There’s nothing more admirable in genre film production than basic efficiency. Cheaply made sci-fi and horror can often transcend its limited means by way of an over the top premise or an inspired knack for production design, but those virtues can be dulled so easily by a labored pace or runtime. At just under 70 minutes, the sci-fi cheapie The Space Children never had time to outlive the novelty of its basic premise. Although director Jack Arnold had previously made a fine example of artful prestige horror with The Creature from the Black Lagoon (which is stunning in its moments of underwater cinematography), The Space Children is nothing but a bare bones sci-fi yarn made to fill out a double bill with the similarly slight, but impressive The Colossus of New York. Those limiting factors of microscopic budget & necessity for a brief runtime only amplify & enhance its charms as a scrappy little horror oddity with a strange plot & an even stranger alien menace. Whenever catching up with these efficient examples of bizarre, but slight genre films from the drive-in era, it’s tempting to wish that our modern PG-13 horrors & superhero epics would stick to that exact kind of length & scale.
The Space Children is a message movie about the horrors of nuclear war, nakedly so. While its heavy-handed lesson about how it’s probably not super cool to get into a worldwide arms race that could very quickly destroy the planet isn’t exactly a revolutionary thought for a 1950s genre picture, it is handled in a way that somewhat subverts its genre expectations. This is an alien invasion picture where neither the Thing From Another World that challenges our military, nor the army of creepy children it hypnotizes are the villain. In a variation from the Children of the Damned standard, it’s the parents, adult humans, who are the enemy. Scientists & military families are contracted by the American military to live in an isolated community while developing The Thunderer, a hydrogen bomb that can be readily launched from an orbiting satellite instead of a fixed physical location. Concerned, a glowing, telepathic brain from outer space lands on a beach nearby the military base and hypnotizes the scientists’ children to do its evil bidding: preventing nuclear holocaust by dismantling The Thunderer. Short story shorter, its galactic mission is a success and the evil space brain (with a little help from its ragtag group if telepathic juvenile slaves) saves Earth from blowing itself apart.
The Space Children never had a chance to be as iconic or as memorable as other nuclear horrors of its time like Them! or The Day The Earth Stood Still, even though it concludes with the exact same kind of moralizing rant about the dangers of nuclear war (this time with a Bible verse printed over an outer space backdrop to drive the point home). It was too cheap & lean of a production to aspire to those genre film heights. The movie does a great job of working within the boundaries of its scale & budget, though, suggesting worldwide implications of its central crisis despite never leaving its artificial studio lot locations. Although not likely a conscious choice, the artificiality of those sets, which are supposed to feel like natural outdoors environments, only adds to the movie’s charming surreality. Seemingly, the entire budget of The Space Children was sunk into the look of its space alien brain, which was a smart choice. When the alien first arrives, it appears to be a glowing jellyfish that washed up on the beach. As it pulsates, expands, and glows brighter while psychically linking to its child mind-slaves that same brain gradually grows to be the size of a small, glowing hippo. The logistics of constructing such a thing seemingly zapped most of the production money, leaving only room for cheap-to-film horror movie touches like telepathy, teleportation, telekinesis, and (scariest of all) Disney Channel levels of goofy child acting. It’s an expense that pays off nicely, though, and the brain is just as memorable for its physical presence as it is for somehow not being the villain.
The Space Children is a cheap, goofy sci-fi horror with nothing especially novel to say about the perils of nuclear war, bit still manages to feel like a fairly rewarding entry in its genre. Its efficiency in delivering the goods of its space alien brain special effects & its anti-war morality play in just over an hour of drive-in era absurdist fun is an impressive feat in itself. Backing up that efficiency is another excellent score from Twilight Zone vet Van Cleave (who also scored The Colossus of New York). As soon as the opening credits, which superimposes children’s heads over telescopic photos of outer space, Van Cleave’s organ & theremin arrangement elevates the material considerably. That Twilight Zone connection feels true to this movie’s overall spirit too, as that show was excellent at delivering the goods in a similarly lean time & budget. Something you won’t see on many Twilight Zone episodes, though, is a hippo-sized brain that glows, pulsates, hypnotizes children, and forces them to rebel against their war hungry parents. The Space Children wasn’t even the best movie on its own double bill at the drive-in (The Colossus of New York is so good), but it knew exactly how to milk its few saving virtues for all they were worth and, in some cases, how to make them glow.