Sunday, October 17, 2021

Target Earth (1954)

... aka: Invasion del mundo (Invasion of the World)
... aka: Invasores de otros mundos (Invaders from Other Worlds)
... aka: Objectif Terre (Objective Earth)
... aka: Rumbo a lo desconocido (Heading to the Unknown)

Directed by:
Sherman A. Rose

Having perhaps downed one too many sleeping pills the night before, Nora King (Kathleen Crowley) wakes up in a daze late in the morning. She cracks open the window for some fresh air. It's strangely quiet outside, especially since this is set in Chicago. How about some noise from the radio? She's unable to get any music to play. A splash of water in the face? The water's off. After getting dressed, she walks down the hallway of her boarding house and knocks on various doors but no one answers. After venturing inside one of the rooms, she not only realizes that no one is there but that their electric, gas and water have been turned off, though a warm breakfast is still sitting on the table uneaten. Nora ventures outside. There are no cars on the road, nor pedestrians walking around. She heads straight to the usually-bustling business district of the city, yet no one's there either. What happened to everyone?

Nora eventually stumbles across somebody: A woman... Only she's lying dead on the sidewalk. So it comes as no surprise that when she finally does run across a living, breathing human, her first instinct is to run. She's chased down by the man, who corners her in an alley. After he promises not to hurt her and then slaps her in the face a few seconds later (!), he introduces himself as Frank Brooks (Richard Denning). Frank informs her that he was passing through town, drank a little too much, was knocked unconscious, robbed, dumped in an alley and didn't even come to until around noon. Whatever had occurred, the two somehow managed to sleep through it.

Rightfully assuming they missed some kind of city-wide evacuation, Nora and Frank break into an electronics store trying to get their hands on a battery-operated radio, but aren't able to find anything of use. Also, none of the cars left in the city are in running condition because the distributor caps have all been removed. They stumble upon a few other stragglers, starting with tumultuous, good-timin' couple Vicki (Virginia Grey) and Jim (Richard Reeves), who've decided to celebrate the end of the world by "whoopin' it up" and treating themselves to a restaurant's fine wine collection. They're joined (briefly at least) by the frantic Charles Otis (Mort Marshall) and everyone tries to figure out just what's going on.

You know how anytime someone wants to parody old sci-fi films, they always trot out one of those clunky cardboard box robots that sways from side to side as it walks? Well, the fiends seen here are exactly what they're parodying! It's definitely hard to feel wonder, fright, menace or much of anything else when we first lay eyes on these alien robot invaders. But this is an early 1950s low-budget science fiction film, so you really have two options here:... 1. Roll with it, overlook the cheap design (or accept it as part of the charm) and focus on the characters and story, or 2. Press stop and walk, crawl, run or waddle away. After the robot zaps Charles with its "cathode ray" laser, the other four duck into a hotel and decide to get a room for the night. Why not the deluxe bridal suite? After all, it's FOC!

The first 30 minutes, when this is focusing exclusively on the survivors trapped in the city, is the best sustained part of the film. Afterward, it decides to break up scenes with these characters with scenes involving the military and a bunch of guys sitting around at desks discussing what's going on and it all becomes a lot less tense. The air force, who have spotted "several hundred" of the robots prowling around (though we never see more than one on screen at a time), send in a bunch of bomber jets (cue stock footage inserts) and the aliens promptly blast them all right out of the sky. Lt. General Wood (Arthur Space) and chief research scientist Tom (Whit Bissell) discuss whipping out the bigger guns, namely guided missiles and atomic artillery. If worse comes to worse, they may have to level the entire city to neutralize the treat. They do get a break when a deactivated robot is located and brought back to the research lab. If they can discover what makes it tick, they may also be able to discover what their weaknesses are...

Though the origin of the robots is in question, both the military and Frank (who had science fiction buff friends in college) theorize they've come here from Venus. Why Venus? Well, because it has clouds, which means oxygen and hydrogen and thus it's "...the only planet that might be capable of supporting human life." Apparently this was made well before the general scientific consensus was established that Venus' atmospheric pressure is comparable to being 3000 feet down in the ocean and the surface temperature of the planet is hot enough to melt lead!

There's a lot of talk and precious little action here but what elevates this a bit above the norm is the likable cast and the enjoyable characterizations. Nora is revealed to have attempted suicide because she's been unable to get over her husband's death in a car accident, though she's finding a renewed interest in life thanks to the relationship she forms with Frank. The hot-n-cold romance between Vicki and Jim has been a bumpy ride full of ups and down for many years. Though the two haven't settled down or bothered getting married, the stress of the situation makes them realize they probably should start taking things a bit more seriously. Grey gives the standout performance as the hard-drinking, sarcastic Vicki and also gets most of the film's funny lines, like when she smirks "I always did like breakfast in bed" when a character offers to fetch her a warm beer in the morning. Added complications arise when Davis (Robert Roark), a dangerous, armed escaped convict / murderer stumbles upon them and plans to make them all act as a human shield to help him escape from the city.

Made on a budget of 85,000 dollars (apparently not enough to afford making more than one robot!), this was one of only a couple directorial credits for Rose, who otherwise worked almost exclusively editing cheap westerns. However, right behind him are a number of others who became genre heavy-hitters in the following years, starting with Herman Cohen. This appears to have been the first genre film produced through his namesake company.

The screenplay is credited to William Raynor (WITHOUT WARNING!; PHANTOM FROM SPACE) and was based on an original screenplay by James H. Nicholson, who'd team up Samuel Z. Arkoff to form the invaluable American International Pictures just a few years later, and Wyott Ordung, who'd just written the bad movie cult favorite Robot Monster and directed the early Corman film MONSTER FROM THE OCEAN FLOOR this same year. All of these were based in part on the novella "Deadly City" by Paul W. Fairman, who wrote it using the pen name "Ivar Jorgenson." The short novel was first published in the March 1953 issue of If: Worlds of Science Fiction (a magazine that Fairman also edited). He also wrote the short story "The Cosmic Frame," which would be adapted twice: as INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN in 1957 and as THE EYE CREATURES in 1965.

VCI handled the initial home video distribution for this title, releasing it on both VHS and DVD. There was also a "Producer's Edition" laserdisc release from The Roan Group. Since 1954 offers such slim pickins for genre films, this will be debuting at #3 on my Top 10 list for the year, which is the highest-ranking first time viewing I've had here in years!

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