Pity director Billy Wilder’s (born Samuel 1906-2002 pneumonia) older brother, whose name was William but was known as W. Lee Wilder (1904-82). Long estranged from each another, while Billy was receiving Oscar nominations and scoring wins, his brother, who Billy jokingly called “a dull son of a bitch”, was making some of the worst low budget science fiction films imaginable. According to the critics anyway…
Three of which, produced by W. Lee Wilder’s Planet Filmplays, we shall discuss. They are Phantom from Space (1953), Killers from Space (1954) and The Snow Creature (1954). I’ll also mention the, by far, most interesting The Man Without a Body (1957).
Lee, as we’ll call him, used to be a purse and handbag maker, before heading to Hollywood in the mid-40s. There he produced and directed a couple of movies and a number of musical shorts. He set up Planet Filmplays in the early 1950s to create quickie science fiction films to be distributed by United Artists and R.K.O. Planet produced six films but it is the first three that are the most interesting. All three were based on stories and screenplays written by his son Myles Wilder (1933-2010 no info). Myles would write stories for his father’s movies until 1960 when he changed career direction and became a creative consultant on Hanna-Barbera kid’s cartoons and shows. He worked on such productions as the cartoon Hong Kong Phooey (1974) and the live action caveman series Korg: 70,000 B.C. (1974).
Myles ended his career as a senior producer and executive story consultant on the highly successful The Dukes of Hazzard television series (1979-85). Joining him on this career change was the man who helped Myles write the original screenplays for his father William Raynor (1920-94). He ended up on the Dukes of Hazzard as well and I can only guess that the pair of them retired wealthy men as that is the last of their filmography.
With budgets so miniscule, they can only be guessed at, as they are only footnotes in the history of the major studios, Lee’s independently produced movies are interesting for their early use of on-location work as well as being among the first batch of movies to utilise UFO mythology. The UFO culture had become familiar news fodder with flying saucers apparently being spotted in the skies over the United States. Roswell has also happened with reports of bug-eyed aliens. Lee’s trilogy are also interesting for being one of the first movies to have their credits at the end of the feature, probably because there was no major stars to sell after the title card had been flashed onscreen at the beginning of the movie. The final three Planet Filmplays had bigger stars so Lee put the credits back at the beginning. These films are not sci-fi and include the melodrama The Big Bluff (1955) featuring a prematurely aged Martha Vickers (1925-71 esophageal cancer), the uninspired Edgar Allan Poe based Manfish (1956) with Lon Chaney Jr and the flat Fright (1956) whose reincarnation and murder theme had potential.
Phantom from Space has a cast of actors who went on to do quite a bit of television but they are hardly household names. Ted Cooper (1917-94) gets top billing and this boring and uncharismatic actor is often confused with the game show art director with the same name (1920-99). Cooper’s one of the policemen/G-men investigating the crash or landing of a UFO around Santa Monica Beach one evening. This is the basis of the story – it all takes place in one night – where an alien appears to have survived and is terrorising Los Angeles – although he may not be spreading terror purposefully. Far more interesting cast members are James Seay (1914-92 no info) as Major Andrews. Seay would play another army official in the follow-up Killers from Space as well as similar types in the low-budget howlers The Beginning of the End and The Amazing Colossal Man (both 1957).
Another interesting cast member, which links the police, the army and scientists together in their quest to capture or kill the Phantom from Space is Rudolph Anders (1895-1987 no info). Anders was a German actor who changed his name to Robert O. Davis during World War II to avoid blacklisting although it didn’t stop him from playing a variety of Nazis including in the trashy fun of She Demons (1958). He is Dr Wyatt in Phantom and he would play another scientist in the third Lee film The Snow Creature. Indeed director Lee reportedly used much of the same crew for the production of the films as well as some of the same cast members.
Anyway the Phantom arrives over the skies of Los Angeles travelling at the rate of 5,000 miles per hour, which the army instantly dismisses as not being a jet. Let alone a weather balloon! That evening there are reports of an attack upon late night picnickers at Santa Monica Beach by someone wearing a diving helmet and gear.
“I don’t know… he was wearing a suit like a diver,” says Betty, one of the picnickers to the police, whose husband has been attacked.
