Thursday, January 21, 2016

Space Master X-7

The title and marketing campaign for SPACE MASTER X-7 is quite a bait and switch. What seems to be a science fiction movie about space travel going in turns out to be an Earthbound find-the-virus thriller like PANIC IN THE STREETS. Shot in eight days for about $90,000, SPACE MASTER X-7 was filmed on various locations around Los Angeles, lending it a realistic documentary feel. Rarely seen since its 1958 theatrical release on a double bill with THE FLY, the film is probably best known today for its rare non-Stooges supporting performance by Moe Howard, a good friend of director Edward Bernds (QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE), who had helmed several Three Stooges shorts.

Along with Howard came his son-in-law Norman Maurer, a comic book writer and artist who created 3-D comics with Joe Kubert (TOR), and Larry Fine’s son-in-law Don Lamond, seen briefly in the film selling cars in a commercial. Maurer’s job — or one of his jobs as associate producer — was to create the film’s principal special effect: a space fungus known euphemistically as “blood rust.”

Back to that bait and switch I mentioned. There is no such thing as “Space Master X-7” in the film. A satellite returns from outer space with a canister, which scientist Charles Pommer (Paul Frees) takes to his home. The blood rust fungus escapes from the canister and overwhelms Pommer and his house, which security man John Hand (cowboy star Bill Williams) and Joe Ratigan (Robert Ellis) burn to the ground.

They assume the blaze consumed all the fungus, until they discover Pommer had a visitor: Laura Greeling (Lyn Thomas), who is on her way to Hawaii and comes to believe she’s on the hook for her murder. Hand and the cops are looking for her, but for her own good in fear she may also be infected with the blood rust and may be carrying it to anyone she meets. None of the film is set in outer space, but the effective ending is set aboard an airplane covered in blood rust.

Besides the dumb plotting to make Laura think she’s a murder suspect, SPACE MASTER X-7 is an intelligent thriller, if not always an exciting one. It was written by George Worthing Yates (IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA) and Daniel Mainwaring (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) and given a polish by Bernds to meet his budget. Scenes of men in fireproof suits spraying a train Laura was traveling in with fire, then spraying themselves to kill the fungus, are believable and interesting.

The special effects fare less well. The blood rust (the film is photographed in black-and-white) is merely thin foam rubber with compressed air blown into it to make it pulsate, and a shot of a miniature Jeep burning is one of the least convincing models ever filmed. The acting is appropriately straightforward for the documentary style Bernds is going for — a DRAGNET influence — and Howard is good in a dramatic role as a cab driver involved in the chase.

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