Ib Melchior wrote several surprisingly good and entertaining science fiction films in the late 1950s and 1960s, several of which we’ll be reviewing here on The Reprobate over the next week or two. Angry Red Planet, unfortunately, is not one of these good films, despite having a few moments and one of the most outrageously brilliant monsters ever caught on film.
The film follows the 1950s science fiction tradition of space exploration, having a highly unlikely crew – expedition leader and slimy sleaze ball Colonel Tom O’Bannion (Gerald Mohr), glamorous female scientist Iris Ryan (Naura Hayden), pipe-smoking professor Theodore Gettell (Les Tremayne) and gun-toting comic relief everyman Sam Jacobs (Jack Kruschen) – heading up the first manned mission to Mars. We know things have gone wrong as the film opens and the spaceship returns to Earth with Ryan in a state of collapse and one other unidentified survivor having a mysterious green growth on his arm. Ryan then reveals the preceding events from her hospital bed. For a surprisingly long time, these events consist of very little happening, apart from awkward character development – Colonel O’Bannion, a man with all the charm of a sex tourist, hits on Ryan, calling her “Irish” instead of Iris for reasons that are never sufficiently explained, and of course woos her successfully despite almost certainly giving the creeps to every woman watching.
In common with many a science fiction film of the era, Angry Red Planet doesn’t bother with any sense of space travel authenticity – the characters wander around the spaceship as if it is a sound stage set, unbothered by a lack of gravity or the fact that their rocket ship is flying at a variety of angles – anyone who has been stood up when a plane banks slightly will know how ludicrous this is, and while we can all suspend disbelief to a degree, the film really needs to meet us halfway.
Arriving on Mars, the team loses communication with Earth, and then dither about going outside for ages, before Ryan spots an insect-like alien peering through the porthole. Essentially dismissed as a hysterical female, she then joins the crew on an exploration of the planet, which is certainly red – a low budget necessitated the use of CineMagic, a laughable creative fudge that washes the entire screen in one colour and adds solarizing effects to the images, in an effort to make drawings look photo-realistic. It fails miserably – many of the plants and sets look exactly like what they are, i.e. cartoon images, and the red wash across the screen quickly becomes annoying.
However, it is while on the planet that the film at least partially delivers, with its unlikely forests containing a huge carnivorous plant, a giant pulsating amoeba and best of all, a genuinely bizarre and weird giant spider-bat-crab hybrid monster. Of course, this involves the crew shooting away at these unknown life forms rather than making any effort at communication (they had already suggested an ‘if it moves, shoot it’ policy to exploring the planet that they had just effectively invaded). But the Earthmen (and woman) then find themselves trapped on Mars by a force field, seemingly generated by a super intelligence that we never really get to meet.
Angry Red Planet unfortunately seems to combine too many of the worst elements of 1950s science fiction – reactionary, unconvincing (and unappealing) characters, excessive stock footage and bad pacing that makes the film drag when it should be zipping. The CineMagic effect is intriguing for about a minute, but as you realize that most of the second half of the film will be using it, it quickly becomes a chore – many viewers might end up with headaches. The monsters – at least the bat-spider beastie – at least add a touch of the unusual to the film, and it might be worth a watch just to enjoy them. But on the whole, this is a film that has aged badly and hardly stands up when compared to other sci-fi efforts of the era – or, indeed, other Ib Melchior films. For giant monster completists only, I suspect.