On the surface the sci-fi adventure cheapie The Angry Red Planet (aka Invasion of Mars & Journey to Planet Four) is the exact kind picture you’d expect from a 50s creature feature known by three separate titles. There’s plenty of antiquated cheese in the film’s space age bleep bloop machines, its hokey dialogue in lines like “Hey! Two moons! What a place for romance,” and in visual tricks that pull off “movie magic” such as making a rocketship “land” by showing its takeoff in reverse. Beyond its schlocky surface pleasures, though, there’s an oddly prescient & psychedelic film at the heart of the movie aching to bust out of its meager means.
It’s tough to say for sure if The Angry Red Planet was an influence on Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires and, thus, Ridley Scott’s Alien, but it at the very least telegraphs their basic structures, foreboding senses of dread, and literally otherworldly landscapes . . . just on a much cheaper scale. It not only pre-empts their tense, atmospheric stories about desolate alien landscapes; it also attempts to compete with their visual intensity in its own adorable way. The Angry Red Planet achieves the bizarre look of its Martian surface by abusing an absurdly saturated red filter that not only masks some of the shoddiness of its hand-drawn “CineMagic” backgrounds, but also provides the film a disorienting effect that’s almost painful to stare at directly for extended periods of time.
Visual eccentricities & tense atmosphere aside, this is by all means a monster movie that happens to be set in space. Before we even see Mars’ surface the ship’s crew is shown reading pulpy sci-fi serials and pontificating empty thoughts like “Mars . . . Martians. Monsters,” “Mars . . . The god of war,” and of course, “Mars . . . The angry red planet.” When they first arrive on the surface & don’t immediately spot an alien creature (which don’t appear until a half-hour within the film), they even joke about the possibility of invisible Martians, which is especially funny because it had been done before in Invisible Invaders. Once the movie delivers on its creature feature promises, though, it’s immensely satisfying. Carnivorous plants with tentacle arms, hideous space whales with rotating googly eyes, and an especially righteous bat spider complete with giant claws & blood-curdling screams all populate the startlingly red, inverted look of the movies’ version of a Martian surface.
If the film’s practical effects monsters and “CineMagic” visual techniques are a little laughable as campy oddities, it may have something to do with the fact that Danish-born director Ib Melchior was reportedly only afforded ten days & $20,000 to complete the picture. Sometimes the cheapness overpowers the proceedings, like in a dopey scene in which the obviously stationary space explorers are “rowing” a boat on a Martian lake or when the ship is attacked by killer psychedelic soap suds. It’s much more interesting to me, however, when the formula actually works. This is a surprisingly successful & bizarre sci-fi monster picture for something that was slapped together in little more than a week, not only standing out as a visual oddity for its time, but also reaching into the future to leave its mark on more substantial art films like Alien & Planet of the Vampires.