Saturday, October 15, 2016

Stubs - The Angry Red Planet

The Angry Red Planet (1959) Starring: Gerald Mohr, Naura Hayden, Jack Kruschen, Les Tremayne. Director: Ib Melchior. Screenplay by Sidney W. Pink, Ib Melchior. Produced by Sidney W. Pink, Norman Maurer. Color. USA Run Time 83 minutes Science Fiction, Horror

Science Fiction and horror are two genres that often get mixed together. In the case of The Angry Red Planet, a trip to Mars is filled with horrific space monsters that endanger the lives of the four astronauts sent there to explore. Originally called Invasion of Mars, the film was given a low budget of $200,000 and a short shooting schedule, 10 days. To compensate, the film is the first to use a technique called CineMagic, but more on that later.

Space was not a new subject when this film was made. Films about traveling in outer space are as old as filmmaking, including Le Voyage Dans la Lun (A Trip to the Moon) Georges Méliès’ 1902 fantasy about what it would take to get to the moon and what it would be like once they were there. But there was a real sense of urgency in the late 1950s after the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957 and the U.S. found itself in a Space Race that would culminate with man landing on the moon in 1969.

The Angry Red Planet skips ahead to a still future time when man lands on the moon, but still retains its 1950s sensibilities. When the film opens, an experimental rocket ship MR-1, thought to have crashed on Mars moons before, is suddenly sending signals back to Earth. No one is sure if any of the four-person crew is still alive or not, but a special meeting is held in Washington, including Maj. Gen. George Treegar (Paul Hahn) to devise a plan to retrieve the ship, which includes flying to Nevada, the origination and landing point of the MR-1.

Maj. General George Treegar (Paul Hahn) is briefed about the MR-1.

Using remote control, a ground crew brings the ship back for a landing. After checking for radiation, the ground crew finds two survivors on board, Dr. Iris Ryan (Naura Hayden), who opens the hatch, and a gravely ill Col. Thomas “Tom” O’Bannion (Gerald Mohr) is removed on a stretcher.

The command center for the MR-1 mission wouldn't give Mission Control a run for its money.

Iris, exhausted and in shock, is taken to the Norwood Air Force Hospital where doctors are flummoxed by a green growth on Tom’s arm. When doctors go to her for an explanation, Iris is at first unable to remember anything. But Dr. Frank Gordon (Tom Daly), who fears the growth might prove not only fatal for Tom, but could present a danger to life on Earth, needs her help and helps her relive the mission.

Aboard the MR-1 are Iris, a scientist; Tom, the ship’s commander; Prof. Theodore Gettell (Les Tremayne), who designed the ship; and Chief Warrant Officer Sam Jacobs (Jack Kruschen), who is in charge of communications with mission control and recordings related to the mission. The first few days go easily. As the only woman on board, Iris gets attention from both Jacobs and Tom. While Jacobs is more caveman in his approach and easily turned down, there is a smarmy aspect to Tom, who often walks around with his shirt unbuttoned and acts like God’s gift to women.

The crew aboard the MR-1, from left to right, Chief Warrant Officer Sam Jacobs (Jack Kruschen),
Professor Theodore Gettell (Les Tremayne), Dr. Iris Ryan (Naura Hayden) and Col. Thomas O'Bannion (Gerald Mohr).

When Iris goes to get food for the crew, yes even in space a woman’s place is still apparently in the kitchen, Tom follows and asks for a rain-check to take her out when they arrive back on Earth. She accepts.

Provisions already seem to be running low only a few days out.

On the 47th day of the mission, the MR-1 finally lands on Mars and when it does, the crew is anxious for the next part of the voyage. But when they look out the ship’s portal, they don’t see any movement. That is until Iris sees a creature looking back and screams.

Iris screams and then faints after seeing the Martian looking in through the portal.

That recollection brings Iris back to the present of the story and she is so bothered by it that she can’t continue.

While she’s sleeping, Treeger informs Gordon that they have recovered the tape recordings made aboard the MR-1 but, so far, they appear to be blank. As the two ponder over whether Iris is recalling the events or only her fears, she awakens and asks Gordon to give her something to force her to remember what happened.

Back in the MR-1, Iris describes the horrible creature she’s seen and no one believes her, at least not at first. Tom decides they should go outside and the crew dons their protective clothing before the disembark. Tom has a sidearm and Sam grabs a freeze ray as they go out. Once outside on the very red planet, Tom orders everyone to stay within his sight as they venture further away from the ship.

The crew ventures out onto the surface of Mars.

