A piece on two adaptations of a science fiction short story.Paul W. Fairman (1916-1977) was a busy, unpretentious pulpsmith who worked under a variety of pseudonyms in many genres – oddly, his all-round best book (A Study in Terror, 1966, published as by ‘Ellery Queen’) fit into one of the most despised of all publishing categories, the movie novelisation, and bracketed the script’s Sherlock Holmes vs Jack the Ripper plot with a modern-day story in which detective Ellery Queen examines Dr Watson’s manuscript and reasons that Watson (but not Holmes) named the wrong man as the murderer. Two of Fairman’s science fiction short stories – published under his own name – were adapted for the movies in the 1950s, ‘Deadly City’ (1953) becoming Target Earth (1954) and ‘The Cosmic Frame’ (1955) becoming Invasion of the Saucer Men (see Fairman, 2005, pp 87-104). American International Pictures turned out genre programmers as ready-made double bills, and Saucer Men was always intended as to support Gene Fowler’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957). Both films play to their expected drive-in audiences by privileging the teenage experience: in Werewolf, an older mad scientist dominates a troubled youth (Michael Landon) and unleashes the ferocious monster inside a juvenile delinquent; in Saucer Men, teens are misunderstood and not taken seriously by adults, whether they are running off to get married or reporting an encounter with alien lifeforms, and the necking kids in Lovers’ Lane are better equipped than the army or political authorities to see off the eponymous invasion (bullets don’t harm the aliens, but the hi-beam headlights of the teenagers’ cars make them dissolve).
AIP bosses James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff delegated production to near-autonomous units headed by hyphenates (producers who also wrote or directed) with subtly different interests and methods – notably Roger Corman, Herman Cohen, Bert I. Gordon and Alex Gordon. Robert Gurney Jr, co-producer and co-writer of Saucer Men, was making his AIP debut with the picture, and went on to only two other credits for the company (Reform School Girls, 1957, Terror from the Year 5000, 1958). Director Edward L. Cahn (1899-1963), a Hollywood veteran who began directing with A features (Law and Order, 1932), was a fall-back professional at AIP, most often working with Alex Gordon (The She Creature, 1956; Dragstrip Girl, 1957; Voodoo Woman, 1957); he also made science fiction for Sam Katzman at Columbia (Creature With the Atom Brain, 1955; Zombies of Mora Tau, 1957) and Robert Kent at United Artists (It! The Terror From Beyond Space, 1958; Invisible Invaders, 1959). Turning out between five and ten films annually in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, Cahn was responsible for some iconic moments: It! The Terror From Beyond Space influenced the writers of Alien (1979), Invisible Invaders is a key precursor of Night of the Living Dead (1969) and elements of Invasion of the Saucer Men recur in Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). However, his films lack pacing and conviction, and are certainly less distinctive – and entertaining – than the best efforts of other directors working within the AIP stable, like Corman or Fowler. It’s ironic that Cahn, often teamed with a producer (Alex Gordon) whose major interest was in casting Hollywood old-timers of another era, was charged with making films about and for teenagers. By comparison with the hip humour of Corman or the neurotic drive of Cohen or even the childish glee of Bert I. Gordon, Cahn was staid, workmanlike and frankly elderly.
It was unusual for AIP to adapt previously-published works, since securing the rights to in-copyright material was usually beyond their budget, and it’s hard to see what exactly prompted Nicholson and Arkoff to approve the expense. Given that the AIP method was usually to start with a title and poster, then to come up with a story, it’s hard to see why Gurney didn’t just develop another plot featuring the stereotypical ‘little green men from outer space’. ‘The Cosmic Frame’ is a brief, cynical piece. A flying saucer is seen near a small town. Teenagers Johnny Carter and Joan Hayden, out on a date, knock down and kill an alien on a road through the woods. ‘It was not more than four feet long and had a head far too large for the thin body. Its skin was green, the shades varying from deep to very pale. It had thin legs and two spider-like arms ending in hands with thin delicate fingers and a thumb on either side. Its eyes were lidless and sunk into bony pockers in the round, pale green skull. There was a network of dark veins all over the body and the feet were shapeless pads with neither toes nor heels.’ Sam Carter and Lee Hayden, the fathers of the couple, are called in, and Lee gets excited about the possibility of commercially exploiting the dead alien. When other creatures reclaim the corpse, they take time to damage Johnny’s car. The humans patronisingly assume the aliens blame the vehicle for their comrade’s death – but it turns out they have murdered a farmer and are faking evidence that the kids’ hit-and-run victim was human. The aliens depart, and the would-be exploiters are stumped when they realise the investigating State Troopers won’t take seriously a story about ‘little green man from Mars or somewhere’.
Gurney and co-writer Al Martin – even more a veteran than Cahn, who began his career writing titles for silent movies – retain almost all of Fairman’s story, though the concerned/grasping fathers morph into Artie Burns (Lyn Osborn) and Joe Gruen (Frank Gorshin), a pair of hustlers who get mixed up in the story. Characterised as get-rich-quick layabouts, Artie and Joe don’t dwell on the possibilities of making money off the aliens – and Joe takes the place of Fairman’s Frank Williams, killed to provide the authorities with a substitute corpse after teenagers Johnny Carter (Steven Terrell) and Joan Hayden (Gloria Castillo) run over a little green man. The romantic stakes are upped – Fairman’s Johnny is about to propose to Joan, but the film’s equivalent is running away with her. As in The Blob (1958), much is made of adult authority figures who instinctively distrust or ignore teenagers and the film goes to great lengths to make its younger characters admirable and inoffensive to the point of tedium. Joan’s ‘city attorney’ father (Don Shelton) is irritated because she has told him she is going out with a boy he approves rather than ‘roughneck’ Johnny, but Terrell’s square-faced, bow-tied milquetoast is so mild-mannered – especially with a leather-jacketed, greasy-haired teenage werewolf on the same bill – it’s impossible to see what Mr Hayden is worried about. The script retains scraps of dialogue from the story (‘Just saw a flying saucer.’ ‘Only one? Nobody’s got a right to brag these days unless they see at least six’) and incidents like the alien hammering away at the car with a weapon-like tool, and Paul Blaisdell’s monster costumes – worn by dwarves like Angelo Rossitto and Billy Curtis – follow Fairman’s description closely.
Filmmaker Jim Wynorski (Rux, 1996, p 218) suggests Invasion of the Saucer Men ‘started out aiming for shocks … but veteran director Edward L. Cahn figured the kids would surely jeer at the ridiculous-looking monster makeups. Studio heads agreed, and the film went out as the first teenage SF send-up.’ Mark Thomas McGee identifies make-up man Blaisdell as the source of Wynorski’s theory, but counters ‘there’s nothing in the film to suggest that Eddie Cahn was attempting to make anything other than a comedy. It’s just not funny.’ (McGee, 1996, p. 90). Fairman’s tale is more sour than amusing – a trait observable also in the story ‘People Are Alike All Over’, adapted as an episode of The Twilight Zone – but riffs with a certain fannish irony on already-established popular images of alien encounters, not least in its use of the terms ‘flying saucer’ and ‘little green man’. The film sets itself out as a ‘tall tale’ by opening on a shot of a bound volume (‘A True Story of a Flying Saucer’) and turning the storybook pages to show credits surrounded by cartoon saucers and aliens. A top-and-tail voice-over narration from Artie further suggests yarn-spinning rather than the strategy of presenting a far-fetched tale as the truth employed by Criswell’s narration (‘can you prove it didn’t happen?’) in Plan 9 From Outer Space (1958) and, more subtly, by the use of documentary-style stock footage, illustrated scientific lectures and low-key ‘realistic’ acting in the bulk of American and British science fiction films of the 1950s. A burbling, cartoonish, comical score by Ronald Stein and the face-pulling antics of Gorshin and Osborn further stress the film’s jocular nature – though it seems likely the film’s funnier material, such as the pompous and blundering attempts by the army to assess the saucer situation and then cover up the story, was not intended as such. A sequence in which the detached crawling hand of an alien, which can inject fatal quantities of alcohol from syringes that extend from its fingers, menaces the unwitting teenage couple is directed (ineptly) for suspense of the look-out-behind-you variety but might have been written as farce.
The most successful aspect of the film, satirically and in conventional monster movie terms, is Blaisdell’s design of the saucer men. Many 1950s creatures are slightly (or extremely) ridiculous, but these are unusual in that – as in the story – they are supposed to be archetypal rather than credible, and so boast all the features (bug-eyes, swollen brains, claws, snarls) ascribed to ‘little green men’. Brian Rux, who is concerned with the interplay of Hollywood science fiction and UFO lore, notes that Blaisdell’s designs are ‘clearly based on the Hopkinsville Goblins of two years before’ and notes ‘the movie seemed to know a few things about flying saucers and abductions, though, that weren’t public knowledge for another ten to twenty-five years. For one thing, the abductors attack a cow, which isn’t in the short story, and are utterly impervious to any kind of retaliation – “Lady” wasn’t mutilated until 1967. For another, they besiege a helpless teenager with their alcohol-injecting nails, who wakes up later with a hell of a headache and no memory of what has happened to him.’ (Rux, pp. 218-9). Rux slightly misremembers the film and makes a hash of causality: it’s an adult (Artie) who suffers the memory-loss phenomenon later associated (‘missing time’) with UFO experiences of the Whitley Strieber or X-Files variety, and the fact that a scene in Saucer Men (which gruesomely depicts a bull-horn penetrating an alien’s bug eye) predates the supposed rash of UFO-related ‘cattle mutilations’ more logically suggests the film added the trope to ‘flying saucer’ mythology rather than that Gurney, Martin and Cahn had suspicious inside knowledge of the phenomena before the public cottoned on. Still, it says as much for the legacy of this very minor film that it helped shape the ongoing lore of alien encounters as that its scenes of a pint-sized green alien glimpsed at night in woodlands pursued by a secretive government organisation were the kernel of E.T.
In 1965, AIP contracted with Texas filmmaker Larry Buchanan (Buchanan, 1996, p. 80) to make a series of films for television – taking scripts from 1950s science fiction quickies and reshooting them in colour. The first of these efforts was The Eye Creatures, a $40,000 remake of Invasion of the Saucer Men with half the budget going to leading man John Ashley (who takes the Steve Terrell role). The Eye Creatures does not credit its screenwriters – though Buchanan’s autobiography lists ‘R. Taylor and Larry Buchanan’. Much of Gurney and Martin’s script is preserved, but character names are pointlessly changed (Johnny Carter and Joan Hayden become Stan Kenyon and Susan Rogers). However, the film’s tone is radically different and additions/changes reshape the material: the storybook/voice-over opening and closing are dropped and replaced by attenuated, sombre business about secret government archives where the story is buried (Buchanan, auteur of The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald, 1964, had an interest in conspiracy theories). Saucer Men runs 69 minutes and feels aimless and padded, while The Eye Creatures, to fit a mid-1960s television slot, was obliged to clock in at 80 minutes, necessitating a steady, unexciting pace which further hobbles the film’s effectiveness.
It is possible Buchanan was sent the Gurney-Martin script but had not actually seen Invasion of the Saucer Men. There are aesthetic differences between a production shot in black and white on a tiny dark soundstage and one made in colour on day-for-night locations, but even the many scenes carried over almost verbatim from original to remake are staged and directed differently — rarely to better effect. Buchanan makes the general in charge of the cover-up a swishy comic caricature, but otherwise plays the film evenly, minimising would-be funny business between the con-men and eliciting a more earnest performance from Ashley than Cahn did from Terrell. When ‘Stan Kenyon’ remarks that the next people who run into aliens had better be ‘one hundred per-cent adults’, Ashley lifts his voice to indicate that he’s making a cynical statement and hoping for bitter laughs from his teenage friends; when ‘Johnny Carter’ says the same thing, Terrell’s non sequitur monotone doesn’t vary from anything he – or most other characters – have said. Instead of little green men, the Eye Creatures are regular-sized stuntmen in baggy white costumes covered in boil-like protruberances, with vast black maws and heads dotted with eyes (only one full costume is used – when seen en masse, the supporting aliens only have head-masks). These aliens have not achieved the limited pop-culture immortality of the Saucer Men (who have been seen often on magazine covers or as hobby kits) but are among the odder creations in Buchanan’s oeuvre.
Buchanan’s AIP remakes are notorious among devotees of low-budget science fiction as lacking in even the entertainment values found in unintentionally camp efforts like Phil Tucker’s Robot Monster (1953) or Richard E. Cuhna’s She Demons (1958). Even considering that Invasion of the Saucer Men isn’t very good, The Eye Creatures is an endurance test of a film – with repeated shots of necking kids or lumbering aliens, drawn-out conversations, painful comic relief (added to the old script) about soldiers spying on Lovers’ Lane when they should be ‘watching the skies’ (this at least integrates the business about the military response to the UFO with the story about the kids and the ‘cosmic frame’, which Saucer Men fails to do) and a range of amateurish performances (leading lady Cynthia Hull is especially wooden) which make Cahn’s professional if lower-case cast seem almost solid. Bill Warren somewhat harshly notes Invasion of the Saucer Men is ‘an aimless, grisly and unfunny attempt at science fiction comedy, a rare genre …’ then, without fear of argument, concludes that the best that can be said for it ‘is that is unquestionably better than its remake’ (Warren, p. 362).
Larry Buchanan, It Came From Hunger! Tales of a Cinema Schlockmeister (Jefferson and London: McFarland, 1996)
Paul W. Fairman, ‘The Cosmic Frame’ (Amazing Stories, May 1955); reprinted in Thrilling Science Fiction (December 1974); Jim Wynorski (ed.), They Came From Outer Space (Doubleday, 1980); Martin H. Greenberg, Amazing Stories: Vision of Other Worlds (TSR, 1986); Forrest J Ackerman (ed), Science Fiction Classics: The Stories that Morphed into Movies (TV Books, 1999); Invasion of the Saucer-Men and Target Earth (e-book: Renaissance, 2005).
Mark Thomas McGee, Faster and Furiouser: The Revised and Fattened Fable of American International Pictures (Jefferson and London: McFarland, 1996)
Bruce Rux, Hollywood vs. the Aliens: The Motion Picture Industry’s Participation in UFO Disinformation (California; Frog, Ltd., 1997).
Bill Warren, Bill, Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the 1950s Volume I 1950-1957 (Jefferson and London: McFarland, 1982)