Monday, December 30, 2013

Trailer Park :: Fast-Shooting Eddie L. Cahn Presents the End of the World as We Know It with Invisible Invaders (1959)

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"People of Earth this is your last warning. Unless the 
nations of your planet surrender immediately, all 
human life will be destroyed in a war you cannot win."
___  ___  ___  ___  ___  ___  ___  ___  ___  ___  ___  ___

It's a tale as old as science fiction itself when the extra-terrestrial residents of the moon start to get a little nervous over the 'too fast for their own good' technological-advancement of the primates currently infesting the planet they're orbiting; advancements they fear will only end in self-obliteration on such a scale it will most likely take them with it. And so, as part of a preemptive strike, these transparent aliens (hence we never knew they were there) reach out to one of Earth's top scientists with an ultimatum of total terrestrial capitulation or face the dire consequences. To accomplish this, the aliens use their ability to phase into and re-animate the bodies of the recent dead to bridge the communication gap. But when this message of belligerent invisible invaders from the moon is delivered, one shouldn't be all that surprised by the ridicule and scorn that follows. When several more warning are ignored, unheeded, and none to happy about it, the aliens unleash hell via a two-fold attack: wreaking havoc with the weather and infrastructure with their own advanced weapons of mass destruction, and then mopping up what's left with their possessed ground-troops, an ever-growing army of the unstoppable undead, bringing the Earth to the brink of oblivion... 

Video courtesy of  Sleaze-O-Rama.

After his first screenplay was produced in 1937 (-- an early vehicle for Rita Hayworth called Paid to Dance), Robert E. Kent never looked back, cinematically speaking. Not one to limit himself, over the next three decades, and under countless pseudonyms, the screenwriter brazenly dabbled in all genres. With a prolific, speedy and solid reputation soon established, Kent was always in demand, mostly for second features and serials. (Otto Preminger's Where the Sidewalk Ends was a rare A-picture in 1950.) However, his career really took shape in the 1950s when he hooked onto producer Sam Katzman's cheap-jack circus wagon at Columbia, penning several of William Castle's pre-gimmick flicks (Serpent of the Nile, Fort Ti, and Siren of Baghdad all released in 1953) and the totally under-appreciated shocker, The Werewolf (1956), for Fred Sears. All the while watching and learning how to maximize profits by minimizing costs behind the camera as he pounded out script pages, it wasn't long before Kent decided to expand his film horizons well beyond a typewriter.

Starting in 1957, Kent began to write and produce his own independent features under several different banners (-- Peerless Productions, Vogue Pictures, Premium Pictures, and Zenith Pictures), striking a deal with Edward Small at United Artists for their eventual distribution. Mostly sticking with the proven commodity of westerns, crime capers, juvenile delinquents, and creature features, this agreement started bearing financial fruit almost immediately with the release of IT! The Terror from Beyond Space (1957), where Kent handed the directing reins to the wily veteran, Edward L. Cahn.

Now, as fast as Kent was with his typewriter, Cahn might've even been faster behind the camera. A career that spanned nearly four decades began back in the 1920s with a night job at Universal to help pay his college tuition, where Cahn quickly caught on as an apprentice editor but showed so much skill he was soon promoted to the head of the entire editorial department by 1926. As a testament to his craft, there's an apocryphal story where Cahn was tasked with making the final edit of Lewis Milestone's seminal version of All's Quiet on the Western Front (1930) on the train ride from Los Angeles to New York, where it's premiere awaited.

Mastering one craft and itching to try another, Cahn slid into the director's chair in 1931, where his speedy reputation soon cemented itself. With his editing experience and precise pre-planning, this allowed Cahn to get just what he wanted in camera, in one take, with little or no coverage needed to splice in later. And not only that, but, even from the beginning, from his well-received take on the Shoot-Out at the O.K. Corral in Law and Order (1932) or the violent pre-code crime thriller, Afraid to Talk (1932), Cahn was already showing a deliberately bleak, frankly brutal, and almost pessimistically stark and simple style of filmmaking -- haphazard at first glance, but more bluntly precise on the second. But after a couple more solid proto-noirs (Laughter in Hell, Emergency Call both released in 1933), just when his career seemed to be solidifying, something strange happened; something that has yet to be explained as to why, but, whichever or however, Cahn was summarily dismissed from Universal and wound up at MGM, where he was exiled to the short-subject, travelogue and two-reel novelty unit, where he most notably flogged a few more years out of the rapidly aging Our Gang / Little Rascals series.