Curious about a strange vine, Iris follows it to find the source and is suddenly grabbed by the octopus-like creature Martian Venus flytrap. The three men rush to her aide, and with machetes and Sam's ray gun, kill the creature.

Iris gets attached by a giant Martian Venus Flytrap-like creature.

Iris and Dr. Gettell conclude that the creature was a carnivore, beyond normal plant life, with a neuromuscular formation. The next morning, after studying samples from their previous walk, the group again leaves MR-1. When Iris cuts off a sample from one plant, it reveals itself to be a huge rat-like bat creature on stilt-like legs. But this time Sam's ray gun has little effect, until Tom tells Sam to aim at its eyes, thus immobilizing it, allowing Gettell, who has been trapped between boulders, to escape.

The most hideous creature they encounter on the planet,

Before returning to the ship, the group sees a large lake but decides to wait until the following day before exploring it. Back inside the ship, after discussing the great dangers they have encountered, Tom and Gettell agree that they have to abort the mission immediately. But while the rocket engines ignite, the ship cannot lift off. Tom orders the MR-1’s engines cut to save fuel and determines a powerful source is holding it down and preventing them from going back to Earth.

They decide to wait until the next day to explore the lake.

Tom calms the fears of the crew and wonders what “they” want. Later, the four return to the lake and start paddling across. In the distance, they see a huge, industrial city and as they contemplate the curious sight, a giant monster arises from the sea and comes towards them. The four paddle furiously to get away.

Paddling across the lake, their view is blocked by a huge monster rising out of the water.

The creature chases after them onto the shore and as they rush back to the ship. But just before they can close the hatch, Sam is enveloped by the amoeba-like beast and swallowed whole. The other three watch in horror as Sam is digested. Once they’re inside, they realize that Tom has been wounded and it begins to worsen.

The creature follows them back on shore.

Iris recalls from her previous experiments on Amoeba cells how electricity is the only thing that can stop the amoeba’s growth. At Tom’s request, Gettell figures out a way to electrify the outer skin of the rocket ship while not endangering their own lives. After rewiring the ship, the plan works, causing the creature to shrivel away. Just then the ship’s radio broadcasts a voice saying, “Red alert…we of the planet Mars give you this warning.”

Back on the ship, Iris is repulsed by the infection on Tom's arm.

A short time after liftoff, the stress and exertion cause Gettell’s heart to give out and on the flight back, he dies. With Sam and Gettell dead and Tom unconscious, Iris tries to determine what Gettell would have done with the ship’s wiring. When she looks out the window, she sees Mars in the rear getting smaller.

Gettell's heart gives out after launch from Mars.

Iris again awakens in her bed and cries. After saying she can’t remember any more of the Martian warning, she faints. But Dr. Gordon has gleamed enough from Iris’ story to figure out that Tom is suffering from an enzymatic infection.

A little later, Treeger asks Iris if there is anything in her previous research that might be helpful in treating Tom. They give her access to a lab and she gets to work. She knows that electricity must be the key and surmises that it can be used to shock the amoeba on his arm to a non-human host. The experiment, of course, works and while Tom is recovering, Iris comes to his bedside wanting to cash the raincheck for their overdue date.

While most of the tapes from the MR-1 were found to be blank, Treeger informs Tom and Iris that they were able to recover the entire Martian warning, which concludes with “Do not return to Mars. We can and will destroy you if you do not heed our warning.”

No doubt the intent of the film was to terrify its audience with the horrible creatures imagined to reside on the planet Mars. Sadly, they are either cringe worthy or laughable. For the most part the creatures look like Dali rejects or they’re cardboard cut outs. The CineMagic effect, which gives all of the Martian landscape a red overcoat, perhaps was an attempt to mask the poor special effects. The effect was achieved with a black and white film negative processed with solarization (a process that partially reverses the negative making some areas appear positive). The film was then tainted red and a film positive was not required. Using black and white film, which was less expensive to process and not having to make a film positive, also helped keep the costs of the production down. The cheapness shows on the screen, that is unless you're color-blind to red and then I don't know what you'd see.

The CineMagic effect baths everything Martian in a blood red tint.

Space travel was depicted sort of like it had been since Victorian times. The rooms are spacious and there appear to be no issues with the lack of gravity. While the set does attempt to be “computerized” for the time, occupants are free to walk around; nearly shirtless if your Tom. Professor Gettell even smokes a pipe on board, so relaxed are the circumstances.

No cramped quarters for the crew aboard the MR-1.

