Monday, February 4, 2008


Let's break the format of this blog so I can share with you some memories of a favorite childhood sci-fi flick now availble on DVD.

"SPECTACULAR ADVENTURE BEYOND TIME and SPACE... as CINEMAGIC TAKES YOU TO..." That is the tag line for AIP's 1960 super sci-fi spectacular, The Angry Red Planet, and as Walter Brennan used to say, "That's no brag, just fact!" Well, maybe just a little brag.

The two men responsible for creating this bizarre but enjoyable ride through space are Ib Melchior and Sidney Pink. Melchior, who in 1976 was awarded the Golden Scroll by the Academy of Science Fiction for Best Writing, served as the film's co-writer and director. Ib is also known for writing such films as LIVE FAST, DIE YOUNG, WHEN HELL BROKE LOOSE, JOURNEY TO THE SEVENTH PLANET, REPTILICUS, ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS, PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, AMBUSH BAY and DEATH RACE 2000. The other conspirator was legendary B movie producer and co-writer, Sidney Pink. Sidney's thirty year body of work, also impressive, is too numerous to list completely, so here are some of the highlights. PRYO, SECRET AGENT 007, REPTILICUS, JOURNEY TO THE SEVENTH PLANET, BWANA DEVIL (the first color 3-D film), EXQUISITE CADAVER and THE MAN FROM O.R.G.Y. (!).

Ib Melchior was introduced to Pink by AIP actress, Nora Hayden. He quickly struck a deal with Pink to re-write the first draft of THE ANGRY RED PLANET, (then called INVASION OF MARS), free of charge if he would be allowed to direct it for scale. Pink happily agreed, but would soon regret his decision. Pink recalls after reading Ib's treatment, "Ib finished the script, but none of us were pleased with the results. He had shortened or removed action sequences and devoted too much time in the spaceship to talking and explaining. This would have been fine if we had a Billy Wilder to write the dialogue, but Ib was a far cry from Wilder." Pink then had to re-write the script back to its original action formula, but kept many of Ib's scientific data about rocketry and celestial navigation that added a greater sense of realism. Pink also found fault in Melchior's direction, or lack of it, "From the first hour on the set, it was evident that Ib Melchior could never get the picture done. He was unable to set up even his first shot, and we lost three hours before Stanley (Cortez, the film's cameraman) took charge. He quietly but firmly took Ib by the hand and issued his own orders through Melchior." Both men also share writing credit for REPTILICUS, a reunion which, much to Pink's chagrin was to link their reputations. As a result, AIP, considering them to be a writing team, brought them together for a third and last time for JOURNEY TO THE SEVENTH PLANET. Pink would later note that this last experience was not much better than the first. "As usual, Ib's script was wordy and full of banalities that hindered the action needed to keep the movie interesting. Ib thought the worth of the script was measured by the number of words and dialogue it contained." The reunion was not without some benefit, however. Pink admitted that Melchior did contribute the scientific data that gave JOURNEY TO THE SEVENTH PLANET, "...a touch of reality".

Sidney Pink retired from films in 1970 and is living in Florida, where he patiently waits for residual checks. Today, Ib Melchior is also out of the movie business and is living in California, where he writes spy thrillers based on his experiences as a spy during World War II for U.S. Military Intelligence.

The film starts without credits but the usual stock footage of the Capitol dome and then fades to the Pentagon (remember, N.A.S.A. wasn't around yet). a military motorcade comes to a halt as General Kreger exits and makes his way to a guarded conference room, equipped with standard B movie props like an American flag and a chart of the solar system. The General, head of the Mars Rocket Project, recites this somber statement to civilian advisors and top brass alike. "At 03:00 this morning the expeditionary X 1 rocket ship, missing for sixty one days was sighted by Mount Palamar drifting in orbit some 90,000 miles in space. All attempts to establish radio communications have failed so far. We don't know if anyone is alive aboard. The MR1 appears to be a dead ship...Gentlemen, the Mars rocket must be retrieved and brought back to Earth in tact."

The group seems to be amazed by such an impossible task. The situation seems hopeless until one professor remembers that the X 1 rocket has a remote controlled auto pilot. Once activated, it will allow the X 1 to land safely at a Nevada Air Force Base. If this is a true depiction of the early days of our space program, this would explain Sputnik. After a short jet ride to the base via stock footage we are bombarded with scenes of radar operators staring at their screens, airmen adjusting a satellite dish, a 1960's state of the art digital countdown, and countless other military tableaus. It seems that Pink received permission by the U.S. Air Force to film on one of their bases. After working on Pink's nonsensical script, this threat of realism was perhaps too much for Melchior to resist, for it seems to go on forever. Knowing Melchior's reputation for long winded scientific jargon, his camera crew is probably still there, sending reels of film back to the now defunct production company.

