If you made a sci-fi film in which characters spent a great of their screen time talking about the overall strangeness of an alien presence, as well as theorize as to what it all means in the great scheme of things, would be an interesting genre bender, or an excruciating snooze?
Surprisingly, W. Lee Wilder’s film isn’t dull, but it does have one pondering a consistent question: Where the hell is the alien?
It’s often quite stupefying to watch well-edited scenes where a group of characters debate and trade-off information between ridiculously brief sequences wherein the titular phantom up in his ‘diving suit’ wardrobe, and reveals to viewers his powers of invisibility, before popping up again in the final reel because he needs the helmet’s special filter to prevent suffocation from our atmosphere.
That’s basically the main story once the alien crash lands and scares off a bunch of mountain campers, while a roving crew of eggheads triangulate coordinates to find the downed craft that had American defence radars going haywire.
What’s set into motion in the first act is the alien skittering around rural Los Angeles; government eggheads thinking they’ve found some Commie spy craft; local detectives after the mountain ‘diver’ who scared the picnickers; and scientists who confirm the weirdo/spy everyone’s after is an alien, because the creature left its indestructible 'diving suit' suit and breathing helmet behind in some commercial wood shed when the eggheads and detectives and military men converged outside. Add a barking dog and a female scientist, and you have a great deal of opportunities for director Wilder to have each faction meet with another and discuss findings/solutions before going off and searching some more.
It’s laughable as well as tiresome, but just as one is about to lose patience, the phantom always makes a fleeting appearance, most notably in the famous Griffith Observatory, where it’s chased through the planetarium and various hallways before a final moment, desperately hanging from a telescope. It's effort to communicate with the heroine is actually rather intriguing, since it presents a dying alien desperately trying to communicate with humans without any linguistic references – a compelling moment that’s more akin to The Outer Limits than a standard sci-fi film with the usual moral themes based around religion or male megalomania.
Wilder was the “estranged” brother of Oscar-winning writer/director Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity), and the film’s story was conceived by son Myles Wilder, a writer who apparently maintained a long and prolific career co-writing TV scripts with the film’s other credited screenwriter, William (Bill) Raynor.
In terms of the father-son team, Phantom from Space marked W. Lee Wilder’s busiest period, because after a spate of genre entries such as Killers from Space (1954) and The Snow Creature (1954), the writers shifted their attention towards TV, whereas Wilder kind of struggled in the B-movie realm before his career sputtered out with final works Bluebeard’s Ten Honeymoons (1960), and The Omegans (1968).
Wilder’s early fifties films – Once a Thief (1950), Phantom from Space (1953), and Killers from Space (1954) – did give cinematographer William Clothier some practice before he photographed several classics, including The Sea Chase (1955), The Alamo (1960), The Deadly Companions (1961), The Comancheros (1961), and Cheyenne Autumn (1965).
The film also gave composer William Lava, then ludicrously busy scoring cartoons, some live action drama, although his score tends to recycle the same atmospheric and chase music. Lava’s later film work centered on several bug-eyed monster movies, including Revenge of the Creature (1955), and The Deadly Mantis (1957)
The only recognizable face in the B-level cast is character actor Harry Landers, who appeared in countless TV series, but is perhaps best remembered from the Star Trek episode “Turnabout Intruder,” as the lovesick doctor who helps Dr. Janice Lester switch bodies with Captain Kirk.
Phantom from Space is a whole lump of genres – sci-fi, detective story, Cold War drama – but at 73 mins., it’s an adequate B-movie that’s a bit too chatty for fans waiting for some big kaboom (which never really happens).
Legend Films offers a fairly clean black & white print of the film with grain becoming saturated only when Wilder opts to optically zoom into several shots. The DVD includes a colorized version, and the mono mix is balanced and punchy.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan