Attack of the Low Budget Aliens – By Philip Smolen

One summer day when I was five, I was wandering around our two family home looking for something to do. I had gone out to see if my friends could play, but for some reason, they all were either out with their families or busy. So I came back home and sat on the front porch forlornly. My grandmother (who lived on the first floor of our house) came over to her window and invited me inside. My grandmother thought the world of me (and my sisters) and spoiled us rotten, much to the chagrin of my mother who was trying to raise good stoic Catholic kids. “Sit down while I make you lunch,” she said to me. “Million Dollar Movie is on. Maybe there’s a monster movie to watch.” Now my grandmother hated monster movies, but she knew I loved them and indulged me whenever I was in her home. She routinely let me take command of her TV, so I could watch what I wanted. She sat me down in front of her living room and put “Million Dollar Movie” on for me while she went off to make me lunch (which she let me eat while simultaneously watching TV – something that was forbidden by my parents). I then proceeded to watch this amazing low budget wonder called The Man from Planet X and got so thoroughly spooked by Robert Clarke’s encounter with the minuscule invader that when two of my friends later came over and called on me to play, I rebuffed their invitation so I could finish watching the movie! There was no way I wasn’t going to see if the earth was saved from imminent invasion. The film had sunk its hooks into me. There was something about the creepy, fog shrouded moors, the hissing sound the alien made and that alien’s horrible stretched features that grabbed and haunted me. I walked out of my grandmother’s house that afternoon forever changed. I was actually tingling with fear and delight. From that moment on I sought out all films that dealt with aliens.

The 1950s was the first decade for the alien invasion film. America had just recently emerged victorious from World War II, and for a time it seemed that as FDR once stated “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” But in the new prosperous decade of the 1950s, suddenly our enemy wasn’t as easily defined as in the war. We knew we had an ideological enemy in communist Russia and China, but a great fear and anxiety took hold of the nation.  What if the communists weren’t just over there? What if they were here – among us? So as the red scare percolated in our nation’s sub-conscious, our fears were played out on the movie screens of the nation.

Movie producers took those fears and bombarded the cinema with features about alien encounters.  There were films about aliens who wanted to conquer (The Thing from Another World, The Man from Planet X and War of the Worlds), aliens who wanted to help us become a better species (The
Day the Earth Stood Still [DTESS]) and those that were just plain lost and wanted nothing to do with our primitive culture (It Came from Outer Space, The Phantom from Space). 

So as 2010 celebrates the 59th year of alien movies (The Man from Planet X was released in the US in March of 1951 [!]) let’s take a look back at some early low budget examples of this genre. We’ll look at the major films (DTESS, War of the Worlds, Invaders from Mars, It Came from outer Space) in a future issue (for my review of the importance of 1951’s The Thing from Another World, please see Rogue Cinema’s August 2009 issue). This month we’ll concentrate on some low budget cousins. Though these films couldn’t afford world class special effects, these filmmakers used classic sci-fi as a launching point for their own clever ideas. Many of these films have so ingrained themselves in the minds of baby boomers everywhere that they are now considered minor classics themselves.

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1. THE MAN FROM PLANET X (United Artists, US – 1951) Director: Edgar G. Ulmer; Budget: $50,000
Reporter John Lawrence (Robert Clarke) travels to Scotland to interview old war-time friend Professor Elliot (Raymond Bond). He’s pleased to discover that the professor’s young daughter Enid (Margaret Field – yes Sally’s mother) is now a beautiful young woman. The professor informs Lawrence that a new planet has entered our solar system and is rapidly heading towards Earth. Its approach will take it closest to the very moors they’re on. Later that evening Enid runs across a strange diving bell type object on the moors. When she goes to investigate, she’s startled to find it occupied with a weird gnome like creature. Returning with her father and Lawrence, the group befriends the strange new visitor and brings him to the professor’s castle. However, Elliot’s guest Professor Mears (the great William Schallert) has his own ideas and violently assaults the alien in an attempt to gain control of him. Fearing that earthmen cannot be trusted, the alien starts to prepare for interplanetary war. He uses a mind control ray to make slave labor of some of the nearby townspeople and orders them to help organize his defenses. Lawrence and Elliot call in the authorities and the army makes quick work of the dwarflike creature just as his planet approaches from space. With its vanguard destroyed, the planet’s fate is sealed, and it spins off into the endless void while Elliot, Enid and Lawrence are left to wonder if this first violent meeting of two interplanetary cultures might have worked out differently.