Through a vignette of newspaper headlines, we join all of America in wondering the uncertain fate of the four astronauts who manned the MR1. News reel film is shown on television of Colonel Tom O'Bannon, Air Force pilot and ladies man extraordinairre. It's extraordinary that he could fly the rocket with his hands all over his female co-astronaut, Dr. Iris Ryan. The beautiful biologist was portrayed by Nora Hayden, who just recently wrote the best selling sex book, HOW SATISFY A WOMAN EVERY TIME. Chief Warrant Officer Sam Jacob is the good natured strongman and class clown. Every sci-fi B movie of this time had it's man-child sidekick for comic relief just in case the monsters were not funny enough. Veteran character heavy, Jack Kruschen, plays this part to the hilt (he smuggles comic books aboard the rocket and claims Mars in the name of BROOKLYN!). And finally Les Tremayne, who provided the voice of Dr. Quest in the JOHNNY QUEST cartoon series, is aptly suited to play Professor Theodore Getell, designer of the rocket and the world's foremost authority on space travel. Did you think that General Kreger would send this crew up without someone like the Professor? After all, someone has to keep the rocket on course when the rest of the crew is busy monkeying around. A cursory examination of the crew's make up resembles another space traveling quartet, namely Marvel Comics' THE FANTASTIC FOUR. At one point in the film our astronauts are in danger of being exposed to cosmic radiation. In case you're not well read, cosmic radiation was the source of The Fantastic Four's superpowers. Is it possible the comic's creator, Stan Lee, was influenced by Pink and Melchior's classic? But I digress.

It's zero hour at the air base. We are again tortured by endless scenes of technicians adjusting telescopes, radar operators viewing a screen, and airmen waiting by jeeps for the landing of the rocket, some of whom are less than optimistic. When the rocket does land, it is greeted by a flurry of rescue personnel. The MR1's only survivors are an astronaut lying on a stretcher who's identity is hidden beneath a sheet and a dazed Dr. Ryan. They assure her he will be cared for, but she asks, "How do you cope with that?" The unknown crew member's oozing arm dangles from the sheet as he, and Dr. Ryan, are transported to the base hospital. Once there, the condition of the unknown astronaut is grim. A parasitic growth is spreading throughout his body, and being of unknown origin, the doctors are helpless to treat it. The only key to the puzzle rests with Dr. Ryan, who is suffering from shock and exhaustion. Semi-conscious, she is questioned by General Kreger and the Base doctor. Dr. Ryan can recall the forty seven days spent in the rocket's impressive control room and the landing on the planet's surface, but when she remembers seeing a Martian face at the rocket's porthole, she starts screaming uncontrollably.

The Doctor surmises that something Dr. Ryan experienced on Mars was so horrible that it's causing her conscious mind to block it out. Fearing that the alien infection may be contagious, possibly spreading beyond the base to infect all the people of Earth, the General is desperate for the information that's contained in Dr. Ryan's sub-conscious. He then proposes the doctor treat her with narco-synthesis, a drug that will cause her to remember facts under interrogation. The doctor warns the General that any information gained by this procedure will be colored by the patient's own perceptions of the events. The distortion may be great since the initial experiences were too horrible for her to cope with in the first place. There is also the added risk that, "her mind might snap if we forced her to remember the horror she so carefully obliterated from her conscious level." Of course we know there is no such drug called narco-synthesis. The only existing drug at the time that has the same effects was lysergic acid diethylamide, commonly known as LSD. During World War II the Nazis tested mescaline on prisoners at Dachau concentration camp. They were looking for a way to brainwash people, but soon found it was an effective tool for interrogation. After the war this project became known to U.S. Military Intelligence who, with the Central Intelligence Agency, continued the Nazi drug experiment using LSD on American service men. These experiments continued into the late 60's. It is altogether possible that Ib Melchior, being in Military Intelligence, knew of these classified experiments and incorporated them into the script. Could this be one of the touches of reality that Pink complemented Melchior for? Fearing for the life of her companion, our brave Dr. Ryan insists on the treatment and returns us to Mars.

The crew dons spacesuits and is ready to explore the surface, looking for the alien Iris saw at the porthole. An alien she describes as, "a huge distorted face with three bulging eyes!". Once outside, the film takes on a hazy red distortion to represent Dr. Ryan's drug induced remembrances of the Martian atmosphere. Pink named this process Cinemagic, and it was achieved by overlapping the positive and negative film print at a 45 degree angle, and then tinted with a red monochrome color. This procedure caused the film's budget to soar from $227,000 to $277,000, but was so effective that Pink used it again in JOURNEY TO THE SEVENTH PLANET and REPTILICUS. The Martian landscape is represented by sprawling earth-like vegetation and painted backdrops of weird plants and mountains (courtesy of Cinemagic's inventor and TARP co-producer, Norman Maurer, who was the son-in-law of The Three Stooges' Moe Howard.). The expedition turn potentially deadly when Dr. Ryan is entangled in a man, or in this case woman, eating plant. After being hacked to safety by a machete wielding O'Bannon, the group returns to the ship. Once there Professor Getell informs the group of his theory of a superior alien intelligence that controls all life on Mars. The others are skeptical of his theory until the rocket is discovered to have an ionic field surrounding it that prohibits radio communication to Earth.

