Hey, Ib Melchoir’s Opus Mars-us is back, in a not-bad new scan and color-grading job. If the nostalgia bug has bitten you deep enough to appreciate a fairly maladroit but frequently arresting space exploration melodrama, this may be the disc for you. Let’s be honest: NOBODY can resist the allure of the fabulous Bat-Rat-Spider-Crab, and in glorious Cinemagic, no less.
The Angry Red Planet
1960 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 83 min. / Street Date June 27, 2017 / 17.28
Starring: Gerald Mohr, Nora Hayden, Les Tremayne, Jack Kruschen.
Cinematography: Stanley Cortez
Film Editor: Ivan J. Hoffman
Original Music: Paul Dunlap
Written by Ib Melchior from a story by Sid Pink
Produced by Norman Maurer & Sid Pink
Directed by Ib Melchior
Unjust though it may be, not all Savant reviews make the national news feed, but my old 2001 coverage of the pretty miserable MGM DVD of The Angry Red Planet got quoted all over the place, mainly my negative comments on the disc’s quality. Well, I’m back to review the title this many years later. Is Sid Pink and Ib Melchoir’s labor of love now ready to be considered a classic? Not really. Has its overall nostalgic adolescent appeal diminished? Not a bit.
Next to This Island Earth, The Angry Red Planet has the most poetic title of 1950s classic Sci-fi. It’s a latecomer in its genre, released at a time when real NASA activity put the damper on fantastic visions of space exploration. Reviewed by Daily Variety on November 3 of 1959, Angry was given one of those kiss-of-death notices that make one think the reviewer, ‘Powe.,’ may have fallen asleep during the screening: “the production has little to recommend it, but it could all the same cause a stir in the juvenile market.” The review also let on that the movie had not found a distributor, and was trying to ‘see what interest could be aroused.’
I can theorize what might have happened: Sid Pink had an unrealistic notion of his film’s value and the studio buyers didn’t like his price. Sam Arkoff of American-International circled like a buzzard, waiting for the independent producer’s bank loan to come due, at which point the film could be picked up for a song. From talks with various people, I believe that this is how A.I.P. made many of its acquisitions: unlucky independent efforts like Beyond the Time Barrier and The Brain that Wouldn’t Die sat on the shelf until their producers ran out of options, at which point Arkoff swooped in for the kill. In the case of Angry, Sid Pink may have taken a producing deal in lieu of hard cash. His next two or three films were released through A.I.P., the mutual anger increasing with each picture. A.I.P. was exasperated by Pink’s repeated failure to meet his delivery schedule; he was especially incompetent at handling the audio elements. On Journey to the Seventh Planet, A.I.P. practically begged Pink to not make the final mix himself, and to instead provide the discrete stems for dialogue, music and effects.
This first Sci-fi feature is no gem, but even with its onslaught of stock shots and uneven effects it is producer Pink’s most professional production. To pad the story and create suspense, the show begins after the return of the rocket ship MR-1, by automatic pilot, and with no communication with the crew. When the hatch pops open the scientists and generals find crewmembers missing, dead and comatose. Only Dr. Iris Ryan (Nora Hayden) can be made conscious to tell the story. Together with Colonel O’Bannion (Gerald Mohr), Professor Theodore Gettell (Les Tremayne) and Warrant Officer Sam Jacobs (Jack Kruschen), ‘Irish’ explored the red planet, confronting several horrible life-forms before escaping. Yet she thinks she also had contact with the real rulers of the planet, multi-eyed insect creatures…
Is it a crime to make a juvenile space movie?
There are definitely things to praise about this show, but first let’s deal with the charges on the arrest warrant: first-time director Ib Melchior works from his own script, a real low-wattage item that bogs down in small talk, boring procedurals, lame pseudo- science and logical non-sequiturs. The astronauts, standing in the middle of a Martian jungle, remark that they haven’t yet found any life on the planet, as if only a greeting by the Mars Chamber of Commerce and a brass band would satisfy them. They take a Polaroid picture inside the ship, but nobody records anything outside. In other words, Melchoir is still writing for the Tom Corbett Space Cadet crowd.
