Monday, January 12, 2009

Random Movie Report #59: First Man Into Space

FIRST MAN INTO SPACE poster and Amazon link
Obscure monster movies are always a crap shoot. You’ve got your bad ones, your bad enough to be entertaining ones, but I always stumble across a good one just often enough to keep coming back. FIRST MAN INTO SPACE is perhaps best known for inspiring a musical parody on WHOSE LINE IS IT ANYWAY?, but it somehow managed a Criterion release. From 1958, from a particularly cheap wing of MGM's distribution (even the lion-roar logo looks kind of slapdash)*, this space age Hammer-look-a-like is a slow starter, but ultimately not bad. It’s made with just enough smarts to transcend its Z-level origins, and holds up better than most late Fifties creature features.

The titular first man is Lt. Dan Prescott (Bill Edwards), a cocky test pilot who starts the movie ascending into the stratosphere in a prototype rocket, thus earning the sobriquet “Highest Man on Earth.” (I’ll leave that one for now.) As luck would have it, his brother, level-headed Commander Charles Prescott (Marshall Thompson, the actual lead) is heavily involved in the project, and after Dan nearly loses control and manages to trash the rocket on return, Charles worries about his brother’s stability. But Dan gets the go-ahead, and on the next flight (number 13), he pushes out of the stratosphere and into orbit, flying through a cloud of meteorite dust before crashing down to Earth. The team finds the capsule, encrusted with the strange dust, but Dan is nowhere to be seen. Then people start dying, blood drained, strange particles around their wounds. It turns out the alien substance not only encrusted Dan (making his suit and skin both bulletproof and capable of causing fierce wounds) but changed his body chemistry, giving him an animalistic need for blood.

It’s hard not to see a similarity between the plot of this movie and that of the first QUATERMASS serial, which was turned into Hammer Studios’ THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (sic) in 1956. I don’t know how much of it was a conscious ripoff, but parallels are unavoidable: an astronaut heading into space for the first time picks up an alien element or bug which turns him into a monster. (The even-lower-budgeted NIGHT OF THE BLOOD BEAST used this plot hook as well.) Of course, by this point in history we were getting close to actually putting people in orbit, so the question of what awaited us up there provided plenty of plot hooks. This palpable uncertainty adds to the film’s effectiveness, and to be fair it doesn’t completely ape its British predecessor.

This is a slow-moving picture, taking a long time to turn Dan into a monster and taking longer for the creature to finally be revealed. It doesn’t help that Charles, whom we spend most of our time with, is kind of boring: he’s staid and responsible and doesn’t seem to have anything going on outside the job, and though Marshall Thompson tries hard enough the result is just too flat.

There are some stronger performances (particularly Carl Jaffe as the chief scientist involved), and DOCTOR WHO fans in particular should watch this one. Roger Delgado, who would originate the role of the Master on that show, plays a Mexican consul who’s angry over how the rocket’s crash landing disrupted a local ceremony and wants some financial compensation. The way the scene plays (and I’m not even sure what it has to do with the rest of the movie), it seems to have been intended as a bit of silly “ethnic” humor, but Delgado is so commanding that you end up on his character’s side.

As long as it takes the picture to get moving (relatively speaking- it only runs for 77 minutes), the payoff is worth it. The monster, when we see him, is a grim grey hulk with just the barest remnant of a human face. He does look silly driving a car (possibly the only Fifties movie monster to try this), but the juxtaposition of his brutal acts with the fact that there’s still an innocent human trapped somewhere inside is well-exploited in a powerful climax. The film ends very well, with some wonderfully atmospheric scenes, and that’s enough to make it worth your time.

(As for the “Highest Man” business, later Dan promises to bring back Charles “all the dope”. About space, one assumes.)

*Edited (5/31/10) to remove an inaccurate assumption I made about MGM's performance- they were still doing pretty good at the time.

Story by Wyatt Ordung
Screenplay by John C. Cooper and Lance Z. Hargreaves
Directed by Robert Day

Grade: B-

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