‘His secret power menaced the world!’
Phantom from Space is a 1954 American science fiction film about an alien being with the power of invisibility that lands in California.
Directed by W. Lee Wilder (Killers from Space; The Snow Creature) from a screenplay written by William Raynor [as Bill Raynor) and Myles Wilder, based on a story by the latter. The Planet Filmplays production stars Ted Cooper, Noreen Nash and Rudolph Anders.
A UFO crashes to Earth in California and groups of military, scientists and police use triangulation radio signals and Geiger counters to pursue the occupant, an alien who, once he sheds his bulky spacesuit, can go around invisible in Earth’s spectrum…
Do you think your family reunions are awkward when you get unfavourably compared to your more successful siblings? Imagine a theoretical dinner table gathering in Hollywood for the Wilder clan… On one side, Billy Wilder, the ace director of Golden-Age classics such as Sunset Boulevard, The Seven Year Itch, The Apartment, Stalag 17, Some Like It Hot, Double Indemnity etc. etc… At the other end of the table, brother W. Lee Wilder, who like German-exile Billy, also tried to make his way in Hollywood.
Now, we’ve all sat there under withering, disapproving gazes of parents and uncles, the look that just shouts “are you going to be sitting on the couch watching weird videos and looking at internet sites such Movies & Mania all your life? Your brother just clocked his 15th year in middle-management!” Still, one would wish that just a little reflected DNA for talent and glory had been shed on W. Lee Wilder by a whimsically cruel universe.
There are some tantalizing titles in his filmography, but the ones that most of us know are pretty downmarket sci-fi/horror genre fodder and cheapies. Phantom from Space is one of these, and O my brothers, any resemblance to Billy’s Sabrina, released that same year of 1954, is purely ironic.
Narrated semi-documentary opening, full of USAF stock footage, has a glowing UFO streaking from Alaska across the USA and crashing (offscreen) in southern California, where an unlucky fellow is killed by its presumed pilot, described as a big guy (Dick Sands) in a diving-type suit. A ridiculously small posse of police, military, press, interested bystanders and the token German-accented scientist try to converge on the intruder, and shots of bulky automobiles with clunky-looking antennae driving around really seem to go on forever.
It also seems to take an excessive amount of footage for the ensemble to figure out that they may be dealing with an alien creature here – the German guy keeps referring the Phantom from Space as “the X Man.” Note to the Wilder estate: a lawsuit against Marvel Entertainment right now could really pay some big bucks.
The, er, phantom menace finally shows himself to the viewer with the surprise gimmick that when the humanoid sheds his bulky spacesuit, he is invisible. Thus, for a while, the thrust of your average (or below-average) invisible-man drama predominates, with the humans pursuing the unseen extraterrestrial all over low-budget locations (finally bringing an astronomical observatory in for the finale), and the transparent alien lifting objects, opening doors, and so forth. Even so, the scientific folks here seem in deep denial about the mystery visitor’s origins, astounded that he seems to carry a supply of non-Earth gases to breath instead of good old American air.
As in Edgar Ulmer’s The Man from Planet X and Robert Wise’ The Day the Earth Stood Still (Ulmer’s low-budget movie is a better comparison), there’s a poignant, if fuzzy sense that the alien “phantom” doesn’t really seem to be a bad guy, just lost, misunderstood, uncomprehending, unable to communicate, and slowly suffocating – although, given the somewhat haphazard narrative construction, one wonders if a few bits of exposition got lost somewhere.
Briefly visible, the bulbous-headed X Man looks not unlike the seven-foot extraterrestrial plant-man in 1951’s The Thing from Another World, wherein ace filmmaking chops, atmosphere and editing turned an unimaginative monster getup into something truly ferocious and frightening.
Here it’s just… well, let’s just say charitably that Phantom from Space at least works better as a time-passer than W. Lee Wilder’s other teaming with tall, muscular actor Dick Sands, The Snow Creature – another monosyllabic chase-the-monster picture, one that put Sands into a baggy and terribly unconvincing yeti costume. Advantages of a yeti going invisible had not apparently occurred to anyone.
Charles Cassady Jr., MOVIES and MANIA
“Dull and unimaginative low budget fifties ‘B’ picture.” Alan Frank, The Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Handbook, Batsford, 1982
Cast and characters:
- Ted Cooper … Hazen
- Tom Daly … Charlie
- Steve Acton … Operator
- Burt Wenland … Joe
- Lela Nelson … Betty Evans
- Harry Landers … Lieutenant Bowers
- Bert Arnold … Darrow
- Sandy Sanders … Policeman
- Harry Strang … Neighbour
- Jim Bannon … Police Sergeant
- Jack Daly … Wakeman
- Michael Mark … Watchman
- Rudolph Anders … Doctor Wyatt
- James Seay … Major Andrews
- Noreen Nash … Barbara Randall
- Griffith Park, Los Angeles, California (driving scenes on roadways)
- Griffith Observatory, 2800 E Observatory Road, Los Angeles, California (interior scenes chasing the alien – also the setting for the climax of War of the Colossal Beast)
- 73 minutes
- Audio: Mono (Western Electric Recording)
- Black and White
- Aspect ratio: 1.37: 1