Sunday, 17 January 2016

The Phantom Planet (1961)

The Phantom Planet is a typical 1950s American sci-fi film although it was made in 1961 and on a very low budget (by a outfit called Four Crown Productions). It has the virtues and vices of 50s sci-fi but on the whole it’s quite entertaining.

In 1980 an American spacecraft, Pegasus III, reports seeing a planet suddenly appear where no planet should be. The spacecraft is never heard from again and the mysterious planet vanishes as suddenly and inexplicably as it arrived. This is the second US spacecraft to be lost in a short space of time so the US Air Force is getting slightly worried. The decision is made to send up another ship, Pegasus IV, under the command of the very experienced Captain Frank Chapman (Dean Fredericks). 

Pegasus IV of course encounters the phantom planet but Chapman makes a relatively safe landing on the planet’s surface. The fact that the planet is inhabited by people who look exactly like humans is surprising. More surprising is the fact that they are only six inches tall. Most surprising of all is that Frank Chapman finds himself shrinking to the same size!

Chapman is rather put out when he is forced to stand trial after an unfortunate incident soon after his landing. He’s even more put out when he’s found guilty and hears the sentence - he must remain on this tiny planet (known as Rehton) for the rest of his life.

There are compensations. A large proportion of the planet’s inhabitants seem to be young gorgeous women.

One of these young gorgeous women immediately takes a shine to him. She is Liara (Coleen Gray), daughter of the leader of the phantom planet’s people, Sessom (Francis X. Bushman). Chapman is more interested in the stunningly beautiful mute girl Zetha (Dolores Faith). This romantic triangle is actually a quadrangle since Liara already has an admirer. Eventually the matter will have to be resolved by a duel to the death. The people of Rehton have technology far in advance of ours but they still practise duelling.

That takes care of the romance subplot. The main plot concerns Chapman’s overwhelming desire to go back to Earth, an undertaking in which he will receive help from an unexpected source. Before he can do that though the people of Rehton find themselves under attack from their deadly enemies, the Solarite fire people. There is a captive Solarite on Rehton, although it’s not clear why they want to keep such a dangerous prisoner who apparently has the capability to destroy them all if he gets loose.

There are a lot of things in this movie that don’t make a lot of sense but then that’s one of the main attractions of 50s sci-fi. Entertainingly silly technobabble is one of the great joys of science fiction movies of this era and The Phantom Planet really excels itself in this department. The explanation of Chapman’s shrinking is particularly absurd, but deliciously and amusingly so.

Dean Fredericks looks the way an astronaut hero should look and his performance is fine by B-movie standards. Coleen Gray was a talented actress whose career never really took off after a promising start. By 1961 she was mostly doing television. She does well here as the slightly ambiguous Liara. Silent era legend Francis X. Bushman was pushing 80 when he made this movie but he brings a certain grandeur to his role. Dolores Faith may not have been the greatest actress who ever lived but she’s a looker and she does convey a slight oddness which makes Zetha more convincingly alien than any of the other characters.

William Marshall was an actor who only directed three films, this being the last of the three.  He does a reasonable if hardly inspiring job, but it’s a cheap B-movie and they don’t offer too many opportunities for directorial brilliance. The script borrows ideas from all over the place (including obviously Gulliver’s Travels).

The special effects are actually not too bad. The spacecraft interiors look convincing. The space walk sequences are excellent. The spaceship itself looks no worse than the average movie spaceship of this era. The sets representing the phantom planet are satisfactory enough, given the very low budget. The monster (that’s the Solarite mentioned earlier) looks goofy but it looks goofy in a good way. 

This movie is in the public domain and there are therefore quite a few DVD versions. The one I watched originated from Payless Films and the transfer is acceptable enough given that it’s a public domain film and a budget DVD. The transfer is fullframe. I have no idea what the correct aspect ratio is for this movie. IMDb says 1.37:1; other sites disagree. I didn’t really notice any obvious signs of a pan-and-scan job.

The people involved in making The Phantom Planet did their best with the very limited resources available to them and the results are better than one might expect. It may not be a science fiction classic but it’s reasonably well-paced, the acting isn’t too bad, and in general it’s a quite enjoyable 82 minutes of slightly silly sci-fi fun. Recommended.

1 comment:

Randall Landers said...

Also typical of 50;s scifi are the names: Sessom / Moses, Rehton / Not Here.