Earth vs. the Flying Saucers Review

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by Chris McEneany Jan 1, 2006 at 12:00 AM

    Earth vs. the Flying Saucers Review
    Containing three early films from the back-catalogue of celebrated stop-motion animation supremo Ray Harryhausen - It Came From Beneath The Sea, Twenty Million Miles To Earth and Earth Vs The Flying Saucers - this Gift Set serves as a pretty good introduction to the wonderfully nostalgic world of his groundbreaking special effects. Of course, many Harryhausen fans will already have these movies - the versions contained in this set are identical to their stand-alone R1 counterparts - but this is still a nice set for those seeking a bit of a retro-antidote to all the CG creature-features rampaging their way across screens these days. Obviously more renowned for his fantasy work on the Sinbad movies and the all-time classic Jason And The Argonauts, this trio of, admittedly, rather lame B-pictures gets by purely because of his sterling and imaginative contributions. Produced by long-time ally, Charles H. Schneer, the concepts were drawn up with the sole purpose of integrating Harryhausen's unique animation, the screenplays nothing more than excuses to involve his marvellously designed monsters in grand, showboating set-pieces. This is also true of most of his movies, of course, but it seems especially blatant with these three examples - with an incredible dearth of acting and writing talent revealed almost proudly in each, from start to finish. Witty and intelligent, they most certainly aren't. But entertaining ... hell, yes. Well, two of them are, at any rate. But we'll start with the one that isn't.

    “Seems bigger than a whale.”

    “Another sub?”

    “Even bigger than a sub.”

    The earliest of the bunch, It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955) is literally so awful that, even in my capacity as a reviewer, I found it nigh on impossible to sit through it in its entirety and it's only on for 78 minutes. It's that bad. Starring none other than Kenneth Tobey, the stalwart Captain Hendry from one of my personal faves, The Thing From Another World, and the so-bad-it-hurts Faith Domergue as The Scientist (read: bit of skirt for the hero to fall for), this inept monster flick essays the aggressive tendencies of a radiation-charged super octopus as it wreaks havoc along the coastline of San Francisco. Tobey, as atomic submarine commander Pete Matthews encounters the beast in the first few minutes after a dreary and portentous voice-over man proclaims Man's worthy scientific advancement, and then ominously undertones of the mysteries still lurking beneath the sea. Obviously, he's referring to that mighty tentacled leviathan, animated so painstakingly by the young Harryhausen, who surely must have wept when he saw the deplorable human cast mumbling about in the foreground of all those matte shots, ruining any sense of wonder or tension so completely that almost all enjoyment of the film is irretrievably drained away. With that annoying voice-over guy butting in continually to give us a running commentary on the US Navy's efforts to co-ordinate its coastal defences (it's only an octopus, for God's sake), a stultifyingly dull romance developing by-the-numbers between Tobey's awkward hero and Domergue's wholly un-appealing heroine, and a truly staggering level of badly-acted bit parters (check out the survivors of an octopus-ravaged trawler in the painfully-stretched-out hospital interrogation sequence - these guys must surely have been picked up off the street outside the set, along with the howlingly naff doctor, too!), the movie becomes a tedious bore in the extreme.

    The early effects work is far less accomplished than even Harryhausen's previous entry, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, which also starred Kenneth Tobey, but still pretty good if you can isolate them from the interfering human-props for a second or two. It might only have six tentacles (the low budget literally hacked off the other two), but the idea of a giant octopus on the attack is neat, despite the cack-handed approach taken here. But scenes of it tearing up the Golden Gate Bridge are severely hamstrung by the woeful matte shots incorporating Dr. Carter (the wooden-as-hell Donald Curtis) struggling to keep his balance in the foreground. Later scenes of the enormous tentacles investigating the streets of San Francisco run aground when high-angled moments reveal obviously unaware real-life citizens wandering quite casually towards the slimy monster. And there are far too many shots of unconvincing extras fleeing from the errant tentacles. The amount of people that stop and point (and, I might add, usually in the wrong direction, too) at the colossal beast laying siege to what amounts to only a block or so - it's an octopus, so it can't exactly progress very far inland, can it? - grates on the nerves, as well. Very badly handled. The director, Robert Gordon, surely can't have even been there very much. It Came From Beneath The Sea has all the hallmarks of a production in which the cast simply set up the static camera themselves and then ran in front of it and read their hastily-written lines off cue cards. Even when due consideration is made for the vintage of the movie, and the style of the times (and, as is very well-documented on this site, I am devotee of vintage horror and sci-fi) this clumsy mess of a film can only be regarded as a 24-carat clunker.

