SATURDAY B-MOVIE CRAP FEST: “The Phantom Planet” (1961)

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This is actually the first movie we’ve reviewed in the Crap Fest series that I’ve actually seen or heard of before. Granted, I have some vague, fleeting memories of “Cosmos: War of the Planets” - mostly the robot at the end - that may indicate I really saw it before, or it may simply be the result of that LSD someone put in my drink back in the 80s. Or both. Either way, I certainly never saw the whole film before reviewing it here, and I hope to never see it again. I started the Crap Fest because I thought it would be fun, and it would perhaps serve to revive interest in the entertainingly awful movies of my youth, but to be honest until today, I was kind of regretting it. I mean, two late-70s Italian cheeze-fests and an only semi-coherent introspective 50s yawner - it was getting me down. Fortunately, this movie was quite a bit more fun, and more in keeping with what I’d hoped to do in this column. So I’m feeling a bit better now.


We begin with some surprisingly effective black-and-white animation and some not-terribly-sensible narration in which we’re told man has conquered the moon and is expanding on to the other planets. There’s also some philosophical ramble that never quite gels about the timeless questions like “Is man’s speed the fastest?” and “Would the atmospheric conditions of other planets affect our development? If so, would life on another world become a race of giants? Or would quite the opposite be true?” It almost makes sense, but like clouds it never quite resolves itself in to a solid concept.

We then jump to some bored Astronauts on board the Pegasus 3, looking forward to getting back to the “Dreary old moon” after several weeks. Then a thing shows up and destroys them. Roll opening credits.

On United States Air Force Lunar Base 1, the Colonel in charge of the base is desperately trying to figure out what it is that’s taken out two of his ships. He decides to send out Captain Frank Chapman, and Lt. Makonnen to look for whatever space-boogeyman is causing the disappearances. Chapman isn’t taking it seriously. We get a low-budget, but effective launch sequence, and then the two of them commence to being bored, while Makonnen gets somewhat disconcertingly philosophical. Eventually, Chapman gets the idea to change course since Lightning Never Strikes Twice, and looks in a different area. They move on to a different patrol zone, and are immediately pelted by meteors. They go outside to fix the problem, when some tiny glowing after-shards pelt them, and Chapman’s suit is punctured. Makonnen pushes Chapman back in the airlock and starts the door closing when he, himself, is hit by a shard and flies off in to space, leaking air.

We get a neat, mournful shot of his last sight in this life - the Pegasus 3 drifting away from him in the distance - while he’s reciting The Lord’s Prayer. It’s surprisingly effective.

Chapman wakes up confused and looking for Makonnen, but quickly realizes what must have happened to him. Then “The Phantom Planet” shows up, and he’s snatched by a tractor beam. He makes an emergency landing on the surface, gets out, and staggers around for no observable reason before collapsing, when he’s approached by Lilliputians wearing what appear to be hospital scrubs with the sleeves cut of. He gets up, scares them, falls again and his helmet opens. Then there’s a fairly nifty-if-low-budget shot of him shrinking. The Lilliputians go in to his suit - it’s enormous to them - to haul him out, but he clocks one of them in the process.

They haul him off to see Sessom (Francis X. Bushman), ruler of The Phantom Planet, who calls a kangaroo court and finds Chapman guilty of trumped up charges, so that he can’t legally leave the planet or asteroid or space ship or whatever this thing is. He’s free to do whatever else he wants, however. Chapman is annoyed by this, but there’s no appeal: he was found guilty by a jury of attractive women in very short skirts, and that’s all the law requires, on that world as well as our own.

Meanwhile, back at Lunar Base 1, the Colonel is trying to find Pegasus 3. Chapman tries to get the aid of Liara, an attractive, but surprisingly old hot chick (She’s 39) to help him, but she basically taunts him with the knowledge that his ship was set adrift in space last night. Sessom tells Chapman that he wants him to help them come up with a method to hide from Earth, and also to choose a wife from among the only two available women on The Phantom Planet: Either his hot, but clearly-nearly-middle-aged daughter (Liara), or a pretty mute brunette girl who wears too much makeup named Zetha.

At this point, the movie slams on the brakes. Up until now, this had been a surpisingly enjoyable, briskly-paced, well-directed little movie. Sure, the science was hokey as heck, sure the acting was dodgy, but it kept moving, the mystery was vaguely mysterious, it doesn’t look terribly cheap, and there’s an energy throughout the first half that just kind of carries you through it. Unfortunately, now that the film is basically Phantom-Planet-bound, it suffers the fate of all B-movies: Talking heads walking over and over through boring, minimalist sets while nothing happens for twenty minutes at a time, and everyone struggles to find a method to pad out the threadbare script.

