Tuesday, April 25, 2017

FIRST MAN INTO SPACE - DVD REVIEW

Reviewed by Steve Fenton.

In this cost-conscious if lovable moodily-monochromatic 1959 British creature feature directed by Robert Day, American leading man Marshall (CULT OF THE COBRA [1955], BOG [1979]) Thompson oversees government-funded rocket testing, wherein an astronaut (who ‘just happens’ to be his kid brother, played by Bill Edwards) pierces the ionosphere and soon becomes the character referred to in the title. However—big surprise!—something goes horribly awry, and said astro-bro returns from the outside edge of space to good old terra firma, where he subsequently degenerates into a sociopathic, horrendously mutating monster with a penchant for offing minor cast members regular-as-clockwork. Set for the most part in “Mexico,” though actually entirely lensed in the UK—as a few of the rather dodgy faux ‘foreign’ accents testify—FMIS is capably-enough-fabricated that it may be regarded as a minor gem of ’50s pulp sci-fi/horror.

Soap opera is added to the plot in the tension often generated between the two brothers: Thompson, the staid and stuffy, by-the-book officer and Edwards as Dan, the reckless, good-time test pilot whose unquenchable jones for high-speed thrills sometimes overtakes his basic common sense (as here). Some surprisingly well-executed rocketship FX, with coldly clinical ‘scientific babble’ kept to a restrained minimum, add to the generally taut, ominous mood.
Mexican lobbycard courtesy of Steve Fenton.

Edwards’ ship (the ‘Y-13,’ clearly based on the real-life X-15 in name, if not design) passes through what resembles a spatial snowstorm, an unforeseen development which brings an abrupt end to the mission before it’s barely even gotten off the launch-pad. The disabled rocket then drops back down to Earth, where Thompson heads a desperate countrywide search for his missing junior sibling, hoping to save him before time runs out. Italian actress Marla Landi, playing the downed astronaut’s concerned earthbound girlfriend, pulls in a few plot strings that are highly reminiscent of situations in Val Guest’s THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (a.k.a. THE CREEPING UNKNOWN, 1956), as she blames his onscreen big brother Thompson for her sweetie’s predicament, when in actuality Edwards’ character had largely engineered his own unenviable predicament by not sticking to the carefully-planned itinerary and foolishly veering-off on an unplotted course of his own right in mid-flight.

Before long, ‘eerie’ music starts up, and we are given fleeting glimpses of the formerly wholly-human Edwards’ ever-transforming gurgling / growling / shadowy / lumbering form. And the body count soon begins to rack-up: a nurse and some cattle are left ‘slaughtered’—albeit all ‘conveniently’ off-screen—leaving formulaic dialogue to bear the burden of instilling suspense (e.g., “What could’ve caused such wanton destruction?”). The usual horrible wounds and traces of an alien substance are found on the bodies of victims.

About halfway into the narrative, we finally get a good gander at the culprit: namely baby brother’s mutated, warty, semi-monstrified self. Admittedly moody (though derivative in the extreme) passages detail the crud-encrusted creature’s grumpy antics. Before too long, hero Thompson comes to the unpleasant realization that that blood-drinking, meteorite-dusted monster roaming the countryside is none other than his poor sibling, Dan (not to mention a hulking great extra doing his absolute worst Glenn Strange-impersonating-Karloff impersonation). When the monster is revealed for too long at a stretch, as is often the case, the impact is lessened, and the comedic level upped; this is helped none by constant outbursts of lurid, pulpy scriptwriting. But you takes what you can get, as they say, and FMIS has plenty to like about it, so cut it some slack, okay? Chances are if you’re in any way, shape or form a fan of old school monster movies that you’ll find more than enough in the way of entertainment value here.
U.S. lobbycard courtesy of Steve Fenton.

Dan progressively becomes more and more alien in both appearance and behavior, the latter due to his mind gradually becoming absorbed and assimilated by the extraterrestrial sentience which has taken possession of his brain matter. He—er, better make that it—invades the scientific research complex to go on a stiff-limbed, mummy-like vandalism spree, while his former colleagues valiantly seek to reason with him despite his ever-failing human faculties as the more bestial alien side of his mutating nature gains ever-greater dominance. Big brother Chuck ultimately saves the day… if unfortunately not his brother, which was pretty much a foregone conclusion anyway, so his demise comes as no big surprise to us at all (hence, no ‘Spoiler Alert’ was given here in advance of me divulging at least part of the big reveal!).

While there are certainly more memorable flicks of this type (William Sachs’ THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN [1977], a fittingly trashy ‘homage’ to the subgenre, most readily springs to mind), it’s always fun watching Marshall Thompson do his earnest if bored-looking best while trying to sort-out things that are way beyond his ken to understand. Individual scenes certainly stick in your brainpan afterwards, and the screenplay offers up enough neat touches and little ironies that you can’t help but radiate a modicum of fondness for FMIS.

Previously issued on DVD—during the format’s infancy—in 1998 by Image Entertainment, the film got a nice overhaul in 2007 courtesy of the Criterion Collection as part of their 4-disc Monsters and Madmen collection.  Once again shown in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, FMIS now looks considerably sharper here than ever before, with easier-to-make-out details and healthier blacks. As expected for a film of this vintage, the original mono audio won’t be demo material, but it sounds clear throughout, without any hiss or other such issues.

As expected, Criterion includes some nifty extras on their disc, beginning with an informative commentary by producer Richard Gordon and film historian Tom Weaver, who go into all sorts of detail about the production and its principal players.  Both men have plenty to say about this modest production, ensuring a solid listen.  On-camera interviews with director Robert Day and actress Marla Landi are also included, as are the theatrical trailer, some radio spots and a stills gallery, too.

Sure, that overused, gung-ho ‘Let’s-start-all-over-again’ ending has worn a mite thin over the intervening decades, but FIRST MAN INTO SPACE is one which any lover of cheapjack ’50s monster schlock will be happy to plug into. The same team’s FIEND WITHOUT A FACE (1958) is lots better, though; although I do so hate playing favorites when it comes to this sort of thing, because they’ve all got their places in the great scheme of things, and there’s plenty of room for everybody, after all. Order FIRST MAN INTO SPACE here.

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