Sunday, March 22, 2015

Drinking Blood With the Spaceman: "First Man into Space"

It's a thing of beauty when two genres come together. In 1959's First Man into Space, the marriage is between horror and sci-fi, which was the tag team du jour in the 1950s. For most people, the Eisenhower years are regarded as the uptight and square epoch that helped to further enrage the sleeping radicals who would later claim the cultural zeitgeist a decade later. The idea of the 1950s as staid might be true in some cases, but when it comes to fright films, the 1950s were downright radical. Sure, some of the flicks have melodramatic and predictable endings, but unlike the decades before and after, the 1950s were the apex of science fiction futurism and tales of human exploration gone awry. Instead of spooky castles infested with vampires or gritty urban films about maniacs with butcher knives, horror pictures in the 1950s were all about nuclear energy, the unbelievably powerful union of science and the military, and the postwar hunger for all things outer space. 

Directly inspired by the great British sci-fi film The Quatermass Xperiment and directed by English horror specialist Robert Day, First Man into Space is a compact tale about one daring Air Force pilot (played by Bill Edwards) and his suicidal attempt to become the first man to orbit in space. While working on the Y-12 and Y-13 projects for the Navy in New Mexico, Lt. Dan Prescott (Edwards) has to not only deal with the various objections of his brother and superior, Commander Chuck Prescott (played by Marshall Thompson), but also has to contend with the protestations of his Italian girlfriend, Tia Francesca (played by Marla Landi). 

As the film opens, Lt. Edwards nearly dies after disobeying orders while trying to reach beyond the ionosphere as part of project Y-12. After going beyond all previous flights, Lt. Edwards begins experiencing psychological problems and has serious issues dealing with weightlessness. Only the calming Teutonic voice of Dr. von Essen (played by Carl Jaffe) saves Dan from succumbing to death. Eventually, Dan's plane lands in rural New Mexico, and after the New Mexico State Police escort him back to Albuquerque, he hotfoots it to Tia's apartment for a post crash celebration. Too bad big brother is hip to Dan's whereabouts, and after catching him smooching the girl from Turin, Chuck tells the Shore Patrol officer to put the daredevil pilot in serious detention.  

There's only one problem with this punishment: Dan's the only pilot worthy enough of executing Y-14. So, with serious reservations, Chuck lifts Dan's suspension and the younger brother goes up into space once more. Again, while under the spell of fame, Dan refuses to obey orders and climbs above 1,320,000 feet (250 miles) before trying to turn around. Unfortunately, Dan loses control of his aircraft and is forced to eject. Before releasing himself, he drifts into a meteorite cloud that peppers his entire his entire body. 

At first, Dan is nowhere to be found. Then, after a Mexican farmer calls to complain about cattle mutilation, the New Mexico State Police once again locate the wreckage of a military jet. This time though the aircraft is warped like burnt skin and covered in glistening dust. Chuck notices these particles but cannot yet figure out what they are. Sadly, a string of murders forces him to come to the realization that his brother is no longer a pure earthling. Instead, Dan has become a wheezing and disfigured hulk who needs to feast on blood in order to sustain himself. 

First, Dan breaks into a blood bank and gashes the poor nurse who responds to the noise. Then, Dan cuts the throat of a hapless big truck driver before finding a car and killing two patrolmen after being forced off the road. As things come to a head, Chuck and everyone else begin to understand that Dan is trying to work his way back to the base's high-altitude chamber. 

Although he begins the film as the pedantic, "One Must Follow the Rules" type, Chuck ends the film as the unquestionable hero. It's even hinted that he and Tia are going to make a go of it once Dan has been taken care of (and by taken care of, we mean dead). It is Chuck who first solves the mystery concerning why all the murder victims have wounds that glisten, and it's Chuck who first realizes that his baby brother is now some sort of semi-human monstrosity. And like Dan's moment of self-sacrifice (which is partially the result of egoism), Chuck's decision to lock himself in the high-altitude chamber in order to help Dan nearly kills him. In the end, after the extreme altitude allows Dan to both breath and communicate his experiences to Dr. von Essen, he dies peacefully while Chuck barely hangs on until the chamber can be stabilized. Chuck then leaves the chamber on his own two feet and walks off into the end credits as Tia begins to cry. 

First Man into Space is a lot like most sci-fi films from this period, except when it comes to its final message. Predominately, sci-fi films from the 1950s leave viewers with a discretionary note about the evils of tampering with nature or using science to toy with God's domain. Even more prevalent is a warning against nuclear testing and a pseudo-peacenik nod to international agreements and arms race deescalation. First Man into Space ends with a different message. Namely, Dr. von Essen and Captain Ben Richards (played by Robert Ayres) mourn the loss of Dan while at the same time reaffirming that men like Dan need to exist in order for space exploration to continue. In essence, these two men confirm the righteousness of the military-science partnership in the face of a terrible tragedy. 

There's a lot to love with this film. The music is wonderfully stereotypical, with weird organ movements and some theremin sprinkled in. The Dan monster is also amazing and is reminiscent of Dr. Freudstein in Lucio Fulci's gruesome slasher film, The House By the Cemetery. Overall, First Man into Space is '50s sci-fi at its peak right before its crash in the early 1960s, when cynicism and a pampered revolution made such stories passé. 

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