Basically, a guy named “Herron” was cock of the walk until Chapman showed up, and now he’s jealous that his 39-year-old would-be-girlfriend - who he was maybe almost ready to getting around to putting the moves on some day soon, probably - is making goo-goo eyes at the new guy. Meanwhile,, Sessom exposits about why they all live like cave men, yet still have super-advanced Flash Gordon technology. Liara the Cougar continues to put the moves on Chapman, but he’s clearly not that interested. Herron challenges Chapman to The Duel, which is basically the opposite of a tug-o-war: the push-o-war. The looser gets pushed over gravity plates set to “Really fat” and dies. They’re given a special ceremonial rod of poking - which is evidently freaky-heavy - and possibly the most boring combat in history happens. Herron looses, but Chapman saves him at the last minute, and the crowd - consisting mostly of the short-skirted jurors - seem disappointed, and file out in an orderly kickline.

Sessom explains to Chapman how their flash Gordon super science works, and then Herron takes to stalking Chapman in a scene that, really, works much better than it should, and the two decide to join forces to get Chapman the hell off this rock, so that he won’t be a threat to Herron’s long-term-bid to maybe, possibly, kinda-sorta ask Liara out on a date…someday. Well, not really a date per se, that would be too much pressure on both of them really, just, you know, coffee. Coffee and a synthetic bread-fruit like thing a couple times a week for a year or so until it becomes a habit, and then maybe he’ll pop the question. Or do you think that’s too shocking, popping the question like that? Maybe. Really, the goal is to start dating her in such a way that he doesn’t realize he’s dating her, and, you know, by the time she hits menopause she’s bound to like him, right? Anyway, Chapman is lousing all that up.

The plan is simply to move The Phantom Planet near enough to the moon so that Earth will see it and launch a rescue mission for Chapman, but they need to do this without Sessom noticing, so probably while the old man is in bed. Then the Solarites attack. They’re an evil alien race of fire people who are not at all on fire, nor, apparently, even terribly warm. They originally come from “A solar satellite” and they seek The Phantom Planet’s gravity control so that their own world won’t fall in to their sun. Their space ships look (Charitably) like balls of flame, or (Less charitably) flaming dog turds, but the attack goes on for a while until Sessom uses the gravity control-o-gun to kill them all. Yawn. In the meantime, a captive solarite (Richard Kiel) they kept in the local petting zoo escapes, and runs amok through The Phantom Planet.

Well, not so much “Amok” as going after the pretty mute girl, touching her hair, and then carrying her about when she passes out. He wanders about aimlessly for a bit, then sets down the girl, attacks Sessom, picks up the girl, and wanders around aimlessly a bit more, eventually coming to the control room/cave/set/thing where he and Chapman engage in yet another push-of-war to the death, and the mute girl screams.

The moonbase notices The Phantom Planet and dispatches a ship to investigate, and Chapman and The No-Longer-Mute Chick confess their love and make out a bit, then he says ‘bye, I’ll call you some time and she gives him a random rock to remember her by, and they put him back in to his suit, where he grows back to normal size. He’s found by the crew of the rescue ship, babbling ‘bout the little people. They load him on their spacecraft, and fly him home, but he finds a tiny rock in his glove and realizes it wasn’t all a dream.

The narrator - a different one from the guy in the beginning, who was perhaps captured by the guys with the butterfly nets before his voiceover duties were completed - tells us that this is not the end of the story, but only the Beginning!

The End (Regardless of what Narrator # 2 says)


Coincidentally, this movie resembles nothing so much as an episode of Space: 1999. We’ve got the typical plot device of a character marooned on a hokey-fake alien world composed entirely of minimalist sets, and the people on the moonbase looking for them, trying to attempt a rescue. We’ve also got a lovey-dovey subplot where the downed pilot needs to decide to follow his heart, or his duty to the moonbase. Fourteen years later, Space: 1999 would use that same basic format *many* times.

There’s an odd dose of philosophy in the first half of the movie. It’s not what you’d call philosophical, it’s more like a picture of philosophy taken by a guy across the street from a college professors house. More distracting that useful. We get most of it in the opening narration, but Makonnen’s odd little burst about how “The brightest and the best is to focus on the beautiful” comes out of nowhere. Most would find it distracting, but I kind of like it as it tells us a lot about the guy. I mean, I spent an hour and a half with most of these people, and don’t feel I know them. Makonnen’s on screen for only a few badly-drawn minutes, but he feels like a character. His death scene was surprisingly effective.

Ugliest. Space. Suits. Ever. They’re basically full-body skydiver gear with ugly veins sewed along the outside, presumably to move air to the arms and legs.

The moonbase control room is a nice set, and I like the cyclorama view out the window. The Pegasus rocket sets - interior and exterior - are pretty good too. And for some reason, I always like depictions of the future where the Air Force has its own space program.

