Robert Day, 1959
Starring: Marshall Thompson, Marla Landi, Bill Edwards, Robert Ayres
Lt. Dan Prescott, a young pilot, is chosen to helm a rocket powered plane in an experiment to reach a high altitude. His brother Chuck, a naval commander, doubts that Dan is the right choice because he’s headstrong, irresponsible, and has recently ignored orders and blown off paperwork after a mission to be with his girlfriend. During the high altitude mission, he goes further than he was supposed to and both Dan and the plane disappear. His parachute and the wreckage are found hundreds of miles away in New Mexico. Chuck begins to investigate and finds evidence that Dan’s aircraft has been to space. At the same time, a blood-thirsty monster begins a wave of terror, targeting hospitals and cattle farms, and evidence links it back to Dan’s plane.
After finding success with two collaborations between director Robert Day and star Boris Karloff — The Haunted Strangler and Corridors of Blood — Amalgamated Productions continued with a fusion of sci-fi and horror in First Man into Space, after the script had been rejected by American horror studio AIP. Clearly influenced by American sci-fi classics of the ‘50s and Hammer’s early foray into the genre, The Quatermass Xperiment, First Man into Space is undeniably campy and ridiculous, but also mines the very real fears of a world on the brink of space exploration. Thanks to the Cold War, US and Soviet scientists were in a neck-to-neck race in the late ‘50s with the Soviets’ Sputnik 1 coming out ahead in 1957 as the first man-made object to orbit Earth. This effectively launched the “Space Race” and by 1959, the Soviets had sent a dog, Laika, to space.
The USSR would also conquer human spaceflight — though not until in 1961 — so First Man into Space captures both the sense of excitement about space exploration and unease about what man might find there. Perhaps strangely, this is essentially a morality tale about the dangers of hubris and the consequences of man meddling where he perhaps shouldn’t be. Less obsessed with mad science than Corridors of Blood, First Man into Space also follows in the tradition of films like The Thing from Another World (1951), It Came from Outer Space (1953), and The Trollenberg Terror (1958) in the sense that it is primarily a monster movie. And honestly, this is its true redeeming quality, even though the humanoid creature looks like it's made out of mud (or worse, shit).
The film’s use of science is patently ridiculous, but there is plenty of fun to be had from the fact that — SPOILER ALERT, sort of — Dan turns into a monster who is literally bloodthirsty. The groan-worthy explanation is that while in space, he absorbed a sudden about of nitrogen that — along with a protective shell that looks like rock or mud — permanently altered his metabolism and means that he needs to constantly absorb blood rich in oxygen to survive. I can’t say that the acting in the film is great, but Bill Edwards brings a certain sense of physicality and energy to the role and it’s easy to see the headstrong, wild Dan as a loose precursor to James Kirk.
Marshall Thompson (It! The Terror from Beyond Space and Fiend Without a Face) is the sort of staunch, serious, and faintly disapproving older brother character you would expect, though it’s a shame that hr just isn’t as interesting of a protagonist as Dan. Perhaps the most unintentionally funny character is Hammer regular Marla Landi (The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Pirates of Blood River) as Dan’s girlfriend who — to Chuck’s great surprise — also happens to work at the base and follows Dan’s plight with the sort of teeth-grinding helplessness indicative of women's roles in the first few decades of cinema.
Amazingly, this film was released in Criterion’s Monsters and Madmen box set alongside The Haunted Strangler, Corridors of Blood, and US film The Atomic Submarine. If you like campy sci-fi horror as much as I do, this is well worth watching. Its slow pace, reliance on dialogue over action, and serious lack in the style department is mostly made up for by a sympathetic monster, many scenes that are unintentionally hilarious, and a palpable sense of anxiety. This Halloween season it would make a great double feature with Fiend Without a Face, as both involve British depictions of US soldiers and scientists encountering monsters from beyond. And come on, where else are you going to see a creature that's a mud-covered space vampire?