Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Cardboard Science: Just Wait Till You Meet The Teacup Men

Hey... Is this thing on?

So, you may have noticed that I haven't been posting as much on here lately. Because of life and the bills that are inherent to it, I've had to prioritize writing for places that pay me, like Screen Rant, Horror Press, and Alternate Ending. Check out my stuff there, if you like!

Don't worry, Census Bloodbath at the very least is still a sword of Damocles hanging over my head that I will return to someday. But in the meantime, while I strive to find that work-life balance I've been hearing so much about, we can't simply let our annual traditions die. I've still got a big ol' flashback post of the best and worst of the year coming at ya on New Year's Eve. But also it's October, which means it's time for the (holy shit) tenth annual Great Switcheroo with Hunter Allen at Kinemalogue. I don't have the bandwidth to do three reviews this year, but he thankfully agreed to accommodate my dire straits and exchange one title apiece.

So that means this year, just like every other, we'll be swapping our areas of expertise. I'll be covering a 1950s B-movie from his Cardboard Science catalogue, while you should keep your eyes out on his end for a Census Bloodbath piece reviewing a 1980s slasher. Blood Rage, no less!

Year: 1957
Director: Edward L. Cahn
Cast: Steven Terrell, Gloria Castillo, Lyn Osborn
Run Time: 1 hour 4 minutes

So, this time, Hunter gave me the opportunity to choose between three options for sci-fi B-movies. One was a masterpiece, one was a seminal overview of the genre, and one was Invasion of the Saucer Men. Guess which one I chose. At this point, I know better than to be fooled by an excellent title and poster, but a 64-minute run time? Sign me the hell up!

Also, credit where credit is due: Making a misleading poster is a rite of passage for a cheesy '50s sci-fi movie, but this publicity image also never actually occurs in the movie either (the aliens aren't even that size). They really put in the work to trick as many people as they could. Now that's what I call chutzpah!

Invasion of the Saucer Men has a tremendously simple plot. Just outside the small American town of Hicksburg, a flying saucer makes a landing. The short-statured aliens inside, which look kind of like a group of kids wearing unlicensed Kang and Kodos masks, run around wreaking havoc. Multiple groups of people encounter these aliens, but the adults and the teenagers have very different ideas of how to deal with the invading menace.

A small contingent of Men In Black-style authorities attempt to cover up the whole thing, which basically means shooting at the saucer a whole bunch, accidentally blowing it up, and patting themselves on the back. Meanwhile, a pair of 30-year-old teenage lovers named Johnny (Stephen Terrell, who is exactly the same age that Steve McQueen was when he made The Blob, which should tell you something) and Joan (Gloria Castillo) struggle fruitlessly to get anyone to believe them, and are in fact implicated as potential murderers when it looks as though the aliens' first victim was actually hit by Johnny's car. Oh, did I mention that the saucer men are running around trying to stab people with their venomous claws, which pump their victims full of pure alcohol?

Freddy Krueger, eat your heart out.

Invasion of the Saucer Men really is a strange case. It's kind of objectively bad as a cinematic text by almost every aesthetic yardstick I can imagine. Though I try not to over-criticize specifics of the looks of movies of this vintage, especially ones like Invasion of the Saucer Men that have never had the pleasure of a spiffy, big-ticket restoration. Half a century of disrepair can run a film print ragged, so it's possible that what we're seeing today isn't at all how the movie looked in 1957. 

It certainly is how the movie was edited back in 1957 though, and this is edited oh so poorly, in choppy quick cuts that crash images together at such speed that they totally elude the human eye. I suppose the biggest compliment I can give the editing is that it's ahead of its time, considering it's reminiscent of the quick-cut music video editing that marred a vast swath of cinema in the early 2000s. But at the end of the day, to be frank, it's hard to imagine that the poorly lit, poorly framed, overall just plain murky look of the movie as a whole wasn't at least in part the fault of the filmmakers. 

Really, who's to say?

However, there is no denying the fact that the movie is - dare I say - saucy. Its ramshackle quality seems to have allowed it to feel comfortable breaking from the script a bit more than the average B-movie. (Frankly, it might even be a C-movie, because the movie it was a B-side to was in fact the Michael Landon corker I Was a Teenage Werewolf.)

