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The Flame Barrier

by Glenn Erickson Mar 06, 2021

Nope, it’s not on disc but it’s getting written up here because so few people know it and it’s been difficult to see my entire adult life. The fourth Gardner/Levy United Artists horror/sci-fi picture of ’57-’58 is another trip into a jungle’s Heart of Darkness, where awaits a deadly satellite fallen from orbit. Have we missed something Spectacular? Fantastic? Incredible?   This seventy minutes of cheap program filler is nobody’s favorite, but CineSavant embraces Sci-Fi orphans of every description. Stars Arthur Franz and Kathleen Crowley can’t have been pleased by the result.


The Flame Barrier
Blu-ray
Savant Revival Screening Review
1958 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 71 min. / Not On Home Video
Starring: Arthur Franz, Kathleen Crowley, Robert Brown, Vincent Padula, Rodd Redwing, Kaz Oran, Pilar Del Rey.
Cinematography: Jack MacKenzie
Film Editor: Jerry Young
Makeup: Dick Smith
Original Music: Gerald Fried
Written by Pat Fielder, George Worthing Yates
Produced by Arthur Gardner, Jules V. Levy
Directed by
Paul Landres

We who have sold our souls at the altar of 1950s fantastic films keep asking after titles we haven’t been able to see. DVD and Blu-ray have brought us revivals and restorations we never expected, but we still maintain mental lists of wanna-see ‘mystery’ films that are out of circulation. 1958’s The Flame Barrier shouldn’t be hard to come by, as it was a mainstream United Artists release. Back in the day it played frequently on local TV stations, as late night filler or in weekend ‘monster’ movie slots. In Los Angeles I think it showed on KTTV’s ‘Chiller.’

I missed The Flame Barrier entirely because our TV reception was so poor — I could hear the movie but couldn’t see it. Maybe it played better that way?  Although contemporary reviews didn’t promise much the story basics have potential: scientists undertake a trek to recover a fallen satellite and find themselves in a desperate struggle to overcome a deadly technological dilemma. The film’s relative scarcity can be judged by the fact that its entry in Phil Hardy’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Film has several errors — the English critics probably couldn’t find a reference copy.

Carol Dahlman (Kathleen Crowley) arrives in the Yucatán town of Campeche (mispronounced Kam Pee Chee) in search of her husband Howard, who has disappeared into the wilds while trying to locate an experimental satellite. She manages to hire guides Dave and Matt Hollister (Arthur Franz & Robert Brown) even though the drunken Matt makes a pass and Dave is bad tempered. The rainy season has arrived, which would normally make the expedition impossible, and Dave accuses Carol of wanting to confirm her husband’s death only to get access to his fortune. But Dave shows a mercenary side too: the final deal is that the brothers will get 10% of Carol’s inheritance if they find Howard dead.

The first part of the journey is by jeep, on rough trails. Carol and Dave argue, and she’s frightened by various animals. When they continue on foot, they learn that the local Indians are terrified by something in the forest that’s killing the animals. Close to their destination they find a burned skeleton, but Dave determines that it’s not Howard. One of their bearers suffers terrible burns on his chest, from an unknown source. His corpse turns into a skeleton before their eyes, which convinces the bearers that the evil God Atana is responsible.

 

The satellite landing site is eventually found, along with Howard Dahlman’s camp. The chimpanzee from the satellite is in one of the tents, and in a nearby cave is the satellite itself, covered by an organic blob, an extraterrestrial creature brought back from space. An electronic force field surrounds the creature and disintegrates anything it touches. When Dave determines that the field doubles in size every two hours, the trio must scramble to find a way to neutralize it.

The producing team of Arthur Gardner and Jules Levy had finished a trio of low-budget crime pictures for United Artists, Without Warning!,  Vice Squad and  Down 3 Dark Streets. Their second contract with UA was for a quartet of horror/sci-fi features to be released in two double bills,  the successful distribution pattern popularized by American-International. Instead of settling for a meager rental in support of a main feature, two thematically-matched ‘little’ pictures could reap the whole box office take.

The first of the four was The Monster that Challenged the World, directed by Gardner and Levy’s associate Arnold Laven. Filmed on location at the Salton Sea, it could easily have cost as much as the other three put together. By this time Arnold Laven had established himself as a director of television shows and the MGM feature The Rack starring Paul Newman. Instead of continuing with the UA horror package Laven bailed to direct Universal’s Slaughter on Tenth Avenue with Richard Egan, Dan Duryea and Walter Matthau. For the other three features Gardner/Levy hired Paul Landres, an experienced fast worker who had already directed over a hundred TV episodes.