    Still not convinced? Okay, have a gander at Tobey's body-double for the bare-chested beach scenes. Who's that bald guy supposed to be, then? And that badly-staged jeep get-away - it would have been more convincing to have had Harryhausen create some stop-motion mock-ups of the cast. Folks, this is a film made by suckers, about suckers ... for suckers. Avoid.

    “Evidently, you don't realise that you are on an interstellar conveyance?”

    Ah, but next up is the infinitely more entertaining Earth Vs The Flying Saucers from 1956. Directed by Fred F. Sears from a screenplay written by Curt (The Wolfman) Siodmak, this sci-fi thriller is the one that Tim Burton paid homage to in Mars Attacks! Lots of spinning saucers from a dying planet arrive in our atmosphere to seek help from mankind. But, in a trend that shows no sign of abating even in real life, the US military greets them with bullets and places humanity at the mercy of the now-aggravated visitors, who proceed to aim their death-rays at all the prestigious landmarks they can find. Daft, ridiculously plotted and possessing only a smidgeon more acting talent than It Came From Beneath The Sea, Flying Saucers nevertheless manages to entertain on many levels. Clearly recalling Robert Wise's 1951 classic The Day The Earth Stood Still, but mangling its peace-mongering message in a totally irresponsible, yet fun, manner, Sears' movie is pure pulp. With the aliens donning ludicrous giant battle-suits to wage combat on terra-firma - Harryhausen wasn't pleased with the results, but I quite like them despite the rather naff way in which the arms bend - abducting scientists, generals and the odd traffic cop (wrong place, wrong time, officer) and giving them a glowing brain-drain that reduces them to zombies and threatening all-out annihilation, the scene is set for a last-ditch, one-chance-but-it-just-might-work shot at retaliation that is Independence Day-light but, if anything, far more rewarding.

    Starring Hugh Marlowe as Dr. Russ Marvin, who alongside his attractive new wife, fellow scientist Carol (Joan Taylor) is suitably perplexed when his satellites keep going missing shortly after being launched. Then, a chance sighting of a flying saucer - there appears to be a huge spate of them around the good old US of A - proves just who the culprits might be. The aliens try to communicate with him but, as usual, everything goes pear-shaped when the heavy-handed, closed-minded, Commie-fearing government get involved. This is hard sci-fi with the brains removed. Schneer and Harryhausen knew that the public just wanted to see spacecraft and aliens and just about as much carnage as you could fit into eighty-three minutes of running time, so whilst there is some attempt at intellectualising the impending invasion, all boffin-speak is soon elbowed aside to allow the gallant Dr. Marvin and his team to find the one thing that will bring the armada of saucers to the ground. And, of course, this is the cue for the now-famous finale of wobbling saucer-mayhem, as Washington's proud edifices are blasted, pummelled and crashed into with reckless abandon. Great stuff. Harryhausen's spacecraft weren't the best, in my opinion. He was definitely better at creating the illusion of life in his many creatures, rather than lending character to vehicles such as these. The idea to have the top of the craft spinning in a different direction to the rest of the saucer may have seemed like a clever one at the time but, to my eyes, it just makes the ships look even more artificial, and also somewhat out of control as they teeter about the skies.

    For lovers of unintentionally naff cinema there are some classic moments in here, too. But, unlike It Came From Beneath The Sea which is not so-bad-it's-great, but so-bad-it-stinks, Saucers gains charm from its idiocies. Just check out the great scene in which Marvin puts on the captured helmet of an alien for the edification of a gaggle of seriously po-faced scientists and military bigwigs. Common decency prohibits me from making the obvious visual references, but phallic-gags aside, this sequence must have taken an absolute age to perform without someone creasing up and ruining the take. And, what about the poor car park attendant who gets slugged by the hero just for doing his job and being exceptionally conscientious? Marvellous Marvin strikes again. Brilliant.

    Then we get Twenty Million Miles To Earth, which features an awesomely animated Venusian creature called Ymir. Now this one, folks, was a favourite of mine when I was a kid. It never seemed to be shown very often - and I mostly had to content myself with gawping at pictures from it in books - but its star monster was a class act that lingered at the back of mind, refusing to budge. Originally intended to be akin to the great Cyclops from The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad (the very best of the Sinbad movies - despite that damned cute-kid genie), Ymir soon developed into a swiftly growing humanoid muscle-beast with scales, a handle-bar moustache and a mighty swishing tail. Now this was stop-motion animation. Just a creation of pure imagination, hell-bent on a jerkily-manipulated rampage across 1950's Italy. Yep, it was indeed a strange location for a Hollywood monster-flick, but that just added to the exotic quality of this unreasoning beast. Although credited as being written by Bob Williams and Christopher Knopf this was, in fact, all down to Harryhausen, himself. He had written several versions of the story, utilising the Cyclops and even a Satyr, before finally settling on the reptilian creature that is brought back to Earth, in jelly form, on a US rocketship returning from Venus that crashes into the sea off the coast of Sicily.

