We Earthlings have always been fascinated by Mars. It’s the name, I think; when you name a bright red planet after the God of War, you’ve set that planet up to have a bad reputation. We’ve always imagined that if there aliens on Mars, they’re probably a pretty hostile lot. Generations of children grew up fearing an attack from that planet, Martians pouring forth from their flying saucers and obliterating us all with their ray guns.
In Ib Melchior’s ‘The Angry Red Planet,’ the Martians don’t invade Earth. In fact, we invade Mars – that is, if you can count one ship with a crew of four people as an “invasion.” The ship is brought back from Mars via remote control; upon landing, scientists discover that half the crew is dead. There’s one man left (Gerald Mohr) and he has some acidic green slime on his arm, which makes him disinclined to party. The only other survivor is the hot redheaded doctor, Iris “Irish (Get It She’s A Redhead So She Must Be Irish Because We Love To Use Stereotypes In The Fifties)” Ryan (Nora Hayden). Physically, she’s unscathed, but she has psychologically repressed memories about what happened on Mars and the dreadful fate that befell her crew. She tells what she can and we see what takes place in flashback.
Like a lot of sci-fi from the 1950s, this movie is slow. Oh, so very slow. Scenes of dialogue go on interminably and do very little to actually further the storyline. There’s a lot of veiled sexual banter and your basic pseudo-science babble. Characters drone on to each other on the spaceship during the flashback parts. They have long conversations in the hospital during the present-day sequences. The most effective thing you’ll actually hear in the movie is the amazing scream of Nora Hayden. Girl’s got some lung-power. If you can stand leaden pacing, you’re on your way to enjoying ‘The Angry Red Planet.’
We know a lot more about Mars now then people did in the ’50s. Having said that, ‘The Angry Red Planet’ makes some pretty good guesses. The discovery of water on Mars caused a real-life scientific stir not too long ago; in the film, our team of space explorers actually brings along an inflatable boat to cruise the Martian lakes and rivers. Life on Mars seems to have been a reality in the past; it is, however, a given in science fiction. There is life on Mars in this movie, to be sure, and it is nutty. We’ll get to that in due time, though. Can we say there are threads of actuality in this film? Sure. Why not? It’s impossible to say something is wrong when discussing things we know nothing about. But I tend to think philosophically about things that don’t require that much energy.
By now, you’ve figured out that that I believe this movie could have used some tightening. The reasoning I harp on that so much is because there’s a fine, frightening story buried under all that unnecessary talking. What the crew finds on Mars is bizarre and terrifying, even by modern standards. The thing that makes everything so unexpected, particularly for a low-budget sci-fi flick, is that none of the Martians take a humanoid shape. It’s not extras dressed in rubber costumes with pale grey makeup. The monsters are monsters. This is such a delightful change from the norm; it almost makes waiting fifty minutes before we see them worth it. Yes, the story is flawed, particularly in its framing device, but there are some flashes of creature genius in this movie, which ups its score considerably.
Here’s where ‘The Angry Red Planet’ really wins, and in one of the strangest ways possible: the movie was filmed in Cinemagic. All Cinemagic was designed to do, really, was turn the screen red. And boy, does it. The surface of Mars is depicted in every variant shade and hue of red you can possibly imagine. This visual distraction (and I did, at one point, consider putting on sunglasses to tone things down a bit) also serves to make the actors look like line drawings. Most distinguishable features are pinked out. Through Cinemagic, the actors and the hand-drawn animated monsters have the same level of visual reality. It’s brilliant, really. Dumb one visual component down to make another one look incredible. And believe you me; you haven’t seen a Martian until you’ve seen a bright red ferret/bat/grasshopper/spider monster looming at you through the screen
‘The Angry Red Planet’ nearly drowns in its own talkiness, but comes close to redeeming itself with its insane visual effects. It’s not a sure-fire recommendation for everyone, though. Younger viewers, with their Star Wars and their Flash Gordons, probably won’t appreciate this weird little B-movie gem for what it is. I can also see how Cinemagic can put people off. It is hard to look at, even though the final result is just goofy enough for aficionados of Bad Cinema to enjoy.