suit sends off her husband to do the shopping at around 1 a.m. — great late-night shopping in Santa Monica and a real sign of gender equality in action — while the dog that can track the alien is locked up for barking. Her analysis is spectacular. “This stuff is tougher than nylon.” It doesn’t burn, it’s magnetic and it repels acid. We should have skirts in this fabric in the shops by next Tuesday. But then it disintegrates, suggesting teething problems with proposed mass release of skirts. Naturally the female scientist ends up held as a hostage by the invisible alien. Everyone else runs around like headless chickens. The alien dies because it can’t breathe our atmosphere without its helmet and suit. They all shrug. Such is life and death on planet Earth. After checking the schedules, they go home to watch a rerun of the I Love Lucy episode so thoughtlessly interrupted by the alien invader. In my more rational moments, I know I paid to see an amazing number of films as bad as this (or worse, if that’s possible). It’s a remarkable reflection on the rate at which our culture has evolved. Tastes and fashions are remarkably ephemeral. We were all amazingly naive. I wonder if that space ship is still parked off the coast at Santa Monica.
If I have tempted you to dip into this lost gem, you can find it through the Internet Archive at this address: http://archive.org/details/Phantom_From_Space. The Archive is an interesting place to browse and the masochists among you will find many other out-of-copyright films like Killers From Space (1954), an early classic featuring Peter Graves.