... aka: La planète rouge (The Red Planet)
... aka: Marte distruggerà la Terra (Mars Will Destroy the Earth)
... aka: Weltraumschiff MR-1 gibt keine Antwort (Spacecraft MR-1 Gives No Answer)
An expeditionary rocket ship called the "Mars Rocket 1" takes off for the Red Planet. Things go smoothly until the rocket enters Mars' orbit and all communication with Earth is lost. It's assumed the ship had crashed during its landing attempt but two months later the MR1 is spotted drifting in space about 90,000 miles from Earth. Major General George Treegar (Paul Hahn) orders the rocket be retrieved and returned to Earth intact because the recording instruments on board may have picked up invaluable information. The military is able to both reprogram the navigation system and reactivate the engine on the ship to direct it back to Earth and it safely lands in the desert. But only two of the four crew people are still on board and only one of them appears to be unharmed. Physically, at least!
Biologist / zoologist Dr. Iris Ryan (Nora Hayden) is the lone intact crew member of the MR1, though she's suffering from a partial "mental block" and cannot fully remember what had occurred. The second returning crewman is unable to move or speak and has some kind of fast-spreading "alien infection" (a green slimy growth) attached to his arm. All of the recording tapes documenting the trip have been scrubbed clean, as if they'd been erased by some electromagnetic force. As doctors tend to the injured crewman, General Treegar, Prof. Paul Weiner (J. Edward McKinley) and Dr. Frank Gordon (Tom Daly) try to refresh Dr. Ryan's memory by having her recall the entire trip from the very beginning. We then go into flashback mode.
Along with Iris, the rest of the MR1 crew includes Air Force Colonel Tom O'Bannion (Gerald Mohr aka Budget Bogie) as navigator and pilot, Professor Theodore Gettell (Les Tremayne), the rocket ship designer and world's foremost authority on space and rocketry, and Chief Warrant Officer Sam Jacobs (Jack Kruschen), an electronics and radar expert. The crew land safely on Mars near the planet's equator and run an atmosphere test that determines the air is too thin to be suitable for humans but there's still enough oxygen to perhaps sustain other life forms. The planet is filled with strange vegetation yet it's all eerily quiet: "A nightmare on unending silence." Observing the planet through a window shows no signs of movement or life and their microphones pick up no sound. It's something that will require further investigation.
Before they leave the ship, Dr. Ryan spots a "huge distorted face with three bulging eyes" peering in through the port hole and screams. This is where her present day memory stops as Iris has put up the mental blocks to help her absorb the shock of it all. But there's one way around that: Forced memory recall using a potentially dangerous "narcosynthesis" drug. Even though she risks losing her mind in the process, Iris agrees to let them administer the drugs in hopes of providing information that may help save the life of her fellow crewman with the alien infection.
Under the drug, Iris tells the rest of the Mars story and we find out just what the crew discovered. For starters, Mars is filled with plants that lack chlorophyll but do have nervous systems. And then there are rocks that have unusual chemical combinations not found on Earth. But the biggest discovery are a slew of alien creatures. There's a big Venus Flytrap-like carnivorous plant, a "40-foot high" drooling rodent with spider legs, a giant tentacled sea monster with a spinning eyeball, a gelatinous "amoeba" glob that attempts to absorb the space ship using acid and, of course, that thing with a "huge distorted face with three bulging eyes." One of the aliens seems to be controlling everything that's going on, including causing a gravitational pull so strong that the ship's powerful engine can't break past it so they can leave. Who in the crew will survive? Will Iris emerge from her forced recall session with any emotional stability left? Will scientists be able to save the contaminated crewman?
Made on a budget of around 200,000 dollars and shot in just a week and a half, this is best-known nowadays for utilizing a weird experimental process called "Cinemagic" that attempts to blend live-action footage with hand-drawn backdrops, landscapes and vegetation. Unfortunately, the hand-drawn parts look exactly that: like not-very-detailed comic book panels. In addition, constant red-tint and some shimmery blurring effect (achieved through double exposure supposedly by accident) have been applied to the Mars surface scenes, which I thought worked a lot better than the drawn parts. In fact, some of it actually looks pretty cool.
Of course there are cheap sets, some wooden acting (though Hayden is a better-than-usual lead), stilted dialogue and plenty of laughable science on display, like the rocket using its thrusters to land completely upright upon returning to Earth and it taking just 47 days to reach Mars, but that's all to be expected with one of these 50s B-grade sci-fi flicks. I still had fun with this. There's enough plot complication and, perhaps most importantly of all, plenty of fun alien monsters on display. It was written by the director and Sidney W. Pink (who'd go on to direct a number of sci-fi films himself) and shot by two-time Oscar nominee Stanley Cortez.
Released theatrically by AIP, this was first issued on VHS in the 80s by Thorn EMI / HBO. That was followed by a laserdisc release from Image pairing it with Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962). MGM handled the DVD releases starting in 2001, starting with a standalone release but then issuing it on their Midnite Movies line. In 2013, it was bundled with Beyond the Time Barrier (1960), THE MAN FROM PLANET X (1951) and The Time Travelers (1964) for the MGM / Shout Factory / Timeless Media set "Movies 4 You: Sci Fi Classics." In 2017, Shout Factory released a Blu-ray.