Monday, June 18, 2012

112. THE SPACE CHILDREN (1958)

Jack Arnold's 1950s films for Universal-International pretty much define science fiction cinema's most seminal decade, but this, his last serious work in the genre -- again produced under the auspices of  William Alland -- finds him working with somewhat lesser-than-usual means for Paramount. Though his fans tend not to be very kind to it, Arnold felt THE SPACE CHILDREN was his best attempt at science fiction and, in retrospect, it stands out as perhaps the most forward-looking and politically-conscious of his films. In a story co-written by Tom Filer (who scripted the thematically similar BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES) and Bernard Schoenfeld (Robert Siodmak's noir classic PHANTOM LADY), six children from a coastline trailer park catering to the families of rocket engineers and scientists discover an alien life form on the beach that compels them to sabotage the top-secret mission code-named "the Eagle Point Project" -- the imminent launching of a six-stage defensive missile known as The Thunderer.

The pacifist premise is related in some ways to Robert Wise's THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, but everything else about the film looks ahead -- to the John Wyndham-based VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED and its sequel, and to Hammer's unrelated THESE ARE THE DAMNED, but also in a strange way to Barry Shear's WILD IN THE STREETS and, in the film's use of beachfront moonscapes and a pending sense of doom beyond the comprehension of the young, to Joe Dante's MATINEE, as well. Arnold's direction is perfectly assured and marries well to Nathan Van Cleave's eerie score, and the children include such familiar kid faces of the day as the Ida Lupino-eyed Michel Ray (THE BRAVE ONE), Johnny Crawford (THE RIFLEMAN) and Sandy Descher (the little girl who screamed "THEM!"), while the oldest and least experienced of these young actors, Johnny Washbrook, looks like the go-to fellow if you wanted to cast Marshall Thompson as a 14 year old. The adult cast, appropriately deemphasized for the most part, includes Adam Williams, Peggy Webber, Jackie Coogan, Raymond Bailey, Ty Hardin, Peter Baldwin, James Douglas and a stand-out role for Arnold favorite Russell Johnson, who in relatively little screen time etches a memorable character: an out-of-work trailer dad who has turned to alcohol and domestic tyranny to assert his faltering manhood.

Viewed on Olive Films DVD. Also available on Blu-ray.  (It streets tomorrow, June 19, 2012.)

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