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A Space Fantasy with a pre-psychedelic look

Celebrating the movie miracle of CINEMAGIC!

In 1960 Hollywood space fantasy was being phased out by America's real space program.  Public acceptance of the concept of space travel had been given a considerable boost by 1950's Destination Moon, and the '50's had seen a number of fancifully expressive and technically impressive space movies.  But the latter end of the decade was dominated by cutprice efforts like Missile to the Moon, of which even genre fanatics had little good to say.  How could yet another space saga sans budget distinguish itself?

Independent producers Sidney Pink and Ib Melchoir found the answer in an effect they called Cinemagic, in their film The Angry Red Planet. Garish crimson posters sporting a slathering Martian monster called a 'Bat-Rat-Spider Crab' promised something totally new, a claim impressionable 7-year-olds like myself took at face value.  'Show us', we said as we marched into the matinee.  This was the kind of audience that oohed and ahhed at the flimsiest special effects, who shuddered in horror at the obvious theatrics of fare like The Atomic Submarine.  So innocent were we 1960 tots that I cannot say we had a firm grip on the difference between movies and reality, a situation that made for some pretty wild movie experiences.

The Angry Red Planet ambled along like so many other cheapies.  Part of the matinee experience was patience, i.e., sitting through boring movies to get to the 'good stuff', and ANGRY had its share of scientists standing around talking.  Even the special effects of the flight to Mars were rather bogus, the spaceship looking just like an ordinary Atlas rocket, not particularly well animated.  We were a fastidious bunch of critics.  When the lunar liftoff in Missile to the Moon was depicted by superimposing a V-2 rocket, gantry and all, over a desertscape, we rolled our eyes and yelled 'fake!'.  But when toys zigged and zagged on wires across painted skies, and buildings disintegrated like cardboard boxes in Battle in Outer Space, we were enchanted.  Missile was a gyp, while the Japanese film delivered the goods.

Nora Hayden, through rose-colored glasses?

None of this prepared us for the spectacle of Cinemagic.  Every sci-fi fan knows that the make-or-break scene of a rocket movie is the moment when they say 'Open the door' and step out onto a new planet.  If it was Griffith Park, with feeble excuse dialogue like 'Look, Bart, trees very much like those back on Earth!', the response would be very negative.  Instead, we saw something we indeed had never seen before.  Mars in Cinemagic was blood-red, with white and yellow highlights.  The image looked very flat, and the still jungle landscape seemed very dead and very alien.  It wasn't just tinted red.  Some parts of the image were like a negative.  Areas that should have been in shadow were instead a glowing, burnt-out white.  Relative shadings of dark and light were off balance, so normal clues to perspective and texture were not always present.  Trees were reduced to their dark outlines, faces became masks without detail, and a lake looked like molten metal instead of water.

Amoeba? or jellyfish?

What Pink's special effects man Norman Maurer (and cinematographer Stanley Cortez?) had created was similar to a still photography process called solarization, soon to become a familiar sight in graphics but little-known in 1959.  Not only did they produce a unique and startling look, but they saved a tremendous amount of money in production costs.  First, as Cinemagic was a lab trick, all the Mars scenes were actually shot in inexpensive black & white.  And since scenery, props, etc. in Cinemagic were reduced to sketchy abstractions of their real selves, a crummy rented rubber prop looked just as real as the living people in the scene.  Many of the wide shots were crude paintings, even cartoonish drawings, that came off as fascinating in Cinemagic's red glow.  The level of detail was so reduced that it was possible to overlook the fact that the pressure-suited spacemen wore flight helmets with no visors!  The Martian city glimpsed faroff across the waveless crimson sea was little more than a sketch (reminiscent of poster art for Beyond the Time Barrier). A blob of rubber became the giant Amoeba, and the startling Rat-Bat-Spider Crab was just a hairy marionette.

Mysterious city in Cinemagic binocular view.

Daily Variety reviewed The Angry Red Planet at a November 25, 1959 screening when the film had yet to find a distributor.  It must have been a theater full of jaded industry types expecting a serious drama (or prejudiced against independent product) because the review gave the film low marks and singled out its Cinemagic process as no big deal.  "While it may take considerable ingenuity to produce this effect, the result isn't really worth it", the Variety review reads, and calls the picture 'ordinary'. This must have been a setback for the producers, who surely were expecting their creativity to result in a big studio sale.  Instead the movie landed at American International Pictures, the final destination of many an unsellable exploitation film.  Ib Melchoir eventually did another space opera with Byron Haskin at Paramount called Robinson Crusoe on Mars that was equally creative, yet not considered a great success either.  Sidney Pink moved his operation to Denmark and made Journey to the 7th Planet and Reptilicus, both considered a big step downward, yet (like everything Sam Arkoff seems to have touched) solid moneymakers for A.I.P.

We now have seen decades of solarization in everything from psychedelic rock posters to cigarette ads, and especially those slick credit sequences in '60's spy movies where it was cleverly used as an aesthetic ticket to slip nudity by the censors (see Our Man Flint, whose titles are practically a sex education film).  But the Cinemagic gimmick of The Angry Red Planet startled us with its truly alien look.

The outlandish Bat-Rat-Spider Crab

Reference: So You Want to Make Movies?, Sidney Pink, Pineapple Press, Sarasota, Florida 1989.  The Angry Red Planet can currently be seen on the AMC cable channel.

Reference: Ib Melchior, Man of Imagination, Robert Skotak, Midnight Marquee Press, Baltimore, Maryland 2000.

You can read Savant's (much later) review of MGM's eventual DVD of The Angry Red Planet.

Text © Copyright 1998 Glenn Erickson

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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