Character actor Rex Reason passed away last week at the age of 86. Reason primarily worked in television, with appearances on several shows in the fifties and sixties such as “Man Without a Gun” and “The Roaring 20’s,” but he made movies, too, and his two most memorable roles happened to be in science fiction/horror movies. One was in the final installment of Universal’s Creature from the Black Lagoon franchise, The Creature Walks Among Us. The other, his most recognizable performance, was in This Island Earth.
This Island Earth stars Reason as Dr. Cal Meacham, a scientist who specializes in atomic energy research. While working in his lab with his assistant, Joe Wilson (Robert Nichols from The Thing from Another World), he receives a catalog from a strange company called “Unit 16” which includes plans for a device called an “Interociter.” On a whim, Cal and Joe order all of the parts and build the machine, and it ends up being a communication device. An alien being named Exeter (Octaman’s Jeff Morrow) contacts them through the machine and explains that the building of the Interociter was a test, which Cal passed, and his presence is requested at an airfield. Cal plays along, and is transported to a secluded location where it is explained to him that he is to work with a couple of other scientists who have passed the “test,” Dr. Ruth Adams (It Came from Beneath the Sea’s Faith Domergue) and Dr. Steve Carlson (Russell Johnson, the Professor from “Gilligan’s Island”), to help Exeter’s people on the planet of Metaluna win a war with their enemy, the planet of Zahgon. Along with Ruth and Steve, Cal has to figure out if Exeter is on the right side of the war and, if so, how they can help.
The script for This Island Earth was written by Franklin Coen (The Train) and Edward G. O’Callaghan (the Charlie Chan movies), adapted from a Raymond F. Jones story called “The Alien Machine.” Directed by Joseph M. Newman, the movie is about as typical of a fifties sci-fi flick as one is bound to find. Despite its brisk pace and fun special effects, the movie still gets lumped into the “so-bad-it’s-good” category with movies like Robot Monster and The Beast of Yucca Flats, even earning an appearance on an episode of the movie parody show “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” In reality, This Island Earth gets a bad rap; it’s got a creative story and a great cast. And, although they don’t show up until well into the third act, it’s also got some of the coolest alien monsters, big-headed insectoids called Mutants, that have ever been seen on film. This Island Earth is a cool little sci-fi B-movie.
At the center of the movie, of course, is Rex Reason. The character of Cal Meacham is the archetypical macho scientist from a time when scientists were allowed to be macho. Cal is both smart and capable, getting by on both his brain and his brawn – he can build an Interociter from scratch as well as he can buzz the tower Top Gun-style in a jet plane. He’s also dashingly good looking, a trait that provides the film with romantic tension once he meets Ruth. Reason is the consummate leading man, playing Cal to perfection, both as eye-candy for the gals and as a role model for the guys. It’s hard to imagine Dr. Cal Meacham being played by any other actor besides Rex Reason.
As the poster clearly states, This Island Earth was produced in Technicolor, and cinematographer Clifford Stine (The Mole People, The Monolith Monsters) made sure to make the most out of the vibrant technology. The sets are full of bright and glowing machinery and computers. There are plenty of fun scientific gizmos and doohickeys that change their colors with the flick of a switch or the turn of a dial. Encounters with aliens are signified by colored filters on the camera lenses, giving the entire framed image a green or red hue. Once the heroes get to the planet of Metaluna, some creative post-production color tinting changes their skin tones to purple and orange, and not just any purple and orange, but eye-burning purple and orange. This Island Earth has a lot of fun with its Technicolor technology.
Many of the special effects in This Island Earth also rely heavily on the coloring. In one early scene, Cal is flying a plane that encounters one of the Metalunian flying saucers, and his plane turns green in a fun bit of photographic image manipulation. Colorful red lasers and green tractor beams shoot down from the flying saucers, the results of more film-lab creativity. Controlled explosions on the ground coupled with inventive double exposure editing make the battle scenes look as if the world is actually ending. And, of course, the flying saucers are miniatures on strings, but they’re photographed and implemented well enough to look cool. The visuals are primitive by today’s standards, but for 1955, they were slick.
Like many of the sci-fi quickies of the fifties, This Island Earth uses stock music for its score. Although stereotypical, the soundtrack is both dramatic and cinematic, having been culled together from the works of a trio of master composers: Henry Mancini (Lifeforce, Wait Until Dark), Hans J. Slater (The Wolf Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon), and Herman Stein (Tarantula, The Intruder). The music all sounds familiar, probably because it is stock music that has been placed dozens (if not hundreds) of times before, but it still fits the picture, from the pulsing orchestral swells of the action scenes to the spooky Theremin and Moog melodies of the more suspenseful segments. It may sound like every other sci-fi film from the fifties, but the music in This Island Earth sure sounds good.
Rex Reason wasn’t exactly a household name, but he had an undeniable screen presence. He didn’t make his living in the horror genre, but sometimes, one movie is all it takes. For better or worse, he’ll always be remembered by fans as the suave alien-fighting scientist in This Island Earth.