    The one surviving astronaut, Col. Calder (William Hopper from Rebel Without A Cause) follows the zany tale from start to finish, mimicking all those other diligent 50's sci-fi heroes (including those in the two other movies in this set), who seem to outstay the point at which their involvement, in reality, would end. Hooking up with a zoologist and his beautiful daughter (they are so predictable, aren't they?), Calder watches as the vulnerable baby Ymir hatches from the gelatinous mass, doubles in size and then escapes. These early sequences are actually the best - the crashed spaceship sticking up out of the sea as fishermen discover it, and the baby Ymir's cute vulnerability, when still only small, has such a magical quality about it that you simply cannot take your eyes off it. The image is clearly recalled in Harryhausen's later homunculus from The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad (1973). Earth's atmosphere, coupled with Ymir's partiality to sulphur, seems to have a bizarre and frightening effect upon the volatile Venusian, enabling him to grow incredibly quickly, gaining strength and ferocity all the time. A scene in a barn when a farmer and his dog corner the beast features a splendidly atmospheric sequence of the dog/Ymir skirmish played out in shadow against the wall. A subsequent sequence has the creature hunted by troops and a US Army helicopter equipped with a huge net. Of course, once the delinquent alien has been recaptured and shipped to the illustrious Rome Zoo for a photo-shoot by the world's press, events are going to conspire to have him set loose, enraged by a foolhardy elephant in the celebrated Kong-inspired tussle and then, determined to wreak havoc amongst the famous ruins of the Coliseum, battle bazookas and machine-guns. It's all very formulaic, but spirited stuff. However, a lot of the magic seems slightly lacklustre when watching this film now. It still suffers from the same lousy acting and patchwork scripting that sinks It Came From Beneath The Sea and Earth Vs The Flying Saucers for sure, but it is the beast, himself, and his antics that no longer possess the vitality that I once saw. It's inevitable, I know, that these vintage creature features will lose some of their appeal but I was genuinely surprised at how, well ... pathetic they can appear now. The battle between Ymir and the elephant has all the violent ingredients of a prime-beef smackdown, but I can't be the only one that wishes he would crush and stamp more humans and tear down more buildings instead. For me, Ymir works best at the smaller scale, which still retains that sense of wonder. Harryhausen has stated that he chose Italy purely so that the production could take him to some sights that he longed to see, and this is certainly apparent during the climactic melee, which is just a tourist-map of the Roman hot-spots.

    The sad thing is, though, that watching this particular trio only seems to reinforce the upsetting idea that Harryhausen's style has passed its sell-by date. Oh, the true classics - Seventh Voyage and Jason - still remain as tall and as proud as the bronze giant, Talos, himself. In fact, it's impossible to think of those stories without his incredible creatures cavorting through them. But the sight of that octopus, those wobbling saucers and even the once mighty Ymir now seem somewhat embarrassing. You see, in the later fantasy films that he worked on, his effects actually enhanced the weak screenplays, wooden performances and clunky direction, painting over their ineptitudes with eye-catching trickery and imaginative flights of fancy. Yet, in these earlier showcases for his work, they can often seem symptomatic of the overall cheesiness, part and parcel of the lowly, giggle-inducing format. Watching them now, even I struggled to find that nostalgic glow with which they should be viewed. And, having marvelled at the magnificent original King Kong several times lately - the film that catapulted Harryhausen and a great many others into making movies - it only goes to reveal just how far short of the mark Schneer's movies really fell. Kong is still the ultimate stop-motion animation depiction of fantastical life interacting with real life, and has lost none of its charm, class or technical prowess. That tangible spark of life that heralds Kong and Harryhausen's own skeletons, Talos, the Cyclops or the Medusa from Clash Of The Titans is singularly lacking from each of these movies, I'm sorry to say. And, I have to admit, I didn't expect to feel this way after watching films that I had so enjoyed not so very long ago.

    Still, for fans, these movies are a must.

    The Rundown

    OUT OF
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