Friday, April 4, 2014

Video Cheese/Oddball Film Report: INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN (1957)

NOTE: The Video Cheese series was written for Mr. Ken Begg of and I've tried to post said pieces here only after Ken had posted them at his site. Since this article presents a direct reverse of that policy, I've decided to incorporate this into the Oddball Film Report series (the reviews I do specifically for Baker's Log). This is done with Mr. Begg's kind permission.

   "Saucermen vs Teenagers in early sci-fi spoof."

   Not many 50's science fiction pictures were made with a sense of irony (one reason they still work so well, in my own opinion). American International Pictures, though, had a flare for original thinking.

   This picture was originally conceived as a throwback to the pulpy science fiction tales that had thrilled the creative teams that formed the studio, a straight horror epic. Arkoff or Nicholson, I don't remember which, got cold feet when Paul Blaisdell showed up with his Martian costumes, feeling the creatures looked too goofy with their giant exposed brains. Blaisdell went back to the shop and reduced the size of each monster's head, but somewhere along the line, it was decided to make the picture a light-hearted romp. The film would be a spoofy take on the very pictures AIP was making its fortune producing. 

A look at Blaisdell's earlier, larger masks
    For a framework, the studio purchased the rights to a short story about a Martian that gets hit by a car, and the driver framed for the murder of a bum in retaliation, "The Cosmic Frame." The result is one of the most unique monster movies of the 50's.

   Although we have a central plot here detailing an attempted invasion of earth by Martians, the film shifts its focus between a collection of characters who are often comic take-offs on the usual characters in these sorts of pictures. 

   Our main focus will be on young teens Johnny and Joan (Steve Terrell and Gloria Castillo), who are driving into the next town to get married. Although good kids, Joan's father isn't for the notion of his little girl getting serious about anyone, he even refers to Johnny as a "roughneck" in one scene. Johnny, though, has received an envelope from Uncle Sam and the two are secretly marrying before his induction. Driving along without lights (so as not to disturb the neckers in Lover's Lane), Johnny hits a Martian running across the road. Scared, the lovers try to contact the authorities. The only telephone in the area belongs to Old Man Larkin, who isn't happy at all with the kids using his cow pasture as the unofficially titled Lover's Lane. Larkin, by the way, is played by popular western and serial heavy Raymond Hatton!

   Meanwhile, two drifters, Art and Joe, are making plans to leave town (Hicksberg, by name). [Art is played by Lyn Osborn, talented comic actor best known for playing Cadet Happy on the classic live teleseries Space Patrol. Osborn died at a frightfully young age, not long after his role here. Joe is played by Frank Gorshin, the character actor who went on to a long and varied career. He'll likely be forever remembered best as television's The Riddler, the first colorful villain to appear on the classic Adam West Batman series and motion picture. It was Gorshin's pitch-perfect performance that's largely sighted as the reason The Riddler became one of Batman's top entries in his rouge's gallery, as the character had only appeared in a two-issue plot back in the 40's prior to his TV debut.] 

Frank Gorshin meets a Saucerman
   Fed up with their lack of success at turning a buck in this town (Art claims he and Joe are "Investment Specialists"), Art heads to their flophouse to hit the sheets. Joe desires some action and takes a drive along the back roads. He comes across Johnny's car, sees the dead Martian, and figures the discovery will be worth a million dollars if he can get it on ice before it completely rots away. He tries to tell Art about his discovery, but Art is having none of it. Joe determines to recover the body, though, and heads back to the scene of the accident.

   Also afoot during all of this is a special unit of the USAF tasked with handling flying saucer sightings. Apparently, the military is constantly running across these things, but hasn't had much up close contact with the ships themselves. When a flying saucer lights up the skies outside of Hicksberg, the unit moves in. They manage to find the saucer, and attempt to break into it, but the ship self destructs and the group spends the remainder of the evening covering up the scene of the explosion! 

   This really breaks from tradition, as in the 50's you didn't often see the military portrayed as bumbling incompetents (at first, anyhow, as later they do a fine job of the cover-up). AIP would again use this trick in INVASION OF THE STAR CREATURES in 1963. The most apart from the main action, the military characters manage to slip in and out without really impacting the main series of events, although they do strand the Martians on earth.

