Saturday, October 24, 2015

Hubrisween 2015 :: S is for Space Master X-7 (1958)

With a copious amount of stock-footage and a narrator we do open, who explains what we're looking at exactly, which is the successful recovery of a space probe after its long round-trip to Mars. This is of particular interest to Dr. Charles Pommer (Frees) and his search for extraterrestrial life -- just not the little green men one usually associates with the red planet (and films of this vintage) but something on more of a micro-biological scale. And apparently, Pommer pulls enough weight that he is allowed to take several samples to his home lab for further study. There, he discovers there is indeed life on Mars: a reddish fungus which is constantly discharging more spores, meaning its growth potential is exponentially dangerous, especially when it comes into contact with any form of protein which works as both a growth medium and an accelerant.

Now, this newly dubbed Blood Rust isn't the only thing lingering in Pommer's house for he must also deal with Laura Greeling (Thomas), a clandestine ex-lover, who had a nine-months later consequence after their brief and bitter fling several years prior. Seems Laura is now married and wants full custody of their illegitimate son (whom she apparently left with Pommer and is now ensconced in some boarding school) but there is a catch. She doesn't want her new husband to know about their affair or that the child is really hers. The lecherous Pommer eventually agrees to the ruse of an adoption and hands over some papers that will allow this, but then gets a little too touchy-feely, which results in a table-lamp to the skull and Laura rapidly leaving the premises. Unfortunately for all involved, while distracted by the soap opera in the living room, Pommer kinda neglected even the most basic of lab safety protocols, allowing the Blood Rust to break containment.

Later, back at mission control, special agent John Hand (Williams) receives a cryptic call from an obviously distressed Pommer, who warns about the fungus and then orders him to allow no one inside his house and to burn it to the ground immediately. When the call is cut off, Hand and Pvt. Joe Rattigan (Ellis) head to Pommer's house and find the lab completely overrun by the alien fungus -- and what's left of the owner before he dissolves rather gruesomely. But before they bring in the napalm, they manage to salvage Pommer's audio tapes. Once the area is sterilized, the threat is apparently over until those tapes are spooled up, where Pommer posthumously reveals that even the minutest exposure and the simplest of transference could breed monstrous new colonies of the fungus, which is compounded when a woman's voice interrupts his dictation -- a woman whose identity is completely unknown, whose current location is unknown, and whose been exposed to the Blood Rust.

Thus, the hunt for this Intergalactic Typhoid Mary quickly gets up to speed as the decision is made to keep quiet on the alien fungus to prevent any panic and Pommer's death is passed off as a victim of a house-fire. Alas, the "mystery woman" wanted for questioning in connection with that fire misconstrues the intent, thinking they think she caused it; and so, Laura does her best to cover her trail as she travels from New Mexico to California, looking to get on a flight to Hawaii where her husband is due back in a couple of days, leaving bits of Blood Rust behind and a deadly trail of fungal colonies and liquefied victims for Hand and Rattigan to follow...

"I don't worry about what the critics say," said independent film entrepreneur, Robert L. Lippert. "I make pictures people want to see." Lippert was another in a long line of theater chain owners who were looking for a bigger piece of the box-office pie and decided to take the plunge into film production, beginning with Last of the Wild Horses (1948). And by 1951, TIME Magazine tagged the producer as "The Quickie King", in reference to the speed and efficiency for which he turned out his low-budget features under several different banners: Associated Film Releasing Corp., Screen Guild Productions, and Lippert Pictures. Known mostly for westerns and crime thrillers, Lippert wasn't averse to dabbling in other genres to keep his audiences happy, and he soon developed a reputation for a solid product that over-achieved beyond any budget limitations. And it was this frugal nature and repeated box-office success that drew 20th Century Fox's attention, who hired Lippert to run their newly formed Regal Pictures in 1956, which would provide B-pictures to fill the bottom bills for the parent studio's A-product.

Meantime, Bernard Glasser had obtained the film rights for the L.L. Foreman western, Long Rider Jones, and had shopped it around to several studios, including Fox, who was interested in the property but not a package deal that included keeping Glasser on as a producer. However, when the Regal deal went down, Fox contacted Glasser and pointed him toward Lippert, who agreed to make the picture, released as The Storm Rider (1957). The production reunited Glasser with director Edward Bernds; both had worked together on a couple of Three Stooges shorts (-- of which Bernds had directed a staggering sum). Liking their results, Lippert agreed to let them tackle a science-fiction film for their next project -- as long as they didn't go over-budget.