After landing on Mars Melchoir decides to introduce the notion that an unseen Martian intelligence may be watching the expedition, and directing various creatures to give them grief. How does he do this? Les Tremayne’s head scientist starts blabbing nonsense that he intuits this theoretical Martian intelligence, until everyone else just accept that it exists. Yet Iris has already said that she’s seen a smart-looking three-eyed Martian. Her male colleagues continue to treat her like a redheaded Silly Sally. We do see a cartoonish alien peeking over a rock. These super-Martians have telepathic powers, yet they skulk and hide like Injuns in a cowboy movie.
The intrepid crew mostly behaves like employees standing around the water cooler. Jack Kruschen very shortly played his most memorable role, the kindly doctor-neighbor to Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. Here he’s a dopey sergeant who loves his ‘Freeze-ray’ gun and reads juvenile space monster fiction. The Sarge touches Iris’s arm once, but is soon outpaced by Gerald Mohr’s wolfishly oily O’Bannion. Actor Mohr really believes in his sex appeal; he’s all but intolerable making the moves on Peggie Castle back in the early atom war thriller Invasion U.S.A.. The object of his affections here is the visually memorable Nora Hayden, a stunning redhead with a killer smile that says, ‘let’s have fun.’ The problem is that Ms. Hayden either can’t act, or Ib Melchoir hadn’t a clue as to how to direct her. During tense moments Irish sits smiling stupidly, as if not told that the camera is running. In many shots she maintains a bovine neutral expression until her turn to speak comes around. Then she bursts forward with an off-pitch emotional statement. It’s painful to see.
Still, Nora Hayden remains the film’s most interesting player. She began as a showgirl in small parts, and is exactly the kind of knockout that a Howard Hughes would pick for his flesh parade feature Son of Sinbad. Perhaps Hayden’s best role is as a friendly waitress in Hubert Cornfield’s Plunder Road. Sid Pink wrote the script for her next epic, the Danish film The Greeneyed Elephant, starring opposite no less a leading man than Dirch Passer. (That’s an inside joke for those who know Sid Pink’s Reptilicus.)
Since the other three seasoned actors deliver their weak dialogue with aplomb, I place major responsibility with the green director Melchior, who we know had some experience directing for television. He either hasn’t a clue where to put a camera or his overbearing producer prevented him from properly directing his own movie, as is hinted at in various memoirs. Even in this properly formatted new scan, the wide scenes in the spaceship are far too wide, as if Pink wanted all of his set to show in every shot — including the logos on the computer equipment loaned by the Burroughs Corporation. When Melchoir cuts in for close-ups, the mismatches are almost painful. Combine Melchoir’s static camera with his mostly static blocking and the dialogue scenes are strictly dullsville — something for ‘the juvenile market.’
Another hint that the producer-director team of Pink and Melchoir was problematic comes forward with the fact that the cinematographer was the great artist Stanley Cortez. The legendary lighting cameraman had filmed for Orson Welles and Charles Laughton, and was noted for responding well to creative challenges and performing miracles with limited resources. Welles complained that he was slow, but I hardly think that problem would apply here on these tiny sets. One might think that an ace like Cortez could save everyone time and money by advising the newbie director and calling some of the shots. Sid Pink’s later record suggests that Cortez likely gave up trying to get his producer to listen, and opted to sit back and do what he was told. Pink would later award himself multiple unearned creative credits. In later interviews he aggressively minimized the contribution of his collaborators, especially Ib Melchoir, and exaggerated his own.
Now the good part. . .
So what’s the good news about The Angry Red Planet? Answer: it can boast one of the more creative low-budget effects gimmicks of its era. The typical no-budget space movie goes into a slump the moment Earthlings set foot on a new planet that looks just like some empty lot back on Earth. King Dinosaur, Fire Maidens of Outer Space and Missile to the Moon are all offenders. But the creation of an impressively weird alien planet-scape is a major design and production undertaking. For this show, co-producer and jack of all trades Norman Maurer used an optical process he had developed to produce mind-blowing visuals on a budget: Cinemagic. Scenes filmed on B&W stock were manipulated in color printing to produce an effect that resembles (but isn’t) the later solarization technique used for fancy title sequences on James Bond movies and Our Man Flint. Everything is bright red, but with white highlights. Contrast is exaggerated, leeching away detail. Certain areas seem to bloom with burnt-out soft-focus highlights. Close-ups of Nora Hayden in her space helmet make her look a bit like a stylized cartoon character — to me, the top image above transforms her into a piece of exciting pop art.
