The Angry Red Planet

Director: Ib Melchior  
Gerald Mohr, Nora Hayden, Les Tremayne

Though I consider myself young and filled to the brim with urine and vinegar (I may watch a lot of crude movies, but I consider my personal self too high class and well built to be filled with the four-lettered "p" word), that doesn't mean that I have not begun to prepare for my future decades. In fact, I have already begun a "bucket list", a list of things that I would like to do before I pass away from the world. Maybe the list isn't exactly physically written down, but it's tucked away in the back of my head, a constant reminder when I go about my various routines in life. Though it may be quite early in my life, there are already quite a number of things I've placed on my list. Some of these things I have mentioned already in other movie reviews. For example, being a fan of westerns, I would really like to visit the deserts of the American southwest, and the town of Tombstone in Arizona. Another dream I have is to go to Disneyland, though to be honest the constant reports of having to wait several hours in line to go on one lousy ride is pushing this dream to the bottom of my list. But the biggest dream that I have on my list is to travel into space. As of this date, space tourism is just getting started. True, right now you need to pay millions of dollars for the privilege, but if high-definition televisions came come down to a reasonable price over the years, so can space travel. Maybe I'll be a senior citizen when it happens, but once it does, you can bet that I'll be booking a flight on one of those planned special jet aircraft that will be able to zoom way above the atmosphere and get high enough so that passengers will be able, for a short time at least, to experience zero gravity and the beautiful sight of the big blue planet far below them.

There's no doubt about it - for at least once in my life, I would like to get a taste of what few people have managed to do, and that is to experience what an astronaut goes through. However, this dream of mine does not necessarily mean that I would choose any opportunity to live the life of an astronaut. For example, if someone were to ask me, "Would you like to take a trip to the planet Mars?" well, I would instantly (and loudly) reply with a big "NO!" Some of you might at first be a little confused by my refusal of this offer. After all, it's an opportunity to step foot on another planet, something to date we've only been able to do with probes. My refusal comes from the many problems that would come with traveling there, as well as problems that might happen on the planet itself. First of all, Mars is very far away from Earth. It would take months to travel there via the current space technology we have, and being cooped up in a small space for months would drive me bonkers. There's also the fact that there would be no privacy, meaning you'd have to relieve yourself in a baggie in front of everyone else on board several times a day. Also, it would be hard to exercise in the space capsule, meaning you'd get physically weaker every day that passed. Once you get to Mars, additional problems could pop up. Even with all the probes that have landed on the planet, there is still a great deal that's unknown about the planet. Possibly there is some form of life on the planet. What if you were to encounter it? And what if this life were hostile? Being stuck far away from help - even radioing a question back to Earth would take several hours to get an answer - you would really be on your own.

Even if nothing went wrong while being on the red planet itself, you would soon have to face another big problem - the long trip home. What if, on the trip to or from Mars, your appendix suddenly started to burst? As you can see, at least with the current space travel technology we have, a The Angry Red Planettrip to Mars would be a pain in the gluteus maximus (I consider my personal self too high class to...) So for now, when it comes to the issue of traveling to Mars, I will stick to movies on that subject. I get a lot of enjoyment from movies about missions to Mars (well, except for Mission To Mars, which was ssssoooo ssssllllooowww.) When I watch these movies, I imagine myself there on the planet with the astronauts, and I wonder what I would do in various situations of peril the astronauts inevitably find themselves in. The Angry Red Planet promised a lot of such situations, which is why I chose to give it a look. A release by American-International Pictures, the movie was a sizable drive-in hit at the time, but has largely been forgotten over the subsequent decades. Most of the movie is one big flashback, though before that happens the movie spends several minutes setting things up. Sometime in the future, we learn that Earth has sent into space the X1, the first manned rocket to Mars. However, contact with the rocket during the mission got cut off, and the rocket subsequently became lost for over two months. Then all of a sudden, the rocket reappears and lands on Earth. Though the rocket had launched with four astronauts, only two are now on board. The first is Colonel O'Bannion (played by Mohr), who is injured and has a strange alien growth on his body. The second survivor is Doctor Iris Ryan (played by Hayden), who initially has no memory of what happened on the mission. But the military brass attached to this space mission, lead by one General Treegar (played by Paul Hahn), feel it's very important for Ryan to remember what happened, since the alien growth on O'Bannion is growing and threatening to kill him. Giving Ryan some drugs that put her in a trance, the hypnotized Ryan soon starts to tell the tale of what happened to her and her three fellow astronauts on the Red Planet, a tale that soon makes clear that the naming of Mars after the Roman god of war was an apt decision...