   Back at Johnny's car, Joe is trying to pry the dead Martian from under the fender when the other little green men jump him and kill him. By the time Johnny and Joan manage to get the authorities out to the scene of the accident, the monsters have placed Joe's body under Johnny's car. Believing Johnny responsible for running over Joe, the Police haul him in. The kids later escape and track down Art, figuring that if they can get him to believe their monster story is on the level, it'll clear Johnny. I'll avoid detailing the rest of the plot. The film is definitely worth a viewing!

   This satirical take on the Invasion From Space genre works surprisingly well, as director Ed Cahn manages to counter the generally light-hearted tone with scenes of genuine suspense (such as when Joan finds herself in a darkened car with a living Sacuerman hand crawling around out of view, a hand possessing long, needle-like claws). 

   In one scene, Art produces a Luger from his dresser drawer. Johnny asks if the gun works. Art notes that it worked for the Nazi soldier he took it from. "You disarmed a Nazi soldier?" Johnny asks, nervously. "Yeah," Art confirms, before breaking the tension. "Of course, he was dead at the time." 

   For the most part, INVASION OF THE SAUCERMEN is nothing but light-hearted fun, very different from Cahn's other well-regarded monster classics like THE SHE CREATURE and IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE, noted for their gloomy moods.

   An important thing to note here is that the film, despite being satirical, isn't cynical. At least not in a downbeat way. Unlike later period pieces that turned a satiric and cynical eye on the 50's, this isn't nasty or anything. This isn't an expose, as later films would try to be, or as some contemporary literature was trying to be. If anything, the film seems to be setting in place the foundation of the Beach cycle that would immortalize AIP in the following decade. In fact, only two years would pass before AIP produced GHOST OF DRAGSTRIP HOLLOW, which could most certainly be considered a sort of dry run for the more colorful Frankie and Annette pictures.

   INVASION OF THE SAUCERMEN ran double bill with the milestone I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF. Somewhat overshadowed by the Michael Landon pic, SAUCERMEN fell into relative obscurity, although it enjoyed some TV play for a time. The film was given an even more lurid and sinister title for when it played England as INVASION OF THE HELL CREATURES.

   The Martian masks would pop up in later films as well. One is seen in the collection of the mad makeup man Pete's inner sanctum at the climax of HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER. Another mask (or the same one, who knows) is seen being worn at a costume party in the previously mentioned GHOST OF DRAGSTRIP HOLLOW

   AIP would use the film for stock footage, too. The film is seen playing on television in BEACH BLANKET BINGO, where Linda Evans has fallen asleep while watching the late movie.

   In the 80's, a few scenes made it into INVASION EARTH! THE ALIENS ARE HERE!, where it was made to look connected to INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS!

   The film would be farmed heavily by Larry Buchanan in the 1960's. Firstly, it was remade as THE EYE CREATURES, with John Ashley taking the Steve Terrell part. Buchanan also made heavy use of the cues Ronald Stein recorded for the '57 film. The straight music (although even those cues had a playful quality) would underscore numerous monster scenes. The more overtly comical cues would also be heard when called for (or even when they weren't). Stein's score seems to have inspired Les Baxter (yes, THE Les Baxter) when he began scoring AIP films, including the infamous Beach pictures.

   Meanwhile, if you can track it down, Paul Blaisdell and Bob Burns produced an 8mm reel showcasing some of Paul's creations, including the Saucermen! I believe the reel, sold from Bob and Paul's very own monster magazine, Fantastic Monsters, was called "Hollywood Monsters" but don't quote me.


  1. Odd question, but if I remember right, didn't this movie have an incredibly gory scene for the time in which one Saucer Men gets their eye gouged out by a drunken bull? I remember being rather shocked when I saw that on TV.

    1. That it did. In fact, I think that might be the saucer-man mask seen in HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER, as it looked like it had a hole in it's eye in some scenes. I'd have to watch it again to be sure, though.

  2. Excellent assessment, Rock. You've paid proper, detailed homage to one of my favorite films.