The biggest talking point about the series now is the fact that all were written by Pat Fielder, a film student who made good. She had begun as Gardner/Levy’s production assistant; her story is well told in Tom Weaver’s interview books. Ms. Fielder continued to serve as an all-purpose assistant for the producers and then proceeded to a long and fruitful TV writing career. That’s how things are supposed to go for ambitious and talented young people in Hollywood. She passed away in 2018.

 

The Flame Barrier lacks most of the good qualities of the other three Gardner/Levy shows, filmed in fast succession in little over a year. Pat Fielder’s other three scripts present thoughtful characters in believable everyday situations — a Navy research team, a doctor’s office, a small town family. Barrier is made entirely of artificial ‘movie’ elements.’ A walk through a soundstage jungle is combined with overly familiar elements lifted from other sci-fi movies. A safari trek to recover an experimental rocket was the subject of Lippert’s 1951 The Lost Continent, as well as DCA’s 1957 Monster from Green Hell. Women had recently journeyed to Mexico to locate lost husbands in Bert Gordon’s The Cyclops and Charles Marquis Warren’s The Unknown Terror (both 1957). And a few months later, Joyce Manning would go to Mexico (albeit not the jungle) to search for her missing Amazing Colossal Brother, in War of the Colossal Beast (1958).

Pat Fielder or her co-story writer George Worthing Yates likely borrowed the outer space organism from Hammer’s 1955 The Quatermass Xperiment, a classic credited with inspiring many space monsters to follow. The idea of a technological threat that grows in size on a scientifically predictable timetable is also an obvious steal, from Ivan Tors’ The Magnetic Monster (1953).

The launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 in October of 1957 had become international news, and The Flame Barrier leaped to exploit the public’s interest. Roger Corman jumped on the same bandwagon, boasting that his War of the Satellites was the first film to exploit the buzz around Sputnik. Corman wisely put the word ‘satellite’ into his film’s title, but The Flame Barrier beat Corman’s movie to the theaters by a full month. Is there any reason to be suspicious about the fact that both screenplays invent similar ‘invisible’ barriers in outer space?

The space science in The Flame Barrier  is little more than decoration. The movie opens with stock shots of an experimental missile that a voiceover tells us carries X-117, a satellite with a chimpanzee aboard. But the mission is spoiled by a ‘flame barrier’ 200 miles up. Although it provides the film with its title, there is no more discussion of this barrier. Instead, a second ‘flame barrier’ enters the story at the very end. The ever-expanding force field around the alien organism indeed disintegrates things and people, making them burst into flames.

 

Don’t worry yourself about those interesting ideas, because none are developed further. Most of The Flame Barrier is a grade-Z jungle trek. The three leads try in vain to bring the dramatics to life. Dave Hollister totes a hunting rifle around the Yucatán as if he were a cocky big game hunter in Africa. His relationship with Carol is a series of macho reactions to her foolish ‘female’ behaviors. Carol cringes at the sight of spiders and snakes, depicted mostly in dull stock shot cutaways. Dave rescues her from a fer-de-lance, an unconvincing snake puppet. Yet he and Matt are shaken by the sight of a harmless iguana.

Carol must take a bath on the trail after her leg is covered with a dangerous irritant. Matt stops making lame passes while Dave grows fond of her; in the weakest scene Dave slugs his brother for suggesting the truth, that Dave wants Carol for himself. Four years earlier Kathleen Crowley had come across rather well in Target Earth, screaming while dodging a killer robot. Her role in the next year’s Curse of the Undead was a much better career opportunity.

Arthur Franz talks fake Indian gibberish with the woeful actors playing the local natives. Franz’s Dave even says a word that sounds like Tarzan’s all-purpose command “Ungawa.” In reality that part of Mexico was far from an unknown wilderness — no place in the Yucatán is ‘200 miles from civilization.’ Poor Kathleen Crowley must play Carol as sincerely innocent, yet secretly hoping her husband is dead. This leaves undeveloped the fact that both romantic leads are selfish and greedy. On a breakneck shooting schedule, director Landres advances the show without addressing the undigested ideas in the script.

Howard Dahlman’s camp is conveniently still humming with electricity thanks to an interesting ‘solar battery’ hookup. All that happens is talk.  Just to have something to do, Carol and Dave cart the docile space chimpanzee around in their arms. The discovery of the chimp cues no sentimental payoff — strolling directly into the flame barrier force field in the cave, mister space ape goes ‘poof.’  Take that, Cheeta.

None of these events are in the service of a bigger idea.  Genre critic Bill Warren was especially dismissive of story elements that don’t add up. If the substance burns everything it touches, why is one human corpse left intact, jammed between the organic blob and the satellite?  How did the chimpanzee survive?  For that matter, why didn’t the chimp starve, chained to a tent pole for two months?  If the deadly force field doubles in size every two hours, how come it has expanded to a circle only about fifteen feet wide?

