BY MYSTERY ARMY
An army of one.
Target Earth (1954) has its critics. The movie is low budget and has cheap effects. There's the promising beginning that many feel is ruined by the second half. The one thing that always gets mentioned concerns the killer robot army. There is no army. The robot, constructed in producer Herman Cohen's garage out of what appears to be scraps and cardboard, is the only robot made for the film. Every shot with a robot (singular"a"no attempt is made to give even the illusion of more than one in a shot) is that robot. The deadly "army" of "no more than several hundred" is just an article of faith. The audience is asked to play along. Worth a chuckle? Sure.
But if one can get past that and just sit back and be open to the movie as simple entertainment, Target Earth is one of those lesser known gems that seems to have fallen through the proverbial cracks and deserves to be recognized as the fun little Saturday matinee fare that it is. Army of one, be damned.
It was the early 1950s and the UFO flap that had begun in 1947, along with the dawn of the space age, had made otherworldly topics popular. Science fiction was selling on the newsstand (the movie is based on the short story "Deadly City" by Paul W. Fairman found in a magazine by the producer) and becoming more and more popular at the local cinema. Then 25 year old Herman Cohen wanted to produce his first independent picture. Cohen had associate or co-produced on five earlier films but this would be his first solo venture. He would later distribute through American International Pictures, best known for their work with Roger Corman (one of the writers on Target Earth, James H. Nicholson, was a cofounder of AIP). Cohen is best remembered for old standards like I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (both 1957) on which he both did the script (under pseudonym) and produced and the 1959 movie Horrors of the Black Museum, made in the UK, which he also cowrote (under his own name) and produced.
Cohen managed to get financing through Allied Artists and elsewhere, including casting the son of a dentist friend in exchange for an investment. The proposed film was given a $100,000 budget and a time limitation of 75 minutes. Cohen came through on both and brought the picture in under budget (some would argue that is part of the problem), making it for between $85,000 (imdb) to $87,000 (Cohen, DVD commentary).
The film opens high in the sky, slowly moving in over an unnamed city (most exterior footage was filmed in Los Angeles and the shots from the opening credits were done by first-time director Sherman A. Rose from inside his own plane). It then cuts to midday sun peering into a room in a boarding house where a woman groggily awakens, a bottle of sleeping pills nearby. She is Nora King and she soon makes a disturbing discovery. The power and water are no longer working and there seems to be no one around. Anywhere.
She wanders the empty streets until she stumbles across a body and is met by Frank Brooks. He was mugged and knocked unconscious the night before and has no clue to what happened. They continue searching for other signs of life while trying to figure out where everyone went. Was it the H-bomb? Germ warfare? But where are the police, civilian defense, the army? They come to the conclusion that for an evacuation like that to take place, "certain death" would have to have been the alternative. And that anyone who remained had to be a "dead pigeon."
The two run into a bickering couple in a restaurant, both still drunk from the night before. The four band together and search for ways to get out of town and try to find the answer to the mass exodus. They meet another man, Charles Otis, who tells them that the north end of town is a wreck. There was looting during the evacuation and many were killed while they were making their escape. He also informs them that none of the cars run (distributor caps and arms are missing). Then they see it. A shadow on the wall. They flee and hole up in a hotel lobby. A newspaper with the answer is found. The night before a "hostile force of unknown origin" had landed outside the city. Because of pills, alcohol, and being beaten in an alley, the group had missed out on the escape from the city and face the possibility of being captured or killed by the mysterious invaders.
It isn't long before they see one of the invaders. And see it kill. They lock themselves into a suite and wait, hoping for a way of escape to present itself. Meanwhile, in several cross cut scenes, the viewer watches as the military and the scientists try to find a way to combat the robots. Later, another non-evacuee appears. He has a darker reason for still being in townhe's running from the cops. Just as they resolve that crisis and before they can appreciate its consequences to the group, a (the) robot crashes through the window and attacks. It leads to a desperate race to the roof of the building where a final stand off with the killbot is to take place.
While it all ends well, as old movies do, the film manages to kill off most of the cast. And though this invasion force has been stopped, there's nothing to stop it from happening again. One military commander points out that had there been a slight modification in the robot electronics, the weapons used against them would be useless. As they drive away, he assures them that they are working on the problem.
