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October 25, 2010

Return to The Angry Red Planet

Academy Award winning special-effects artist Robert Skotak (Aliens, Terminator 2) recalls the first days of school in his 7th grade class. Everyone would rush in to school and regale the other students with tales of monsters, spaceships and evil villains. The movies that the children had seen over their summer vacation took precedence over reading and writing and, certainly, arithmetic. There was one movie in particular that captured the fancies of children and adults alike in the summer of 1960. It was a curious, ambitious combination of talents and artistry called The Angry Red Planet. Angry was a big buzz movie that year,” remembers Skotak. He cites the film as an inspiration in the choice of his own career and a still-strong friendship with Angry’s director/co-writer, sci-fi legend Ib Melchior (Midnight Marquee Books has recently released Ib Melchior’s biography, penned by Robert Skotak, titled Ib Melchior: Man of Imagination). Between The Angry Red Planet’s strange Martian creatures, revolutionary Cinemagic process and non-stop action the stage was set for one of the most popular sci-fi cult films of all time.


Jumping into the story without the benefit of a credit sequence (more on that later), The Angry Red Planet opens on Earth. The ship that had been sent to Mars is finally returning… but something is terribly wrong. The ship returns with only two crewmembers surviving from the original four. Dr. Iris Ryan (Nora Hayden), the beautiful heroine, must recount what happens in a spine-tingling flashback while Earth’s scientists race against the clock to try and stop whatever parasite is attached to Gerald Mohr, the ship’s captain, from killing him. Injected with sodium pentathol, Dr. Ryan is forced to conquer her amnesia and recount the story of their planet-side visit, where the humans are nothing more than insects, bothersome irritants that need to be eliminated. In an unusual cinematic move for that particular era of filmmaking, a woman was the movie’s hero. Nora Hayden’s character saved the day, brought the ship back to Earth and provided the missing information to save her captain’s life. The Angry Red Planet has proven itself a unique slice of science fiction in many different capacities.

Always, “…fascinated with science fiction,” Sidney Pink came up with the initial story line for the film and wrote the first draft of the screenplay. As a youngster, Sid Pink was fascinated with the outer space stories popularized in pulp magazines like Amazing Stories. The Angry Red Planet, in look and feel, brings to life the incredible, striking cover illustrations of some of those early pulps. Sidney Pink, by 1959, had already had an extensive career in motion pictures. He was Grand National’s Production Budget Manager in the late-thirties and his production credits include Bwana Devil (1950), the world’s first 3-D color feature film. His role as a “film innovator” was a good groundwork for the ambitious and extremely under-financed Angry. “It [The Angry Red Planet] was written on my kitchen table,” Pink said, recounting the early genesis of the project, “My kids were my critics, they’d tell me what was good and what just fell flat!” Eventually, Pink had enough “good” material to go into pre-production. The initial screenplay was called “The Planet Mars” and included a host of strange creatures and an entire Martian city. Pink recalled that originally, “we had a flying creature, a giant serpent, but we couldn’t afford it.” The giant serpent eventually turned up in Pink’s Reptilicus (1962).

Pink realized that the story needed something more and enlisted the aid of longtime sci-fi great, Ib Melchior. Melchior was an old hand at science fiction. His stories and films have delighted multiple generations of fantasy-buffs from the short stories he would publish in the pulps (like Robinson Crusoe on Mars), episodes of the Outer Limits television program and even the story behind Roger Corman’s wickedly dark Death Race 2000 (1975). Sidney Pink couldn’t have picked a more competent collaborator. Melchior was also selected to direct the film, making The Angry Red Planet his feature film directorial debut. With Pink’s original story and Melchior’s re-write focusing on a surrealistic nightmare and hard, concrete science the film was ready to begin. Sidney Pink didn’t want to make the same old sci-fi film that had been playing for years and was still being churned out by the major studios (examples of the competition include Missile to the Moon and Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space). He wanted a catch, something new, something that would set the audience on their ears. Enter Norman Maurer, artist, creator of Cinemagic and co-producer of The Angry Red Planet.

Son-in-law of legendary Stooge, Moe Howard, Norman Maurer was a very popular commercial artist and comic book illustrator. His work on Daredevil, Tor and the 3-D adventures of The Three Stooges were regarded at the time as being of the highest caliber of sequential storytelling. At the time that Sidney Pink and Norman Maurer met, Mauerer was developing a special effect process called “Cinemagic.” Maurer, in conjunction with Pathe Laboratories, developed the Cinemagic process for the scenes that were directly on the planet of Mars. Ideally, the process was developed to approximate the look of line drawings. Maurer painted all of the Mars landscape and background scenes and storyboarded a majority of the film (ably assisted in storyboarding the action scenes by Space Ghost creator Alex Toth). The actor’s were then photographed normally in normal, 35mm black and white. A positive black and white image and a negative black and white image were then sandwiched together and printed on a third film through a pair of lucite lenses built specifically for Cinemagic. The film was then exposed in red and onto color film. The result was like nothing the film-going public had ever seen before. The striking, surreal images from Mars sent the audience to the planet with the astronauts. It was this process that made the creatures and other special effects, that would have probably been laughed at in any other film, work so well in The Angry Red Planet. “The damn Cinemagic didn’t work like it should,” Sid Pink said from his home in Florida, “It was supposed to be sort of a 3-D effect. What we came up with was great anyway!”

Angry was definitely a low-budget picture (coming in at $190,000 with $54,000 in lab costs for the Cinemagic process alone). The shooting schedule was extremely tight, 10 days was the entirety of the shooting schedule with only an additional 3 days scheduled for and miniature photography and effects. To make matters worse, the speed of the production combined with the limited finances meant that many of the creatures and special effects, the saleable parts of the film, didn’t always work correctly or didn’t always come out like they were intended. “The creatures kind of worked,” Robert Skotak related from his many conversations with Ib Melchior, “it was a real challenge for the budget. The Chemical Plant broke a tentacle early on and had to be wired up.” Many of the other creatures and props had to be improvised on the spot. The Claw Prop wasn’t designed to grab anything, so the effects people took two, 2x4 pieces of wood and made a simple scissors mechanism that was wheeled in on a wheelbarrow with a large rock in it. The Giant Amoeba was also an on-the-spot creation. The creature was finished just in time for it’s shots; only a giant rotating eye had been included in the middle of the creature, completely different from the director’s description. Melchior, exasperated about the speed of shooting and unable to fine-tune the project, accepted the amoeba with a grumble and it stands to this day as one of the creepiest scenes in the film.

Quite possibly the most interesting, and longest lasting, memory from The Angry Red Planet is the Bat-rat-spider-crab. This unique creature had the face of a rat/bat the body of a spider and the claws of a crab (among other animal parts). It stalked the astronauts for a terrifying portion of the film, but it was probably more terrifying just trying to get the Bat-rat-spider-crab to work. A major problem with using marionette creatures is the tendency for the wires holding the creatures up to be visible when lighted from the rear. “Herman Townsley came up with a solution to the problem,” Robert Skotak said, “he developed an acid that would burn away the tiniest layer of the wire so it wouldn’t shine; but it made the wires very weak. The puppet had to be very lightweight so you can see it almost float at times on the screen. Only one day was given to shoot the Bat-rat-spider-crab. On a bigger budget, the scenes would probably of taken a week but the money and the time just wasn’t there. It [the creature] was very hard to puppet at normal speed, much less at high speed.” The Bat-rat-spider-crab still made a lasting impression on audience members of yesterday and today (even if it was just a rubber mask with scissors inside to make the mouth work).

The Angry Red Planet went into pre-production in September of 1959, finished shooting in November of 1959 and was sold to American International Pictures in December of 1959. The Angry Red Planet was released by AIP, headed up by the notorious Sam Arkoff, in 1960. “Arkoff and I had a working relationship. Neither of us trusted the other… which worked out well because I wouldn’t touch him with a ten-foot pole. Jimmy Nicholson was the brains of that operation. With Arkoff, you never got a straight count.” Although Angry Red Planet was a great success by independent standards, Pink and the other co-producers never really got the return on the picture that would have been their due with normal, non-Hollywood, accounting.

The lack of an opening credit sequence has been attributed to the influence of Sam Arkoff and Jimmy Nicholson. AIP, at the time, were one of the first companies to put the credits of their films at the end to minimize the lack of “star” quality names. This still doesn’t explain the lack of a title card, though. Robert Skotak suspects that the credits, “were at the beginning of the film, but AIP put the credits at the end. The musical theme at the end of the film was less objectionable.” The opening theme music was a musical-maelstrom designed to parallel Mars’ surrealistic landscape and indigenous lifeforms.The Angry Red Planet helped to change the face of science fiction in the 1960s. Although it was a production that was under-financed, frequently cobbled together with spit and glue and resulted in the unfortunate parting of the three men responsible Angry has stood the test of time. The Angry Red Planet is one of the most ambitious low-budget features ever produced. It succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imaginations and achieved a level of quality that is not representative of what the filmmakers had to work with. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of men like Ib Melchior, Norman Maurer and Sidney Pink, The Angry Red Planet has guaranteed its place in the pantheon of great science fiction. This is more surprising to the men behind the movie than the delighted audiences that thrilled to the adventures on the fourth planet. “From the checks I still seem to be getting,” Sidney Pink said, with no small amount of surprise, “the picture is still playing. I read recently that it was on American Movie Classics, on cable.”

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