Phantom from Space (1953)

Directed by W. Lee Wilder

Written by William Raynor, Myles Wilder

In a nutshell: A radioactive alien menaces Santa Monica…but oh, it’s invisible, so don’t get too excited.

Run Time: 73 minutes

Tagline: “His secret power menaced the world!”

Classic Quote:

Dr. Wyatt : My theory is that this space ship, or whatever it was that he came in, operated on the principal of magnetic, rather than atomic, propulsion and that somewhere in the Outer Limits met with a condition where the Earth’s gravity pulled it down and it fell into the ocean and that he managed to save his life and reach shore.

Bowers : What you’ve told us is very interesting, Doctor…

 

It’s always a challenge to review a movie in which nothing much happens, and a lot of these cheapo 50’s sci-fi flicks fall under that category, i.e., they’re barely goofy enough to make it worth my while to sit through them for a funny screen shot or plot twist, but on the whole most of them have crossed the border into "not worth it"…and this movie is about as darn close to "not worth it" as it comes. Phantom from Space is a long colorless trudge through stock footage, endless narration, and pointless discussions with characters sitting around and explaining what is happening instead of actually showing it. Then, when we finally get to the money-shot and the monster reveals itself to be…invisible. Ugh. Alas, I’ve already made up my mind to sit this one through, I have the disk in the computer and a beer in my hand, so let’s get started.

Harry Landers Lt. Bowers (Harry Landers)

Chain-smokin’, lady lovin’, and murder NOT-solvin’, police Lt. Bowers is shows more interested in smoking and sitting on his rear end than police work. Then again, the script doesn’t really give him anything else to do, so he just follows the scientists around waiting for the inevitable conclusion.

Tom Daly Charlie (Tom Daly)

Like everybody else in this movie, Charlie, an agent for the all-powerful Communications Commission, stumbles from scene-to-scene while the scientists figure things out. But boy, does he have a cool radar-car! Just don’t turn too hard or the antenna might fall off.

Noreen Nash Barbara Randall (Noreen Nash)

Barbara, the cute married female scientist…get it, she’s a girl scientist, har dee har.

James Seay Maj. Andrews (James Seay)

Take one part bored actor and two parts bad script, mix them up and pour it into a military uniform: voila!

Rudolph Anders Dr. Wyatt (Rudolph Anders)

Dr. Wyatt is a scientist…and he’s smarter than you! And boy is he going to make sure you know it! Dr. Wyatt, an expert in pretty much everything, excels at sitting around waiting for things to happen and then coming up with a lame-brain reason for it; but at least he tries.

Just as I feared, the film opens with generic studio music that we’ve heard a million times before, you know…"bum Bum BUM!", then insert a shot of lightning crackling in the sky before the credits…why? Because lightning is cool and "sciency".

But wait, what am I hearing? Oh no!…it’s narration! In fact, as I soon find out, it’s going to be 5 freakin’ minutes of narration! Ayeeeeee!

"This is Washington D.C., and in the files of the Central Bureau, there is a story so strange in its implications that it defies all ordinary classification."

Uh huh. Sure.

"It is the story of a handful of people who in the course of one desperate night, held back a wave of panic and pandemonium," the voice continues as we see jets flying instead of the aforementioned ‘people’,

"It began after sundown," the narrator informs us while we watch more airplanes flying in the bright afternoon sky. (I’m getting the feeling that the narrator and the stock footage guys were not coordinating so well with syncing up the scenes with what’s actually being described.)

"Time: seven fifteen, as Flight A Coast Patrol from Travis field was returning to base. When the nightly air force transport pointed North towards Japan [again, an entirely different plane than before] via the Great Circle route, while at sea the navy and coast guard maintained their usual around-the-clock vigil."

Why, thank you Mr. Narrator for telling me exactly what I’m seeing!

"Time: seven nineteen, an unidentified object was picked up two hundred miles South West of Point Barrow, Alaska," the voice continues while we watch a guy peering through binoculars…towards Alaska? 200 miles away?! Furthermore, what’s with all the "time stamps"? (Boy, does this all remind me of The Giant Claw and its classic "oh-eight-sixteen hours” line…) Supposedly somebody thought that time stamps made things sound official, but when every scene is prefaced with a time of day, it really loses its impact.

Wow! Wouldja look at that!