The protective suits worn on the planet would probably be good in a rainstorm, but useless on another planet. I’m not sure if it was a cost-effective measure or one that the actors wanted, but there are no protective shields over the faces of the actors.

Who needs protective masks to breathe while on Mars?

All films reflect the time they were made in and Angry Red Planet is no exception. While its viewpoints on space travel seem backward, so do its views on women. Even though Iris would have to be an accomplished scientist to be included on an interplanetary space trip, she seems very much stuck in stereotypes of women in the late 50s. Not only is she part sex object, but she is also expected to cook, as it were, for the rest of the crew. We’re not shown her making the beds or doing the laundry, but no doubt they would be a part of her duties aboard the MR-1.

The thin protective suits can't protect Iris from Tom's busy hands.
Low budgets usually accompany plot holes and Angry Red Planet does not tempt to upset the applecart here. When the film opens, MR-1 was thought lost for months. But the amoeba that is taking over Tom’s body never seems to progress past his arm in all that time. One plot device, the time since Earth had lost contact with the ship, doesn’t line up with the urgency to cure the enzymatic infection.

Also, Professor Gettell’s death seems more like a plot convenience than set up by the story. Yes, he’s older than the other actors, but his life seems superfluous. He was needed for the part of the story about getting and landing on Mars, but three’s a crowd when they get back to Earth, so he has to die on the way home.

The acting is somewhat along similar stereotype lines. Sam Jacobs would have worn a red-shirt if this had been Star Trek. Slower both physically and mentally, he reads comic books after all, it is no wonder that Sam is the first to bite it. Jack Kruschen, who the following year would play Dr. Dreyfus in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, seems right for the role, even though I’m sure he was not the low wattage bulb in real life as the character he plays here.

Sam Jacobs (Jack Kruschen), communications officer/comic book reader.

Les Tremayne plays Professor Gettell, who we’re supposed to believe is super smart and refined, hence the pipe. What’s missing are patches on the elbow of his protective suit. Tremayne is one of those actors that you see in a lot of movies, but usually in small roles, like the Auctioneer in North by Northwest, also released in 1959. For whatever reason, Tremayne’s filmography includes a lot of Sci-Fi films. For every Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) and The Fortune Cookie (1966), there is The War of the Worlds (1953) and Forbidden Planet (1956). He’s good here, but there isn’t really that much for him to do but react and look smart.

Gerald Mohr as Tom O'Bannion and Les Tremayne as Professor Gettell.

Gerald Mohr, who plays Tom O’Bannion, began his career on stage working with Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre. He then appeared more than 500 times during the 30s, 40s and 50s on various shows from playing Phillip Marlowe from 1949 to 1951, to appearances on The Whistler, Our Miss Brooks and The Lone Ranger. He would later move into television, appearing in a number of Westerns, including Bonanza and The Rifleman, as well as comedies from Burns & Allen to the Smothers Brothers. Here he plays the equivalent to Hugh Hefner in space, all that he’s missing is his walking around in pajamas and a robe.

Iris (Naura Hayden) is both scientist and sex-object aboard the MR-1.

The object of Mohr’s stares is Naura Hayden, who was a model before she became an actress. Mostly known for her work in commercials, Hayden has the acting chops of a model to go along with the looks. Too bad there is more to good acting than screaming, which are the high points of her performance.

The Angry Red Planet is one of the best known films that Ib Melchior directed, which probably speaks volumes about his career. Melchior is known as a low-budget filmmaker, many of which were released through American International Pictures, a cinematic haven for bad sci-fi. He makes his reputation, what there is of it, with this film. He would later re-visit Mars with the screenplay, co-written by John C. Higgins, for Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964).

While Halloween presents the opportunity to view a variety of films to get your horror fix, sadly The Angry Red Planet doesn’t quite get you there. Rather it seems to be ready fodder for the MST3K treatment. Try as it might, the film isn’t really all that scary, even though it wants us to think it is; no doubt hindered by a weak story and a small budget.

Be sure to check out other Horror films in our Horror Films Review Hub.


  1. Naura (sometimes credited as Nora) Hayden, previously seen in 1957's PLUNDER ROAD, published an instructional sex book in the 80s..Gerald Mohr would later voice the character of Reed Richards, in Hanna Barbera's Fantastic Four cartoon.

  2. Jack Kruschen was in the cast ( but shared no scenes with) Les Tremain in WAR OF THE WORLDS. Jack was among the first to fall as a Mexican waving the white flag at the first Martian war machine. Also,Ted "Lurch" Cassidy provided the (uncredited)voice on the taped final warning from Mars.