The Horror Movie Magazine You Can
Really Sink Your Teeth Into
Issue #6

Revenge of the Auteur Theory  

David Christenson

Horrors From Outer Space Collection
(aka Horrors from Outer Space Collection), DVD released 2000 by Triton Multimedia
includes Teenagers From Outer Space (1959), 86 minutes; Phantom From Space (1953), 73 minutes; Killers From Space (1954), 80 minutes; all black-and-white, not rated, full-screen, mono sound. Manufacturer’s suggested retail price, $14.99.

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Killers from Space DVD CoverThere is a fresh quality in the drive-in and “B” monster movies of the 1950s that we can’t recapture in our cynical era.

Dirt cheap, hurried, clumsy, these old cheapies can still charm us with their goofy enthusiasm. Those 1950s guys in their dapper suits and snap-brim hats, so earnest and serious, lighting up their cigarettes and tossing back their whiskeys, jumping into a Chevy for another chase or leaping boyishly into a round of fisticuffs or gunplay. Those 1950s women, anxious high-haired helpmates teetering atop high heels, lugging around clipboards if they’re scientists or clutch purses if they’re not, dangerously inquisitive but armed only with piercing screams. Those clunky endearing monsters, teasing us with radiation and flashing lights, then waddling out of the shadows, full of rubbery menace, ready to take over the planet. The doddering scientists, the pea-brained caretakers and gas-station attendants, the cynical cops, the wisecracking reporters, the precocious children, the foolhardy family dogs—the monsters are no match for these forces of goodness.

Like our favorite dreams these stories keep coming back in one form or another, from the midnight movies to late-night TV to home video and finally DVD.

One of the cool things about DVD is that you can pack a big pile of data onto one disk. Some companies use this capability to enhance the quality of their product, presenting their fine motion pictures with the best possible picture and sound. Other companies go for quantity, and that’s what we’re dealing with here: three junky movies packed into one cheap product. Some of today’s collectors turn up their noses at this kind of thing, but if you ask me, this is an entirely appropriate use of technology. Look, here’s a brand new recording of three interesting movies for under $15 retail—that’s less than $5 apiece. Sure, it’s not optimum quality transfer and sound engineering, but after all, we’re not talking about Lawrence of Arabia here. Thirty years ago you’d pay at least $15 for a heavily condensed silent 8mm film copy of just one of these movies, if you could find it, and then you’d have to load it onto one of those incomprehensible home movie projectors and hope the machine wouldn’t chew your movie to pieces. You spoiled rotten kids don’t know how good you’ve got it.

I digress.

It’s kind of hard to figure out who exactly gets credit for this DVD. There’s a batch of logos on the back of the package—Triton? Realbiz? The National Film Museum? Slingshot? At this level of home video production companies come and go, and change names, and get swallowed up by other companies, with the rapidity of a schoolroom science cartoon about the food chain. This disk may well be hard to find, except on the Internet, and hard to get when you find it there. I ordered this DVD from an online dealer, and the interval between order and receipt was a saga in itself, but I won’t bore you with that. Now I see it’s listed by DVD Price Search as “discontinued.” Is it worth the effort to look for this? I think so, particularly if you’re a hardcore fan of old SF.

The movies we have here are three examples of the auteur theory gone wild: two produced and directed by W. Lee Wilder (Billy Wilder’s brother), Phantom From Space (1953) and Killers From Space (1954); and one written, produced, directed, photographed, edited and starring Tom Graeff, Teenagers From Outer Space (1959).

Ted Cooper takes his turn carrying Noreen Nash in Phantom From Space. At left is Harry Landers.Phantom is the one movie of the three that manages to maintain some credibility with critics, mainly because of its use of invisibility effects and its sympathetic alien. Critics tend to forget all the tedious scenes of car patrols, uninspired foot chases and scientific incompetence that precede the better sequences.

The alien crash-lands and is almost immediately assaulted by tipsy guys on a beach—“How would you feel if somebody with a crazy helmet with pipes sticking out of it came at you in the dark?” says one attacker. It’s a question to ponder during the long sequences in which two-fisted FCC officials track down the offender in cars with huge rooftop antennae. “I never knew you carried such sensitive instruments in your car,” one investigator says to another, rather suggestively.

The alien (referred to as “this saboteur—this...‘X-Man’”), cornered by trigger-happy cops, strips off his spacesuit and proceeds in naked invisibility to further flummox local officials. It’s established that the suit is extremely radioactive, making it necessary to handle it with protective gloves, and that the fugitive breathes methane. Finally, 53 minutes into the narrative, a cop asks the scientist, “Are you trying to say, Doc, that we’re not dealing with a human being?”