Dean Fredericks plays Frank Chapman, with a distractingly bad bleach job. This is made worse when he’s wandering around with his shirt off, or unbuttoned (It’s total disco couture on The Phantom Planet, baby!) and we can see his really hairy chest doesn’t match his blonde hair. That said, he actually plays his part well. His love scenes with The Mute Chick Who Can Talk are a bit rushed, but there’s a tinge of affection there, a dash of chemistry, some stolen glances now and again. It could work better, but it mostly works. I like that the story has him choosing the less attractive girl because she’s a better person. I also like its sympathetic portrayal of someone with a disability. Fredericks has an interesting look, and could easily pass for Asian or Amerasian, or Indian. I actually find myself wondering if he was any of these, and I note from the IMDb that he played a fair number of American Indian roles, but I can’t find any personal information about him or his heritage. If anyone knows, I’d be interested to find out. He had a good speaking voice, too, though not particularly emotive. He did a lot of Disney work in the late ‘60s, and is primarily known for playing Steve Canyon in the late ‘50s.

The credits say “And Introducing Dolores Faith” as The Mute Girl Can Talk, but in fact, she made her screen debut several months earlier in a film called “V.D.” (Also known as “Damaged Goods.”) I can see how one wouldn’t really want to brag about that, though.

Based on the few numbers they give and some internal dialog, The Phantom Planet would seem to be about 1062 kilometers across, or about 660 miles from side to side at it’s longest point. That makes it about 1/12th the size of earth, or about 1/3rd the size of the moon. Basically, The Phantom Planet is a hair smaller than Pluto. Of course it’s not round. I think the idea is to show that it’s a jagged asteroid, but, as MST3k observed, it resembles nothing so much as a piece of fried chicken.

Science that makes no sense in this movie:
1) Gravity and Magnetism are frequently used interchangeably in the film, but they’re not the same force.
2) The atmosphere and gravity on The Phantom Planet cause Chapman to shrink to Lilliputian size. Re-exposure to his own atmosphere cause him to grow again.
3) We’re told that at their reduced size, life on The Phantom Planet is pretty much the same as living on the surface of a real planet.
4) The atmosphere provides pretty much everything The Phantom Planeteers need to survive, all their nutrition. They do drink, though.
5) That the heck is “A Solar Satellite?” Why would it be in danger of falling in to a sun?
6) At random times, we’re told that The Phantom Planet is really super-dense, at other times we’re told there’s nothing remarkable about it.
7) We’re told the reason The Phantom Planeteers are so small is that their made up of smaller-than-average atoms.

The Solarite costume….hoo boy. On the one hand, it’s really ambitious, but on the other hand, it’s silly as heck. It reminds me a lot of a William Tuttle piece from The Twilight Zone - he’s the guy who did the gremlin, and other ‘Zone monsters - but I can’t find any mention of whether they grabbed it from the set, rented the costume, or made it themselves. I do like the freaky-high shoulders, though.

The Solarite spacecraft are silly as heck, of course, but the close ups of solarites in the cockpits surrounded by flame are kind of neat.

The scene where Herron first threatens Chapman with a knife, then comes to an agreement with him, is very well played, much better than the movie deserves. There’s an ebb and flow to it, and I like how first the knife is a weapon, then he disarmingly taps Chapman with it a few times to emphasize his thoughts, and by the end of the scene, he’s just using it as a pointer. It nicely underscores their relationship.

I also like that - despite how boring the second half is - there’s some progression in the character. Liara the Cougar and Herron and Chapman go from hating each other to being grudging allies and then friends. What I *don’t* like is Chapman leaving The Mute Girl Who Can Talk at the end of the movie for no damn reason whatsoever. There’s no duty for him to go back to, really, the fate of nations doesn’t rest on him going back home. He should have stayed with the girl. Didn’t care for that at all. It’s a downer, and there’s no poignancy to it, it’s just a dumb move on the part of the Asian-looking guy with the bad bleach job.

Bob Kinoshita did the production design for this movie. He later went on to Production Design 49 episodes of Lost in Space, and previously did the entire “Men into Space” series. I suspect- but don’t know - that a lot of the props in this series were reused from “Men into Space.”

William Marshall - who’s better known as a bandleader - directed this movie, and in the first half of the film, he directed it really well, until the total lack of narrative motion killed the second half. He only did two other movies, both in 1951, neither of which I’ve ever seen, but I’d be interested in watching them.

This is one of the few SF movies that mentions a specific date: The story starts out on March 16th, 1980. As far as I can tell, nothing of any significance happened on that day in the real world, however there was a rocket accident in Russia two days later that killed several people. It’s always heardbreaking to see these optimistic portrayals of the space program (We’re told the USAF has THREE moon bases!), and then realize that by the date in question, the Moon had already been abandoned for eight years.

All in all, I'd count this one as a Crap Fest "Win." True, the second half struggles like damn to find anything to do, and anything we should care about, and it mostly fails in that regard, but the first half is good enough that even the lame stuff after halftime doesn't completely destroy it. The average is still high enough to make it watchable, which, as we've seen, is something Italian Science Fiction would have a problem saying about itself even sixteen years later.