Almost six decades later, The Man from Planet X still has a lot going for it. First and foremost is the wonderfully creepy atmosphere that low budget champion Edgar Ulmer instills in the film. He creates a fog and shadow filled world that seems just right for a spooky close encounter.  The hissing sound of the alien’s breathing apparatus is a great effect, and when you hear it growing louder and louder (signaling the alien’s approach), it’s impossible for the viewer not to tense up. Portraying the visitor as a mute dwarf is another great touch. Since he can’t speak, you’re not sure about his intentions.  Ulmer also gets good performances from his lead actors; although, I think the thick Scottish brogue that the supporting cast uses is a mistake. Successfully released in America before both The Thing from Another World and DTESS, The Man from Planet X remains an important early sci-fi film from the 1950s.

Quotable Movie Line:  “To think that a fantastic gnome like you had to hurdle out of space to put this power into my hands. Well now that we’ve made contact, I’m going to tear out every secret you’ve got.”

2. THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES (American Releasing Corporation [American International] – 1956) Director: David Kramarsky; Budget: $50,000

After a UFO flies over the farm of Alan, Carol and Sandy Kelly (Paul Birch, Lorna Thayer and Donna Cole), strange events are set in motion. First Sandy’s loyal German Shepherd attacks Carol, and she’s forced to destroy it. Then flocks of hostile birds (including their own chickens) attack, and later a neighbor’s cow (with horns!) attempts to gore them. Finally their already creepy mute man servant Carl starts acting violently. Alan and Carol figure that the alien creature from the UFO is controlling all forms of life unable to resist its power. Together, the family goes out to the desert to confront it and destroy their tormentor with the power of love.

Anyway you look at it The Beast with a Million Eyes is tough sledding. While the film has some good ideas (an alien that can control other weaker forms of life, the theme that love is a true strength of the human race and not a weakness), none of these ideas are credibly developed. Worse, the film is almost completely static. For most of the film, the cast stand next to each other and shrilly complain about their situation. All of the animal attacks are ineptly handled. For the attack by the family’s chickens, hapless oven stuffers are tossed unconvincingly at Lorna Thayer by an off-screen wrangler. For the assault by the neighbor’s cow, Thayer and Cole scream and run from the bored heifer while it just stands there uninterested. Even the revelation of the alien antagonist and its slave (an unsophisticated hand puppet quickly designed by Paul Blaisdell for which he reportedly received a whopping $400 from executive producer Roger Corman) is sloppily presented with a huge superimposed eye radiating rays at its human foes.  After watching this on TV, I was mad about wasting 78 minutes of my life on such a worthless film. I can only imagine how movie fans must have felt after paying money to see it back in 1956! Oh well, I’ll bet the theatres gave away a lot of free dishes to fill the cinema houses when this turkey was making the rounds!

Quotable Movie Line: “I need your world. I feed on fear – live on human hatred. I, a strong mind without flesh or blood, want your world. First, the unthinking, the birds of the air, the animals of the forest, then the weaker of men shall all do my bidding. They shall be my ears and my eyes until your world is mine.”

(Allied Artists – 1957) Director: Roger Corman; Budget: $85,000

Hematology nurse Nadine Storey (1950s scream queen Beverly Garland) is assigned to take care of strange patient Paul Johnson (Paul Birch again) at his lavish LA home. It seems that Mr. Johnson suffers from a strange condition where his blood is literally drying up in his veins and arteries. While Nadine gives him frequent transfusions, his doctor Dr. Frederick Rochelle (William Roerick) seeks to discover the cure for the disease. What Garland and Roerick don’t know is that Birch is an alien from the planet Davanna. He has been sent to Earth to see if human blood can sustain his nuclear war ravaged people. Birch has been killing the local population, draining their blood and sending it back to his countrymen. Their need grows more desperate and they now require live humans to be teleported back to Davanna.  Because the first earthling didn’t arrive in usable condition, another test subject is needed. Can Nadine’s boyfriend Officer Harry Sherbourne (Morgan Jones) figure out Birch’s evil plan before his girl goes on a permanent Davannian vacation?

