Wednesday, 23 May 2018

The Strange World of Planet X / Cosmic Monsters (1958)

Overall, an interesting but somewhat pedestrian and routine 
sci-fi film with special effects failings 

Directed by Gilbert Gunn
Produced by George Maynard, John Bash
Written by Paul Ryder, Joe Ambor
Music by Robert Sharples
Cinematography: Josef Ambor
Edited by Francis Bieber
Distributed by Eros Films (UK)
Distributors Corporation of America (US)
Running time: 75 minutes


Forrest Tucker as Gil Graham
Gaby André as Michele Dupont
Martin Benson as Smith
Alec Mango as Dr. Laird
Wyndham Goldie as Brigadier Cartwright
Hugh Latimer as Jimmy Murray
Dandy Nichols as Mrs. Tucker
Richard Warner as Inspector Burns
Patricia Sinclair as Helen Forsyth
Geoffrey Chater as Gerard Wilson
Hilda Fenemore as Mrs. Hale 

Cosmic Monsters Trailer

Strange happenings in rural Britain! 
Disruptive magnetic fields affecting distant objects! 
A freak storm and blasts of cosmic radiation! 
Giant mutant insects and spiders! 
Unidentified flying objects from outer space! 
A strange visitor from “a long way off!” 
Impending disaster descending from on high! 

What can all this mean???? 

Read on for more and find out…….

Spoilers follow below…..

The Strange World of Planet X opens with a highly melodramatic and cliché-ridden narration:

“Since the world began, ever inventive man has constantly pushed forward into the unknown. One by one the frontiers of science have fallen before him. The science of speed, travel, radium. Now he stands on the threshold of a new age. A terrifying age. Man goes forward into the unknown, but how does the unknown react? The unknown planet…” Yudda, yudda, yudda and so on. 

Titles and credits then appear over a star field background and away we go….”forward into the unknown”…..

In the south of England, at an isolated rural laboratory, physicist Dr. Laird and his assistant, American scientist Gilbert Graham perform a series of dangerous experiments involving the use of magnetic fields that require enormous amounts of power. Unfortunately, the equipment is not up to handling such power loads.

It’s pretty clear from the outset that Forrest Tucker who plays Gil Graham, would feel more comfortable wearing chaps, spurs, a pair of six guns and riding a horse than wearing a white lab coat and being deferential to a poncy British Brainiac. As it was then so it is often the case now in film making – if you want money in the bank, chuck in a well-known Yank!

An accident causes another assistant computer operator, by the name of Singers to be electrocuted when he gets too close to a piece of electrical equipment. After the singeing of Singers, the Ministry of Defense sends Brigadier Cartwright to investigate. He brings with him a female computer expert, French Canadian- Ho! Ho! Ho! Hooooh! - Michele Dupont as Singer’s replacement.

Brigadier Cartwright had earlier met with Deputy Controller, Gerald Wilson to discuss Dr. Laird's experiments. Cartwright wants the project terminated, but Wilson believes it may have military potential. The project involves the use of strong magnetic fields and their effect on metallic alloys. So, armed with a couple of samples of new aircraft alloys, and Michele Dupont, Cartwright heads off to Dr. Laird’s lab.

Of course, there’s the then obligatory scepticism expressed by Laird and Graham concerning Michele’s suitability for the job of being a computer operator: "But a . . .woman? This is preposterous. This is highly skilled work!" I’ll try and not project my supposedly enlightened 21st Century views of gender equality on a 60-year-old film. So, no cheap shots here except to say we have a marvelous window open to us concerning mid-20th century values attitudes to gender that were perhaps just beginning to shift ever so slightly.

To the film maker’s credit, they didn’t go on and on and labour the point about Michele being female. She quickly establishes her competence for the job and gains the respect of her male colleagues by showing her understanding of the concept of the machinery and by proposing a solution to the power problem. And yes, there’s the usual love-interest angle to settle things down into comfortable and familiar normalcy. Can’t be having women being too uppity just yet!