And so, the director toiled away on MGM's back-lot through the 1940s, marked with an occasional feature film -- but this was more not than often, before eventually sliding all the way down the studio food chain to the poverty row of PRC until he seemingly got his feet, somewhat, back underneath him around 1950 with a trio of independently produced or self-financed thrillers (The Great Plane Robbery, Experiment Alcatraz, Destination Murder). But then he just as mysteriously up and disappeared again for nearly five years before Katzman dug him up for the ground-breaking sci-fi feature, Creature with the Atom Brain (1955), which told the fantastic tale of a gangster gaining his revenge by employing an ex-Nazi scientist who re-animated the dead for his own personal, and nigh-invulnerable attack squad.

With it's extreme viciousness and lack of blinking during the horrific elements, along with his efficiency behind the camera, Cahn was soon in demand after Creature hit the screens as a whole new wave of producers and filmmakers suddenly crawled out of the woodwork to make this kind of low-budget feature to both cash-in at the box-office or break into the business. And though Roger Corman usually gets the lions share of credit for American International's early success, one cannot overlook the contributions of 'Fast Eddie' Cahn, who really pushed AIP from upstart independent to a bona fide player in Hollywood with his juvenile delinquent pictures (Girl's in Prison '56, Dragstrip Girl '57), westerns (Flesh and the Spur '56) and creature features (The She-Creature '56, Invasion of the Saucer Men '57). And over the next few years Cahn consistently bounced between AIP and Allied Artists, churning out these '6-day wonders' that always finished on time and on budget with startling efficiency. (Five films in 1958, seven in 1959, ten in 1960, and peaking with 11 in 1961.) He even did a few more with Katzman (Zombies of Maru Tau '57), where I assume he first crossed paths with Kent, which led to him directing both IT! and it's co-feature, Curse of the Faceless Man (1958), of which United Artists were so pleased they immediately asked Kent for two more, resulting in the follow up double-bill of Invisible Invaders and the morbidly creepy The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959).

Turning to Samuel Newman to script this particular alien-invading anarchy, Newman's career began writing for Johnny Weissmuller's post-Tarzan Jungle Jim adventures before he joined Katzman's brigade; first with the 3-D western, Jesse James vs. the Daultons (1954, also directed by William Castle), before penning the penultimate gonzoidal creature feature of all time, the brain-bending and metaphorically-challenged epic known as the The Giant Claw (1957). Making these invaders invisible was nothing more than a shrewd cost-saving measure, to be sure, and what little we do see of the actual aliens is the recycled Martian suit from IT!, originally concocted by another AIP alum, Paul Blaisdell. More cost-cutting came with a copious amount of stock-footage for the world wide riots and natural disasters as the aliens sturm und drang their way toward total victory, leaving humanity's last hope in the hands of several scientist holed up in bunkers around the country, desperately seeking a way to combat these seemingly insurmountable odds.

Here, our story focuses on one such quartet, led by Major Jay (Agar), who escorts a trio of scientists, Dr. Penner (Tonge), the one no one would listen to 'natch, his daughter (Byron), and Dr. Lamont (Hutton), to one of those bunkers. And while the living dead amass and shamble around outside, constantly hunting for them, the work to stop them inside goes nowhere fast. Things get a little more harrowing when the decision is made to try and capture one of the aliens by trapping it inside a corpse as a test-subject. And after some dubious scientific method exposition and one nearly disastrous attempt, one is finally secured and held inside a pressurized cell.