Not of this Earth is one of the best low budget sci-fi movies of the 1950s.  While Paul Birch does not portray the first alien that requires blood (that honor, of course, belongs to James Arness in The Thing from Another World), he is cinema’s first technological vampire. While Birch and his ilk need human blood, they don’t need to feed on it. Rather, they need human blood to replace their own. So Birch’s removal of blood from a victim is shown as a passionless and clinical process.  He goes about his practice in a brutally efficient manner which makes it all the more terrifying. Besides the vampirism theme, the film is chock full of other clever ideas. There is death by thought waves from Birch’s blank eyes, telepathy, teleportation and my favorite, the weird umbrella creature created by Paul Blaisdell which Birch uses to kill Dr. Rochelle. It is truly one of the most unusual alien props ever developed for the movies. Director Roger Corman assembles a wonderful cast including Birch (who really seems uncomfortable in his human skin), Beverly Garland, Jonathan Haze and especially Dick Miller who practically steals the movie as one of Birch’s victims. Driven by a strong witty script (by Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna), Not of this Earth remains a wonderful sci-fi take on vampirism. It’s no wonder Corman’s company (New World) remade the film twice (in 1988 and in 1995). He knew good material when he saw it.

Quotable Telepathic Movie Passage:
Woman: “We proceed to your dwelling?”
Mr. Johnson: “No. We are too similar. There is a hotel 50 decabets in that direction.”
Woman: “I will be alone among the sub-humans. I do not know how to behave.”
Mr. Johnson: “A clerk will speak to you vocally. You must remain in a state of lingual-receptivity and imitate his sounds and meanings.”
Woman: “You will remain in contact?”
Mr. Johnson: I will come to you at the hotel place on the noon of the earth star.”

(Metro Goldwyn Mayer [UK] – 1960) Director: Wolf Rilla Budget: $225,000

The quiet English village of Midwich holds a terrible secret. A recent unusual phenomenon knocked all inhabitants unconscious for a period of four hours. People and authorities from outside the village are unable to enter the town without also passing out. After four hours everyone in the town recovers and life goes back to normal. Shortly after the incident, all town women capable of bearing children find themselves pregnant. They give birth (all on the same night) to a strange brood of emotionless, blond haired children (12 in all) who show remarkable intelligence, advanced development with one unified mind among them. Any attempt by an individual (even their parents) to hurt these children or keep them apart results in that person injuring or killing themself while these bizarre children look on (with glowing eyes). It’s up to resident scientist Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders) to discover the truth. What he suspects is that these children are the result of impregnation from an unknown alien species!  And what happened in Midwich has also happened in other parts of the world. The children trust Gordon, and he hopes to teach them human ethics and morality. But after a time, Gordon realizes that these weird children will soon be able to multiply which may jeopardize all of humanity. Gordon then plans a desperate attempt to silence these glowing eyed creatures forever.

Village of the Dammed was a very controversial film upon its release in 1960. Made by the small British branch of MGM, the film was unceremoniously dumped on the American film market when MGM lost confidence in it.  Condemned by the Catholic Church (because of the Immaculate Conception theme) the film was still an instant success and spawned several sequels. It’s an intelligent, sharply focused film which raises the question of what is the greater evil: is it the alien force for impregnating the women of Midwich against their will or is it the human race for being unable to accept this new breed of human?  Another of the film’s strengths is the look of the hybrid children. All of them are blonde haired and dark eyed which gives them a genuinely chilling appearance. They speak through Gordon’s son David (Martin Stephens) which adds to their overall weirdness. The final menacing touch is their glowing eyes which were designed by special effects man Tom Howard (Tom Thumb, Gorgo). The effect is haunting and creepy, and Rilla doesn’t overuse it. Special mention also has to go to George Sanders who gives a wonderful performance as David’s father. It’s clear that he’s amazed at the intelligence these children possess, but also frightened at what their continued existence could mean for the human race. Based on John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos, Village of the Damned remains an unnerving low budget alien invasion film of the first order.

Quotable Movie Line: “I’m afraid that there have been grave developments. The Russian army group in the western Urals is equipped with a new type of gun. It can project a shell up to 60 miles, an atomic shell. Apparently they tried it out yesterday on the village of Raminsk where their children live. The village of Raminsk no longer exists.”

5. QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (FIVE MILLON YEARS TO EARTH – US Title) (Hammer Films [UK] 20th Century Fox [US] – 1968) Director: Roy Ward Baker; Budget; Approximately $375,000

Excavation at the new Hobbs End subway station in London unearths ape-like skeletons with large human-sized skulls. But when a missile shaped object is uncovered next to these hominid bones, the authorities call in rocket expert Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Kier). Military experts sent by London to the site deem the object a long lost V-type German weapon from World War II. Quatermass disagrees, and when the remains of devilish insect-like creatures are found within, he believes they are Martians who came to the Earth eons ago and experimented on primitive apes giving them intelligence.  When the Martian ship reactivates, it releases a concentrated force of evil and begins to control the people of Hobbs End. Can Quatermass and his ally Professor Roney (James Donald) reverse the process before all of London is destroyed?

