Fantastic Fury Strikes From Outer Space!
-- from the ads in 1954
Director: Sherman A. Rose
Producer: Herman Cohen
Adapted from Paul W. Fairman's short story "Deadly City"
Starring: Richard Denning, Kathleen Crowley, Virginia Grey, Richard Reeves, and Robert Roark.
Eerie opening music sets the mood of this low budget gem. Nora (Kathleen Crowley) wakes up from a failed suicide attempt to find that not only is she alone in her rooming house but that the city, as seen through her window, seems to be inexplicably deserted. As she walks through the empty streets in search of someone the viewer cannot help but feel her sense of isolation and growing panic. The use of overhead photography in these scenes of her search reminds me of Welles and is as effectively used by director Sherman Rose as it ever was by Welles or Hitchcock. Though the setting is supposed to be Chicago, these scenes were shot in downtown Los Angeles on a Sunday morning - a time when I can assure you the area truly does seem abandoned by mankind.
Nora's alarm is naturally intensified when she stumbles upon a dead body. The horrified expression on the corpse's face isn't exactly soothing to her nerves either. Soon after, in a classic "bus" shot, she meets Frank (Richard Deming), an out-of-town businessman who awoke to find the city deserted after he had been mugged and knocked out the previous evening.
Frank and Nora then meet Vicki (Virginia Grey), and Jim (Richard Reeves), a drunken, bickering couple who are drinking their way thru the city's abandoned nightclubs. They now learn why the city is deserted - it has been evacuated in the face of an invasion from outer space. Frank and Nora convince Vicki and Jim to give up their barhopping and together they go outside, determined to find a way out of town. This is when they have their first encounter with the alien invaders -- robots armed with a deadly heat ray. The robot is a pretty cheesy special effect and although the storyline tells us that there is an army of robots the film never shows more than one. Somehow, however, that robot burned itself into my memory when I first saw this movie and seems to have had the same effect on many others. While I personally have never had a nightmare of any sort, I've heard of a number of people who report having nightmares in which they were pursued by that robot thru empty streets for years after seeing this movie.
The foursome takes shelter in a hotel where they are soon joined by a menacing hoodlum (Robert Roark) who plans to use them as decoys in his escape from the robotic menace. He meets a predictable end and soon after one of the robots smashes its way into their sanctuary. Not everyone survives the battle with the robot but at the last minute the Army arrives armed with a new weapon capable of disabling the robots. The search for a weapon has been presented in a series of brief scenes of soldiers and scientists at work scattered thru the earlier scenes of the film.
Despite its very low budget,Target Earth is an excellent film. It achieves a real sense of menace with minimal materials. It is fast paced but slows down when it needs to. The small cast may have been dictated by the limited budget but the film makes an asset of what could have been a liability - accentuating the foursome's isolation and peril and also letting us get to know and like them. The acting is consistently good to excellent and the characters are believable and have depth that is usually missing in SF of the era. In the end there are still unanswered questions about each of the four lead characters and that adds to their realism in a fantastical tale.
Target Earth was the first movie directed by Sherman Rose who went on to direct just two more films, the mediocre Magnificent Roughnecks (1956) and Tank Battalion (1958) which I have never seen but which I have been told is one of the worst war movies ever made. It is surprising that having done so well at directing Target Earth he did so badly on the other two; it makes me wonder if Cohen or someone else had a hand in directing the film.
Rose had been a film editor for nearly twenty years before directing Target Earth, mostly working on low budget westerns. He had also edited a number of TV series, including The Gene Autry Show, Sky King, and Topper. He returned to this field after his short directorial career editing the popular Burke's Law TV series in the Sixties.
Producer Herman Cohen, who started his career as a movie theatre usher and was a film distributor before getting into the production end of the business, had been an assistant to the producer of Bride of the Gorilla (1951) and associate producer and co-producer on several previous films including Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952). Target Earth was his first effort as a solo producer. Cohen was to make cinema history in 1957 as writer and producer of the film I Was a Teenage Werewolf, which initiated the trend of horror films about and for teenagers that continues today. He followed that up with the teen flics I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957) and Blood of Dracula (1957) - why wasn't it called I Was a Teenage Vampire? Later productions of note included How to Make a Monster (1958), Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), Konga (1961), A Study In Terror (1965), and Trog (1970)
Two interesting facts about this film and Herman Cohen are the following: (1) To save money, Cohen built the robot suit himself in his garage. (2) Cohen liked to make appearances in minor roles in his films; in this one he plays a lab technician working on a weapon to use against the robots.