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.