February 23, 2014

Phantom of the Sci-Fi Soap Opera

Poster for double-bill, The Projected Man and Island of Terror (1966)
Now Playing: The Projected Man (1966)

Pros: Some suspense and pathos materialize towards the end; Relatively effective monster make-up
Cons: Lackadaisical love triangle; Villains’ motives are unclear; Intriguing aspects of teleportation are unexplored

What is life without taking risks? No life at all, for even the most staid and cautious among us have to realize that simply moving around and engaging in any sort of activity, no matter how mundane, entails some level of risk. The baby takes a chance with its first steps. The common commuter takes daily risks driving or riding to work. Even the most hidebound, obsessive-compulsive creature of habit has risked more than he or she cares to think about – after all, there had to be a first time, and an element of risk, however small, in that behavior or practice that through repetition has become an unexamined part of everyday life.

Of course there’s risk, and then there’s batsh*t crazy dangerous. I am a science fiction fan of long-standing. Heck, I was there, dagnabbit!, sitting cross-legged in front of the old black and white TV when the crew of the Enterprise went where no man has gone before for the very first time! (September 8, 1966 for those who are counting). So you know I’ve watched and read some crazy stuff over the years, and then inevitably wondered “what if?” Board a starship and zip across the universe at greater-than-light warp speed? Sign me up! Travel through time to the age of the dinosaurs or the far future? Where’s my camera? Have all the atoms that make up the unique, irreplaceable person I call me scanned, disassembled, teleported, then reassembled at a distant location? Wait, hold up, don’t even think about touching that lever!

Steiner and his assistants prepare for a demonstration of their matter projector
Pizza delivery of the future:
"Get it in 30 milliseconds or less or it's free!" ®
Demonstrate this technology to me using a rock, or bottle, or maybe a model of the starship Enterprise, and I’ll be very, very impressed. But I have to think that a living organism, especially a human being, is more than just the sum of its parts. Dammit, we’re not furniture kits from IKEA to be hauled off and reassembled somewhere! No matter how quick and efficient, teleportation is the ultimate risky form of travel. You can buy a toothbrush if you lose it in transit, but what about your soul (or your unique consciousness for those of a less religious persuasion)?

By the 23rd century of the Star Trek universe, we’re asked to believe that no one gave the metaphysics of “beam me up” a second thought. Like elevators, transporters were just another ho-hum daily means of transportation, a device to quickly get those red-shirted crewmen down on the surface of a new planet where they could be eaten, mangled or otherwise abused by the local fauna. Sure accidents happened, just like the occasional elevator accident, but who’s going to let an astronomically small chance of being reassembled inside-out get in the way of such convenience?

Poster - The Fly (1958)
Come to think of it, my all-time favorite Star Trek character, Leonard “Bones” McCoy, was famously leery of transporters (but then he was grumpy about a lot of things, thus my identification with the character). Perhaps by the time he got to Star Fleet Academy, McCoy had done the mental calisthenics around the whole concept and come to some horrifying conclusions – like the character Badger on Breaking Bad, whose weed-fueled monologue on the perverse risks of transporters (and misuse in pie-eating contests) attracted a lot of attention when it was aired.

While George Langelaan’s 1957 short story “The Fly” was not the first to feature scientific teleportation, the first movie it inspired, The Fly (1958, directed by Kurt Neumann and starring David Hedison and Vincent Price) certainly helped to move the concept front and center into popular consciousness. (Supposedly the original film and its teleportation concept were brought to Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s attention as a cost effective way to move his characters around fictional worlds.) David Cronenberg’s thought-provoking 1986 remake further highlighted the technological risks in a very intense and graphic way (while also suggesting the dangers of relying too much on computer programs and artificial “intelligence”).

The Projected Man is no The Fly, or even on par with an average episode of the original Star Trek series. But it does feature a couple of fairly suspenseful moments and at least tries to leave the monster that emerges from the botched teleportation attempt with a little bit of its humanity intact.

Bryant Haliday, Norman Wooland and Mary Peach in The Projected Man
Dr. Steiner (Bryant Haliday, left) is under the gun from the
weaselly foundation director to produce results or else.
The plot: Genius physicist Dr. Paul Steiner (Bryant Haliday) and his assistant Dr. Chris Mitchel (Ronald Allen) are on the verge of perfecting a laser-based system for turning matter into pure energy, storing it in a receiving cell, then projecting it wherever they want. At first they’re elated when they successfully project a live guinea pig. Elation turns to disappointment when Steiner touches it and it promptly dies, giving him a shock in the process. Inexplicably, the imperious director of the foundation that they work for, Dr. Blanchard (Norman Wooland) threatens to pull the project's funding if they don’t make more progress, and fast (like teleporting inanimate matter is just routine—no, nothing to see here folks, can’t think of any lucrative applications for that! There’s some speculation between Steiner and Mitchel that Blanchard is jealous of Steiner’s success, but that doesn’t explain at all why the director would sit on the greatest scientific breakthrough of all time.)

Steiner brings in a former colleague, pathologist Patricia Hill (Mary Peach), to help sort out the issues with projecting living organisms. At first the young, attractive doctor doesn’t seem to be too impressed as Steiner explains the technology. But when the team disintegrates her watch and brings it back again, she finally gets excited and deems the whole thing “incredible!” All three seem dumbfounded when they see the hands of the rematerialized watch spinning around the dial. When Hill touches it and gets a shock, the hands spin even faster.

