❉ Aliens from outer space strike terror into the hearts of mankind in this 1951 space invasion flick, on DVD at last.
Planet X! An unknown world hurtling towards Earth bringing either destruction or salvation for humanity. It’s closest point of contact with our world – a small island off the coast of Scotland! (Or maybe Somerset if the accents of some of the locals are anything to go by.) A scientist hurries to the island to investigate the phenomenon. What will he find there? A crashed spaceship! What sinister secrets lie within? What terror that awaits humanity will he uncover? Is The Man from Planet X friend or terrifying foe?
It’s the dawn of the golden age of science fiction cinema. Over the course of the decade the silver screen would be lit up time and again by mysterious creatures from other worlds and hideous monsters from our own, firmly cementing the sci-fi tropes and concepts that have remained popular with audiences to this day. Movie makers plundered the rich imaginative ideas of comic books and sci-fi literature for concepts they could hurl into cinemas across the world.
Seeing these early forays into sci-fi is always interesting from a historical perspective even if the films themselves can seem unexciting to modern audiences. ‘The Man From Planet X’ is a very low-budget affair. It re-uses sets from a production of Joan of Arc, shrouds everything in fog and uses minimal effects. It was filmed in six days, which doesn’t bode well for coherence or quality.
The cast is headed by Robert Clarke as American scientist John Lawrence, while Margaret Field plays the tea-making scientist and love interest, Enid Elliot. Lawrence is helped by Enid’s father Professor Elliot (Raymond Bond) but he is antagonised by the presence of Doctor Mears (William Schallert), an old and untrustworthy contemporary of his.
Professor Elliot is from the classic mould of Republic Serial Professors, a fatherly figure who nevertheless falls under the spell of the alien visitor, in spite of his knowledge and wisdom. Doctor Mears meanwhile unsurprisingly turns out to be the sinister traitor that everyone thinks he is. There’s about twenty minutes where it looks like Enid is going to take over as the lead character as she is the first person to find the alien, though sadly she is eventually reduced to the role of a prize for the hero and disappears from the second half of the movie.
If you take the film on its own terms, it is remarkably successful. The direction is inventive and it makes an asset of the restricted budget to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. There are some very well-paced sequences, in particular the build up to the first reveal of the alien. They create some great effects with lights and a wind machine, particularly at the film’s climax. Also there’s a sequence of a car driving in the studio where they make an effort to get parts of the background moving at different speeds, creating a more realistic parallax effect than back-projection, the technique of showing a film of a moving street behind the window of a car.
The alien design is fairly decent. Granted, it’s a great big papier-mâché head with slits for eyes and a mouth that looks pretty terrible in photographs. On-screen though, it seems to work. The blank eyes give it a presence that is spooky and earnest and it even manages to elicit some sympathy when it comes under attack from Doctor Mears. The alien has a huge design flaw within the context of the film, which is a massive valve on his shoulder that controls his breathing apparatus. It doesn’t make for the most inventive Achilles heel and it is used several times during the course of the film.
This film was taken to heart by many people who saw it on the original release or who watched it when it was re-run on American TV. Amongst their number is director Joe Dante, who sites it as a favourite and went on to cast William Schallert in several of his films. So on a cold winter’s night it might be just the thing to settle down and see if you too fall under the hypnotic spell of ‘The Man From Planet X’.
❉ ‘The Man From Planet X’ was released on DVD by Fabulous Films/Fremantle Media on 24 October 2016, RRP £14.99.