Things continue to escalate from there -- in a tempest without, crisis within sense -- as nerves are frayed and the alien P.O.W. gloats as no counter-measures seem to work. But salvation comes in the form of an accident, when the stir-crazy Lamont finally cracks-up, resulting in a rousing dust-up with Jay, which ends with a flying jar of acid tripping a security alarm, whose sonic bleating has a much desired detrimental effect on the captured invader. One montage later, a crude sonic gun proves very successful in both driving the aliens out of their hosts and neutralizing them with a gooey finality. (It also proves greatly effective in short-circuiting the alien's cloaking device on their attack ships, which causes them to self-destruct.) The tide turned, the aliens are sent packing back to the moon, and our heroes are hailed by the gathered United Nations as a true testament to human ingenuity in the face of any global threat. Hooray!

Over the years since its release, Invisible Invaders has been touted as an inspiration for Night of the Living Dead (1968). I honestly have no idea if Romero, Russo and company ever saw it, but, from the shuffling dead, to the rising tension and isolated location, to the catastrophic news updates via electronic media, to the explosions of violence (-- special nod to when Jay brutally shoots the farmer because there simply is no time to negotiate), to the film's cynical edge, there is some definite tangential evidence to present. (I think it actually hews closer to Day of the Dead). Frankly, the same argument could be made for Ray Kellog's The Killer Shrews (1959). What's really amazing is how much of a plot Invisible Invaders shares with Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). Again, it's a fun conversation to have but as to how much influence it actually had? That's me shrugging right now.

On it's own, even with all that stock-footage, Invisible Invaders is an efficiently lean and effectively mean fright flick that barely breaks an hour. What I always appreciated about Cahn, whose films always abused the stock-footage vaults (especially his war pictures for AIP) was a sense that this was not done as padding but was actually and specifically used to move the plot along. On top of that, I love the Agar; I love Paul Dunlop's eerie electronic and theremin-fueled score (--which would be recycled in many a space adventure to come); I love the scenes where the dead pilot and car accident victim (whose crash was pilfered from Mitchum's Thunder Road) take over the radio booths at the sporting events; I love the hilarious moment when you finally realize how the whole film could've been told even cheaper by just presenting a slideshow of all those interrupting shots of interjecting newspaper headlines; and I love the scenes where the silent dead first march over the hill en masse, or when they slowly but relentlessly close in on our heroes. Sure, it recycles the visible dirt-track gag and moving (the same damned) shrubs by unseen hands probably twice too often, and it takes a good thirty minutes to really get going, but for the last thirty, man, I'm tellin' ya, this thing really cooks and becomes something truly special.

After Invisible Invaders, Kent kept right on writing and producing all kinds of pictures, including a couple of nifty Vincent Price features (Tower of London '62, Diary of a Madman '63, Twice-Told Tales '63), before capping his career with the movie Ed Wood wanted to make, The Christine Jorgenson Story (1970), before retiring from the business. As for his partner, sadly, just as Cahn appeared to be really hitting his stride in 1961, his health took a dramatic turn for the worse, cutting his production back to only two films in 1962; and his health continued to deteriorate until he passed away in late 1963 at the age of 64, marking the end to a truly mind-boggling career that was absolutely all over the map. I know most folks write him off as a genre hack at best, based mostly on the titles of his pictures alone, but all one needs to do is compare his films to most of his contemporaries to truly appreciate what the man had to offer. And, again, it was his type of skills (and Corman's) that kept these independents afloat. He has mostly been forgotten, barely rating a footnote, and that makes me sad; but this neglect also spurns me to draw attention to the man and his work whenever I can. So here ya go.

Okay, folks, this post is part of the Collective Head of Knuckle's TEOTWAWKI: the Roundtable, a two-part hootenanny where we explore The End of the World as We Know It (-- see what I did there?) via a pre-apocolyptic movie (this week) and post-apocalyptic movie (next week). And so, please follow the linkage below for the other reviews and get your Armageddon on something fierce, won't you? Thank you.

The Tomb of Anubis surveys the carnage of Battlefield: Earth

And be sure to tune in next week where we see what happens after the world ends. Until then, Boils and Ghouls, keep watching the skies.

Invisible Invaders (1959) Premium Pictures (Robert E. Kent Productions) :: United Artists / P: Robert E. Kent / D: Edward L. Cahn / W: Samuel Newman / C: Maury Gertsman / E: Grant Whytock / M: Paul Dunlap / S: John Agar, Jean Byron, Philip Tonge, Robert Hutton, Paul Langton, Hal Torey, John Carradine

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