Laird shows Cartwright two pieces of copper, with one of them possessing the characteristics of a flexible form of steel that springs back into place when bent. Cartwright is interested in the military applications of the research. Gil explains that their research may carry with it the ability to destroy enemy aircraft by altering the molecular structure of the metal by means of magnetism.

Isn’t it just wonderful how humanity can arrive at a ground-breaking discovery and the first thought is to apply it to warfare so that people can be more effectively killed!

After Cartwright gives Gil the metal sample he brought with him, an experiment is planned for that evening.
In the lab the equipment is prepared, and Laird places a sample of the aircraft alloy in the chamber while the magnetic field generator is started. Suddenly Gil notices Cartwright's briefcase, hanging on a hook on the wall start to move. He then quickly shuts down the power and just in time moves Michele out of the way of the briefcase which flies across the room striking a piece of equipment.

Meanwhile, a homeless man in the nearby woods is burned as a result of a severe electrical storm which also causes damage in the local village.

It turns out that Cartwright had left his keys in his briefcase and had forgotten about the second metal sample he was carrying. Dr. Laird takes the sample out of the chamber which he hands to Cartwright. The molecular structure of the metal has been altered, demonstrated by its crumbling to powder in his hands.

Did you know? Embrittlement agents have been developed which can in fact alter the molecular structure of metals. Reality catches up with science fiction! 

Later on, a couple in the woods spot something in the sky which is then followed by an explosion on the ground nearby. What on earth could it be?

The next day Cartwright meets with Deputy Controller Gerald Wilson where he explains to Wilson that the second sample he had forgotten about in his briefcase had suffered the same kind of molecular transformation as the one placed in the chamber. Not only that, but a piece of antenna situated thirty feet away from the lab had also been altered.

Instead of considering the likely scientific implications for the world as a result of discovering the process of molecular transformation of objects, the only thought to be expressed is a gleeful observation concerning, "action at a distance, the military's dream."

The next morning Gil meets with Michele where they ponder the anomaly of the experiment in which the power was shut off and yet the circuits continued to operate. Why so, indeed!

With Laird's project now being made a top priority, Wilson calls in a counter-espionage security officer, Jimmy Murray. (What kind of name is “Jimmy” for a counter intelligence security officer?) The project will receive a tighter level of security while its mission will be to weaponize the transformation process by causing the force to be directional.

While gorging on thoughts and visions of enemy planes dropping out of the sky after being molecularly mangled, little thought is given to the consequences of the experiment.

It seems that the hyper-magnetic fields that were generated have affected the ionosphere, causing unnatural weather patterns, impacting ships at sea hundreds of miles distant, and weakening the magnetic shield that protects the surface of the Earth from cosmic rays. 

Ionosphere Fact File 

  • Consists of invisible layers of ions and electrons suspended in the Earth's atmosphere above 60 kilometers in altitude. 
  • The Sun's ultraviolet light is the main source of these layers which ionizes atoms and molecules in the Earth's upper atmosphere. 
  • Solar flares and other energetic events on the Sun produce increased ultraviolet, x-ray and gamma-ray photons that reach the Earth just 8 minutes later and dramatically increase the density of the ionosphere on the day-side. 
  • Auroras, the bright, beautiful bands of light that we sometimes see near Earth’s poles, result from charged particles in the ionosphere being affected by the magnetic fields of both Earth and the sun. 

Another unintended consequence of the increasingly insane and paranoid Dr. laird’s experiments is a sudden burst of cosmic radiation which causes brain damage in one local man, turning him into a homicidal maniac. It has also resulted in the local insect life mutating and growing to giant proportions. Ah, haven’t we been down this road before?

Did you know? The High Frequency Active Auroral Project (HAARP) run by the US air force and navy makes use of an array to heat up portions of the ionosphere with powerful radio beams. Great quantities of energy could be harnessed and controlled by manipulating the electrical characteristics of the atmosphere. This can then be directed at an enemy or moving target and can even disrupt global communications. "Action at a distance, the military's dream." Reality catches up with science fiction yet again! 

