There’s a strange earnestness that radiates from this clumsily made nonsense about a pilot who lands on an asteroid, only to shrink down to the same size as its Lilliputian inhabitants, and become enmeshed in a lover’s quarrel between a manipulative blonde and her intended hubby.
Everyone seems to be playing their role damn straight, even when the sets are wafer thin, the dialogue is amazingly dopey, and footage of marauding ships out to destroy the asteroid/planetoid involved incendiary globs of kibble-like matter. No matter how much hack director William Marshall tries, he just can’t transcend the poverty row budget – but watching him try is part of the fun, particularly when the seams of the effects (or the el cheap sets, for that matter) are glaringly obvious.
American pilot Frank Chapman (bleach-blonde Dean Fredericks) isn’t killed for landing on the planetoid, he’s just told he can’t leave, and must pick a wife – scheming Liara (Coleen Gray), or poor mute Zetha (Dolores Faith). Tough sell, eh? And when there’s a quarrel with Liara’s jealous fiancée Herron (Anthony Dexter), they must fight to the death by pushing the loser onto a disintegrating square on the sand-covered set. (Note to audience: will this device prove handy in the film’s final reel?)
Ultimately the attention moves from jealousy to self-preservation, and Frank helps the planetoid’s civilization (about ten from what one sees onscreen) defend themselves against a race of fiery rock creatures known as Solarites that resemble a ten year-old’s attempt to replicate the Metalunan from This Island Earth (1955) using Silly Putty. The creature’s designers even made sure the mask (worn by poor Richard Kiel) has a quivering lip to indicate when the thing is ‘frightened.’
When Frank is given a chance to go back home, his choice is actually quite surprising, because the filmmakers built up some alien love between Frank and Zetha; as ridiculous as it sounds, you wished he’d made the other choice instead.
From a film music perspective, Phantom Planet is fascinating because much of the movie is tracked (very heavily, in fact) with Leith Stevens’ score cuts from Destination Moon [M] (1950). This may be the only el cheapo space flick whose filmmakers did not borrow helmets and space suits from George Pal’s superior space epic. (In fact it’s quite surprising the filmmakers opted to use real test pilot jumpsuits for the spacemen, although there’s no way they could remain snug and cozy outside of their spaceship.)
The filmmakers, though, used stock footage of a moon approach (looped in reverse) from Edward Bernds’ World Without End [M] (1956), which in turn reappeared in the director’s Queen of Outer Space (1958), and in Ronald V. Ashcroft’s gloriously inept The Astounding She-Monster (1957).
Less amusing, though, is seeing perfectly good actors cashing a needed pay cheque: there’s Francis X. Bushman (Messala in the 1925 version of Ben-Hur) searching for some dramatic meat in his scenes as leader Sessom, and Coleen Gray (co-star in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing) figuring she might as well play Sessom’s daughter Liara with full gravitas because it’ll make a good take, and make the production end on time.
Director Marshall originally earned his keep as an actor, and Phantom Planet is one of a handful of directorial efforts that began with Errol Flynn (!), helming the 1951 diptych Hello God, and Adventures of Captain Fabian. Co-writer Fred Gebhardt had previously scripted 12 to the Moon (1960), which happened to co-star Bushman and Dexter. The film’s production design – arguably a triumph of painted paper mache and cotton candy – was by Robert Kinoshita, the chief designer of Forbidden Planet’s Robbie the Robot (which may explain the Solarite’s quivering lip design).
As late night B-movie fodder, The Phantom Planet is quite frankly perfect, but as a lost bad movie gem, it’s a treasure to behold and cuddle.
Legend Film’s DVD sports a pretty decent print, with only the weak mono mix affected by some surface noise. As with other entries in the label’s 2008 Halloween wave, the DVD contain the original black & white version, and a colorized version for those blind to the beauty of black & white.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan