It's slightly better than I'd expected, but I'd been expecting it to be unspeakable. It's a low-budget primitive SF version of The Wizard of Oz
, set in the unthinkably distant future of 1975 in which four astronauts crash on Mars and... well, mostly they just trek across it. We're 45 minutes in before they see anything more interesting than a rock formation.
There is good news, though. At least they didn't make it in the 1950s. I'd been assuming it would be on the level of unwatchability of something like Cat-Women of the Moon
, whereas in fact we're a good decade later than that and so at first I was reminded of a Cushing Dalek movie. The theme music, set design and sound effects were all very similar. Furthermore the Martian trek was done with quite a lot of location shooting in the Great Basin National Park and Fallon, Nevada, so in its way the film actually looks rather good. There's something uniquely horrible about 1950s poverty row SF. The Wizard of Mars may be cheap, stupid and almost entirely without a story, but at least it's not static, stagey and studio-bound while on a script level being at once politically Neanderthal and painfully earnest.
Mind you, I bet it would feel more 1950s if you turned off the colour while you watched it. I've already exhausted this film's good points, by the way.
The film begins with an attempt at realistic space travel, which means dialogue like this. "Viewscreen reception one hundred. Standing by to activate image stabilizer circuit. Reorder input, computers, tapes and go, switch on." "Stand by, we are entering pre-orbital trajectory." This has a non-relativistic time dilation effect on the viewer, as your internal body clock recalibrates out of self-defence. (If it doesn't, you'll be in trouble for the rest of the film.) After five or six minutes of technobabble, the spaceship hits a space storm and crashes on Mars. The astronauts then discuss what to do. Dorothy doesn't want to do anything dangerous like leaving the ship, instead wanting to send a Mayday and wait for rescue. She's not even dissuaded in this by (a) the radio transmission being blown, (b) only having ninety hours of oxygen, and (c) no other ships being in the vicinity of Mars, since apparently everyone else goes to the moon. We're even told that it's a nine-month journey to get here.
Don't worry, though. The men say crazy things too. For example, the captain has a plan to supplement their oxygen reserves by keeping their suit pressure below that of the Martian atmosphere, then cracking the valves so that Martian air can bleed in and top up the tanks. Eh? Earth atmospheric pressure = 101 kPa, of which 21% is oxygen. Martian atmospheric pressure = 0.6 kPa, of which 0.13% is oxygen. Actually you needn't even worry about the oxygen content, since the suit pressure on its own should have killed these guys deader than zoot suits.
So off they go. Mars is scenic, for instance having a "volcanic cavern" in which a waterfall down the left hand side of the screen that looks like the goo from a lava lamp. The director also edits in lots of stock footage of real lava. Shortly afterwards our heroes have to walk through an inferno, which is represented (a) in the studio by holding candle flames in front of the camera and (b) on location by pouring lighter fluid on rocks. Amazingly the former looks better. Meanwhile Dorothy is whiny, e.g. "is there any place on this planet that isn't a deathtrap?" Our heroes paddle across Martian canals and are attacked by rubber tentacles, which they shoot. There's a storm, in which the film uses the same forked lightning animation effect half a dozen times in quick succession and you'll remember that they'd even used it for the space storm too. However the location shooting is nice, with the "arid Martian desert" for instance looking good.
After this comes the good bit. Our heroes find a city, in which are creepy cremated shadows on the floor and a cool alien in a tube. The inhabitants of this city are immortal, incapable of physical action and ache for death! For a spokesman, they can even summon up John Carradine! This had a small but non-zero potential for coolness, but unfortunately Carradine clearly wasn't one of those actors who put everything he had even into lesser projects. He sucks, frankly. He doesn't even have that spooky gaunt face any more, since it's 1965. Mind you, anyone would have struggled with the pages and pages of exposition he's been landed with. My word, that guy talks a lot. This is the most boring bit of the film and makes the interminable Martian trek earlier feel like Jerry Bruckheimer on uppers. They also like superimposing him upon images of space, which sometimes means half of his face is being hidden by an inconveniently placed galaxy.
After about 10000000000 years of Carradine (subjective time), our heroes restart time so that this civilisation can at last die. This involves pushing a really huge pendulum, which is so wacky that it looks cool. After that they collapse, disappear and fly home. I think it was all a dream.
Oh, and if you're wondering about the Wizard of Oz links, there's a yellow brick road that our heroes follow for about two minutes. That's it, I think. It's unclear which of the three male astronauts are meant to be the Lion, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man, if indeed we're meant to be looking in that kind of detail. Besides, none of the cast have any characterisation except what the actors bring to their roles (hahahaha), so I think we'd better put aside such thoughts. Dorothy does have silver shoes, though.
The performances run the full gamut of "cheeky chappie" to "can't even answer questions convincingly". I quite liked Vic McGee as Doc, who looked Mexican and so I could recognise him. Also he can deliver technobabble dialogue in a way that sounds less like technobabble, although he's appalling when supposedly talking to Carradine. He hardly ever acted in anything else, by the way. Jerry Rannow provided a small amount of fun as Charlie, the irreverent youngster, and it looks as if he was a television guy who ended up ditching acting for writing. Eve Bernhardt is a complete null and has the thinnest CV of anyone here, with only five other screen appearances according to imdb and all of those uncredited. However easily the worst and a real 1950s throwback is Roger Gentry as the captain, Steve, who drains all meaning from his dialogue and can't even deliver lines like "I don't know, but we'll soon find out." He's talking like a fifties hero rather than a person. He's the one you'll only be able to remember as "the one who's not Charlie or Doc".
In other words, this film is cheap, boring and nothing happens in it. It's better than it would have been if they'd made the same script ten years earlier, but that's not a recommendation. Incidentally this film has also been released on video in a 78-minute cut under the names Horrors of the Red Planet and Alien Massacre, the boxes of both of which falsely claimed that it stars Lon Chaney. It's laughably poor... but to tell the truth, I didn't hate it. It looks quite good in its bargain-basement way and it didn't send me into spasms like Cat-Women of the Moon
or something. The only time I really got bored was when John Carradine showed up, although this is probably an indication that my brain is broken. You could watch worse.