In many ways, Quatermass and the Pit is the best of the three Hammer Quatermass films. Although it had a significantly greater budget than any of the earlier entries, it’s still a good example of low budget filmmaking. It was originally to be directed by Val Guest (who directed the first two installments) with Peter Cushing starring in the role of Quatermass. Nevertheless, Andrew Kier and Roy Ward Baker turn in stellar efforts. Kier captures the bluster, arrogance and intelligence of Quatermass perfectly. Baker directs with a low-key steady hand and stays out of the way of Nigel Kneale’s outrageous screenplay about the origins of man, intelligence and evil.  It’s great fun watching Kier, Donald and the beautiful Barbara Shelly (as Donald’s assistant Barbara Judd) slowly fit the pieces of the puzzle together. Baker keeps the beginning of the film light, as the team uncovers the ape skeletons. Later when Quatermass is exploring the inside of the Martian spacecraft, Baker gives these scenes a feeling of eerie loneliness. It’s only at the end, as all of Hobbs End explodes in violence does Baker pull out all the stops and make it seem as if the world has gone mad. Ably assisted by the wonderful production design of Bernard Robinson and that great low budget effects artist Les Bowie, Quatermass and the Pit makes a fitting climax to the Hammer Quatermass trilogy

Quotable Movie Line: “My concern is, sir, that this stored memory of killing should be coupled with another power that thing in the pit seems to possess – the power to redirect human energy. It’s a force beyond control.”

(Shochiku Studios [Japan] – 1968) Director: Hajime Sato; Budget: Less than most Toho films

A Japanese airliner heading towards Osaka flies against a fiery red sky while birds commit bloody suicide by slamming against its cabin. Suddenly a strange UFO flies over the jet causing it to crash in mountainous terrain. Afterwards, there are only a handful of survivors including co-pilot Sugisaka (Teruo Yoshida), stewardess Kuzumi (Tomoni Sato), a would be hijacker (Hideo Ko), psychiatrist Dr. Momotake (Kazuo Kato), American widow Mrs. Neal (Kathy Horan) and politician Mano (Eizo Kitamura). They argue constantly over their fate and as time passes their distrust in one another grows and grows. The hijacker takes Sato as a hostage and exits the plane.  He then sees a glowing orange UFO nearby. He enters the craft and is taken over by a mercury-like alien called a Gokemidoro. The hijacker/alien becomes a vampire, stalks the other survivors, and drains their blood. Only Yoshida and Sato escape and make their way back to civilization only to find that the Gokemidoro have killed all the nearby humans. As the two ponder their fate, a fleet of orange UFOs approach the earth from outer space.

Wow. Talk about a bizarre film. This one hits a full 10 on the weird-o-meter. I know that director Sato wants to make a statement about the human condition, but what is he trying to say? Is the theme here man’s inhumanity to man? Is it that no matter how horrible man can be to his brother, there is something even more horrible out there? Is it that humans as a species should be exterminated? I don’t know, but this strange combination of sci-fi and horror is neither fish nor fowl. The whole tone of this film is very somber and melancholy and nothing blends particularly well. With the exception of Yoshida and Sato, all of the characters are unpleasant. The film is very unsatisfying because Sato leaves so many aspects of the movie unexplained. For example the survivors believe that they are stranded in a wasteland, yet at the end when Yoshida and Sato make a run for it, they hit civilization after only a few miles. There’s also no explanation why a Gokemidoro turns a human into a vampire or even why the Gokemidoro want to exterminate the human race through vampirism. If you want to see a bizarre take on the alien invasion theme, Goke – Body Snatcher from Hell is at the head of the class. It won’t bore you, but boy will you be scratching your head, once the film is over.

Quotable Movie Line: “You’ve been spouting that sci-fi crap all day!”

You could probably add a few more films to this list (The 27th Day, Devil Girl from Mars, The Cosmic Man), but for me, these six represent early low budget invasion films which each have their own unique flavor. They took the basic “alien on earth” idea and added their own distinctive and imaginative twists. Some of these were more successful than others, but all of them are snapshots from a unique period in cinema history.

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Selected References:

Johnson, Tom and Del Vecchio, Deborah. Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 1996.
Meikle, Denis. A History of Horrors: The Rise and Fall of the House of Hammer. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2009.
Naha, Ed. The Films of Roger Corman: Brilliance on a Budget. New York, New York: Arco Publishing, Inc. 1982.
Palmer, Randy. Paul Blaisdell: Monster Maker. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 1997.
Senn, Bryan and Johnson, John. Fantastic Cinema Subject Guide. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 1992.
Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies (Two Volume Set). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 1982 and 1986.