February 24, 2023

Popeye the Spaceman: Killers from Space

Poster - Killers from Space (1954)
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Killers from Space (1954)

Pros: Features a mildly intriguing Cold War spy plot with an overlay of alien invaders
Cons: The film is talky and slow-paced; the alien make-up is laughable; the rear-projected monsters are about as frightening as a visit to your local zoo’s reptile house

Last year I participated in the annual “So Bad It’s Good” blogathon hosted by Rebecca at Taking Up Room. Back then, I wrote about a bizarre alien who takes over the mind and body of a nuclear scientist in order to gain access to America's nuclear secrets and rule the world (The Brain from Planet Arous).

For this year’s So Bad It’s Good fest, I decided on a film about bizarre aliens who take over the mind of a scientist in order to gain access to nuclear secrets and rule the world. (I know what you’re thinking, but stick with me -- it’s only superficially similar to last year’s baddie. And by the way, if you like what you see here, you’ll love all the write-ups of delightfully bad films that Rebecca has collected at her site.)

In the early part of the 1950s, the newly developed H-bomb -- orders of magnitude more powerful than the bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- hovered like a colossal mushroom-shaped angel of death over the collective imaginations of Americans. Fears of world-ending nuclear war precipitated communist witch hunts, backyard bomb shelters and duck-and-cover drills in schools.

B movie makers, never ones to let a good scare go unexploited, reworked the fears into assorted alien invasions, radioactive monsters and even the occasional apocalyptic wasteland. Wisely, most declined to feature or even refer to Russians in their films, as that was getting a little too close to worrying news headlines to be good, escapist entertainment. So alien invaders and irradiated monsters were pressed into service as stand-ins for the pesky Reds.

As an early Cold War artifact, Killers from Space is as paranoid and wacky as they come, featuring an American nuclear scientist kidnapped by Russians, er, aliens, and hypnotized into helping them with their nefarious plans. And for bad movie aficionados, it includes ludicrous-looking space invaders and more pseudo-scientific gobbledygook than you can shake a slide rule at.

Titles screen - Killers from Space (1954)
Killers from Space, meet the killers from Earth with their awesome H-bombs!

The film opens with lots of stock footage of an above-ground nuclear test being conducted in the Nevada desert. Dr. Doug Martin (Peter Graves) is flying second seat in a jet circling the blast, taking measurements. Martin and the pilot spot a strange bright light flashing on the ground near the test site, and as they change course to investigate, the pilot shouts that he’s lost control of the plane, which heads straight toward the ground.

Rescuers find the mangled body of the pilot at the crash site, but there’s not even a tiny piece of Dr. Martin to be found. Later in the day, Martin, shaken and disoriented, stumbles up to the main gate of the nuclear test base, seemingly none the worse for wear with the exception of neat surgical incisions on his chest.

Martin’s colleagues and his wife Ellen (Barbara Bestar) are relieved that he’s alive, yet incredulous that he could have survived such a horrendous crash. The chief scientist and base doctor order Martin to take time off to recover, but being a patriotic cold warrior, Martin chomps at the bit to get back to work.

A grizzled FBI agent (Briggs, played by Steve Pendleton) is called in to investigate, and at one point he speculates that the man claiming to be Martin is an imposter (cue the dramatic music). No one else wants to believe the worst, but as a precaution Martin’s superiors put him on indefinite leave.

At home, Martin is having nightmares and seeing weird, disembodied floating eyeballs. But Martin is a driven man (by his sense of duty, or something else?), and the mandatory downtime will not stand. He sneaks onto the base after hours and helps himself to a file of top secret test data.

The suspicious FBI agent tails Martin and catches him trying to hide the files under a rock near where his plane crashed. Martin escapes, but crashes his car after huge floating eyeballs seem to fly into his windshield.

Screenshot - Floating eyeballs in Killers from Space (1954)
Public service announcement: When driving, always keep your eyes on the road.

Back at the base hospital, the commander authorizes the doctor to administer sodium amytal to the delirious scientist, who keeps insisting “They’ll kill everyone! We’ve got to stop them!”.

Your eyelids are getting heavy, you are feeling sleepy. You will not remember any of the mild spoilers revealed in this next section…

Martin recovers his post-crash memories with the aid of the truth serum, and in an extended flashback sequence, relates his crazy story.

The sequence starts off promisingly enough with Martin waking up on a table, a trio of weird pop-eyed aliens clustered around him with strange instruments in their hands. (UFO enthusiasts will instantly recognize the classic abductee tale of being taken aboard a spaceship for examination and/or esoteric surgical procedures. In this case, the aliens have restarted Martin’s heart after recovering his body from the crash.)