The cheap exterior sets seem more substantial. Wilted rented jungle flora feels more alien. Most importantly, the Cinemagic almost makes 2-D artwork match the live-action scenes. A fantastic plant is just a line drawing, and a vast landscape is just a charcoal sketch. (note: don’t judge by the color in these screen grabs taken from the web.) According to Bill Warren, Norman Maurer’s Cinemagic effects were only used once more, for a scene in the comedy The Three Stooges in Orbit. Curiously, Sci-fi authority Warren disparaged Cinemagic and the film in general.
Does Maurer’s Cinemagic work? We kids thought so because it was so different, and so weird. Mars looked angry, all right. Variety turned up its nose at the process: “While it may take considerable ingenuity to produce this effect, the result isn’t really worth it.” Well, nuts to them. It looks plenty weird to us, even with its weaknesses. The flat artwork looks exactly like what it is, and the mostly static camera angles make some of the live-action foliage seem flat and fake too. Moving the camera slightly, or fooling the eye by doing multi-plane diorama tricks with the flat artwork might have made all the difference.
But the Cinemagic process really brings the film’s stellar monsters to life. The most famous critter is the Bat-Rat-Spider-Crab, which in the film proper is referred to only as a Bat-Rat-Spider. A wobbly marionette, it looks much better in the widescreen scan that doesn’t show so much of the wires above and partial-contact feet below. The thing is grotesquely imaginative, and its mouse-face looks like a pissed-off Mickey Mouse mutation. The thing’s mouth is rather dumb, but you can’t have everything. In the ‘red-vision’ of Cinemagic, it’s pretty impressive. It’s given a fine introduction. A spaceman hacks a thorn from what he thinks is a giant tree, but is actually an enormous B-R-S-C foot.
The efficient Howard Anderson Company contracted for the effects and apparently whipped up the film’s several impressive monsters in short order. Robert Skotak’s fine book Ib Melchior: Man of Imagination (2000) recounts in detail the production of the effects. Filmed in record time, the models and artwork are the best-directed scenes in the movie. Rear projection was used for some shots. The key to success may have been the use of B&W film in the camera, allowing for an enhanced depth of field on the miniatures and forced perspective sets. One memorable anecdote from Skotak concerns the eye of the giant amoeba monster. Ib Melchior had no opportunity to see the monster rigs before the day came for shooting. He approved of its jellyfish shape but blew a fuse when he saw that the eye had been rigged with an electric spinner, that made it revolve in a decidedly non-organic way.
Not mentioned in the Skotak book but easily spotted by sharp-eyed viewers is a bit of goofy ‘hidden’ animation in a tilt-up binocular shot of a tall tower in the Martian city spied on the far bank of a Martian sea. It was all done with an animation camera. For just a few frames, somebody took the initiative to animate a flying saucer, which flits from behind the tower and crosses screen right. It is almost imperceptible. The spacemen make no mention of it.
I’ll let readers take in Robert Skotak’s book to read the official explanation of Cinemagic because . . . I’m not sure I understand it myself. I don’t know if the effect was created optically, or by bi-packing film elements in the camera. It looks as if some kind of translucent screen was employed, because all of the Cinemagic shots display a rigid pattern of fine texture flaws.
The Angry Red Planet really needed Cinemagic to distinguish itself. The 83 minutes are packed with poorly matched stock shots. Views of the rocket in space are unimpressive cel animation. The story gimmick of having Iris relate the mystery events on the Red Planet is a fairly hokey excuse to delay the ‘good stuff’ even further. Nora Hayden looks great but she doesn’t hold audience attention as well as did the heroines of similarly structured recent monster movies starring Patricia Owens and Beverly Garland. The bleeping and blooping music track seems weak now, but certainly didn’t bother us back then; it works well in the Bat-Rat-Spider scene and intrudes on the dialogue passages.
