Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
With reality snapping at its heels, a few slender years before Yuri Gagarin became the
real first human in space - 12th April 1961 in Vostok One, this barely-remembered British
chiller preceded him across that final frontier. One of two sci-fi films (the other being
Fiend Without A Face) made by Amalgamated aimed at the American drive-in market by
pretending to be set in New Mexico; it was actually filmed in England. First Man Into
Space (aka: Satellite Of Blood) also suspiciously replicates elements from the
far superior The
Quatermass Xperiment - as an astronaut returns to Earth enveloped in a repulsive,
crusty substance that turns him into an inhuman, blood-drinking monster. 'Before: handsome
- After: horrible' screams the movie poster reproduced on the sleeve, providing a succinct
précis of what could be the plot of either.
Yet the early stock-footage moments of First Man Into Space will please nerdy techno-freak students of Mercury/ Sputnik era retro-rocketry - while providing much harmless viewing pleasure for us devotees of 1950s' trash sci-fi, because, despite its obvious low budget limitations, it is surprisingly good fun. The younger of two feuding siblings, irresponsible maverick Navy Lieutenant Dan Prescott (Bill Edwards) test pilots a small experimental rocket plane Y-12 beyond the 'controllability barrier', and wrecks it. But he's the best there is, so he's selected to pilot the follow-up shot, against the better instincts of older more mature brother 'Chuck' - Commander Charles E. Prescott (Marshall Thompson), who doesn't think "it's in his nature to stay inside any organised pattern."
Y-13 is launched from a propeller-driven host plane cruising at 40,000 feet, in the manner of Chuck Yeager's pre-space flight supersonic achievements in his X-1A. However, dashing, reckless Dan disobeys orders again - "no sir, I'm going straight up," and takes an unscheduled trip 250 miles above the Earth. He pokes the Y-13's nose outside the ionosphere with the altitude dial spinning - "it feels like she'd go on forever," so he powers his emergency boost to take him even higher. From the base, grim-faced brother Chuck declares "well, he's on his own now, the first man into space, he'll either hit the Moon or orbit the Earth for the rest of his life." As it is, he does neither. Orbital space-shots are now such routine stuff they barely rate a news-paragraph, so it's difficult to appreciate just how awesome an event it was - or would be. No one knew exactly what to expect, what unprotected exposure to cosmic rays would do, or the effects of weightlessness, or even what the astronaut would find outside the atmosphere. So there was Dan, floating in a tin can high above the world, planet Earth is blue, well - a kind of blotchy grey, or rather it would be if special effects allowed you to see much of it, which they don't.
Then... he vanishes from view as his craft disappears into a swirling meteoric cloud, going missing, presumed dead. Inside the cloud, unable to turn, he uses the 'nose ejector' pod - only to get plastered with metallic dust. The wreckage of his spacecraft comes "down like a dame in a feather-bed" off route 17, ten miles south of El Dorado, covered in a bizarre extraterrestrial coating of weird cosmic debris, with no trace of the pilot. But soon after, a Mexican farmer's cattle start falling victim to something with a thirst for blood. Then there's electronic music, muffled breathing, and a monstrous moving shadow on the tiled wall of the state hospital - and the horror begins. Something raids the blood bank, kills the nurse on duty and gulps down the blood supplies. There are more 'mysterious and terrifying' deaths as people are found with "a tearing jag across the throat," cut as if by some axe-murderer.
The hulking half-human creature responsible - "like a huge mobile turd" - according to David Miller and Mark Gatiss, is first glimpsed as it mutilates a trucker outside a Los Alamos diner. More bizarre solid insomniac fodder follows as it prowls the countryside... killing, then vanishing just as quickly. Police bullets merely bounce off it. Noting traces of shiny meteoric speckles on the murdered nurse, and on the dead cattle, Chuck concludes, "I'm afraid this monster is Dan." His metabolism has been transformed by his experiences in space, acquiring a protective coating evolved by space-borne life forms as insulation against cosmic rays. But, deprived of oxygen by this layer of scaly, sparkly space rock he must ingest blood in order to survive. He's become "a great big lumbering deformed monster" with a craving for blood. A mutant, vampiric beast with only the "instinct to stay alive."
Brother Chuck must find him before he kills again, by luring him into a high altitude simulation chamber. Oddly enough, if you don't set your expectations too high, once past the cheesy space-flight effects, First Man Into Space becomes a competent and surprisingly thoughtful little movie, scoring points for at least trying to emphasise the science in its fiction, and the humanity in its science. As in the Quatermass film there are moments of pathos, as the hideously transfigured Dan tries to communicate with his brother, "Everything seems strange and dark," he slobbers, "a maze of fear and doubt." Then as he apologises to his "scientist in skirts" girlfriend Tia, his single eye pleading through the encrustation, with Chuck sneakily grabbing the opportunity of moving in hastily to comfort her.
But to critic John Brosnan, First Man Into Space is merely a "generally derivative and routine" creature-feature. Well, maybe. Filmed not long after the launch of Russia's Sputnik and America's astro-chimp Ham, it benefited from a feasibility legitimised by enhanced public awareness of space travel jargon and paraphernalia. Trailered as "one of the first motion pictures to lift the veil, foresee the future in a spectacular drama of the first man in history to be rocketed into the terrifying unknown of outer space!" David Miller and Mark Gatiss are less than impressed. In their book They Came From Outer Space: Alien Encounters In The Movies (Visual Imagination Publications, 1996) they breathe a sigh of relief that "thank god Yuri Gagarin got there first!"
During the same year amiable Marshall Thompson also found time to appear in two other genre cheapies, It! The Terror From Beyond Space and Fiend Without A Face. But it would not be until some time later than he achieved a degree of family-friendly tele-visibility through his role in safari-park series Daktari, co-starring with Clarence the cross-eyed lion. Meanwhile there will be Y-14, and Paul Von Essen, doctor of aviation medicine at the University of Albuquerque, adds the ponderous closing moral in his heavy eastern-European accent "the conquest of new worlds always makes demands on human life, and there will always be men who will accept the risk." But "who will ever forget the first man into space?" Who indeed.