To its credit, the film nicely establishes that an invisible man’s worst enemy would be an aggressive dog, and it features a brave woman character (Noreen Nash) who remains open-minded about the alien’s motives even after the obligatory carry-the-woman-around scene. The FX ain’t bad, either, even in the revelatory climax.

These guys from Killers From Space want to rule our world-and why shouldn't they?Killers is no advance for Wilder, who fails to wring much suspense out of the story of a scientist (Peter Graves) brainwashed into spying for aliens. Part of the problem is that the tale is dependent on special effects that Wilder couldn’t afford. The worst effect is probably the aliens’ bugged-out eyes, the most memorable image from the movie. The filmmakers agonized over this, because they didn’t have $900 in the budget to spend at an optical shop. Said makeup whiz Harry Thomas (quoted in Filmfax 21), “I was almost completely discouraged when I opened up the refrigerator to get something to drink, and there was my answer, a white plastic egg tray.” You can guess the rest.

There are also unconvincing matte shots of nuclear explosions (Wilder was apparently confused about the harmful effects of radiation, as were most Americans at the time) and insects, lizards and amphibians grown to giant size. These behemoths were bred to destroy our civilization, but for now they seem content to gaze with mild curiosity at the panicked future host of Biography. The chief alien explains, “Their growth is due to a change in their genes.” This obvious straight line is wasted on rookie star Graves, who has a bulky comforting presence but is generally stiff in his role, and plods through the few scenes of comic relief and domesticity. He’s not even fazed by the recollection that the aliens took his heart out of his body, patched it up it, showed it to him, and then stuck it back in, leaving a scar that neatly frames his youthful left nipple. (“Do you mind if we call you ‘Scar-Nip’ from now on?” commented my companion Abby Andresen, MST3K style.)

The biggest problem is that Wilder didn’t know how to establish point of view, which is essential for a hallucinatory suspense movie, and if he had, Killers might have been a nice little paranoid nightmare in the spirit of Invaders From Mars or Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But I’m supposed to be reviewing the movie on the screen, not the improved version running through my head.

The story goes that Teenagers From Space filmmaker Tom Graeff (shown in character) parked this saucer prop behind Gloria Swanson's property and she called the cops to report an alien invasion-if so, she was the only person fooled by it.Teenagers also begins with a story with some potential, combining adolescent angst with interplanetary invasion, but Tom Graeff’s low-budget special effects work against that potential, as does the appalling acting of most of the cast. Graeff himself is nearly tolerable, but the real danger to the camp effect is the performance of love interest Dawn Anderson, who is altogether too sincere and sometimes nearly convincing. She just doesn’t belong.

The all-male crew of hostile alien guys has been en route in a very small ship for a very long time, but they’re still acting very butch as they scheme to turn our planet into a pasture for their gigantic Gargons. Now, I’ve always thought there was a rule in Hollywood screenwriting: Never kill the dog. These rotten aliens kill the dog immediately, in the first minute of the film, using a ray gun to turn him into a fully-articulated, display-ready skeleton. This is the signature special effect of this film, and it’s used to the hilt, but it’s not the worst danger to Earth. That comes in the form of the Gargons, which look to me like really big lobsters, but I’m no exobiologist. (If they are really big lobsters, these aliens have better taste in food than they have in clothing.)

Graeff as “David Love” rebels against the plan, entranced by the earthlings’ notion of “starting a family.” He starts a running battle with his petulant boss, played by an actor appropriately named King Moody, and his tough-talking enforcer “Thor” (Bryan Grant). There’s a cataclysmic conclusion, if you make it that far. Thus Graeff proves again that you can’t make a good film with “teenager” in the title.

The three films on this DVD are presented full-frame, in basic mono sound, without frills. There’s a scene access menu for each film, and that’s about it. The back cover lists a Popeye cartoon and a Ray Milland radio show as bonus extras, but I couldn’t find them on the disk.

Lest you think that this collection was just thrown together, this DVD uses some of the best source materials I’ve ever seen for these films. For example, my cheap old copy of Killers From Space is now replaced by a version without the missing frames and fuzzy soundtrack, and even restores a green tint to the alien sequences.

In summary, I suggest you fans of oddball alien films go scout up some copies of this disk before they all disappear.

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David Christenson is a journalist, photographer, dealer in used and rare books, ex-beekeeper and movie buff who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Copyright © 2002 by the author. All rights reserved.