Later, a young budding entomologist is seen wandering around the woods near the village in search of bugs. Yes, different times! Who would let their young daughter these days traipse around the local woodlands all by herself? Jane suddenly comes across a strange man with the unusual name of…. Smith. As a way of conjuring up a slightly sinister and other-worldly aura, his face sports a beatnik goatee beard and his eyes have that 1000-mile stare. Breaking the golden rule of not talking to strangers, Jane helps the enigmatic Mr. Smith find his way to Dr. Laird's house.

The next time we see Smith is when he enters the pub and orders a drink, the taste of which he’s less than impressed with – definitely not of this earth!

Meanwhile, the new school teacher, Helen Forsyth is at the bus stop where she notices the headlines in the local newspaper:

"Has Britain Been Invaded: 
More Flying Saucer Reports."

Suddenly the hobo who was earlier burned in the woods attacks her, but just in the nick of time Jimmy Murray pulls up in his car and saves her. He takes her to the local police station to report the crime.

Back at the pub, it is quite obvious that Gil and Michele are romantically drawn to each other, but the other pointy corner of the triangle is occupied by Wilson! How will this dilemma be resolved?

Jimmy arrives at the pub with Helen and informs the others about a maniac who is roaming the woods attaching and killing people.

As a band plays upstairs, feedback from the microphone and speakers gives Gil the idea that perhaps the same process is responsible for the problem with the experiment.

Gil rushes off to the lab to discuss his theory with Dr. Laird. Laird simply dismisses Gil's concern, telling him "we've accidently stumbled upon the secret of producing an enormously more powerful magnetic field than we had ever hoped for. We've saved ourselves years of work, and you want to throw those years away?" Gil warns Laird about conducting any further experiments until the consequences are fully understood. 

A man stumbles across his girlfriend, Gillian Betts lying dead in the woods. As he discovers yet another body, a giant insect descends upon him and kills him.

Back at the pub, the police arrive and report that Gillian Betts was found dead and that a homicidal maniac is roaming around the nearby woods.

Wilson and Michele offer to take Smith with them to the lab. Smith indicates that he knows something about the work being conducted at the lab. He requests that he meet with them the next day. Worried about the security at the lab, Jimmy wants to meet with Gil and Michele before their meeting with Smith.

New school teacher, Helen is intent upon preparing her classroom for the start of the new school year and Jane offers to escort her to the school.

Meanwhile, Smith meets with Gil and Michele at the pub. So far, all that is known about this mysterious "Mr. Smith" is that he is well-spoken, well-mannered but has little knowledge of commonplace aspects of day-to-day living. He does, however, possess a great deal of knowledge concerning magnetic fields and the dangerous nature of Dr. Laird experiments such as the recent atmospheric disturbances. Smith warns of the danger of disturbing the Earth's magnetic field and the dangers posed by cosmic rays. He goes on to warn that radiation exposure, could result in madness in humans and abnormal growth in size for insects.

Obviously deciding that this guy “Smith” (if that’s his real name) doesn’t have the same credentials as that flying saucer character, Klaatu or even that strange fellow from Venus, good old Jimmy pegs him as being a spy! Of course! What else?

Once again, we see Jane gallivanting in the woods in her quest for bugs, despite the fact that a homicidal maniac is roaming about! She soon comes across what looks like a gigantic insect egg which she eventually carries back home with her.

At the pub, Gil asks Smith to accompany him to the authorities to report on the dangers associated with Dr. Laird’s experiments, but he refuses. After wishing Gil and Michele success in their efforts at dealing with the situation, he departs. Gee, thanks a lot!

As Michele walks back to Dr. Laird's house she encounters Mrs. Hale, Jane's mother holding the large egg. Not one to give merely culinary advice, Michele suggests that she boil the egg in order to destroy it.

While the nearby woods are teaming with gigantic insects and other unspeakable monstrous mutations, a meeting at the local police station is taking place between Inspector Burns, Jimmy, Gil and Cartwright at which it is agreed that Dr. Laird must be prevented from conducting any further experiments.

With more reported deaths confirming Smith's warning of insects being affected by cosmic rays, Cartwright orders the involvement of the military to tackle the threat.