The earth scientist finds himself in a dimly-lit cavern with all sorts of scientific paraphernalia strewn about. The silent alien minions take Martin to their head honcho (John Frederick), who introduces himself as a fellow scientist from another planet.

Unfortunately, instead of an action-packed follow-up to the mystery of Martin’s disappearance from the crash site, we’re treated to a seemingly endless tour of the aliens’ underground lair and the backstory of how they came to be on our planet (imagine a super-villain bragging to the captured hero about his evil plans for 20 minutes straight).

Screenshot - The aliens perform surgery on Dr. Martin in Killers from Space (1954)
The Killers from Space taught the grey aliens everything they know about surgery on humans.

It seems the aliens are an advance guard from a dying planet tasked with paving the way for a takeover of the earth (hmmm, where have we heard that before?). In a head-scratchingly convoluted plot, they’ve tunneled underneath the nuclear test site to siphon off energy from the blasts, which they are using to create giant mutations of the local fauna (desert lizards, scorpions and spiders, oh my!). When it comes time for the invasion, they intend to unleash the creatures on earth’s population (?!).

But for some obscure reason, they need more data on the strength of the nuclear blasts to complete their fiendish plans, so they kidnap Martin for the purpose of hypnotizing him into stealing files from the base (okaaay…).

Considering the circumstances, Martin, at least at the beginning, is strangely composed, following the alien leader around and asking questions like he was on a VIP behind-the-scenes tour of Disneyland. But curiosity has its limits, and before the alien can talk his ear off, he makes a run for it.

Martin’s escape attempt consists of yet another overly long sequence of the panicked man running from one cavern to another, encountering rear-projected “giant” creatures who thrash around and gnash their mandibles, but seem strangely uninterested in attacking the puny human. They don’t appear to be very good candidates for devouring humanity and laying waste to the earth.

Screenshot - Martin encounters a giant mutated lizard in Killers from Space (1954)
Martin stares down a rear-projected lizard in the Bronson caverns.

Back at the hospital where Martin has come out of the drug-induced trance, his wife and colleagues are stupefied by the incredible story. The base doctor tells the commander that anything said under the influence of the sodium amytal has to be the truth, but he seems doubtful. It looks like Martin will have to go it alone to thwart the aliens’ plans.

You’ve got to admire the ambition and cockeyed optimism of filmmakers who try to launch epic cinematic alien invasions on a shoestring budget. In the era before sci-fi became big business and CGI made ambitious effects more feasible and spectacular, intrepid producers with big ideas and not so much cash had to content themselves with making liberal use of stock footage (checkmark for Killers), economical make-up and costumes (check; more on that later), in-camera effects (check) and nearby locations like Los Angeles’ Bronson Caves that were cheap and convenient but still added an element of the exotic (check).

In addition, the philosophy behind Killers from Space seems to be that if you can’t wow ‘em with big budget effects, distract ‘em with a lot of pseudo-scientific jargon. The questionable science and non-sequiturs come fast and furious during Martin’s flashback scenes.

It’s hard not to crack a smile when the alien scientist brags to Martin about how the invasion fleet is “magnetically propelled along the electron bridge,” or how “to date, we have accumulated several billion electron volts as a result of your atomic explosions.”

During the show and tell the alien makes extensive use of a viewscreen that no doubt looked futuristic to ‘50s audiences used to bulky console TV sets. He shows Martin brief shots of flying saucer models zipping along the “electron bridge,” a fuzzy image of his dying home planet hanging out in space, and for the coup-de-grace, footage of a futuristic city from the home world. The model work is decent for the time, but Killer’s producers didn’t spring for it (and probably couldn’t have afforded it) -- the footage is borrowed from an earlier sci-fi film, Flight to Mars (1951). [IMDb trivia]

Screenshot - Peter Graves and John Frederick in Killers from Space
"I don't know Doc, I can't make out that last line in the eye chart at all!"

In a way it’s all very meta: we’re watching the characters on a screen, who in turn are watching a screen. The video tour of outer space wonders goes on and on smack dab in the middle of the movie. I’m tempted to think the people behind Killers were onto something: That in our advanced technological society, “reality” is not what we experience and feel directly, but what we see on screens. Or maybe the producers just needed to show their stock footage in a way that looked “spacey” and futuristic, but didn’t cost much. I guess we’ll never know.