The Gardner/Levy team must have rushed Barrier through as cheaply as possible, to fulfill their UA contract and move on; perhaps it was produced on what was left over from the other three films. Production values are nil. Mexico is Dave’s room, a dull hotel lobby, and a street that looks like a poorly dressed corner of some rental film studio. The jeep part of the trip was probably filmed in one of the greener sections of Griffith Park. After spending half of a reel hearing about the dreaded rainy season, everything on the trip is as dry as a bone.  The only water we see is in a slightly muddy stretch of jeep trail that the explorers pass through at least three times. Did the production go to the trouble of hiring a water truck to soak the ground?  I doubt it.

The film’s second half is shot on a generic interior jungle set, the kind where actors walk between bushes. They never have to look at their feet because the landscape is as flat as … as a stage floor with some dirt on it. The limp and wilted foliage may have been left over from another better-funded production. Director Landres does what he can to to inject variety into the camera angles without much success. Gerald Fried’s music score is better than most. It’s better than Albert Glasser’s bombastic original score for Monster from Green Hell, which always puts this viewer straight to sleep.

 The big thrill at the end of the trail is an unconvincing cave set that could have been cobbled together in an hour. The supposed outer space creature is a stationary pile of what looks like back-lit cellophane. A small piece of the alien goo must have attached itself to the X-117 satellite in space, and has festered after landing. Howard Dahlman’s body is still there, his motionless head and arm sticking up out of the cellophane. To get the chimp out Howard would have had to open the satellite, which is exactly what sets the extraterrestrial plague loose in Michael Crichton’s 1969 book The Andromeda Strain.

The tableau has little visual interest, forcing the actors to tell us that the growing force field threatens the world. The only evidence are the victims’ skeletons, that appear to be augmented with a light dusting of cobwebs — or it might be Saran Wrap. The cave is not much of payoff for the patient viewer. The very similar cavern terror in The Unknown Terror is a poorly-motivated monster made of soap suds, but its climax features some weird and imaginative visuals, in ‘Regalscope’ no less.

The Flame Barrier uses effects makeup to place some burns on a man’s chest. The credits list a ‘Richard Smith,’ and the IMDB includes this movie in the filmography of the legendary Dick Smith,  he of Little Big Man and The Exorcist. Makeup artist Craig Reardon was one of Dick Smith’s apprentices, and tells me that the IMDB is in serious error — he believes that Smith’s first feature credit was on the 1962 Requiem for a Heavyweight. Dick Smith was on staff at NBC in New York from 1946 until he went freelance in the beginning of the 1960s, so some of the TV credits are likely his. But there was a second, older Hollywood makeup man named ‘Dick Smith,’ an artist who also did prosthetic makeup work. Craig says this other Smith did the Fox movies in the ’40s credited to but a single Dick Smith on the IMDB. He later performed the early trial monkey makeups on Edward G. Robinson, Linda Harrison and James Brolin for Planet of the Apes. The Flame Barrier and The Alligator People should be credited to this other Dick Smith as well.

United Artists’ horror/sci fi double bill with The Flame Barrier supporting (the rather good) The Return of Dracula  reached theaters on April 2, 1958, at a time when a glut of low- to no- budget sci-fi programmers had saturated the market:  From Hell It Came,  The Brain from Planet Arous,  Teenage Monster,  Giant from the Unknown,  War of the Satellites,  The Astounding She-Monster,  Attack of the 50-Foot Woman. Of that group only Teenage Monster and The Astounding She-Monster have less to offer:  like some insubstantial PRC film The Flame Barrier never really gets into gear.

The bottom line for The Flame Barrier?  In almost any monster film of the time we diehard fans can point to three or four great shots, the ‘good stuff’ that makes sitting through the rest of the movie worthwhile. Not here.

 


 

I know of no legit disc release of The Flame Barrier; it doesn’t seem to be one of those movies that has slipped into a semblance of Public Domain, even informally. UA’s poster art isn’t fantastic, but they certainly did worse. I’m surprised that it hasn’t been licensed from MGM for a DVD sci-fi collection. It’s not even on Amazon Prime, as is most every other United Artists title from the 1950s. I’ve had readers ask about it from time to time, and this review happened only because I was able to see a collector’s copy. It’s certainly rare enough to merit the attention. I should do this more often — movies I cover because they’re unreleased on home video have a habit of getting released sooner than later.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Flame Barrier
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Poor but Difficult To See
Video, Sound & Supplements: might be good if this ever reaches video.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? Could You Repeat That?

Reviewed:
March 4, 2021
(6456flim)CINESAVANT

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.