The demonstration for Prof. Lembach goes up in smoke.
"What part of 'Danger! High Voltage'
did you not understand?"
A lot of jargon gets thrown around about “changes in the direction and polarity” of the transporter chamber’s magnetic field and needing a “time phase adjustment,” but the scientists seem to think they’re on to something. Applying what they’ve learned, they try to project another living animal, this time a monkey. After it materializes seemingly fit and healthy (and shock-free), Patricia gives it the most cursory of examinations and declares success. Meanwhile, Blanchard meets with a shadowy but apparently well-connected co-conspirator to work out a nefarious scheme to discredit Steiner. Blanchard arranges for world-renowned physicist and Steiner’s mentor Prof. Lembach (Gerard Heinz) to attend a teleportation demonstration – one that they will conveniently sabotage. Steiner protests that he’s not ready, but goes along to keep his funding. To add to his distraction, Patricia and Mitchel seem to be getting along quite well. He brushes off suggestions that he has feelings for the attractive pathologist, but the budding romance obviously bothers him. Of course, the demonstration for Lembach goes disastrously wrong in a shower of sparks and flame. Mitchel notices that a vital piece of equipment has been purposely corroded with acid and alerts the disconsolate senior scientist. They work feverishly to get the equipment back up and running.

Dr. Steiner (Bryant Haliday), post-projection
"Hold still, you've got something on your face."
At a dinner party Blanchard is holding for Lembach at his townhouse, Steiner protests that his equipment’s been sabotaged, but the smug director declares that the project is dead nonetheless. Steiner verifies that the dinner guests will be sticking around the townhouse for the next couple of hours and storms out. He rushes back to the lab and grabs bubble-headed receptionist Sheila (Tracy Crisp) to help project him in dramatic fashion right into Blanchard’s dining room (there’s no time to round up Mitchel and Hill and do things by the book). Naturally, the projection doesn’t go quite as planned, and Steiner ends up in a dark alley outside of Blanchard’s place, one side of his face and a hand horribly burned. And, he’s a walking power generator who can kill with a mere touch. Not to mention, he’s mightily pissed off (I guess I’d be upset too). The Projected Man fritters away a lot of suspense in its first two-thirds with duplicative lab scenes, a desultory, oddly dispassionate love triangle, and an unconvincing Snidely-Whiplash villain (Blanchard) whose motivations are obscure to say the least. (Is he trying to steal Steiner’s work? Is he working for a foreign government? Is he just jealous? Get a grip man! You don’t sabotage something that can make you world-famous and a billionaire!)

In the last third the film gets dark (literally and figuratively) and becomes more horror than sci-fi film. When I watched the projected Steiner, a cloth covering the ruined part of his face, confronting lovebirds Mitchel and Hill in the assistant scientist’s apartment, an image of Herbert Lom in Hammer’s version of The Phantom of the Opera (1962) beamed into my brain. Like Lom’s Phantom (and Claude Rains’ in Universal’s 1943 version), Steiner is a genius whose work has been stolen by an unscrupulous higher-up, and in trying to get it back (along with his dignity), he’s inadvertently turned himself into a monster. There’s a moment of pathos in the apartment scene when Steiner, his burned face turned toward a darkened window, listens for a moment to Mitchel and Hill pleading to let them help him. But Steiner won’t have it—he’s literally got bigger fish to fry. As Steiner stalks off, Mitchel tries to console Patricia and himself: “Think of him as the projected man who has nothing in common with Paul Steiner.” It's an interesting concept — are you still you after your atoms have been scrambled and reassembled? – that is left largely unexplored in the rush to get to the B movie climax.

The Projected Man confronts his colleagues
The Phantom of the Projection Lab
shows up at Mitchel's apartment.
Projected Man Bryant Haliday made only a handful of films, most of them horror/sci-fi for UK B producer Richard Gordon (as the Great Vorelli in Devil Doll, 1964; Voodoo Blood Death, aka Curse of the Voodoo, 1965; and Horror on Snape Island, aka Tower of Evil, 1972). Unlike many B movie actors who saw these films as just a paycheck and preferred to forget about them, Haliday was a big horror movie fan.

In Tom Weaver’s The Horror Hits of Richard Gordon (BearManor Media, 2011), Gordon (who didn’t produce the film himself but put together the deal for the double-bill of The Projected Man and Island of Terror with Peter Cushing) paid Haliday a great compliment:
"I thought Bryant was very effective and handled his role extremely well. Towards the end, he was actually able to arouse the sympathy of the audience and did not come across as just a monster on a killing spree. It reminded me of so many films in which Boris Karloff had played a scientist who becomes a monster through no fault of his own, as opposed to Bela Lugosi who was usually an outright villain. In fact, you might say that Bryant paid tribute to the memory of Bela in Devil Doll and Karloff in The Projected Man! As for the female lead, Mary Peach, she became Mrs. Jimmy Sangster in the 1990s, and the last time I saw her was with Sangster at one of the FANEX conventions in Baltimore [July 1997]. When I mentioned The Projected Man, she said, ‘Oh, I don’t want to talk about that film!’ – I think she didn’t want to appear to have been a horror film leading lady and become a part of that ‘clan’..."
Somewhat like the mutated results of a covered-up top secret experiment, The Projected Man is only whispered about in dark alleyways by hard-core sci-fi fans. It’s no The Fly, but it hardly deserves the obscurity into which it’s been teleported.

Where to find it:
Available on DVD

Sinister Cinema

"Science runs amok when human beings tamper with unknown forces!"