We know that A.I.P. was dissatisfied with the cuts Sid Pink turned in for his self-directed Journey to the Seventh Planet and Reptilicus, and applied massive doses of new effects, editing and sound work to both pictures. Did Sam Arkoff charge that expense against Sid’s profit participation? In Angry Red Planet not too much seems to have been revised. Some ragged music cutting at the finish indicates that the film’s final credits tune may have been added after the mix. Hard cuts that begin and end some scenes could be evidence of trimming, but the pre- A.I.P. print previewed for Variety is the exact same length as the final show. Mark McGee and actor Les Tremayne said that they saw a ‘space funeral scene’ in a preview, but that might have been a rough cut screening.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of The Angry Red Planet is a welcome new scan that allows us to see this vintage show in its correct widescreen aspect ratio for the first time in 57 years. The VHS and DVD editions were both from Orion’s same old NTSC transfer reformatted for flat TV screens in the early ’90s. The new scan reveals appreciably more horizontal information. The Cinemagic Mars exteriors have considerably more elbow room, and Melchoir’s loosely composed interior scenes look even looser. Colors are more attractive overall, showing Stanley Cortez’s attempt to add interest with colored sidelight. Some of the stock footage is revealed to be high-quality 35mm. The new scan does uncover a near- unforgivable shortcut. Two doctors in Iris’s hospital room are supposed to be speaking to each other, yet their alternating close-ups are the exact same camera angle, filmed against the exact same shadow of a venetian blind. Edgar Ulmer would have at least taken five seconds to alter the position of the blinds!
On Mars, the light in the ship’s porthole is light blue or white for night (?) and blood red for day. Hard cuts put us on the outside of the ship, where the Cinemagic kicks in. At first it looks perfect, rich crimson in hue. The added detail makes many shots look fascinating. There are three Martian excursions, and in some the hue begins to drift toward orange again, the sickly color seen in the old Orion transfer. Perhaps it was always like that? Seeing these sequences makes me remember my old 8mm attempts to emulate Cinemagic by throwing colored filters in front of my camera lens. If my audience squinted during projection, the effect improved considerably!
In the middle of the ‘explore the motionless lake’ scene is a jump cut that seems to be film damage. And many shots on the lake are much softer and with coarser grain. Were they sourced from a slightly inferior film element or up-rezzed from the old master, or did the scene always have problems? It looks a bit like an optical blow-up.
I always loved the fantastic design for the film’s main title card – the type style is exciting in itself. Scream Factory has flubbed the show’s very last shot, an A.I.P. ‘The End’ logo. The picture cuts to a flat image with a distractingly window-boxed square card. The old DVD ended discreetly on much the same image, but full frame. This may have been cobbled together because the best film element was incomplete. It’s as if the last remastering person putting the file away accidentally pushed ‘undo,’ and the end title reverted to an unfinished state. At least, that’s my preferred excuse for egregious typos.
Also in the end credits is a reference to the ‘new’ Eastman 5350 color film stock. To quote Peter Lev’s book Transforming the Screen 1950-1959, “This was a high-speed, low-grain film stock, meaning that it could provide excellent result with less lighting than other color films. Previous color stocks had required very high light levels, which increased production costs in comparison with black and white filming. Eastman 5250 reduced the cost differential, and … completely eliminated competition in the U.S.A. by its superiority.”
The extras include a still and ad art gallery and an original trailer. Its Cinemagic sequences are in B&W, basically showing what Howard Anderson’s shots looked like before the colorful Cinemagic effect was laid on. What a dumb thing to do — in ordinary B&W the Mars shots are greatly diminished.
I missed this movie in the theaters, and am fairly sure that for my first couple of TV viewings had to watch it in B&W. I was amused to see that one of The Angry Red Planet’s original A.I.P. double bill partners was the terrific English fright show Circus of Horrors. What a great matinee experience that must have been.
Help and corrections provided by Gary Teetzel.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Angry Red Planet Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good – Minus but also a timeless kiddie matinee favorite
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: trailer, still gallery
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 12, 2017
Here’s Joe Dante on The Angry Red Planet –
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson