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November 16, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #150 - First Man into Space

With the Midnight Movie of the Week turning a whopping 150 weeks old, I figured I had to do something big to celebrate. It's a big deal to me, so I figured I should write about something classy.  Something important. Something  that's "one of the greatest films from around the world" according to a well-renowned distribution company.  Something from the Criterion Collection. Something like - First Man into Space?
One-fourth of Criterion's Monsters and Madmen collection, First Man into Space is a 1959 b-flick that plays like the shell of a lot of other great sci-fi stories. Hotshot pilot Dan Prescott is chosen to pilot the Y-13, a state of the art Air Force shuttle, despite warnings from his Commander/older brother Chuck Prescott. The younger man seems to be primarily interested in doing things his way and cavorting with his Italian girlfriend, but he's also driven to make a name for himself by breaking new ground.
 During the inaugural voyage of the Y-13, Dan ignores warnings and pushes the craft 250 miles above the Earth. While earning the accolade that is listed in the title - two years before Yuri Gagarin would become reality's first man into space in 1961 - but also loses control and passes through some kind of contaminant. 
Anyone this side of 1960 knows that passing through some substance in space is generally a no-no - the immediate connection I made when I saw this event was the creation of the Fantastic Four (which, coincidentally, was also in 1961) - and it's shortly after this point that Dan becomes a hulking humanoid covered in a crusty space shell who thirsts for blood to replenish his damaged body.
 If that premise has you thinking that First Man into Space isn't the prototypical Criterion collection film, then you're a smart guy or gal.  At the same time, this isn't the average '50s sci-fi film either. It's set on and around a U.S. Military base, but it doesn't push the patriotic agenda like many of its genre peers. It's got a monster, but it never seems to really exploit this creature's image for the sake of shock.  Most notably, the film bucks conventions by offering a darker view of the events on screen than many films of its era.
Those who read this site often are used to my rants about The Blob and how much I love it for its innocent nature and its portrayal of a monster attacking a Leave It To Beaver-esque reality. First Man into Space could have gone this route - the premise is certainly set up for a tall hero, a blonde beauty, and a fight in the name of righteousness - but instead director Robert Day is content to let darkness seep in to most of his frames. The film doesn't build up its hero or its heroine much, nor does it even take too much time to make us feel sorry for Dan. (It does, however, have a sequence that makes me laugh; a sequence in which a blonde nurse makes her only appearance in the film presumably because they needed someone to unleash a blood-curdling scream.) It's incredibly fatalistic, playing a little bit more like a moody vampire film than a space-age thriller.
The film's final resolution also takes place in a relative darkness, as the two brothers come face to face as soldier and monster. There's no high speed chase and no squadron of troops called in, just a monster and a soldier trying to figure out what went wrong. It is one of the most restrained endings from the golden era of sci-fi, and certainly one of the most bizarre when you think of the other films of this era.
First Man into Space isn't the most profound film, even with its downbeat mood, primarily because none of the performers are really memorable and the dark lighting takes away a lot of the awe that could be inspired by the crusty creature.  But it's a nice change of pace for fans of classic sci-fi/horror, the kind of film that could be spoofed on Mystery Science Theater 3000 or could be a part of the Criterion Collection on any given day.  And it's those kinds of movies - the ones that teeter on the line between brilliance and rubbish and make me think about where they belong - that I just can't get enough of.

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