Not only does he attack people, he seems to be causing radio disturbances on the frequencies of a special communications unit van that is also in the area.
Now he is described as a guy in “a crazy helmet with pipes sticking out of it”. While the police ponder if the picnic murders were just a lover’s tiff, there is another murder, this time by someone described as wearing “a diver’s outfit with horns”.
In fact, the Phantom is also described as – “a guy in a flying suit” by the press, “the guy without the head” by a photographer and “a guy in a monkey suit” by the police. Not to mention “the so-called X-man” by the military. By this time there are reports that someone who looked straight at the Phantom saw there was nobody inside the helmet and that he appeared invisible.
Anyway he is heading north east, setting fire to a tank at the Huntington Beach Oil Fields, which doesn’t faze the authorities too much despite the possibility of epic disaster. The special effects of this scene show a tiny fire not much bigger than a candle in the distance.
He is also suspected of being a Russian spy but finally they settle on calling him the Phantom and link him to the UFO. Enter Barbara Randall played by Noreen Nash (1925-). She is a kind of scientist and the token woman in the cast although her character, despite hysterical screams at times, is certainly progressive for 1953. She is certainly more than just a housewife.
Before “mass hysteria” grips the city with headlines about spacemen and phantoms, the police say: “That’s why we’ve got to move fast!” Good thinking 99!!
The cleverest aspect of the film is the fact the Phantom can be tracked by mobile radio vehicles, something, along with the stock radar footage at the beginning of the movie, which must have been cutting edge at the time. It’s all Bakelite and long outmoded now.
When they do finally corner the Phantom, he has to strip naked and take off his helmet to escape. Despite being totally naked as a result and also in danger of death from being unable to breathe the Earth’s atmosphere for long periods of time, the Phantom follows his suit, which has been captured by the authorities. Cue a number of invisible man effects as he opens a van door and hides inside with the suit. The van goes to the Griffith Institute as it is called in the movie, or the Griffith Observatory where the scientists and military brass gather with the police. We are introduced to Dr Wyatt’s dog Venus who barks at something which is the invisible Phantom sneaking into the observatory. This is where the remainder of the film is set, using much of its indoors as locations.
Despite only using rubber gloves to handle the highly radioactive suit, the scientists find it seems indestructible: “It’s tougher than nylon!”
The rest of the film consists of the cast lounging about and occasionally running around the inside of the observatory like the gang in Scooby Doo. So it is not surprising these juvenile antics sprouted from the pen of Myles who went on to do so many children’s shows for Hanna-Barbera.
Barbara is confronted by the Phantom who has grabbed his helmet to breathe. Little does she know he is not wearing any pants. With his invisible hands he picks up some scissors to tap out unintelligible code in the hope of communicating.
That’s another minor interesting aspect of the movie. The Phantom may not be a bad guy as he was always the first to be attacked. Maybe he just wants to go home. Anyway Barbara shines an ultra violet light on him revealing the naked phantom’s arm. She screams in horror despite having already “seen” the invisible Phantom in his helmet.
Dr Wyatt says Barbara saw “a masculine hand” with “four fingers and a thumb” which hints he’s “super-human” with an “intelligence far superior to our own”.
Except he strips naked and leaves his only chance of survival behind which is further complicated by the annoying dog Venus who won’t stop barking… someone put that dog down! The Phantom, who they think may be made of glass and is thus see-though, is startled by something and drops and shatters his helmet! His last chance at survival!!
So, the Phantom dies, and “in death he has become visible as a normal body” according to Dr Wyatt. No s*#t Sherlock! Whoever played the Phantom had a good figure and they show more than the usual of a naked person back then.
Then the Phantom evaporates, just like his suit did earlier, and so there is no real proof he really existed. It’s not one of those cases of: “How are we going to explain this to the police?” type endings as it’s the authorities that’ll have to make out the report. Maybe they just don’t bother in these situations. It’s definitely one for the X-Files!
I heard this film scared really small children upon its release. I don’t mind it and it certainly improves with repeated viewings. Just like the second movie…
Let’s take a break and find much more fun than this in Lee’s other movies, especially the one about Nostradamus in PART TWO.