THE SPACE CHILDREN—spaced-out kids form a cosmic link to a space-case adult—me—when I discovered that this 1958 cult item has a family relative tie-in. As part of a boomer generation rite-of-passage many a Saturday afternoon and late-night in the 60s was spent watching legions of goofball sci-fi flicks ground out in the previous decade (along with the classic 30s-40s horror brew), as they crept across TV screens. Besides invaluable lessons in science and tips on fighting giant grasshoppers, this revival gave us a chance to see what had kept drive-in’s busy (apart from giving teenagers a zone to practice undoing sweater buttons).
Somehow I missed this one—and at what cost in movie-logging self-esteem, and brotherly pride? Staring youngsters controlled by a glowing blob from outer space. For Mankind’s benefit? Did anyone think to tell Eisenhower? With Uncle Fester, Mr. Drysdale, The Professor and Dash Rip Rock? *
Short (69 minutes), silly (requisite bad lines and half-baked behavior littering the script landscape and make-do settings), cheaply done (that rocket won’t fool anyone over four). Yet it’s also straight-faced professional, faintly creepy and rather endearing, as families of personnel involved in a missile program (ah, for the certain uncertainty of the Cold War annihilation-approaches days) are understandably alarmed when their offspring discover a growing mass of alien goop in a cave and start acting odder than kids normally do (meanwhile it’s the grown-ups who are the ones designing stuff that will blow up the planet as the rocket project—‘the Thunderer’—will carry multiple nukes into orbit). Can the tots and their mind-melding master from beyond manage the madness?
Director was Jack Arnold, who did the bona fide classics Creature From The Black Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Man. The cinematographer was Ernest Laszlo, hardly a slouch with credits like Judgement at Nuremberg and It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
The cast is a doozy mix of nostalgia, competence and surprising biographies. The beat-the-Commies satellite project is headed by Raymond Bailey,’banker Drysdale’ from The Beverly Hillbillies. Brow-furrowing adults include Jackie Coogan (‘Fester‘ from The Addams Family); Russell Johnson (the beloved ‘Professor’ of Gilligan’s island, here a drunk child abuser); Larry Pennell (Ripcord and ‘Dash Rip Rock’), and Ty Hardin (Bronco). Heading the parents are face-familiar bad guy Adam Williams (in a rare nice-fella part) and the offbeat, rather alluring Peggy Webber, a highly respected writer/director/performer of a huge number of radio and theater productions as well as a sexy shrieker of cult immortality in the realm of doofy chillers, as the lung-shattering victim of The Screaming Skull.
Kids include Johnny Crawford (son of The Rifleman ), Johnny Washbrook (the lad on My Friend Flicka ) and Sandy Descher (the little wide-eyed screamer from Them! ). Leading the children is Michel Ray.**
Suitably eerie score from Van Cleave. That visiting peace-booger from the stars was a construction of lucite and lemurith, welded together to cover the solenoids, manifolds and needle valves that operated $3300 worth of oscillating neon lights. Ten feet long, five and a half high, weighing 1000 pounds, it didn’t just light up, it pulsated, and, naturally, fascinated the children. Director Arnold: “I had a lot of fun working with those kids, when I could keep them from their awful stage mothers. It takes a lot of imagination to work opposite a giant brain.” Did the kids not realize that caves were a no-no, after The Brain From Planet Arous, Attack Of The Crab Monsters, The Mole People….?
Credit the script for suggesting that all those bombs-a-building in the non-Holly world might lead to a bad scene (keep a duck-desk handy, as the calorie-challenged gal has not finished Idol-ing yet). This sleeper was spoofed on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but it’s got more going for it than that snark. All the above, and a Biblical passage finale!
* The late Larry Pennell was my brother-in-law, and I’m self-stunned to report I never recall hearing him mention this treasure chest—even his wife, my sister, didn’t know about it. I doubt it was out of embarrassment, as he was quite good sport enough to have fun with some of the bad roles he took (you haven’t lived until you’ve sat through Our Man In Jamaica) to move up the ladder and stay on it. More likely, since he had about three lines and this was the sort of genre fluff he regarded correctly as kiddie litter, he just never thought to bring it up. Maybe the enduring mantle of glory from 10 episodes as ‘Dash Rip Rock’ on The Beverly Hillbillies was enough to bask in?
**Michel Ray had just come off a plum role in (the fondly recalled) The Brave One, which made headlines when it was revealed the 1956 Oscar winner for Story had collected the award for a non-existent ‘Robert Rich’, who was really the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo. Later, as a teenager, Rey had a small but neat role in Lawrence Of Arabia (the ill-fated ‘Farraj’). After graduating Harvard, he became an investment banker and still found time to become an Olympic athlete (three separate Games on Britain’s ski team). Then, he marries his childhood friend, who inherits Heineken—and the power couple is currently worth more than eleven billion. Guess that blinking half-ton pile of intergalactic brain waving had deeper impact than we knew. And all I got was this lousy ant farm….