Drive-In Retro Classics: Sci-Fi Triple Feature

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2022-05-02 01:25

Rocketship X-M (1950)/The Brain from Planet Arous (1958)/The Hideous Sun Demon (1959)
Studio: Corinth Films
Release date: March 15th, 2022

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The movies:

In the annals of cult filmmaking figures, Wade Williams cuts a singular path. While he’s technically been a producer, distributor, exhibitor, and even a director he’s arguably best described as an enthusiast and a collector. Many of us would consider ourselves as such, of course, but Williams has taken it to another level for decades by literally acquiring the rights to movies and officially inducting them into The Wade Williams Collection. Mostly synonymous with low-budget, vintage genre pictures, the collection has had a spotty history on home video during the DVD era. In fact, for collectors of a certain age, many of these films—including crown jewel Invaders from Mars—are also synonymous with being rather difficult to find, as many of them are stuck on long-out-of print editions. Luckily, Corinth Films has come to the rescue for a few of the titles, collecting them as part of a Drive-In Retro Classics Science Fiction Triple Feature, giving collectors a chance to snap up a trio of movies that were first released on DVD over two decades ago.

Blasting out of the gate is Rocketship X-M, a 1950 atomic age jaunt into space that, like its contemporaries, is quaint as hell. Released at the dawn of the Space Race, it captures the era’s unbridled imagination about the vastness of the beyond as a set of astronauts set out for the moon, only to be knocked off course and land right on Mars, where they encounter a primitive civilization. Considering the film is only 78 minutes long, that probably sounds like it should make for an action-packed sci-fi romp; however, most of the film captures the long journey to Mars, which is more tedious than it is unsettling. Most of the trip finds the crew exchanging jargon and mashing away at consoles as they plot their trajectory towards the Red Planet, leaving you to chuckle at the assumption that Mars is just a hop, skip, and jump away from the moon (and wince at the casual, condescending sexism directed at Osa Massen’s character, the lone woman aboard the vessel).

Things grow more compelling upon the crew’s Mars landing: director Kurt Neumann deploys a crimson color-timing, saturating the frame in an otherworldly red hue as the astronauts slowly uncover evidence of life. Their discoveries are the stuff of sci-fi staples that would have felt more fresh in 1950, like the inevitable destructiveness of nuclear power and the suggestion that space will be a hostile final frontier. While the astronauts sport some imaginative costuming, the realization of the primitive Martians leaves something to be desired, as they’re basically imagined as bloodthirsty savages, leading to a climax that essentially repurposes vintage Western visuals (right down to being shot at Red Rock Canyon, a popular locale for that genre). What’s more striking is the sobering denouement here, which finds the crew frantically trying to return home, only to discover the odds are very much against them. In a remarkably prescient conclusion, Rocketship X-M anticipates the trials and tribulations of the coming space race, where tragedy was often faced with the sort of dogged determinism on display here, when we learn that Rocketship X-M 2 will soon be under construction. Likewise, the film heralds a decade of similarly-themed low-budget sci-fi fare, right down to composer Ferde Grofé’s pioneering use of the Theremin, whose spooky sounds would soon come to define the genre during this era. Rocketship X-M might be most interesting as a historical curiosity for genre completists, but what a crucial piece of a puzzle it is.

The disc then leaps forward to the end of the decade with The Brain from Planet Arous. The strongest film of this bunch, Planet Arous also tries to realize a grandiose idea—an alien terrorist hijacks a man’s body in an attempt to conquer Earth—on a meager budget and comes closest the pulling off the trick. The terrorist in question is Gor, a brain-shaped fiend who possesses scientist Steve March (genre staple John Agar) and proceeds to stir up trouble on both an intimate and vast scale. When he’s not taking advantage of Steve’s fiancée (Joyce Meadows), he’s mining his brain for state secrets, particularly his knowledge of radiation and government facilities, the latter of which come in handy when he extorts world leaders.

Like so many of its contemporaries, The Brain from Planet Arous is obviously silly and outlandish (and only grows even more so when Vol, another Arous brain comes to earth to apprehend Gor), but that’s part of its charm. You really have to meet something like this halfway and give yourself over to its logic in order to enjoy its various twists and turns, which involve exactly the type of tonal whiplash you expect from a movie where the only thing capable of thwarting an alien being who crashes airplanes and vaporizes towns is another alien being who possesses a dog’s body. “Quaint” once again comes to mind, even if the film features actual, archive footage of nuclear tests to realize its destruction. Whatever mean streak this film has is neutralized by its utter whimsy. Ultimately, The Brain from Planet Arous is good-natured fun: sure, it’s creaky, silly fun, but it’s a fine representative of this Z-grade corner of 50s sci-fi.

Of course, you can’t visit this corner without turning up some kind of monster movie either, and the collection obliges with The Hideous Sun Demon, another 50s effort exploiting the era’s fear of radiation. In this case, scientist Gil McKenna (Robert Clarke, another genre staple also serving as co-director, co-writer, and producer) is soaked in a radioactive isotope in his lab that transforms him into a reptilian creature whenever he’s exposed to sunlight. Playing out like a reverse wolfman tale, The Hideous Sun Demon finds its beleaguered creature avoiding sunlight and looking for a cure whenever he’s not turned into a bloodthirsty beast. It’s all every bit as derivative as it sounds, and its potentially unsettling body horror is undercut by the visible wrinkles in Clarke’s outfit.

In many ways, The Hideous Sun Demon is exactly the type of movie most folks have in mind when they think about 50s sci-fi cheapies, where all of the production seams are right there on screen, just waiting to burst if the camera were to linger even a few seconds longer. Over time, though, these bugs have just become nostalgic features, even for someone like me, who was decades away from being born in 1959. Something about The Hideous Sun Demon just feels like an ideal monster movie: its dime store Halloween mask make-up effects, its brassy, bombastic score (which would be repurposed in Night of the Living Dead), its straight-faced treatment of its utter silliness. I hate to keep coming back to that word “quaint,” but there’s something appealing about the purity of this particular quaintness. Despite not having a lot to put up on the screen (it cost only $50,000 to produce), The Hideous Sun Demon harnesses the imagination of an era and distills its atomic age fears into a lark, evoking one of the horror genre’s most primal functions: to reflect anxieties and confront them, even if they’re in the form of a rubber suit romp.

The disc:

Corinth’s triple feature release here can charitably be called “functional," at least in the sense that the 3 films provide a nice sampler platter of the era's genre fare. However, there’s no supplements to speak of, and the transfers don’t appear to be restored in any noticeable way. In fact, they’d probably be considered disappointing by our standards 20 years ago, much less now, when we routinely see 2k and 4k restorations of even more obscure titles. These are perhaps a step up from what we used to see in public domain budget packs, with some digital artifacts to top it all off, giving it a very obvious video quality. If you’re lucky enough to still have the previous DVD releases of these films, I see no reason why you’d let them go (some of them even had some minor supplements in the way of liner notes, which is more than we can say here). While I’m personally happy to see these films more easily accessible than they’ve been in some time, it would have been nice to see a little bit more effort put into restoring these titles. If Corinth plans to unleash more from the Williams archive, here’s hoping they’re a little bit closer to 21st-century standards.
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