The Space Children (1958)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

The Colossus of New York (1958)

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Written by hoaxter parapsychologist Thelma Moss & released on a double bill with something called The Space Children, you’d be forgiven for assuming that The Colossus of New York was an unworthy throwaway sci-fi picture only notable because it somehow wasn’t featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. You’d be wrong, though. Although the film is only a breezy 70min long, pads itself out with a little airport stock footage and is undeniably goofy in some of its special effects details, The Colossus of New York deserves way more respect than you might expect from its drive-in schlock pedigree. Unexpectedly serving as a bridge between Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein & Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, I found the film far more inventive & thematically well-considered than I would have initially assumed. It looks from the outside to be just one of many cheap 1950s Frankenstein bastardizations, but the film pushes way past a simple brain transplant horror story into something that feels anachronistically forward-thinking. A lot of The Colossus of New York‘s initial appeal rests in its drive-in era charm & unique creature design, but it somehow amounts to far more than the sum of its parts.

The film starts with two sibling scientists watching footage of automated assembly line technology that the far more successful of the pair is pioneering. His jealous brother, tired of competing for their father’s praise, jokes that the invention will “put the human race out of business.” After hearing his father brag to the press that his son is one of the all-time great human minds, comparable to the likes of Einstein & Darwin, we watch the scientist die in a horrific car accident while retrieving his child’s toy airplane. The father is driven mad by this “foolish, wasteful” death and starts raving about the shame of the human body’s inferiority to the power of the mind and some slippery slope philosophy about the brain vs the soul. Long story short, the father resurrects his favorite son by implanting his brain in a more durable cyborg body, while the lesser, more alive brother starts making moves on the scientist’s widow. The experiment works at first, with the scientist’s new cyborg body finally matching the immense power of his mind. He’s essentially a gigantic, metal version of Frankenstein’s monster, with the added bonus of light-up eyes that shoot deadly lasers. Of course, the father’s meddling with the laws of God & Nature means that the creation’s temporary success doesn’t last forever. Eventually, the titular cyborg colossus uses his newfound strength to exact his brutal revenge, first on his wife-stealing brother and then on the world at large.

What’s most striking about The Colossus of New York is what happens when it ventures into the uncanny. Most drive-in schlock would’ve stopped at the Metal Frankenstein aspect of the premise, but this film pushes itself into much stranger, more adventurous territory. When the colossus is first switched on, we see the world through his POV, a television static-inspired technique that recalls the similarly shot birth of RoboCop. When he first sees himself in the mirror as a cyborg he squeals in horror, pleading to his father, “You want to help me? Then destroy me,” in a pathetic mechanical voice. He curses his “flesh that cannot feel,” pines to reconnect with his wife (who the father initially reports to be dead), and repeatedly visits the grave for his old human body. Things get even stranger from there as the scientist’s mind begins to push beyond normal human capacity. He’s tortured by “meaningless images,” visions that are later revealed to be premonitions of future events. He also becomes more erratic in his thoughts by the day, even discovering a new talent for hypnotism, which he immediately employs for evil. This escalates to the once great, humanitarian mind declaring the poor & hungry to be “human trash” and deciding to wage a one-cyborg war on world peace, starting with a massacre at a UN conference. What was once a standard black & white horror cheapie starts to feel much stranger, much more special, and by the end The Colossus of New York starts to feel like a long buried gem.

Even if my praise of the film’s adventurous sci-fi themes sounds a little hyperbolic, I believe it’s a work that could easily be enjoyed for the simple pleasures of its sights & sounds. Lack of facial expressiveness is usually not a plus in a monster movie mask, but the cyborg colossus uses that awkward stoicism quite well as an essential part of his self-tortured inhumanity. The movie also pulls a lot of great visual play out of terrified victims being lit solely by the monster’s light-up brain & eyes in the moment before he zaps them to death. Besides boasting a cool-looking monster who eats up a lot of screentime in a refreshing change from the genre’s status quo, the film also employs a minimalist piano score from frequent Twilight Zone musician Van Cleave that affords it a classic silent horror vibe in its simplicity. If you’re ever in the mood for a Universal Monster-type classic, but you’re feeling exhausted with endless rewatches of Frankenstein or The Black Cat, I highly recommend giving The Colossus of New York a shot. It just might surprise you.

-Brandon Ledet