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"Cinemagic And You Take a Trip To The Angry Red Planet!"
"The hell with radiation... Let's go!"
Made at the tail end of the 50's sci-fi boom and released by A.I.P., THE ANGRY RED PLANET was shot in 10 days on a budget of about $200,000. Although released in 1959 it has the look and feel of something from earlier in the decade and it is mind-bogglingly to think that MGM (who currently own the rights to it) would release 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in a scant 9 years. It was directed by Irb Melichor (THE TIME TRAVELERS 1964) who also co-wrote it with the film's producer Sidney Pink and that same duo would co-produce/direct the Danish monster-on-the rampage REPTILICUS in 1961.
The film is most known today among genre fans for the use of a process that was heralded as "CineMagic" whereupon solarization was applied to a B&W film negative (which reverses the negative making it a positive) and then slathering the image in a heavy red filter. The process allowed a part of the film to be shot on less expensive B&W film stock while also (hopefully) helping mask the film's budget-constrained special effects. Pink and Melchor also went with hand-drawn matt paintings for the sequences on Mars that were just drawn as outlines of the vegetation and landscape (worked on by comic artist Alex Toth) which was hoped would be covered up by the solarization & heavy filtering but instead appear exactly as they are - simple line drawings.
THE ANGRY RED PLANET has often been criticized for having some interesting ideas and concepts that because of the budget and script never come close to being explored (although you wonder what they could explore in an 83-min. low budget film shot in a week and a half). In addition, most space exploration films of this period do not have much in science plausibility (and to be fair even at the time of their release we were and still are today watching them for entertainment) but ANGRY RED PLANET appears to have been made by folks who did not have the slightest grasp in what was known about Mars at the time or science in general. However, it is wonderfully entertaining, and one cannot but help to revel in its unintentional humor (and dialogue) and the creatures for all their WTF craziness have a wonderful whacky charm to them and are not soon forgotten. Despite everything working against it, it succeeds on its own often-time silly merits. Along with MISSLE TO THE MOON from 1958, you could probably look at this as one of the main inspirations for the 50's sci-fi parody segment in AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON.
Opening with a montage of frantic meetings between military and scientist-types along with screaming newspaper headlines (and a great deal of stock footage), it is learned that the long-missing Mars MR1 rocket has been found in space just outside of the earth's atmosphere. In a classic space mystery (and reminiscent of Hammer's THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT from 1955) it is discovered that only two of the four crew members are left alive and that the rocket can be brought back and landed by "robot control". In a short flashback via newsreel footage, the crew members are introduced which are the pilot (and space lounge lizard) Col. Tom O'Bannon (Gerald Mohr THE SNIPER 1952), "electronics expert", and comic-relief Sam Jacobs (Jack Kruschen SATAN'S CHEERLEADERS 1977 and Academy Award nominee for THE APARTMENT 1960), scientist Dr. Iris "Irish" Ryan (Nora Hayden PLUNDER ROAD 1957) and rocket designer Prof. Theodore Gettell (Les Tremayne THE WAR OF THE WORLDS 1953).
Upon landing its discovered that the remaining crew members are Dr. Ryan and an initially kept secretive second member who is unconscious and has a strange green growth on their arm. Unable to recall anything Dr. Ryan is given sodium panthenol and recalls the events of the expedition in flashback which unfolds as the main plot of the film.
The voyage to Mars is shown in one of those magnificently huge 1950's rocket interiors where folks stroll about, smoke cigarettes, and the canned rations ("Mars Ration No. 1") are kept on a shelf in a small kitchen-type wood cabinet. There is no mention of the gravity issue and we are quickly brought up to speed with the four main characters and their stock character hierarchy. Gerald Mohr with his unbuttoned jumpsuit exposing his hairy chest spends almost his entire time making passes at Irish ("When I call you by your name... you'll know it"). You keep expecting him to walk out in a velour bathrobe & slippers with a pipe and demanding a drink. Kruschen's Jacobs in the tradition of cinema love-lorn second bananas develops an unhealthy relationship to a piece of equipment. Here it is a futuristic-looking gun that for some strange reason crystalizes everything and which he lovingly names "Cleopatra" (or "Cleo" for short) and spends his time polishing it.
To remind us he is a professor Tremayne smokes a pipe constantly and gestures with it while offering "scientific" observations on whatever is happening at the time. In a nice bit of enlightenment for the time women were often given roles of a scientist in 50's Sci-Fi (although they are often given male nicknames such as Mara Corday's "Steve" in TARANTULA 1955) and it is commendable that the writers here make Nora Hayden's character a biology scientist she is shown to be making the meals and screaming every 10 minutes. However, she is the one whose knowledge of science saves the day in the end.
Upon landing on Mars (accompanied by what sounds like a whirring tape deck and everybody barking out landing instructions) they find the planet eerily quiet and unmoving with the Professor immediately jumping to the conclusion that everything is controlled by an unseen presence. While looking out on the landscape Iris sees a three-eyed bug-like creature gazing at her from the outside through a window. The group begins wandering aimlessly about in simple coveralls in a landscape that seems to change from jungle to desert to sea in a matter of steps with all the landscape rendered in the "CineMagic" process.
The creatures they encounter are the highlights of the film and include a huge man-eating plant and best of all a towering thing described as a "rat bat spider" that seems to defy all laws of zoology & evolution (how and what does it eat??). Encountering a large sea, the group begins paddling across it in a rubber boat they conveniently have brought with them and spy a towering futuristic city on the horizon (described as "hundreds of feet high" and oddly invisible to telescopes on earth it seems) and encounter a huge amoeba-like sea monster (with a spinning eyeball on top!).
For all its mystery concerning the identity of the green-growth afflicted crew member, it is painfully obvious who it is and equally obvious which two crew members will be the equivalent of a red-shirted crew member on a STAR TREK landing party. For all its faults and unintentional humor, THE ANGRY RED PLANET is a lot of fun and as mentioned will definitely stick in your mind. Paul Dunlap (who is still working in the Hollywood music industry to this day) contributes a score that veers from finger-popping jazz-like interludes to more ominous queues. The martian glimpsed in the film was originally to be shown as gigantic and can be seen towering above the rocket in some promo material.
Gerald Mohr had one of those "radio voices" and made a decent transition to movies with roles in the bizarre INVASION U.S.A. (from 1952, not the Chuck Norris one) and appeared in some great film noirs including THE SNIPER 1952 and GILDA 1946 along with bunches of westerns and tons of TV work. A busy character actor Jack Kruschen seemed poised for bigger things after his nomination for THE APARTMENT but continued with small roles in major pictures (often playing ethnic types) along with more prominent work in lower-budget movies. I will always remember him from George Pal's THE WAR OF THE WORLDS 1953 where he played one of the unfortunate trio who first encounter the invaders and in the John Wayne comedy western MCCLINTOCK! 1963.
Nora Hayden was a model and appeared in the excellent PLUNDER ROAD 1957 and did extensive TV work in the '60s and '70s. Les Tremayne was another radio guy with an impressive 132 acting credits and was a familiar face (and voice) in 50's Sci-Fi usually playing gruff no-nonsense military and authority business types such as in the above mentioned THE WAR OF THE WORLDS 1953 and THE MONOLITH MONSTERS 1957.
THE ANGRY RED PLANET is available on Blu-ray from Shout Factory and had a couple previous DVD releases from Shout including a 4 pack with THE MAN FROM PLANET X, THE TIME TRAVELERS, and BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER.
Cool to see when planning a trip to Mars they use the same map we had in my grade school classroom