They found a spec-script called Doomsday, co-written by George Worthing Yates and Daniel Mainwaring. It was pretty ambitious in scope and spectacle -- too ambitious for their current budget, truth told, but both Glasser and Bernds liked the story and felt with several work-arounds, a copious amount of stock-footage, and some tinkering with the focus of the story, they could make it work. (They were hamstrung even further by Yates and Mainwaring's asking price, which essentially ate one quarter of the films budget before a single frame of film was exposed.) Undaunted, and certain he could cut corners elsewhere to make up the difference, Glasser managed to sell his bosses on the film and production commenced. But funnily enough, despite Glasser's creative budgeting and Bernds' tight direction and uncredited rewrites, what was to become Space Master X-7 (1958) owes the greatest debt to, believe it or not, Moe Howard.

Now, the leader of the Stooges had been out of work even since Columbia pulled the plug on its shorts department. And when he sent out feelers to Bernds to see if he had any work for him, the director happily cast him in the role of the pivotal cab driver -- the only one who knows what their fugitive looks like, and Howard's performance is a highlight of the film. Once hired, Howard pushed his luck and asked if there were any openings for his son-in-law, Norman Maurer, on the picture. A comic book illustrator by trade, Maurer was looking to break into the film industry and was willing to work for free just for the experience. For an audition, Glasser asked for some conceptual sketches and ideas on how to realize the film's undulating, blob-like menace. Maurer proved up to the task, designing, creating and operating the Blood Rust props (with an uncredited assist from Don Post), which were made of foam rubber and operated by compressed air and are really quite effective.

I had mentioned in an earlier review how George Worthing Yates had written the sci-fi classic THEM (1954) and how he spent the next five years basically rewriting the same script and just subbing in a new root-cause monster [It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), The Flame Barrier (1958)]. And even with Bernds' extensive streamlining, Space Master X-7 is still basically the same story: introduce a menace in the first act, nail down what that menace is in the second act, and then the third act amps up the tension as the menace is methodically tracked down and destroyed.

And despite a bit of a hackneyed start, once the stock-footage abuse calms down and the contrived soap opera subplot between Pommer and Greeling is established and out of the way, Space Master X-7 settles into a nice groove as it takes on a no-nonsense police procedural vibe -- think Dragnet with an X-Files twist or, better yet, The Magnetic Monster (1953) or The Quatermass X-Periment a/k/a The Creeping Unknown (1955), as our protagonists doggedly pursue their slippery quarry, who doesn't realize the danger she's in or the extinction level contagion she is carrying. It's such a good and engrossing manhunt, one can even forgive the shaky, stock-footage dictated air-disaster climax.

Alas, not very many people have had the pleasure of experiencing Space Master X-7. Initially, Fox released it as a second feature for The Fly (1958), and the sci-fi combo did gangbusters at the box-office despite the second features highly misleading promotional campaign. So much so Fox eventually split them and attached some of their other floundering A-product to both but this kinda backfired. The film also fell through the cracks when it came to TV syndication, failing to be added to any fright packages. Thus, Space Master X-7 has been kinda wallowing in relative obscurity ever since and that needs to change because you all are missing out on one crackerjack film.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd.

Space Master X-7 (1958) Regal Films :: 20th Century Fox Film Corporation / P: Bernard Glasser / AP: Norman Maurer / D: Edward Bernds / W: George Worthing Yates, Daniel Mainwaring, Edward Bernds / C: Brydon Baker / E: John F. Link Sr. / M: Josef Zimanich / S: Bill Williams, Lyn Thomas, Robert Ellis, Paul Frees, Moe Howard


FJ Torres said...

Thanks, I have been looking for information about this film for years without much luck, this is the best article I have found about it. I first watched Space Master in 1969 (dubbed into Spanish) in Puerto Rico. It was shown several times and eventually vanished, like so many B SF films. What caused an impression on me was the mix of science fiction with film noir, which seemed unusual but it was also present in Them!. Thanks for revealing the connection between both films.

W.B. Kelso said...

Thank you, and you're welcome. This is definitely one of the most under-appreciate B to ever come out of the 1950s as far as I'm concerned.

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