Alien invasion movies have always been incredibly fun to watch. Whether they involve Roland Emmerich-style destruction, as in Independence Day, or subliminal political allegory, like in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, aliens always strike a chord with audiences. Interplanetary takeovers are hardly a new phenomenon, though – in the forties and fifties, years before manned space travel became a reality, filmmakers consistently landed alien intruders on Earth in films like The War of the Worlds and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Playing upon the public’s fear of the unknown, the space invader theme quickly became a popular one, and one of the best examples of the genre was an under-the-radar, low-budget classic called The Man from Planet X.
The Man from Planet X begins just before its dramatic climax; fearing the worst, newspaper reporter John Lawrence (The Astounding She-Monster’s Robert Clarke) writes his story down in case something happens to him. The film then flashes back to the discovery of a planet, Planet X, which has left its own orbit and is hurtling towards Earth. John travels to an observatory in Scotland, where Professor Elliot (Raymond Bond from A Foreign Affair) and his assistant, Dr. Mears (William Schallert from “The Patty Duke Show”) are investigating the phenomenon. Once there, John becomes smitten with Professor Elliot’s daughter, Enid (Captive Women’s Margaret Field). On a walk one night, John and Enid stumble across a small rocket that, when examined by Professor Elliot, is determined to be made of a substance stronger than steel and five times lighter. Enid returns to the area where they found the rocket and finds a larger craft in which she sees a humanoid creature. When John and Professor Elliot check it out, they encounter the alien, who stealthily follows them back to the observatory. Soon after, Enid and Dr. Mears disappear from the observatory, along with the alien. When more townspeople start to come under control of the intruder, John and Professor Elliot realize that the alien is brainwashing the residents of the village, and they have to find a way to stop it so that they can save Enid and Dr. Mears.
The screenplay for The Man from Planet X was written by the writing team of Aubrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen (the pair who were also responsible for The Neanderthal Man and Port Sinister). The storyline is pretty straightforward, but the interpretation of legendary horror director Edgar G. Ulmer (The Black Cat, Bluebeard) makes it an inventive twist on the genre. Like many Cold War era sci-fi films, The Man from Planet X can easily be assigned a symbolic anti-communism reading, but The Man from Planet X also works on a purely cinematic level. The alien invasion plot coupled with the creepy photography makes The Man from Planet X an interesting little sci-fi/horror hybrid.
Although primarily a science fiction movie, Edgar G. Ulmer gives The Man from Planet X the look and feel of a classic Universal horror picture. Along with the experienced cinematography of John L. Russell (who worked on the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” television show, as well as shooting Psycho for the Master of Suspense), Ulmer’s direction puts a spooky, atmospheric vibe on display that is usually only found in midnight monster movies. Much of the narrative takes place at night, and the external shots come complete with low hanging fog that would be more at home surrounding a medieval castle than a crashed rocket ship. Even the daytime scenes are dark and foreboding, giving the audience the impression that the entire area is under a dark cloud. The Man from Planet X is horror filmmaking at its finest, only with a science fiction script.
The title character in The Man from Planet X is a fascinating case study. The visitor never talks, and is hardly an imposing figure, so he doesn’t appear threatening in the least. When first introduced, he is even shown having trouble with his respirator, clinging precariously to life until saved by John and Professor Elliot. Later, back at the observatory, Dr. Mears uses the alien’s respirator against him, cutting off his air flow in order to gain control of the creature. The dichotomy between the alien and Dr. Mears gives an ambiguous view as to who the real antagonist is: the vulnerable invader or the ruthless rescuer. In its early stages, the film generates a good deal of sympathy for the space traveler, making him look more like a lost explorer than a mighty conqueror. The sympathy slowly fades as the townspeople start to disappear and the alien’s reasons for visiting Earth are revealed. However, even with the alien’s ulterior motives made clear, Dr. Mears ends up looking far more dangerous than the visitor from Planet X.
The one aspect of The Man from Planet X that does not feel organic is the love story between John and Enid. Unfortunately, the romance is so forced and uncomfortable that, even in a movie full of spaceships and alien visitors, it is the least believable plot point. There is zero chemistry between Robert Clarke and Margaret Field, and they goof around like brother and sister so much that any intimacy between them just looks and feels awkward. Their romantic subplot feels like an attempt to transform The Man from Planet X from low-budget B-movie into a Hollywood Blockbuster, and it’s the one area were the film falters miserably.
It seems as if every B-movie of the fifties involved some sort of alien invasion. It takes a certain something different to stand out. With its underlying eeriness, The Man from Planet X has that certain something, and the film is well worth the time and effort to any self-respecting sci-fi fan.