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October 2012

Killers From Space

cast: Peter Graves, Barbara Bestar, James Seay, Steve Pendleton, and Frank Gerstle

director: W. Lee Wilder

71 minutes (U) 1954
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Elstree DVD Region 2

RATING: 1/10
review by Andrew Darlington

Killers From Space DVD
Killers From Space

Cinema is all about spectacle and visual trickery. Always has been. Since its very earliest days its practitioners were quick to seize the potential of fooling the eye into seeing what it was not really seeing. Now we routinely expect that trickery to perfectly visualise just about anything that the mind can envisage, in 3D and immaculate virtual CGI representations of the mythical realms of 'Middle Earth' or the fantastical alien worlds of Avatar. It was not always so. Georges Méliès shocked and delighted movie-viewers with his Le Voyage Dans La Lune (aka: A Trip To The Moon, 1902) with pantomime sets. Yet it's still immensely entertaining as kitsch and artifice.

Universal Studios specialised in monsters in a menagerie of sinister creeps artfully contrived through inventive make-up and ingenious lighting departments. While stop-motion animators Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen created celluloid images that have still to be equalled. But determined filmmakers, especially those with zero-budget rapid turnaround schedules were maybe not quite as meticulous. Killers From Space is a case in point. Low-budget seldom came lower. Is it good? Of course not. Is it entertaining? Barely. Is it fun? Marginally. But as an object lesson in its wretched genre, it's at least informative.

Austrian-born producer-director William Lee Wilder (1904-82) was the brother of the more mainstream Billy Wilder. With a regular crew, consisting of screenwriting brother Myles Wilder and William Raynor, his independent Planet Filmplays company churned out drive-in exploitational fare, including three SF-themed shorts. Phantom From Space (1953) - about the hunt for an invisible alien from a crashed flying saucer came before, and The Snow Creature (1954) - about the hunt for a 'half man! Half monster!' yeti through the sewers of Los Angeles, came after Killers From Space, financed and distributed by RKO-Radio Pictures. All three are pretty bad.

Killers From Space opens at 06:15am precisely, at Nevada's Soledad Flats where Operation 'A-Bomb Test' is being carried out. At the time the film was shot the US government was in the process of perpetrating real-life experimental nuclear detonations, so there were many convenient newsreel clips available to splice into the footage. Hence lots of stock film of busy military manoeuvres, circling USAF warplanes, and then boiling mushroom-cloud thermo-blasts. Scientist Doug Martin (Peter Graves), a "key man in the nuclear project," is circling airborne in 'Tar-Baby 2' to reconnaissance the test "from the closest possible vantage point."

Martin sees a shining fireball at ground zero, moments before losing control in a spiral death-plunge. His radio goes dead. The "radar eyes that never sleep" lose track of him. Later, crash-crews find only the wreckage of his plane. But soon after his weeping widow Ellen (Barbara Bestar) is informed of his demise, he miraculously appears lurching and staggering at the guard-post. Something very odd has occurred. Physically "the picture of health" - but for an unexplained newly-healed cross-scar on his chest, he has no memory of recent events. Shock trauma maybe? Or, as FBI agent Briggs (Steve Pendleton) suggests, he's some kind of impostor?

Back home, Doug, a 32-year-old with slicked-back blonde hair, pipe-smokes to denote his serious academic bent. Actor Graves had earlier been seen in Red Planet Mars (1952), and would survive into Roger Corman's It Conquered The World (1956), before reaching the wider mainstream as 'Jim Phelps' in the late-1960s Mission: Impossible TV series, then as 'Major Noah Cooper' in 1979's Buck Rogers In The 25th Century. Although she could be seen in TV's Kit Carson and Champion The Wonder Horse western series, as well as Sheena: Queen Of The Jungle, brunette Barbara Bestar is given less opportunity to shine, as Ellen is loyal and supportive as 1950s wives were supposed to be.

The married couple even sleep in separate beds, as dictated by the restrictive Hayes Motion Picture Code in force at the time. And there are photos of President Eisenhower beside the US flag on the wall to provide a more accurate time-fix. But all is not well. Doug is haunted by visions of staring eyes, and disturbed about being excluded from subsequent tests. Later he's suspected - correctly, of snooping around the institute facility's vaults. And Briggs apprehends him planting filched data beneath a rock on the flats outside town. He escapes, racing his two-tone coupe down Route 61, until a shock-vision of demon eyes causes him to crash.

He wakes up in hospital, raving irrationally. Determined to crack the enigma they administer what they call 'sodium amitol' - more correctly sodium thiopental, believed to be a truth serum. This opens a new sequence reverting to his recovered memories. He didn't survive the plane crash. He was dead. To be revived by silent people in black all-over body-suits, their staring eyes making them a kind of Marty Feldman/ Eddy Cantor fusion, and he sees his own extracting heart pulsating at him overhead as they operate on him with what look like soldering torches.

"Who are you?" he demands.
"A scientist. Like yourself," replies alien spokesman Denab Tala.
"Where do you come from?"
"From a planet yet unknown to you."
"You know my name. You speak English."
"We speak every language."

This tendency to brag is a flaw that gets many movie villains in trouble. And within their cavern beneath the Earth's crust (actually the Bronson Caves in LA's Griffith Park), Tala demonstrates how they are accumulating the energy from each atomic test-blast. Then an 'electronic bridge' screen shows their hurtling saucers traversing interstellar space. Ever since their home-planet's 23rd time-rotation they've known that their sun is dying. Hence their bulbous bug-eyes adapting to darkness. As Astron Delta is the fourth world of their system, they've already invaded the inner neighbouring planets, until they died, too. So now the one-billion homeless aliens must invade Earth, and "nothing can stop us." This glimpse of futuristic model-cities is the film's most ambitious effects-sequence, although it barely makes the grade in the Thunderbirds league.

When Doug escapes, only to become lost in the tunnels, he confronts a series of monster spiders, overgrown bugs, mutated cockroaches, and giant lizards with flickering forked reptilian tongues. These sad, and occasionally comical 'optical effects' are craftily lifted by Consolidated Film Industries from lost wildlife clips and grafted in as clumsy blown-up back-projection, set to a soundtrack of insect clicking and distorted roaring. No Industrial Light & Magic, they. This monstrous menagerie is the aliens "breeding their gamma-ray gene-altered armies" which, once unleashed, will erase human civilisation, cleansing the world for their takeover. This sober telling of the tale actually makes it sound better than it is. Maybe with higher production values, better acting, improved scripts, and a complete plot-overhaul it could be remade almost... adequately. But probably not.

Inevitably, Martin's sceptical colleagues are still unconvinced by this fantastic tale, or by the planted post-hypnotic code that prompted his incriminating espionage. So, still haunted by visions, he devises equations that will save the three-billion doomed human lives. For a supposedly super-intelligent alien, the indiscreetly bragging Denab Tala has let slip that they are ill-advisedly siphoning energy from the local grid to maintain their containment field. So, no power, no containment - boom! As Doug smartly foresees, and again he breaks out and escapes into the night.

There's a car chase. He breaks into the power-station, intimidates the operator in a high-tension face-off, and the power blips off. This inept little tale closes by showing the final nuclear-explosion destruction of the alien base, seen through the window. The explosion is another familiar newsreel clip. Cinema is all about spectacle and visual trickery. Always has been. But sometimes it falls a little short of its potential.

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