The quartet returns again to explore the surface, looking for any signs of intelligent life. This time the trouble starts when Iris mistakes the legs of a forty foot spider/bat creature (designed by Mauer) for a clump of trees. The creature attacks the party, pinning Professor Getell between two rock formations. The creature is thwarted when Sam Jacob blinds it with his ultra sonic freeze gun, causing it to shamble away. The team continues their survey, until they are stopped by a lake of oily black fluid. Unprepared to cross it at this time, the group returns to the rocket, unaware that a three eyed Martian spies on them from a distance.

Back in the rocket's controlroom, Colonel O'Bannon is in concurrence with the professor's "alien control" theory and deems it to dangerous to continue the mission. The crew initiates blast off, but the rocket is held motionless by a Martian forcefield a hundred times more powerful then the rocket's jets. Now captives, the crew's desperation prods them to look for answers that may lie on the other side of the lake.

The astronauts paddle a rubber raft across the black Martian lake. With the aid of binoculars, they see the Martian city located in the center of the lake, containing buildings over half a mile high. The group is hopeful that they can reason with the Martians, and that they will be allowed to leave in peace. But as the raft floats closer to it, a huge amoeba-like blob bubbles to the lake's surface. The crew quickly paddles back to the banks and makes a run for the rocket with the amoeba still in pursuit. At this part of the film, we must say good-bye to Sam Jacob. Lagging only seconds behind, he gets absorbed into the blob's center, where it's internal acid will eventually dissolve him. Mars draws first blood.

Once safely aboard, Colonel O'Bannon notices a small piece of the blob is burning into the arm of his space suit and he quickly sheds it. Still panicked from the loss of Jacob, their run of bad luck continues when the team discovers that the blob has engulfed their ship and is eating its way though the hull. Stranded, it is just a matter of time before the blob reaches them. Their only chance is to reroute the radar's electricity to the outer hull, in hope that it will fry the menace. The computers ( $1,000,000 worth, supplied by the Burroughs Company for the film) are rewired to the outer hull and the switch is pulled. A million amps later, the blob is reduced to a pool of slime. Just then the forcefield is lifted as a ominous message begins to be transmitted through the rocket's radio. "Men of Earth, we of the planet Mars give you this warning. Listen carefully and remember...". The three eyed Martian face appears at the porthole again, and Iris faints.

The ship is enroute to earth as Iris wakes. The Professor, slumped at its controls, is dying from internal injuries he suffered from the force of lift-off. His last words are, "Tom...the cabin...the cabin!" Mars claims its second victim. Dr. Ryan enters the ship's cabin to find O'Bannon in his bunk unconscious His arm covered with green growth, she tends to him as the rocket continues its long voyage back to Earth. Her tale ended, we once again find Dr. Ryan is at the base hospital. Now that the doctor knows the source of O'Bannon's infection, they have a chance of saving him. Days pass, and with Dr. Ryan's help, the doctor kills the amoeba with mild electrical shock and the Colonel is miraculously cured. All is finally well until a worried General Kreger enter the hospital room and plays the message from the MR1's flight recorder. "Men of Earth, we of the planet Mars give you this warning. Listen carefully and remember. We have known your planet Earth since the first creature crawled primieval slime of your seas to become man. For millennia we have followed your progress. For centuries we have watched you, listened to your radio signals and learned your speech and your culture. And now you have invaded our home. Technological adults but spiritual and emotional infants. We kept you here deciding your fate. Had the lower life form on our planet destroyed you, we would have not interfered. But you have survived. .Your civilization has not progressed past destruction, war, and violence against yourselves and others. Do as you will to your own and to your planet, but remember this warning. Do not return to Mars. You will be permitted to leave for this sole purpose. Carry the warning to Earth. Do not come here. We can and will destroy you, and all life on your planet if you do not heed us. You have seen us, been permitted to see our world. Go now and warn mankind not to return." The planet Mars fills the screen as the credits roll, leaving today's viewers with the question, "What really happen to the Mars probe Viking?"

1 comment:

Jeff said...

Yep, you're not the only one that noticed the similarity between the crew and of four astronauts and the Kirby/Lee Fantastic Four...all the odder considering that Gerald Mohr (Col. Tom O'Bannon) provided the voice for Reed Richards in the Hannah-Barbera Fantastic Four cartoon!