It is possible to make a decent movie with a miniscule budget. But it takes, at least, a decent filmmaker to do so. W. Lee Wilder, unlike his brother, Billy, was no decent filmmaker. W. Lee Wilder, if Phantom from Space is any indication, was a corpse propped up in a chair.
Released in the spring of 1953, Phantom from Space looks super cheap. There are special effects in the opening scene showing a UFO descend upon the San Fernando Valley. It’s about the least convincing effect I’ve ever seen in a movie, and this reviewer has seen a lot of bad special effects. The effects in this flick are as bad as early Bert I. Gordon flicks. The only effect that really works is a floating space helmet, but that’s getting slightly ahead of things. There is a plot that needs explaining.
The aforementioned UFO has traveled all the way from Barrow, Alaska, to Los Angeles, and disrupted radio signals along its path. Now that it’s settled down in the valley, the Federal Communications Commission (that’s right — the heroes of this film are agents from the FCC) sends out units to track it down, as it remains a source of disruption. Meanwhile, reports begin coming in of a man in a spacesuit attacking and killing people at random. Witnesses report that there was no head visible inside the spacesuit.
The FCC may be the government big shots in this flick, but the deaths mean the LAPD gets involved. Then, because all this was caused by a UFO, some scientists at the Griffith Observatory are called in. As is an Army officer. Wilder, working from a screenplay credited to William Raynor and Wilder’s son, Myles, had plenty of stock characters floating about this one to provide exposition, which is about all they did.
Most of the film consists of the FCC’s mobile units driving around the valley and meetings of the main protagonists in small, inadequate sets, where they discuss events in the film. It makes for a tedious experience.
Occasionally the alien makes an appearance. But, guess what? It’s invisible! Within minutes of its appearance in a spacesuit (during a precious foot chase that could have been in an episode of Scooby-Doo), the alien strips bare and uses its invisibility to confound pursuers. This goes on for the rest of the film, by the way. The intrepid cast does battle in the Griffith Observatory with floating office supplies, supposedly wielded by an invisible foe (this is also when the space helmet does its disembodied floating). It’s a rare respite from the tedium of all the staff meetings.
My personal favorite sequence in the film does nothing to advance the plot. At the climax, all players return to the same places they were when the scene began. In this sequence, Barbara Randall (Noreen Nash), is working alone in a lab at the observatory, testing the alien’s space helmet for science stuff, when the invisible alien enters. Barbara sees the key to the lock on the door spin. She is locked inside with the alien and pleads for help through the door. We cut away to the men coming to her rescue, but when they arrive, the door is open and the lab empty. The alien has taken Barbara somewhere in the building. The observatory is searched top to bottom, taking up precious minutes of this flick’s 73-minute running time, only for the alien to return to the lab with the unconscious Barbara. She awakes, sees the key turn in the lock once more, screams for help, and we are right back where we started. The entire sequence between the turns of the key could have been excised and nothing about the movie would have changed.
For such a short movie, Phantom from Space is a slog to get through. There are a couple of sublime moments of shitty filmmaking scattered here and there, but it can’t overcome Wilder’s terrible pacing. This movie will try one’s patience, and it’s that lack of motion that sends it far down on the Watchability Index, slotting in at #189 between Bad Ben and The Cyclops. There are plenty of other shitty ’50s sci-fi flicks to see before getting around to this dog.