As Helen prepares to leave the village school after completing her preparations, giant insects emerge to threaten her. She now finds herself trapped in her classroom. Fear not, fair maid for Jimmy rides forth in his metal steed to rescue you! Huzzah!

Just at that time Michele approaches the school, but Helen warns her to stay away. Michele takes off but is soon entangled in a giant spider web. Meanwhile, the giant insects force their way into the classroom just as Britain’s finest and bravest appear on the scene. The army boys open fire while Helen is rescued.

Gil and Smith (nice of you to join us!) also manage to rescue Michele from the web moments before a spider attacks her. Smith uses a device to dispose of the spider.

The army boys go on a killing spree massacring giant insects one would swear had simply been placed under a magnifying glass. But no! no! The threat is clearly real as we witness the gruesome spectacle of one soldier being killed and having half of his face gnawed off! How did that get past the censors?

By this stage Dr. Laird is completely bonkers as he pulls a gun on Wilson, threatens him with it and shoots him. Wilson valiantly struggles upstairs where there is a telephone while Dr. Laird has gone mad and locks himself in his lab and plans to continue his dangerous experiments. Wilson manages to phone Cartwright and informs him that Laird has gone mad, has shot him, and that he needs help.

"Mr. Smith" has revealed to Gill that he is an alien from another world - that he is in fact the man from Planet X. Smith informs Gill, Michele, Jimmy and Cartwright that his mission is to warn humanity that Earth's orbit will be destabilized should the magnetic experiments continue. They already pose a threat to "Planet X" and that the magnetic experiments have caused one of their spacecraft to crash.
Smith, Gil, Michele, Jimmy, and Cartwright head off to the lab. They ask Smith to help stop Dr. Laird but being an emissary, he is reluctant to get personally involved. However, with the continued threat, Smith finally agrees to help.

He waits for Laird to start up the machine. Using a hand-held device, he summons his spacecraft and positions it directly above the lab. Suddenly, it discharges powerful energy rays that obliterate the whole building.

With disaster having been averted, Mr. Smith (not his real name!) the alien bids farewell to the others and approaches the saucer. The film closes with the view of just an oval of light ascending into the night sky.

Full Film

Points of Interest 

I must admit that I was not familiar with this film, so it was a very fresh viewing for me. I felt that I had already seen much of what the film offered in other far more superior sci-fi films of the era. Still, it was worth a look!

The independently made 1957 British sci-fi / horror film, The Strange World of Planet X, was known by the title, Cosmic Monsters in the US where it was released in 1958 by Distributors Corporation of America on a double bill with The Crawling Eye.

British actress and author Rene Ray wrote a novel called The World of Planet X which dealt with time travel. The story was also adapted as a 7-part serialized TV drama by the same name. The film's screenplay by Paul Ryder changed the source of the threat to giant mutations that resulted from the effects of powerful magnetic fields. 

The film’s title, The Strange World of Planet X is really a metaphor for the planet Earth but it is, nevertheless, misleading in that we are led to expect a space exploration adventure film. What we do end up with is an unconvincing giant bug film nowhere on a par with the likes of such films as Them! (1954).

The mysterious alien stranger seems to have been modelled on the alien visitor in Stranger From Venus (1954) and Klaatu played by Michael Rennie in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) but without Rennie’s impact and screen presence.

The special effects are pretty inadequate with optically enlarged insects being used to represent giant attacking monsters. Not very convincing! There is one scene which for the time seems quite shocking and gruesome. That is when we see a bug gnawing the flesh from a dead soldier's face. Some have speculated that it was included in order to ensure that the film would be given the "X" certificate (suitable for those aged 16 and older) from the British Board of Film Censors. We have also seen other sci-fi films such as, The Quatermass Xperiment and X the Unknown make use of the "X" Certificate in their titles to draw audiences. The same accusation apparently could be leveled at The Strange World of Planet X.

The whole situation surrounding Dr. Laird's research and its consequences for humanity amounts to a fairly interesting cautionary tale about the dangers of science. It is something which even modern audiences can relate to considering the pace of scientific and technological progress and its effect on society.

©Chris Christopoulos 2018

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