Note: TOTAL SPOILERS below !
Alongside Phantom from Space (1953) and The Snow Creature (1954), Killers from Space was the third of W. Lee Wilder’s low, low budget sci-fi triptych, but here one really sees Wilder’s severe weaknesses as a director, focusing on the wrong elements to create functional drama. The problems are compounded by a threadbare budget and an overly chatty script by William Raynor, extrapolated from a story by son Myles Wilder, the same geniuses who penned Phantom.
Knowing he had few resources for special effects or create a show-stopping sequence, director Wilder again relies on long, deadly dull verbal exchanges where characters sit or stand, yapping about what may be going on, what might be a good idea, and what they’re going to do right now to solve a problem.
The film’s premise is actually quite sound: the lone survivor of a doomed bomber plane assigned to record data from an atomic bomb blast at Soledad Flats wakes up in bed with a memory loss and a surgical scar over his heart from an unknown precision operation. One minute he’s in the plane, headed for the Earth like a falling brick, and the next he’s found wandering in a confused state in the desert.
A victim of an alien abduction (an extremely contemporary hook), Dr. Douglas Martin (a young but still very un-emotive, and physically wooden Peter Graves) starts to suffer from an obsessive need to get back to work, and his colleagues and wife start to wonder if he’s suffering from a serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder, or maybe he’s not really Doc Martin.
Turns out Martin was zapped out from his plane prior to impact, and was brainwashed by a race of humanoid aliens scheming to wipe out our precious race race using mutant (er, big) versions of bugs, lizards, and other local fauna. Once in control of the planet, the mutants would be baked using atomic radiation, and their organic matter would re-seed the planet, making it inhabitable for the aliens. (Obviously radioactive bugs would never infect the soil and ruin whatever food crops the aliens would eventually consume.)
Wilder relies on a lot of archival military footage of an atom bomb test and plenty of blast images, but for the aliens, his costume designer was stuck with big baggy pajamas, wide wrestling belts, and eyes that stick out from the aliens’ head like egg shells with painted irises (their own planet’s radiation apparently caused severely convex, genetic ocular mutations).
For the affected Earth critters, Wilder sticks to tried and true macro shots of bugs and lizards, seen in a meandering the “menagerie” sequence (peppered with sound effects from Phantom) that follows a previous meandering escape attempt by Martin from his alien captors. Wilder was so bereft of concrete narrative material that he just has actor Graves wandering around caves and optical plates for a long stretch before his character is taken back to a control center, where he's hypnotized and indoctrinated like a Red Menace mole who must dutifully send further atomic test info to the aliens so they can execute their planetary takeover.
Typical of the genre, the aliens have big egos, and virtually explain their entire plans to the one guy who will ultimately stop them; Martin quickly learns his captors are powering their fancy-schmancy gear by tapping into the electrical grid, like a suburban grow-op, only bigger.
One problem: whenever the actors in alien makeup squint with anger, their eggshell eyes go cross-eyed, an unfortunate and unplanned effect that sadly reduces them from dramatic threats to fuzzy, bug-eyed goofballs.
Martin’s encounter with the aliens appear as flashbacks, following interrogation scenes with his peers after being injected with truth serum for behaving so loopy and evasive. No one quite believes him, particularly when he repeatedly hallucinates, seeing the eyes and face of his chief alien captor. The trauma pushes him to take matters into his own hands, and he escapes in his PJs and bathrobe (and apparently the same Studebaker used in Phantom) to a local power plant, where he attempts to shut down the juice for ten seconds and stymie the aliens’ plan to conquer Earth.
Like Phantom, it’s a real location (and a good one, too) that's underused by Wilder, and he has characters running up and down, left and right, until there’s a confrontation between Martin, a local techie forced to shut down the Soledad grid, Martin’s gun-toting colleagues, and his tag-along, devoted wife. Wilder has no idea how to create a suspenseful sequence, and he sticks to bland wide and medium shots, and has his actors do movements they must have found dopey and highly improbable.
Example: an officer snakes around the circular control hub while Martin holds a gun on the techie. The officer then grabs Martin, but Wilder has the three actors standing their, arms interlocked until one backs off like a moping child. The rare instances he applies close-ups (all in earlier scenes) are jarring, because the angles are bad, the eyelines are sometimes off, and an actors' expressions seem rather catatonic.
The finale is amazingly abrupt: Martin manages to shut down the power grid, after which there’s a huge off-screen boom! The whole group then converges towards a nearby window, and watch a mushroom cloud emerge from where the aliens were based.
Like Phantom, Wilder affixes a title card at the film’s head, but saves the cast and crew credits for the end crawl, which does work in Killers because the film manages to have a docu-drama feel because of the stock footage and real locations. William Clothier’s cinematography (his last for Wilder) is nicely composed and moody, and the print used for this review had green tinting for the scenes where Martin sees the alien ray prior to his plane crash, any hallucinatory moments, and scenes with the aliens in their caves.
Manuel Compinsky’s score is definitely one of the most unusual for the genre, with rather modernistic writing for small chamber orchestra dominating the dramatic and thematic segments. There isn’t much variation among the cues – Wilder may only have been able to afford a handful of music, and tracked the cues wherever they were needed – but Copinsky’s approach is definitely atypical for a genre usually accustomed to big orchestral sounds that scream ‘danger!’ with predictable timing. The composer, an accomplished violinist, would score just two more films, both for Wilder: The Snow Creature (1954) and The Big Bluff (1955).
Although star Peter Graves had already appeared in a pair of high-profile A-level pictures, Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953), and Fox' CinemaScope biggie, Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953), he’d more or less remain in B-level programmers before hitting a career high as Mission: Impossible’s Mr. Phelps (1963-1973).
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan