Like pretty much every punk rocker in history, my first exposure to Angry Red Planet was the cover to the Misfits album Walk Among Us, which depicted the band being menaced by a giant…rat-bat-spider…thing. Or maybe it was working for them. The monster, like the album, was pretty incredible, but this being the 1980s, I didn’t have any way to find out what the heck it was from. For a while, I think I even assumed the band itself had designed the monster. I can’t remember when it was I finally discovered the origin of the creature, but when it did happen, it sparked a long and surprisingly difficult search, this being before the internet and DVD and me being in a small Kentucky town without much of a support network for young film fans despite the fact that D.W. Griffith was buried just down the road. His silent corpse was of almost no help. Eventually, it all came together, and that was the day I first learned about producer-director-screenwriter Sid Pink.
Pittsburgh native Pink discovered his love of film making in a unique way. There was a school play in which he had the role of a movie producer. While he was inhabiting this role (presumably with a big prop cigar), he thought, “Yeah, this is actually a pretty cool job.” Soon after, young Sid found employment as a projectionist in a local movie theater while pursuing a business degree. In 1952, he made good on his drama club actor’s dream of being a movie producer when he made Bwana Devil, the story of a couple of man-eating lions and one of the early 3D films. Sadly, his next film, I Was a Burlesque Queen, was not 3D. When the novelty of that format had worn off, Pink started looking for a new hook with which to draw people into his low-budget films — and to cover up some of the cheapness of his productions. What he came up with was “CineMagic,” and the film in which he showcased it was the sci-fi film Angry Red Planet.
The world’s first manned expedition to Mars has vanished, and men in sparsely-appointed offices are concerned by swirling newspaper headlines. When the rocket reappears, the world breathes a collective sigh of relief — until it’s discovered that only two of the four members of the crew are alive. On board the returning rocket is unbuttoned shirt aficionado and expedition leader Col. Thomas O’Bannion (a particularly sleazy Gerald Mohr), who has been incapacitated by some horrifying alien growth, and scientist Dr. Iris Ryan (Naura Hayden), known to the crew as Irish and in a state of shock that prevents her from remembering any of the details of the nightmarish fate that befell the crew. A third crew member, Doctor Morbius lookalike Prof. Theodore Gettell (Les Tremayne, War of the Worlds) is aboard the rocket but dead. And requisite blue-collar Joe Brooklyn guy Sam Jacobs (Jack Kruschen) is missing entirely. Making matters worse, all records of what happened to the crew while on Mars have been erased. The only way to save O’Bannion and discern what the heck happened on Mars is to snap poor, semi-catatonic Iris out of her fugue state.
The first half of the 1950s was an era of great, big-budget, serious science fiction undertakings produced by major studios and resulting in classics like 1951’s When Worlds Collide, 1953’s War of the Worlds, 1955’s This Island Earth, and 1956’s Forbidden Planet. Although small in scale when measured against the average Hollywood science fiction film, Angry Red Planet was a substantial undertaking for Pink’s production company, an epic tale of the exploration of space and terrifying encounters with the inhabitants of another planet. It would break many of American International Pictures’s house rules, chief among them being Pink’s desire to shoot the film in color. By the time production was underway, Pink had raised $20,000 and hired Ib Melchior to direct, giving the novice movie maker ten days in which to complete the film. Compared to the budgets and timetables of the average AIP production, ten days and $20,000 was positively lavish.
Pink’s film, scripted by him and Melchior (Melchior is better known for his stints as a screenwriter, but in 1958 he wasn’t well-known for anything much more high-profile than Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall), was an ambitious story, one that demanded space travel and the creation of a series of Martian landscapes. It turns out that $20,000 isn’t very much money for this sort of movie, and Pink quickly found himself forced to cut some corners. His first fear was that budget constraints would necessitate abandoning the use of color film. Pink’s solution was ingenious, and also the product of a mistake at the lab. According to the story, some of the film was processed using the incorrect technique, resulting in film negatives that had been “solarized,” a process which partially reverses a negative and makes part of it a “positive.” If you’ve ever made or had to sit through a first semester film student’s experimental video project, you’ve either witnessed or been guilty of solarizing abuse.
What could have been a disaster for Pink was turned into the film’s most striking asset. Rather than scrapping the ruined footage and starting over, a cost that would have indeed forced Pink to shoot the entire film in black and white, he decided to use the mis-processed film, noting that the process had given the film a bizarre, otherworldly quality while masking much of the set’s shoddiness. Pink changed the incident from mistake to process and dubbed in CineMagic. The negatives were then tinted red and suddenly the “ruined” film became the finished movie’s primary selling point.
This enabled Pink and Melchior to cut costs in a number of other ways. Now, they could save money by shooting black and white that would, through CineMagic, become color. It eliminated the need to produce film positives for large chunks of footage. Positives are the prints of the film that would be projected, containing true colors, as opposed to negatives. Usually, filmmakers would have to create positive prints of films for projection, but with CineMagic, this was not necessary, saving Pink a substantial amount of money on lab work. Also, the funky effect and tinting allowed Melchior to shoot really cheap sets — and in some cases, just still drawings — and have them look weird and alien. What would otherwise be an obvious shoddy tropical jungle set left over from Bwana Devil suddenly becomes a psychedelic Martian landscape. Someone’s drawing of a futuristic city becomes a glowing Martian metropolis. And a ridiculous little monster model has almost all its short-comings masked, transforming it into the terrifying rat-bat-spider monster thing.
According to Sid Pink, he wrote the first draft of the script sitting at his kitchen table, with his children serving as judges of would and would not be cool. I assume they were involved only in the Martian portions of the story — that or Sid Pink’s children have a voracious appetite for stock footage of airfields and scenes of guys standing around in meeting rooms. The dinnertime script apparently still needed a little punching up, which is when Pink called in Ib Melchior to jazz things up a bit with more scenes of guys in military uniforms sitting at a meeting table. The end product has a sort of easy-going charm about it, with the fact that most of it is kind of dull being snowed over by the eye-catching weirdness of its Martian sequences, which Iris recalls through a series of flashbacks.
So it is we learn about her terrifying tale of how O’Bannoin absolutely refused to zip up his space shirt, preferring to strut around the ship with his glorious, slightly sunken-in chest exposed so the rest of the crew might fully drink in his roast beef-esque skin tone. When he’s not combing his luxurious mane of chest hair, O’Bannion is flashing his smarmy smirk and sleazing up to Iris with all the finger-snapping panache of a just over-the-hill lounge lizard oozing up to an unlucky lady and asking her if she likes Perry Como. It’s no surprise that Iris lapsed into a state of hysterical amnesia.
It turns out there is more responsible for Iris’ state of mind that being endlessly hit upon by an oily superior officer who cannot figure out how to work shirt buttons. Their rocket lands on Mars, and all seems wondrous until Iris checks in with her first of many screams, when she thinks she spies a life form peeping at her through the portal. This is, predictably, chalked up to feminine vapors or whatever it is that afflicts all women, even smart lady scientists. Donning their jumpsuits and space helmets, the intrepid quartet of astro-explorers step out of the rocket, onto the surface of Mars, and directly into CineMagic.
Mars in not happy to have them. The quartet of blundering adventurers soon find themselves on the wrong end of everything from carnivorous plants to the aforementioned rat-bat-spider monster, which they somehow mistake for a tree, even from a distance and even though it’s a fucking giant monster assembled out of the parts of rats, bats, and spiders. It’s not like it was camouflaged or obscured. It was standing in the middle of a field, in full view, minding its own business when these earthfolk came up and started breaking off its leg spines and mistaking it for a tree.
After every calamitous encounter, the crew retreats to their rocket, possibly for safety, but also possibly just because O’Bannion was chafing under the weight of a fully-concealed chest. Missteps aside, each time they venture out again, they dare to wander a little bit farther, ultimately finding a large body of water across which seems to be a giant city. With no caution, despite their previous close shaves, the crew piles into a little rubber dinghy to visit this incredible discovery only to stumble upon even more deadly Martian locals.
Mohr’s greasy captain is the standout character, the astronaut who seems miffed that spacesuits don’t come with big gold disco medallions and rocketships just don’t stock enough Brylcreem.the remainder of the cast is OK. It’s the usual bunch of people who were in one episode of every television show ever made. As Dr. Irish, Naura Hayden has a great scream face, gets to pour beakers of colored liquid, and sort of saves the day in the end, which is a nice change of pace. Of course, she also can’t tell the difference between a tree and a rat-bat-spider monster. But she’s not a bad character, even if her tolerance of O’Bannion’s Serge Gainsbourg-esque approach to captaining a spaceship seems unrealistically high. And as everyman Sam, Jack Kruschen is the same as all the other people who have played this character. I can’t believe he didn’t wear a Brooklyn Dodgers cap and talk about his sweetie back home at Coney Island. The final member of the crew, Les Tremayne’s Prof. Theodore Gettell, spends so little time sleazing around with his shirt undone or talking about how he’s just a regular Joe, that he becomes inoffensively competent and forgettable.
Despite having been in the game for a while, neither Pink nor Melchior were overly experienced at the time of this film, which is probably the thing most responsible for Angry Red Planet’s successes. A more experienced filmmaker might not have been willing to just throw a red tint over ruined film and call it magic. A more experienced director might not have allowed Gerald Mohr to deviate from the usual depiction of a heroic spaceship commander — good posture, kind yet authoritative, competent, and brave — and play his character like a middle-aged suburban swinger in Reno for a weekend conference. But Pink and Melchior were not experienced, so they just let these things slide. And those things are a large part of what elevates Angry Red Planet to the status of minor B-movie classic.
CineMagic didn’t really catch on, even among the budget-conscious filmmakers at AIP. However, this was not the end of the science fiction road for either Pink or Melchior. Partnered with AIP and working with Danish film producers (no doubt for some sort of tax credits), Pink went on to direct another minor cult classic, Reptilicus (co-written by him and Ib Melchior), as well as Journey to the Seventh Planet (also with Melchior). Melchior on his own had his ink-stained screenwriting fingers in two more low-budget sci-fi classics: 1964’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars and the English-language version of Mario Bava’s interstellar spook show, Planet of the Vampires. That’s not a bad bunch of movies.