First Man Into Space (1959)
by Steve Habrat
On October 4th, 1957, the Soviet Union officially ignited the Space Race with the launch of the shiny satellite Sputnik 1. With Sputnik 1 orbiting the Earth and sending otherworldly transmissions, the United States and Russia began frantically trying to send the first human being up into the stars. While it would be just under four years before Yuri Gagarin would orbit Earth, that didn’t stop the science-fiction motion pictures from taking advantage of the headline-grabbing topic. One such sci-fi horror film that dealt directly with humans in space was director Robert Day’s 1959 film First Man Into Space, a small but chilling and bloody warning about mankind’s eagerness to fire themselves into the heavens. Made for a small sum, First Man Into Space doesn’t try to reach beyond its budget and it keeps its action fairly simple. It is essentially a moody monster movie, one that generates moderate suspense when its space vampire is kept largely in the dark. Comprised of strong performances, well-used stock footage, an eerie small town vibe, a gee-whiz cosmic opening, and underlying paranoia about what lies beyond the clouds, First Man Into Space is a first-rate B-movie that deserves the attention of genre fans everywhere. It’s just a shame that the last ten minutes commit the ultimate sin of showing the monster up close and personal.
First Man Into Space begins with hotshot Lieutenant Dan Prescott (played by Bill Edwards) piloting a Y-12 rocket into space while his uptight brother, Commander Charles “Chuck” Prescott (played by Marshall Thompson), monitors from a small space station in New Mexico. Dan’s determination to be the first man into space gets the best of him as he speeds towards the stars and it causes him to ignore orders from Chuck. After a close call and a wrecked rocket, Dan heads off to see his girlfriend, Tia Francesca (played by Marla Landi), without returning to base to report to his superiors. The exasperated Chuck tracks Dan down and threatens to prevent him from flying anymore missions if he doesn’t start following orders, but Dan simply laughs off Chuck’s threats. Some time later, Dan is back behind the controls of a Y-13 and speeding towards the unknown. Just as Dan is supposed to level off and begin his descent, he hits his emergency boosters and rockets into space. Dan quickly looses control of his rocket and he is sent into a cloud of meteorite dust. Dan manages to eject at the last second, but all contact with the ship is lost. Several days later, Chuck, who assumes that his brother is dead, is called out to a farm where a piece of the rocket has been found. Authorities gather up the wreckage and take it back to base where they discover a strange encrustation on the ship. Meanwhile, a horrifically deformed and wheezing creature has been prowling the countryside attacking people and sucking the blood from their veins.
The opening sequence of First Man Into Space is really something to behold. While the effects never get very extravagant and stock footage masks budget restraint, the scenes in which Dan flies into space will give you butterflies. Day keeps his camera trained on Dan’s face so we can see the excitement creeping through his eyes and his forming smile. There are a few moments where Day ventures outside the speeding rocket for a pulpy image but he keeps this adventure about as intimate as you can get. When Dan looses control of his ship the first time, the suspense is felt with Dan inside the cockpit as the Y-12 tumbles end over end, the Earth crashing into view for brief seconds only to be followed by a blur of stars. The second trip is just as breathtaking as Dan’s excitement and accomplishment completely overpowers him, but this excitement is short lived when the meteorite dust swallows up Dan’s rocket. You feel as though all the air has been sucked out of you. From here on out, First Man Into Space slowly simmers the terror as wreckage encrusted with a strange rock-like substance is found near cattle sucked dry of their blood. The suspense grows with scenes that find a silhouetted monster that looks like a zombified astronaut bursting from thick foliage, the shadow of a beastly creature inching down a blood bank hallway, and then a sudden broad daylight encounter between some terrified police officers and a sublime creature that rips and tears at its victims throats.
With its wonder and suspense firmly in place, Day can then focus on the handful of mature performances from his terrific cast. Science-fiction veteran Marshall Thompson (Fiend Without a Face, It! The Terror from Beyond Space) is First Man Into Space’s authoritative figure and it’s Sherlock Holmes as Chuck, the typical all-American hero hot on the trail of a bloodsucking monster. Thompson is controlled, obedient, and brave as he attempts to put the pieces of this intergalactic puzzle together before more bodies stack up. The rigidness of Thompson’s character is matched with the uncontrolled arrogance of Bill Edwards, who is fantastic as the ambitious hotshot pilot doomed to a terrible fate. Early on, while his bad boy persona may be slightly off-putting, his determination to become the first man in space is infectious and more than a little admirable. Near the end of the film, Edwards manages to mold his misshapen monster into a tragic casualty of disobedience. Marla Landi adds some Italian eye candy as Dan’s girlfriend, Tia, who becomes a pivotal player in the quest to find the humanity buried deep within the mangled Dan. Carl Jaffe becomes another key player as Dr. Paul von Essen, a friend to both Dan and Chuck who helps wrangle the rampaging Dan.
There may be some viewers who can’t warm to the slower pace of First Man Into Space, but if you’re someone who enjoys the slow build horror set in small town America, then this is just the ticket. Where First Man Into Space really hits a wall is in the last ten minutes, when Day basically sits down for a confessional with his monster. The make-up on the monster looks great in the night shots and it is especially unsettling in the darkened chase sequence the leads to the up-close encounter, but when shown in plain view, it just doesn’t have the effect that Day seems to think it does. Edwards and his ability to earn the viewer’s empathy saves the sequence, but you’ll still find yourself wishing that Day would have played with the sequence’s lightning scheme or something, anything to take the emphasis off the fact that Edwards is CLEARLY wearing a droopy Halloween mask that looks like it was stuck in a microwave for five minutes. Overall, First Man Into Space isn’t the fanciest science-fiction film out there, but it very well could be one of the creepiest and bloodiest that the Atomic Age has to offer. It is alive with the perseverance of an era that flew on the wings of scientific progression and it is closes in with a sense of paranoia, suggesting that these advancements may come with a sinister price.
