9.29.2010

HORRORTHON '10: The Angry Red Planet (Ib Melchior, 1959)

Forgive the Captain Obvious cameo here, but over the years the standards for easy abandon at the cinema have skyrocketed. SyFy Channel Originals are essentially the modern, at-home equivalent of '50s and '60s creature features, only without any of the ingenuity and only a fraction of the imagination. It can be refreshing to visit an age when MGM and American International populated nickelodeons, and that's where The Angry Red Planet (also known as Invasion of Mars or Journey to Planet Four) elbows its way in.

The film's stake in cinema history is in being the first (of only two, if I'm not mistaken, the other being The Three Stooges in Orbit) to use CineMagic. In a time not so foreign anymore what with IMAX and 3D so prevalent today, when showy gimmicks such as Cinerama and the many promotions of William Castle (The Tingler, anyone?) coaxed butts into seats, frequent Three Stooges collaborator (and husband to Stooge Moe Howard's daughter Joan) Norman Maurer and the father of color 3D Sidney W. Pink developed CineMagic. The idea was to make cheap backdrops appear more realistic behind live actors by blowing out the contrast (through a post-production process involving positive and negative prints of the film) and dying the image red, resulting in a cartoonish appearance for both the actors and their surroundings. It reminds me of how matted-in stop motion creatures appeared better-integrated in black and white films like King Kong or The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms as opposed to their full color brethren (which are still incredibly awesome, regardless).

History lesson aside, the accomplished effect works wonderfully for me as a vision of a daunting new planet. It takes me back to a time before I was born; before Mariner 4 took the first close-up photographs of Mars and possibilities for our celestial neighbor seemed as limitless as our imaginations. The high, tinted contrast does look strange, but, as the filmmakers surely wanted it to be, it's a strange world.

A downside could be how much expository, straight-forwardly shot blabber must be sifted through before the CineMagic gets rolling. This exposition is to be expected from films of this ilk, though, so it doesn't bother me much. I consider it an endearing signature of the relative shoestring this stuff was produced on, back when the "B" in "B movie" still stood for "budget". And if The Angry Red Planet has a signature to call its own, it's the highly memorable cheese-fest of a cautionary finale. When the martians boom their omnipotent message I can feel the 5-year-old in me cower... and froth.

But does The Angry Red Planet fit into this horrorthon's parameters? It's a stretch, but I'm going with "yes" (obviously, otherwise all this text wouldn't exist). It's deeply rooted on the science fiction side of the genre-verse, but monstrous creatures and a persistent threat of other-worldly demise tip the scale just enough. Besides, sometimes it takes the cojones of a horror movie to attempt something as visually drastic as CineMagic. When boiled down, cheap science fiction fare of the '50s and '60s seems to come from a mentality very similar to that of horror. Similarly, I'm not sure how much of a "review" this has been as opposed to a "what I learned when I watched/Googled The Angry Red Planet" session (although I didn't wind up finding a place to squeeze in tidbits about director Ib Melchior regarding his having written stories like Hitler's Werewolves and The Racer, the latter of which was adapted into Roger Corman's Death Race 2000, or the fact that he co-wrote Robinson Crusoe of Mars... oh wait, there we go), but hopefully it takes a cue from the angry Martians and tips the scale just enough.

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