Speaking of the deleterious effects of too much screen time, Killers from Space’s biggest claim to fame is the aliens’ ridiculous-looking bulging eyes (not to mention the thick, bushy eyebrows, which give the effect of two caterpillars crawling on a plate of sunny side-up eggs). The head alien tells Martin that their eyes are the result of centuries of adapting to growing darkness as their sun dimmed. But ‘50s moms knew the real score -- if you watch too much TV (or fancy tele-screens), you’ll end up looking like that. (Alternatively, my mom warned that I’d become permanently cross-eyed from sitting too close to the TV.)

The eyes look as if a harried effects person cut ping pong balls in half and painted pupils on them. According to Killers’ make-up man Harry Thomas, budget-conscious producer-director W. Lee Wilder wanted to do exactly that, but Harry had a slightly better, but still economical, idea:

“I made the eyes out of plastic and colored them, gave them a light film for the sclera and put a hole in the middle so the actor could see. Again, it was a hurry-up thing -- what I wanted to do was punch the plastic eyes through cotton or lens paper, then seal all that to the face so it would look like they came out of the eye sockets themselves. They wouldn’t give me that time, nor time to shade the sides of the eyes to give it some dimension and feeling.
  The main alien -- did you notice those eyes move? What I did was put another pair of eyes over the first pair and pull them back and forth with strings. That was my own idea; I just couldn’t see the picture without animation. I wanted to see those eyes move, and when it worked, that made my heart feel real good because then the audience believed it.” [from Tom Weaver, Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers: Writers, Producers, Directors, Moguls and Makeup, McFarland, 1988, p. 359]
Screenshot - The alien commander communicates from a viewscreen in Killers from Space (1954)
The aliens saved a bundle by waiting for the Presidents Day sale to buy their 4K viewscreens.

The main man behind Killers from Space, producer-director W. Lee “Willie” Wilder, was the older brother of Hollywood legend Billy Wilder, who wrote and directed many all-time classics, including Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard and Some Like It Hot. Prior to catching the movie-making bug, W. Lee manufactured women’s purses in New York.

He moved to Los Angeles in 1945 and started his own film company, producing The Great Flammarion (with Erich von Stroheim) in 1945 and directing his first feature, The Glass Alibi the next year.

After spending a couple of years making musical shorts, Wilder decided to cash in on the sci-fi craze. In the early ‘50s, Wilder started the Planet Filmways company, producing and directing a string of low-budget sci-fi movies in collaboration with his son Myles, who co-wrote the screenplays (Myles would later go on to write for such TV comedy hits as Get Smart and The Dukes of Hazzard). 

In addition to Killers from Space, the team was responsible for Phantom from Space (1953), about a lone invisible alien invader (tailor-made for a paltry budget), and The Snow Creature (1954), featuring a Yeti captured in the Himalayas and transported to Los Angeles where it escapes to wreak havoc.

But Wilder’s goofiest contribution to ‘50s sci-fi debuted in 1957. The Man Without a Body tells the tale of a wealthy businessman with a terminal brain tumor who comes up with a lunatic plan to preserve his legacy: He steals the preserved head of Nostradamus and enlists the aid of a mad scientist to replace his brain with the prophet’s, which is somehow supposed to take on the businessman’s memories and personality. (Unfortunately, the film manages to be talky and slow-moving in spite of its cracked premise.)

Screenshot from The Man Without a Body (1957)
"If you want to get a head in this business, you need to set aside your ethics!"

Peter Graves is of course best known for his role as Jim Phelps, head of TV’s Mission: Impossible team from 1967 - 1973. Graves and his brother James Arness (Marshall Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke) had a number of sci-fi gigs before securing their signature roles: after his encounter with the pop-eyed aliens, Graves fought a Venusian vegetable monster in Roger Corman’s It Conquered the World (1956) and battled giant grasshoppers in Beginning of the End (1957); Arness was the Thing from Another World (1951) and went up against giant mutated ants in Them! (1954).

So, when all is said and done, is Killers from Space so bad it’s good (or at least worth a look as a vintage curiosity)? My favorite go-to expert on ‘50s sci-fi, Bill Warren, thought that at least one aspect was interesting even if the execution was lacking:

“The idea of a man being forced against his knowledge to spy for aliens intent on conquering the Earth is moderately intriguing, and could have made a better film than Killers from Space. But lack of imagination and a low budget doom it. The reliance on back-projected insects and animals as the aliens’ major weapons of conquest is cheap and foolish, especially as the monsters don’t do anything except sit there and look put upon.” [Warren, Keep Watching the Skies! Vol. I, McFarland, 1982, p. 178]

As hare-brained and plodding as it is, Killers from Space still stands as a somewhat intriguing artifact of its time, a low-budget Cold War fever dream.

After defeating the Killers from Space, the crew at the military base
got back to work preparing for nuclear Armageddon.

Where to find it: Streaming | DVD

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February 14, 2023