First Man Into Space is available on DVD. It can be found in the Criterion Collection’s Monsters and Madmen box set.
Fiend Without a Face (1958)
by Steve Habrat
As we look back on science fiction of the 1950s, most of the films that comprise the genre were filled with aliens attempting to make emotionless clones of human beings, extraterrestrials warning the United States to stop fiddling with the nuclear bomb, or giant mutated bugs attacking miniature cities and gobbling up terrified civilians. One thing you didn’t see much of was slithering and slimy invisible vampiric brains that suck out the brains and spinal cords of their victims. We can thank Britain for giving us the 1958 gem Fiend Without a Face, a moody, confining, eerie, and shockingly gory B-movie that certainly doesn’t shy away from reflecting the Cold War unease that was looming like storm clouds over much of the world. There is no doubt that Fiend Without a Face could have fallen back on its catchy title and awesomely creepy siege at the end, but the true terror lurks throughout the first half of the film, as a distrust of the U.S. government grips a small Canadian town. It is all nervous eyes and uneasy glances as satellites spin silently out in the woods and government planes roar suspiciously over the heads of simple small town folk looking to just be left alone. These images are far more chilling than invisible brains lurching through the foliage and curling around the necks of surprised victims. Well, those may be pretty creepy too.
Fiend Without a Face is set at an American airbase that has been recently set up in small town Manitoba, Canada. The airbase is far from popular with the local townsfolk, but fear really takes hold when one soldier is mysteriously attacked and killed by an unseen force in the woods that surround the base. An investigation is launched by Commander Major Jeff Cummings (played by Marshall Thompson) and base security officer Al Chester (played by Terry Kilburn), but neither man can find anything particularly suspicious about the soldier that was killed. Just as they are about to let local authorities handle the matter, the dead soldier’s sister, Barbara (played by Kim Parker), shows up and demands answers from Cummings and the local Mayor, Hawkins (played by James Dyrenforth). An autopsy is finally performed on the body and to the horror of the investigators; they discover that the man’s brains and spinal chord have been sucked clean out through two small holes on the back of his neck. As more and more townsfolk are attacked and turn up dead, the investigation leads to Professor Walgate (played by Kynaston Reeves), who is known for his interest in the paranormal. Cummings begins forcing answers out of Walgate, but much to the horror of the townsfolk, the unseen menace seems to be growing stronger and multiplying by the minute.
The highlight moment of Fiend Without a Face comes in the final fifteen minutes of the film, with a chilling siege that finds our group of desperate survivors boarding up the windows and doors of a secluded home. Outside, armies of gurgling brains are dangling from trees and leaping at the boards in attempts to rip the barriers away. It’s a special effects feast that is both tongue-in-cheek by today’s standards, oddly creepy, endearing, and abnormally brutal for a film released in 1958. The characters discover that a simple gunshot will stop the fiends dead in their path but once these creatures are struck, they ooze and spray a jelly-like blood that is pretty nasty. Yet director Arthur Crabtree doesn’t save all the good stuff until the very end. The first half of the film does a marvelous job at generating some seriously nerve-racking suspense. You’ll be at the edge of your seat while U.S. planes rip through the sky as suspicious citizens look up in unease and you can’t help but get a bit nervous as the soldiers experiment with a radar that is powered with atomic energy. The general aura of distrust that hums through the shadowy build-up is what really sticks with the viewer. This is all complimented with the hovering question of what is causing all the senseless murders.
Fiend Without a Face is also lucky enough to join the ranks of Cold War science fiction films that have some really awesome performances driving them. Thompson is levelheaded and likeable as the brave Major Cummings. You simultaneously root for him to get the girl and squash every withering brain that dares slither towards him. Parker is a strong and sharp heroine who, yes, needs to be saved quite often and shrieks in terror every time she sees one of the fiends, but her tie to the events taking place give her character some depth. Reeves is crack pot fun as the wild-haired scientist who may or may not be responsible for the carnage turning Manitoba upside down. Dyrenforth puts a bad taste in your mouth as the peeved Mayor Hawkins, who is quick to blame the air base for every single thing that goes wrong in and around the town. Robert MacKenzie also gets a chance to really freak audiences out as a local police officer, Howard Gibbons, who mysteriously disappears and then reappears in a very nightmarish way. He delivers a really great jump scene that will have you flicking on a nightlight or three.
As if the shadowy anxiety and gore-drenched action weren’t enough to catapult Fiend Without a Face near the top of the list of best Atomic Age science fiction films, wait until your ears are treated to the ungodly disgusting sound effects that will surely have you fidgeting. The victim’s screams could cut right through glass and the repulsive sucking sounds that the fiends make will have you battling to keep down your lunch. If you have a great home theater system, you are really in for a skin crawling treat when you hear some of the sound effects this film has to offer. Just make sure they are turned up loud for maxim effect. If there is anything to criticize within Fiend Without a Face, it would most certainly have to be the soundtrack, which sounds like stock music that was just stuck in to spice things up. Near the end, the music seems just a bit too cheery and upbeat for something that is supposed to have us leaking dread. Overall, it may not be as well-known as genre gems like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Tarantula, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Forbidden Planet, or Them!, but Fiend Without a Face is a B-movie that is more than deserving to sit proudly next to those films. It’s a creepy crawly treat with spirited special effects, above average performances, and an ending that could very well have been an inspiration for George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Watch with the volume turned all the way up.
Fiend Without a Face is available on DVD.