As of this writing, The Angry Red Planet is more than fifty years old. And when you have a movie that old that is dealing with rocket science, it is perhaps inevitable that many aspects of the movie in question will seem laughable when looking at the movie with a modern day perspective. Perhaps in this case even more laughable, because from clues like black and white televisions, the movie does not seem to set this Mars expedition at a time in the future, but in the 1960s. There are plenty of scientific goofs that make parts of the movie unintentionally funny. For example, the hatch to the spaceship is only about six feet from the ground, making one wonder how they got such effective heat shielding from the fiery rockets blasting just a few feet away. Inside the spaceship, a panel on the wall has two lights indicating oxygen consumption, "normal" and "excessive". Uh, what happens if oxygen consumption goes below normal? Speaking of oxygen consumption, it would seem that oxygen would be very valuable on a mission to Mars, making one wonder why the professor on the space expedition (played by Les Tremayne of Starchaser: The Legend Of Orin) would be smoking a pipe. It is also a mystery as to why these astronauts happen to have gravity on their space vehicle, especially when during shots of the spacecraft floating through space show that it's not rotating or any other manouver that might create artificial gravity. It's probably not necessary to go into further detail about the many scientific goofs in this movie. However, I will give the movie credit where credit is due in one factor. In other space movies, when the space travelers use radios to contact people extremely far away, the back and forth chatter is instantaneous. Not so in this movie. When these astronauts engage in radio conversations, they have to wait for significantly long periods to get a reply, because they are so far away from Earth. This is a nice, as well as accurate, touch. Also, the movie spends a little time to show us that a trip to Mars would take not just a few hours or days, but months. Another accurate touch.

But it's not just the treatment of science in The Angry Red Planet that provokes a good amount of chuckles from the viewer, but also with various things that the characters do in the movie. Most of these particular laughs come after the astronauts land on Mars. Once they land on Mars, do they spend a long time analyzing the area, maybe even sending out a probe, before actually exiting their spacecraft with confidence? Not these astronauts - they almost immediately exit their spacecraft and start making a long trek into the Martian countryside. It doesn't take them long to encounter plant life, plant life that is much different from Earth plant life. Do they stop and study this plant life before going any further? Nope - they zap the first plant they encounter with a freeze gun to see if their weapon works, then subsequently start a long trek with them ignoring many different kinds of new plants along the way. It's only when one big plant wraps its tentacles around one of the astronauts in an attempt to eat the unlucky intended victim that gets all four astronauts to cut things short and actually head back to the ship. (Actually, the victim has to wrap the tentacle around herself like Bela Lugosi had to do in Bride Of The Monster.) With all four astronauts not conducting their business in a very logical way, it should come as no surprise that in the end all of them come across little better than stereotypes you have seen in other space exploration movies. There's the token female, the professor, the female's love interest, and then there is the expendable muscle (played by Jack Kruschen of Mountain Man). Whenever these characters get to talk, nothing about them makes them particularly interesting or stands out in any manner. The movie's attitude towards them seems to be that since you have seen these basic characters before, use what you've seen in those other movies to fill in the many blank spaces found in these particular characters.

Clearly, the movie could have done with some extra work when it came to writing the screenplay. Co-writer/producer Sidney Pink (Reptilicus) could have made this movie smarter and therefore more memorable. But I have to admit that I was still charmed by the movie. The scattered unintended laughs are pleasing, but the movie also has some genuine merit that you may not be expecting. The biggest and most pleasant surprise about The Angry Red Planet is that despite being burdened with a low budget, the movie manages to make Mars into a real alien and un-Earth like world, a world with surprises at every turn. The special effects department accomplishes this in several ways. First, there is the movie's ballyhooed "Cinemagic" process during the outdoor Martian sequences. The photography in these scenes shows only red and white colors, a kind of solorisation effect. Not only does this give everything an alien-like look, it also helps to improve some of the other special effects like matte paintings, as well as puppet effects representing various Martian monsters, all of which would have looked cheap and tacky with normal photography. The monsters are surprisingly convincing, and the landscape is creepy and mysterious. With all these various special effects combined, we have a real alien world here. As a result, I was really interested in this world, a world that seemed to have a new and unique surprise at every turn in the path. To add to the mysterious and creepy feeling generated by the special effects, there is an effective musical score by Paul Dunlap. It's an electronic score, but one that plays much softer and subtler than expected, and adds to the feeling of eeriness other parts of the movie generates. It's kind of surprising that a movie with plenty of silly (but entertaining) moments also manages many times to be moody, atmospheric, and effective. But then again, I have a feeling that fifty years from now, future audiences will be laughing at many moments in the Mars movies being made right now. So I'll cut this movie some slack, and give it a recommendation.

(Posted April 10, 2015)

UPDATE: Mike Mueller sent this in:

"Howdydo, and thanks for giving The Angry Red Planet a fair shake.  More Flash Gordon than Gravity, but they still got some things right.  First-time scripter Sid Pink knocked out the initial draft in 5 days with no pre-formed idea of how it would conclude. Naura Hayden, under contract to Pink, suggested that adding scientific elements might make it more credible. Sci-Fi guy Ib Melchior, who recently passed @ age 97, offered a free rewrite if allowed to direct.    

"Pink admitted that the 'Cinemagic' gimmick  didn't work out as expected.  Developed by comics artist Norman Maurer, who also designed the Martian aliens and landscapes, the process intended to make actors appear as a live-action comic.  (Freeze any Mars scene, and it DOES kinda look like a comic.)  Test stills convinced them that it would work.  Regrettably, when filmed it looked like what it was:  B-movie types going thru the motions while trying not to embarass themselves.

"Cinematographer Stanley Cortez (Night of the Hunter), unhappy with being shut out of indie productions due to his rep of being slow and tempermental, offered to work for union scale.  (The entire crew, as well as fading Bogart clone Gerald Mohr, also worked @ union scale.)"

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See also: Evil Aliens, Lifeform, Species - The Awakening