Hey—how’ve you been? Haven’t seen you for a while! We’re both good, staying safe, as isolated as possible, and wearing masks and gloves when we go out. I hope you are too! Let’s get into this week’s column, shall we? For this little gem, we go back to 1954, and a film taken (like Dracula) from a stage play.
This is a British film—some of my favourite old SF films are—from a similarly-titled play by John C. Mather and James Eastwood, and the screenplay is by Eastwood as well. It was directed by David MacDonald, and produced by the Danzigers (Edward J. and Harry Lee). (I’m gonna throw in some spoilers, but the film’s almost 70 years old… okay?)
It takes place at The Bonnie Charlie, a hotel (“closed for the season”) somewhere in Scotland’s Highlands; it’s run by the Jamiesons, a somewhat over middle-aged couple. John Laurie plays Mr. Jamieson, and Sophie Stewart his wife, who rules the roost. They have two employees: Doris the maid (Adrienne Corri), and David the crippled helper (James Edmond). He won’t be with us long foreshadowing!}! Also staying at the hotel is a model, Ellen Prestwick (Hazel Court), and the Jamiesons’ young nephew, Tommy (Anthony Richmond). As the movie opens, Doris is behind the bar polishing glasses, and Tommy is in the foreground playing with some sort of tin toy cannon; the BBC Home Service is on the wireless, announcing that the strange noise heard in parts of Ayrshire was caused by a meteor falling to Earth. “What’s a meteor?” Tommy asks Doris. “I don’t know,” she answers, but it’s a good thing it didn’t fall on us. (Later, belying her “I don’t know,” she tells Mrs. Jamieson that it’s odd that it came “all this way” just to fall near us.) Mrs. Jamieson sends Tommy to bed. We also hear (and see, through a cut-scene in their car) that a well-known astrophysicist, Professor Arnold Hennessy (Joseph Tomelty), accompanied by news man Michael (Hugh McDermott), is coming to Bonnie Charlie to search for the meteorite.
Robert Justin, now calling himself Albert (Peter Reynolds), is an escaped convict, ex-boyfriend of Doris, who tells her his wife’s murder was an accident, and she convinces Mrs. Jamieson that he’s a traveler who lost his way and his wallet, and can work for food and a night’s lodging. When Michael and the Professor drive up to Bonnie Charlie, Michael recognizes Albert and tells everyone who he is; Albert runs out the door, presumably to lose himself in the outdoors. In reality, he hides in a shed; Doris agrees to hide him out in a disused storage room on the second floor.
A bright light is seen by all, and a spaceship (Figure 3) lands near the inn; simultaneously, the telephone and Michael’s auto refuse to work, and Doris appears to be frozen in place. A tall, leather-clad woman comes out of the ship just as David runs up; seeing her, he turns to run away but is stymied by a forcefield. Because he is crippled, the woman shoots him with a raygun (Figure 4) and all that is left is his glasses and a wisp of smoke or steam. She makes a grand entrance via the French doors, announcing herself to be Nyah (pronounced “NEE-ah; good thing we heard it rather than reading it, or we’d have been saying “Nyah, nyah, nyah” [nYAH] at her). She tells the assembled crowd that she has come from Mars in an experimental spaceship, accompanied only by “Johnny” (it sounds like; there’s no listing on IMDB, either for the robot or whomever plays it, but one website said it was spelled “Chani.”), a robot that’s better than a man because he/it has an electronic brain.
She explains that the war between the sexes raged on Mars, resulting in the women subjugating the men; but over the years the birthrate has fallen, so she has come to Earth to revitalize her people by kidnapping worthwhile (good physical specimens—she tells the Professor that he might be a scientist, but he’s a poor specimen) human men to take to Mars. And once she returns to Mars, her people will see that the spaceship works and will build a fleet to come and conquer the Earth. She has landed here due to a miscalculation; she was headed to London (she speaks English—indeed, all languages—thanks to our radio broadcasts) but the atmosphere was thicker than they had known, resulting in damage to her ship. It will be automatically repaired in about “four of your hours.”
Nyah (Patricia Laffan) also releases Doris from her hypnotic trance—she is frankly contemptuous of Earth beings, who are lowly compared to her—and tells the crowd that she has placed an “invisible field” (a forcefield; we’ve already seen David run into it) around the place so they cannot leave. Tommy has seen the “airplane” come down from his bedroom window on the second floor, and climbs down by way of a convenient tree, followed by Albert, who has come down from his hiding place to keep Tommy out of trouble. Nyah, meanwhile has brought the robot Johnny or Chani out of the ship (Figure 5) and has demonstrated his “zap beam” (I don’t know what she would call it, but that’s what I call it) by zapping a tree, a truck, and the shed David and Tommy were hiding beside. Nyah sees the kid and decides to take him with her, promising him that she’d show him wonders. (When we see inside the ship, it’s about as bare as Klaatu’s ship’s interior in The Day the Earth Stood Still (the original, not the remake).
Various people attempt to go with her; the Professor theorizes that her power source is partly unstable, and could be exploded with a sharp blow. Michael volunteers to go with her if she will let Tommy stay at the inn; she agrees, but he attempts to take her robot control away and use it to control Johnny/Chani. It doesn’t work for him, and she takes it back, but now she’s all pissed off and vows to kill everyone when she leaves with her prisoner. Albert knocks Michael out and takes his place; he has realized that he is the most disposable of all the inn’s inhabitants; besides, Michael and Ellen have begun getting a “thing” on. Michael has told everyone to hide so Nyah can’t kill them; she comes back to the inn and finds everyone gone but Albert. He goes to the ship with her, and she takes off.
Surprise! (Well, no surprise, actually…) The ship blows up (a really good effect for the time) and the phone and car begin working again. (And probably the wireless, too.)
So… what’s so great about this film? For one thing, Ms. Laffan looks terrific in her black leather skirt, cape, and cap. A bondage-lover’s dream. It’s good to see that Mars’ women still use false eyelashes and lipstick, plus they’re apparently doing a Spock-y thing with their eyebrows, too. Secondly, the robot is hilarious—about a 7-foot-tall thing that looks like it’s about to fall over any second, and moves at a snail’s pace. The movie is some kind of fifties’ commentary on women’s lib (which wasn’t called that then), as if by “allowing” them equality, it would lead to armed conflict between the sexes. Also, there are attitudes expressed here by both men and women that are pretty quaint by today’s standards. For one thing, in the almost 70 years since its debut, we men have learned not to call grown women—even ones from Mars—”girls.” And you know what else? Black-and-white films have an “atmosphere” that is somehow lacking in modern colour films. SF “noir,” if you will. I was also impressed by the sacrifice of the killer “Albert,” who decided all on his own to “do the right thing.” I warn you, however, the pace is very slow compared to modern films.
If you get a chance to see this, do let me know what you think of it.
I love comments on my column, whether here, or on Facebook, or by email (stevefah at hotmail dot com). Every comment, good or bad, positive or negative, is welcome, and read! (Just keep it polite, okay?) My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owner, editor, publisher or other columnists. See you next time!