‘LIFE Magazine says – “the ultimate in scientific monsters!”‘
War of the Satellites is a 1958 science-fiction film about an “unknown force” that secretly declares war against planet Earth.
Directed by Roger Corman (It Conquered the World: Not Of This Earth and Attack of the Crab Monsters; et al) from a screenplay written by Lawrence L. Goldman (as Lawrence Louis Goldman) based on a story by Irving Block and Jack Rabin, the Allied Artists Pictures-Santa Cruz Productions movie stars Dick Miller, Susan Cabot, Richard Devon, Eric Sinclair and Michael Fox. Produced by Irving Block, Roger Corman and Jack Rabin.
The soundtrack score was composed by Walter Greene (Teenage Monster; The Brain from Planet Arous).
Attempts by American astronauts to leave the Earth for deep space keep ending in fiery failure when their spherical ships explode upon reaching some kind of barrier surround the Earth. Scientists launch a final attempt, unaware that an unearthly saboteur is among them – an alien whose race is determined to keep the human race on Earth, and who has taken the form of Doctor Van Pander (Richard Devon), leader of the project.
Even some Roger Corman filmographies ignore War of the Satellites, a 66-minute programmer lost in the shuffle of the iconic low-budget director’s more famous/infamous science-fiction, horror and exploitation productions.
As usual with a cut-rate Corman effort, one is somewhat struck by the flickers of ambition and the fact that he pulled the thing off at all at lightning speed under austere working conditions in order to exploit the international media frenzy surrounding the launch of the Russian Sputnik satellite (the first in space on 4th October 1957; production began on this movie just over two months later on 9th December 1957!). As one is also struck by the chintzy production values and none-dare-call-them-special F/X.
Setting for half the film is a NASA-style base in which stricken scientists led by Doctor Van Ponder (Richard Devon) have watched crews of pioneering astronauts die in space when their ships collide against some kind of unknown energy barrier girdling the Earth. Van Ponder and his chief engineer Dave Royer (Dick Miller) will not only use their latest and greatest spacecraft in one final attempt, but they will also actually be aboard themselves in a final gamble to claim space for mankind.
However, there is an added peril: Doctor Van Ponder’s automobile incinerated in a fiery crash, and the likeness of the slain doctor has been assumed by an alien infiltrator. This creature’s nameless race, intolerant of Homo sapiens and their violence, wants Earth people kept earthbound, to protect the civilized universe (for the record, I don’t particularly blame the aliens). Now the Van Ponder impersonator intends to make sure this last-ditch mission also fails fatally.
Viewers may detect echoes of Corman‘s later, better known Not of This Earth films, with the spooky doppelganger Van Ponder being able to heal from wounds and even divide into further duplicates (in inexpensive, body-doubled, early Doctor Who fashion, of course), and it’s a nice bit of Rod Serling Twilight-Zone-ishness to not know exactly what are the creature’s limits or vulnerabilities, while, little by little, Royer and others sense something strange going on.
Corman‘s stock company of performers, including siren Susan Cabot (whom even an alien could fall in love with, and does) take the material seriously, and it’s almost enough to make one politely try to not notice the “awesome” space ships are little more than toy-sized models, apparently held against a black background by black-gloved hands.
Somebody did their homework to the point that the movie takes aerospace cues from ideas actually bandied about by rocket scientists at the time, that a viable spacecraft would have to be assembled piece by piece in orbit, perhaps in the garage of a permanent space station, before it could really go anywhere (for more such speculation, see George Pal’s considerably more costly Conquest of Space).
Still, showing the mighty ship convincingly coming together above the atmosphere was, shall we say, a bit beyond this movie’s grasp, and the Spartan ship interiors where the final act plays out similarly show that no big cheques were written out to production designers.
Nonetheless, if you are in the mood for an energetic young Corman throwback to the drive-in era – and one which, perhaps thanks to the truncated run-time, did not easily fit into American TV slots and thus was not overexposed to generations of home viewers like many other Corman titles – War of the Satellites is more than tolerable.
And, if you’ve got nothing better to do, perhaps watch the later Italian alien-cyborg programmer Planets Against Us (1962) and consider whether War of the Satellites may have been the inspiration.
Charles Cassady Jr., MOVIES and MANIA
“As derivative as it seems, War of the Satellites does point the way rather presciently to Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (Terrore nello spazio, 1965), with the increasingly ghoulish and raccoon-eyed Not Van Ponder catting about the spacecraft knocking off members of his crew […] Classic? No. Immortal? Hardly. Just good old fashioned fun from the days long ago when we didn’t think we were so goddamned smart.” Arbogast on Film
“There’s a really good idea in here about impostor aliens trying to sabotage space missions, but this isn’t one of the director’s better or more inventive films from this period. While the build-up isn’t bad at all, it takes a wrong turn in the second half when the rushed production and tiny budget (70 thousand reportedly) come into play to cripple its ambitions. Characters repeatedly walk and run down the same small corridor over and over again and the sets are really sparse, cheap and unconvincing…” The Bloody Pit of Horror
“War of the Satellites is an average Roger Corman film. It disguises itself well and doesn’t look that cheap, despite using a series of terrestrial hallways and rooms to represent on board the ships […] There is some mildly sinister effects with Richard Devon taken over by the aliens where he demonstrates the nifty ability to create doppelgangers of himself and completely regenerate his hand after it is crisped by a Bunsen Burner.” Moria
“As with every Corman feature, there is a little cheese present, but it is kept to a minimum here and enough cannot be said about how surprisingly well the movie turned out to be. Not only does the acting stand up with the script and effects being quite good, but the film delivers a message as well, one about the indomitable will of the human spirit. It is one of peace and courage, one that pushes mankind forward as a race and a message that was ahead of its time…” The Telltale Mind
“Because it was made in a rush, the movie is pretty much a mess. The plot is thin as Kleenex, the effects are a complete joke (the “satellites” are hung on visible strings and have to move via jump cuts and/or fast motion to make it look like they’re moving), and there is padding out the yin-yang. To make matters worse, there’s no actual “war” to speak of, so don’t go in expecting a space battle or anything.” The Video Vacuum
Cast and characters:
Dick Miller … Dave Boyer
Susan Cabot … Sybil Carrington
Richard Devon … Doctor Pol Van Ponder
Eric Sinclair … Doctor Howard Lazar
Michael Fox … Jason ibn Akad
Robert Shayne … Cole Hotchkiss
Jered Barclay … John Compo (as Jerry Barclay)
John Brinkley … Crew Member
Bruno VeSota … Mr LeMoine
Jay Sayer … Jay
Mitzi McCall … Mitzi
Roy Gordon … The President
Beach Dickerson … Crewman with Gun
Jim Knight … (as James Knight)
Ursula Herwig … Nancy
Klaus Kindler … Larry Scott
Eberhard Mondry … Glenn
Horst Naumann … Ted
Werner Uschkurat … Ray
Roger Corman … Ground Control (uncredited)
In a 2019 interview, Roger Corman recalled his meeting with Steve Broidy of Allied Artists: “I said, ‘Steve, if you can give me $80,000, I will have a picture about satellites ready to go into the theaters in ninety days.’ And then he said, ‘What’s the story?’ And I said, ‘I have no idea, but I will have the picture ready.’ And he said, ‘Done.’ And he gave me the money.” Broidy claimed in interviews that when Corman delivered the finished product on time, “he gave him $500.00 to throw a cast party. They’re still waiting for the party…”
Actor Dick Miller said filming took place over a “leisurely” ten days: “We had two of the best lounge chairs money could buy to take off for the moon in. The type where you hit the sides and the chair slides down into a lying-down position. At the time, they looked pretty good, except they really looked like lounge chairs. We had a lot of fun on those.
I remember for the hallways on the spaceship… we had four arches, that’s all they were, the entire set was arches. You could set them close together to make a short hall or set them further apart and make a long hall. At the end of the hall was a flat— you made a turn. So on our spaceship, you always ran down to the end of the hall and made a turn. That was the entire ship.”
The film was distributed in the USA and the UK by Allied Artists. In the US, it was released in July 1958 on a double feature with Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.