"Seven twenty seven: unidentified object confirmed at Fairbanks, Alaska…heading South South-East"

Man, I really hope he’s not going to narrate this thing’s flight all the way to freakin’ Santa Monica!

More people looking through binoculars at…stuff…I dunno, because the movie makers won’t show me!

"Seven thirty nine: unidentified object two hundred miles West of Vancouver, British Columbia"

At 60,000 feet…wow, that looks a lot different

"Yellow warning! Seven fifty four," the voice-over continues as the electronic warning warble dubbed over the soundtrack nearly drowns out his voice completely.

Wait for it…wait for it! Yes! Repeated stock-footage airplane footage! Huzzah!

"Seven fifty-five: unidentified object past point of interception!" (Past the point of interception…wah huh?!)

"Red warning! Eight eleven: Moro Bay, California, height: fifty-thousand feet!"

"Eight fifteen: Santa Monica, California!"

10,0000 feet! My goodness is this exciting.

"Eight eighteen…"

Ok, you get the point. I can’t do it anymore.

After over 5 minutes of stock footage and monotonic narration we finally cut to a room with, wow! Actual actors! Ahh…no. No, no, I was a bit over optimistic…it’s stock footage of scientists. Grrr.

Hot monitoring action!

So, as the endless spinning radar dish stock footage continues unabated and interspersed with (MORE!) confusing narration, we finally, and sorry to shout but it feels so good, FINALLY, cut to the movie proper…where a Communications Commission sedan, equipped with a wobbly, ludicrous antenna half-assed mounted to the roof, drives around trying to triangulate the object’s location based on radio interference. Or something. But boy, I it sure sounds high-tech!

The Communications Commission spares no expense!

As <cough> "Mobile 1" drives around with utmost care so the cheap prop antenna doesn’t fall off the roof, a distraught woman, Betty, runs out of the trees and waves them down. Agent Charlie something-or-other calms the woman and tries to radio for help, but their equipment is jammed by….mwu-ha-ha!

Betty breathlessly informs Charlie that a man wearing "a suit like a diver" attacked her husband and their friend and…well, they dash off to the beach and find a couple of wounded men laying on the ground. Who could have done such a dastardly deed? "The man in the diving helmet…he had no head!" Betty continues. After a quick look around, Charlie suggests that Betty and her friend, Pete, head to the police station. (Betty’s dead husband is left behind.)

Back at the police station, we meet hero #2, Lt. Bowers. [Note From the Future: Bowers is useless!] Lt. Bowers listens in jaded disbelief as Betty and Pete recall that they couldn’t see the attacker’s head in the odd helmet. (It was around this point in the story that I starting getting a sinking feeling in my stomach as I realized that the monster was going to be invisible…hoo boy, is this going to be a fun ride.) This point is made several times throughout the interview, and sure, it’s strange, but what about your dead husband?

Ring! Ring! Bower gets a call reporting another murder, this time at a convenience store not far from where Betty’s husband was killed. Hmm…could they be related? Super Detective Bowers is unsure. Upon arriving at the crime scene (with Charlie tagging along because the plot requires it), some old dude shows up, I think he’s a night watchman, sorry, I was out getting a beer (and you would too!). The guy reveals that nothing was actually stolen from the store, but boy, is his TV set sure acting up. This recent spate of poor TV reception pricks Charlie’s attention, because you know, somebody has to push this limp plot along. Bowers, on the other hand, just stands around smoking cigarettes. (Hey Bowers, how about solving the murders!)

Eventually, and in this movie "eventually" means a couple more minutes of cars driving around with spinning radar dish stock footage, the source of the disturbance is pinpointed at a nearby oil field. Oh, and we’re told about an explosion at the same field that took place earlier that night. Naturally, we weren’t shown the actual explosion scene since that would have cost money. Back at the station, Bowers and Charlie discuss radio interference, and man, is this an exciting topic. Hoo-eee, makes me want to break out my old HAM radio. And not to beat a dead horse, but is there anything else that they might want to talk about, like, oh, the murders! And why the hell is Charlie even there in the first place? He’s an electronics engineer, not a cop, but that hardly matters because, obviously, these 2 knuckle-heads have been declared "buddies" for the duration of the story, so get used to it. (To be fair, Charlie seems halfway competent, unlike Bowers.)

Charlie decides watching a piece of paper on the wall is more exciting than this movie.

After a while a police sketch artist is summoned and skillfully sketches Betty’s attacker based on her descriptions, and if this is the best your artist could do, then, damn, maybe you should have checked this guys references a bit closer before you hired him…

That’s him! That’s him!

So, let’s see, Charlie is now officially helping Bowers on the case because, you know, the writers have decreed it so.

Charlie suggests the attacker might be a Russian saboteur dropped in by parachute. (This was the 50’s after all…) Bowers, again with no valuable input to give, simply agrees with Charlie and lights a smoke. Charlie wires Washington, because the driver of the almighty "Mobile 1" radio car would naturally have a direct line to the Pentagon. Washington orders Charlie to contact Major Andrews and Dr. Wyatt, a couple of know-it-alls at the Griffith Institute of Everything Sciency. By default, Bowers tags along.

Soooo, Charlie and Bowers drive out to the Griffith Institute where they meet Major Andrews and Dr. Wyatt who like sitting around and talking just as much as the other characters, so brace yourself. After Bowers announces the purpose of their visit, Andrews reveals that they have in fact tracked a UFO that very night. Bum-bum-bum! Charlie suggests that, duh, it could have been a meteorite, but Wyatt immediately dismisses him with a condescending smirk, "Did it occur to you that meteors do not travel horizontally?" (Somebody please punch that smug bastard.)

Bowers shows off his ankles while the others discuss recent events

More sitting around; Bowers even makes himself at home by putting his feet up on the table…ahhh, you gotta admire Bowers’ hard-boiled "I Don’t Give A Damn" attitude, eh? Now if he’d only do something. Or at least pull up his damned socks. It’s just weird.

Enter Dr. Wyatt’s assistant, Barbara, the cute female scientist who specializes in any branch of science that the plot requires. Cue requisite ogling scene as Bowers makes his move…"It’s MRS Barbara Randall," Wyatt stresses as Bowers slithers over to her and starts laying on the smooth talk. Oh, such light-hearted fun were having now.

 

If only he were this interested in the murders

A back-and-forth discussion gives no solutions (but does give me a headache), so Charlie simply fires up a another smoke and flatly declares that, "From the looks of things, it’s up to me!"

Yup, this looks like a job for…da dum! The Communications Commission! Ah, how I long for the days when short-wave radio operators reigned surpreme.

Charlie’s first order of business: have a fleet radio cars encircle the city and triangulate the UFO’s position. Note that this mighty automobile armada consists of repeated footage of the same two cars, but anyway, just use your imagination, I guess. Thankfully, the plan quickly pays off, and believe me: this is the first thing to happen "quickly" in this movie. The source of the radio disturbance is tracked to the aforementioned oil field. Who would have thunk that? Oh, I guess that explains the huge explosion that we saw, er, I mean, were told about.

Later that night, everybody shows up at the refinery where Wyatt gleefully brags, "I brought the Geiger counter!" Ok, Ok, take it easy, Einstein. Naturally, because it’s the dumb thing to do, everybody splits up into pairs and begins searching the gigantic facility armed with small flashlights. Let me pause here and clarify that when I say "searching" I mean "aimlessly walking", but you probably expected that by now.

Anyhoo, Bowers (or somebody…hard to tell with the murky DVD transfer) eventually spots the alien and starts running after while everybody else runs around like morons shouting

"It’s this way! — C’mon!"

"There he goes! — C’mon!"

"Let’s cut him off! — C’mon!"

(A quick query of IMDB confirms that the 1953 Academy Award for Best Screenplay was awarded to another film…no surprise there.)

As Bowers and the boys scurry about, the silvery alien skillfully avoids capture by simply trotting sliiiiiightly faster than his pursuers. The occasional stack of empty crates pushed in the road to block their path also adds to the thrill of the chase. This feeble pursuit continues for a few more moments until they eventually corner the alien in a tool shed where it pulls off its suit and helmet to reveal he’s, yes, invisible.

Our visitor. (At least the alien was considerate enough to fold his clothes.)

"Do you know where we could find a lead-lined box in a hurry?" Andrews asks when he discovers the alien’s space suit is highly radioactive. (And why is the space suit radioactive? Well, because.)

"Mobile 7 should have one. I’ll go get it," says Charlie, because, you know, a lead-lined box would obviously be standard issue for a radio car.

Anyway, the space suit and helmet are unceremoniously boxed up and taken back to the Institute for further study. But wait! The alien has snuck into the back seat of one of the cars and hitches a ride. (Does this mean that he’s sitting naked on the seat cushions? Yuch.) When Charlie and the others arrive at the Institute, they meet Barbara who is just leaving with her husband (who just happens to teach there, dontchaknow) and their dog, Venus. Now, before you start asking yourself why in the hell Barbara would have her dog with her in the middle of the night, let’s just say it’s a thin plot patch over a large plot hole, i.e., the writers have written themselves into a corner: if the alien is invisible, how can he be hunted down? Why, a dog could do it! Let’s give one of the characters a dog!

Barbara quickly gets her husband out of the movie by sending him shopping (!)… "The markets are open all evening," she tells him. (By the way, in an earlier scene it was established that it was 2 a.m.!). Instead of sending Venus home with her husband, Barb keeps the dog at the Institute, because as noted above, how else will they manage to find the invisible guy and end this damned movie?!

Venus soon proves her worth when she notices the car door "mysteriously" opening by itself and then starts barking and gives chase. "Venus come back here! Venus come back here!" Barbara yells as she runs clickity-clickity-clack through the marbled halls. The alien runs into a generic lab and closes the door behind him, leaving Venus barking wildly at the closed portal. Despite everything that’s happened so far, Barbara doesn’t even consider Venus’ behavior in the least bit odd, so she grabs her by the collar and leads her back to another soulless grey lab where Wyatt and Andrews are examining the space suit.

Now, being made of Mysterious Space Suit Stuff, the garment can’t be cut, burned, or melted with acid*. Pretty cool, huh kids? (Even though Wyatt is a brilliant scientist, he doesn’t appear to realize that burning the highly-radioactive fabric would release poisonous gases into the room.) To everybody’s surprise, the suit proves to be magnetic when it attracts a metal wrench from across the desk. Strange how the exact same wrench, laying in the exact same position wasn’t attracted to the suit when they were fiddling with it just a few seconds ago…By the way, if you think that the suit’s magnetic characteristic is of any importance: it’s not. Either it’s a red herring or the writers just forgot about it. I’m guessing the latter.

(* I had to laugh when Wyatt exclaims, "It repels acid like a raincoat repels water!" as we see him dripping what is obviously water onto the sleeve of an obvious rain coat!)

Having run out of ideas for testing the suit, Wyatt sighs and says, "Well, Major, it looks like we’re going to be here a long time…" (Yes, I’m sure we will….ugh.)

Thankfully, the director must have finally realized that you can compress time through editing as we immediately cut to discover that Wyatt has figured out what the suit is capable of. This movie is strange like that, we waste time watching everybody sitting around discussing nothing, but when something actually pivotal to the story is revealed, that conversation is completely skipped.

Anyway, happy to show off just how smart he is, Wyatt tells everybody that the suit could sustain life up to 63,000 feet ( That’s a pretty specific number…How does he know that?)

"At this altitude," he continues, "human blood would boil, resulting in the body expanding to twice its size..then death!…of course." (Was that final "of course", really necessary? Isn’t it sort of obvious that swelling to twice your size while your blood boils would be, you know, a bad thing?)

Wyatt also predicts that sooner or later the alien has to return and retrieve his helmet because the gas inside it is different than Earth’s and he needs it to breathe and blah blah blah.

"But like somebody in an iron lung, they can be taken out for hours at a time with no ill effects." (Whaaaat?!)

As the men take their leave to, oh, go sit somewhere I guess, Barbara is left alone in the lab to do Science Stuff. After a few seconds she accidentally spills some powder on the floor, sheesh. When she leans over to clean it up she quickly jumps back in shock as a glowing footprint appears in the powder. Next, the space helmet prop is pulled into the air with all-too-visible wires. Sorry, I mean the invisible alien puts his helmet back on and tries to communicate with Barb in some sort of Morse code. Barb calls the others on the intercomm, and when they burst into the lab, the alien freaks out but leaves his helmet behind. (Idiot.) Furthermore, for no reason at all, the space suit has disintegrated, so I guess our visitor is really screwed now.

This is about as good as it gets

Wyatt yaks on and on about the alien’s supposed origins: a "super human" with "a hand with digits and a thumb…that alone is a sign of intelligence!" Whatever, Doc. He finally wraps up his speech by pronouncing, "My theory is that this space ship, or whatever it was that he came in, operated on the principal of magnetic, rather than atomic, propulsion and that somewhere in the Outer Limits met with a condition where the earth’s gravity pulled it down and it fell into the ocean and that he managed to save his life and reach shore."