When I say it breaks from the script, I certainly don't mean to imply that it breaks from the B-movie formula. Heaven forbid. But it has a rather unique willingness to get a little weird with it, which I appreciate. Take its strange meta opening and closing, which imply that the goings-on of the movie are the contents of a book written and narrated by con man Art Burns (Lyn Osborn). The opening credits are depicted via a hand turning the pages of said book, which has the credits printed inside (a nifty low-budget trick that also sets up a cute gag at the very end). This is followed by some narration where Art seems in on the joke about how cliché the story he's setting up really is, also displaying the fact that he's something of an unreliable narrator.

It's a tremendously postmodern touch for a movie that wasn't really post-anything. And this is the one movie for which I will believe the myth that it was originally developed as a straightforward drama before, when they realized what they had, it was tipped over into an out-and-out comedy. The "audiences hated my movie" to "said movie was totally a joke" pipeline has justified the existence of many a bad movie (here's looking at you, Tommy Wiseau), but here the comedy is very foregrounded and actually quite pleasant a hell of a lot of the time.

The comic moments in which the movie itself is most confident, of course, don't always land. These are the ones that have the silliest music, which of course is the height of comedy. However, there are quite a few intentional jokes that do really sing, especially when the movie is highlighting the incompetence of the team of adults who has set out to bury the news of the flying saucer's arrival. 

Other sequences are perhaps less overtly comic but lean in so hard on their B-movie dopiness that they can't help but be enjoyable to witness, like the scene where the aliens savagely attack a drunk bull, or the one where the aliens bang a dent into the kids' car so it looks like they ran over a man. And still more scenes, seemingly by accident, are just plain creepy, including several moments with a severed alien hand that desperately wants to get up to a little murderin'.

I've heard of backseat drivers, but this is ridiculous!

Invasion of the Saucer Men consistently takes what meager strengths it has and leans in toward them as far as its spine will stretch. This is also the case with its mile-wide nasty streak. Plenty of alien invasion movies feature the aliens maiming and murdering human beings, but there's something compellingly dark about the fact that these aliens' claws are quite literally just dripping syringes. In juxtaposition to the movie's overall loose, kind of shaggy vibe, the murders also feel a mite more amoral and gross.

This is also a horny movie, and it makes little to no effort to hide that fact. Makeout Point is one of the primary locations, and there is some lascivious flirting in the opening scene of the movie proper that tweaks the nose of the Hays Code something fierce. All in all, it's a genuinely enjoyable experience packaged in a forgiving run time, so it far from overstays its welcome. It's not the best movie I've watched for this project (that would be Godzilla, which is hardly fair to compare any movie to), but it is far, far, far from the worst despite its production value, which isn't quite bottom-of-the-barrel but is close enough to taste the oak.

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
*Did you know that in the 1950s, you had to replace the "battery water" in your car? Well, you do now!

The morality of the past, in the future!:
*I gotta say, hearing someone pronounce it "alkie-hol" with a completely straight face really felt like I was watching a transmission from another planet.
*It also feels so utterly 1950s (and so "white teenager") for the police to leave their manslaughter suspects alone in a room with wide open floor-to-ceiling windows and then just go "d'oh!" when they see that the pair have escaped.
*Invasion of the Saucer Men has a profoundly square relationship to alcohol, which in the world of the movie seems to be a vice for adult losers only and not good, horny, American teens, who would never touch the stuff.

*Probably the most effective joke in the entire movie is the fact that Joan calls her car Elvis because she "bends and shimmies but she really goes."

TL;DR: Invasion of the Saucer-Men is nobody's idea of a titanic masterpiece of cinema, but it's definitely a good time.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1647
Cardboard Science on Popcorn Culture 
2014: Invaders from Mars (1953) The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Them! (1954)
2015: The Giant Claw (1957) It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) The Brain from Planet Arous (1957)
2016: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Godzilla (1954) The Beginning of the End (1957)
2017: It Conquered the World (1958) I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) Forbidden Planet (1956)
2018: The Fly (1958) Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1958) Fiend without a Face (1958)
2019: Mysterious Island (1961) Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
2023: Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957)

Census Bloodbath on Kinemalogue
2014: My Bloody Valentine (1981) Pieces (1982) The Burning (1981)
2015: Terror Train (1980) The House on Sorority Row (1983) Killer Party (1986)
2016: The Initiation (1984) Chopping Mall (1986) I, Madman  (1989)
2017: Slumber Party Massacre (1982) Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987) Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
2018: The Prowler (1981) Slumber Party Massacre II (1987) Death Spa (1989)
2019: Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge (1989) Psycho III (1986) StageFright: Aquarius (1987)
2020: Night School (1981) The Fan (1981) Madhouse (1981)
2023: Blood Rage (1987)