"What you’ve told us is very interesting, Doctor…" says Bowers as Wyatt shrugs and lights up a smoke. Now that was a powerful scene.

Meanwhile, the alien has snuck his way into Mobile 1 again. (Hey, Charlie, maybe you should lock the freakin’ doors on that thing!) Immediately grokking how Earth radios work, the alien turns on the device and starts tapping out a signal. These taps are duly noted by some stock footage workers, or maybe they’re real actors, who can tell anymore? Well, nobody can understand the code so that pretty much kills that plot development.

Andrews comes up with a brilliant idea: leave all the doors open, set up some alarms and tripwires, and wait for the alien to come get the helmet. Wow! Now we know why they pay that guy the big bucks.

"Now all there was to do was wait," drones the Narrator. ("Wait"?! Nooooo! Damn you, Phantom from Space!)

Does anybody have any drying paint I can watch instead of this?

After another intensely realistic waiting sequence, one of the alarms goes off and Venus runs towards the Institute’s observatory. Again, everybody splits up, giving Barb the chance to go into a room alone where the alien is waiting. As the others enter, we can hear the alien having trouble breathing, so, yeah, so much for your stupid iron-lung theory, Wyatt. An obnoxious reporter character (don’t ask) whips out his camera and takes a flash picture but the light startles the alien so badly that his helmet flies off and shatters (!). (So he’s technologically capable of interstellar travel but a flash bulb freaks him out?!)

Well, with his helmet smashed, it’s only a matter of time before the movie ends. (Thank God!) Venus chases the invisible alien out of the room and…we run back to the observatory and, dammit! Won’t this movie ever end?!

With the alien cornered up on a elevated walkway, Wyatt shines an ultraviolet light on him and we FINALLY get to see…

The big payoff

The dying alien taps out a message, but of course nobody can understand it. He starts talking, but nobody can hear it. He finally collapses onto the floor and evaporates into a cloud of vapor…which probably isn’t that healthy to breathe, but, meh, who cares at this point.

"In death, he has become visible," Wyatt needlessly explains since we can, uh, see him.

blarg

And, yep. That’s it.

We never learn where he came from.

We never learn why he’s here.

And I still haven’t learned to stop watching these dumb movies.

 

The End

 

Dennis Grisbeck (October 2014)

Afterthoughts

The main “characters”, if you can call them that, are one-dimensional script readers cruelly given nothing to work with, simply spouting their lines from “action” to “cut”…you can almost see the pain in their eyes – desperate to end the scene and be done with the damned movie as quickly as possible.

To make matters worse, yes, worse, the alien was invisible until literally the last minute of the film, ugh. So we do get plenty of shots of a recycled diving helmet dangling from all-too-visible wires, which robs all the “shock” scenes of any sense of tension. Furthermore, we never find out where the alien came from nor do we know what he wanted in the first place. Did he crash land? Was he trying to warn us of something? Why did he kill a couple of people in the beginning of the film, then calmly attempt to communicate with Barbara at the end? Why? Why?! If the writers didn’t care enough to resolve anything, then we can’t be expected to care enough to remember this movie for very long.

Verdict: Avoid unless B&W shots of spinning radar dishes is something you enjoy, because that’s the only thing you’ll remember from this mess.

Read more about Phantom from Space at

IMDB

4 comments to Phantom from Space (1953)

  • Guts3d

    He looks like one of the alien “Engineers” from “Prometheus”. Perhaps he was looking for a star map at the local gas station? Great review! I love the longer format.

  • We’ll never know, my friend.

  • Sean

    Good point about the resemblance to the “Engineers,” I missed that. But the poor Phantom is so inept I have my own theory. I think he was a teenager who stole dad’s flying saucer, then crashed on Earth when he developed magnetic-gravitational propulsion trouble. Too mortified to contact home for help, he panicked and dashed away from his craft like a chicken with its head cut off. The rest, sadly, is history…

  • You’re absolutely right, Sean, about this sad, bumbling alien. Hard to believe he could have been a veteran space pilot. As you said, he more or less just landed, ran around, stripped naked, ran around some more, then suffocated : ( Feel sorry for the pale bugger, tbh.

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