The military determined that the attack was definitely not from the planet Earth. The scientists think that it must be Venus"assuming, of course, the invaders are human beings like ourselves." Venus was a very different place in 1954. Frank comes to the same conclusion on his own. It is most likely Venus because it is the only other planet capable of supporting human life. See: it has clouds, clouds=water, ergo there must be 02 and H2 in the atmosphere. (Of course! This is largely why there is no Target: Science section.) He cites his sources and college and science fiction magazines.
The military believes it to only be an advance forcebut one that wiped out the 387th Airborne. They send a bomber and fighter assault on the invaders' (perhaps "invader's"?) position outside of town (courtesy of a bunch of stock footage). From the hotel room, the band watches as each and every plane is blown out of the sky. "They must have weapons we never dreamed of." "That figures, they were smart enough to get here in the first place."
Using a (the) robot that had ceased functioning, the scientists are able to determine that they are made out of surgical steel (though the joints are puzzlingly pliable). They function on electromagnetic impulses that allow "every desired motion of the human body." (No.) They are controlled through a transmitter/cathode-ray tube arrangement using super high frequency. It is felt that destroying the tube will kill the killbot. Unfortunately this is rather difficult as a "eye" plate can withstand a high powered rifle shell at the distance of about two metersthe bullet ending up "like a wad of chewing gum."
Perhaps something else. Something high frequency. That oscillates. Keep watching.
As noted, the effects are cheap (the robot laser is a superimposed light with an accompanying stock sound effect) and the robots (all one of them) are laughable. But the film is able to transcend its budgetary limitations and given a chance, is quite entertaining for fans of old science fiction movies.
Though it is decidedly a B-movie (though it was released as an A feature and did very well box office-wise) in budget, production, and subject matter, many members of cast and crew had also done work on non-B's. This brought a higher level of professionalism to the shooting which had to be fastthe schedule was for seven days with three Sundays of location work in Los Angeles. It helped a great deal that the actors tended to get the dialogue down in a single take, leaving more time for other things. The filming and direction is economical and tight, making it move at a good pace (it better, given only an hour and fifteen minutes). That the director was an established film editorhe supervised the editing on Target Earthundoubtedly helped.
It also helped that they were dealing with a deserted city. That means no extras (aside for a couple bodies), fewer props (including carsCohen used his own in the movie), and simpler logistics. Fewer things could go wrong with the shots. It was also a setting that is wonderfully evocative, even apocalyptic. Hardly the first or last film to use the empty city in its story, Target Earth still pulls it off quite well. In order to get the shots, they went out around 7 AM Sunday morning in Los Angeles. This was the only way to insure the lack of peopleit was also because they didn't have permits (a friend of the producer who was in the LAPD would put on his uniform to divert traffic in case anyone strayed too close). But it works, the early morning lightmore washed out, almost a haze (presumably LA's famous air quality)has a quality that shooting later in the day simply could not have. It's a great "effect," enhancing the humanless landscape.
The rest of the movie (skipping the military and bomber-related footage) is an indoors affair: hotel rooms, apartments, a store, a restaurant. Enclosed spaces. Even the roof is smallish and, by definition, confining. Despite being in a big deserted city, the band are trapped and confined, closed in, and being closed in on. The interaction and playing out of these scenes more resembles film noir, like an old Warner Brothers gangster flick (a B-version, of course). And it's the talent of the actors that helps that (more below). One wonders how someone like Howard Hawks would have dealt with a similar small band of survivors (besides a LOT more dialogue).
Though the pace moves things along, the music and editing in parts seems to make it seem like a deliberate, inevitable movement toward the end. Almost as if the time is patiently, inexorably unspooling to the extermination of the group (which doesn't happen, of coursethat is where the tension lies: will they escape destruction...all of them?). A steady drumbeat signaling the approach of the killer invaders. Along with the tension a sense of mystery that is developed. The mystery mostly evaporates when the robot first appears (for the obvious reason as well as answering the 'why the town's deserted' question) but the tension remains.
The four main characters are played by better actors than one usually gets in such movies (unless it is an actor that later becomes "known"). Frank Brooks was played by Richard Denning who had a long career in television and the movies. The same year as Target Earth he costarred (as the "bad" scientist) in Universal Studios' classic Creature from the Black Lagoon. He also starred opposite Lucille Ball on the CBS radio comedy "My Favorite Husband"though he lost the role to Desi Arnaz when it was reworked for television as I Love Lucy. He comes off ably played, though a bit bland in the robot movie. The main female lead (Nora King) was played by Kathleen Crowley, who represented New Jersey in the Miss America pageant. She used the scholarship money from her sixth place finish to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Art in New York. More television than film work, she gives a depth to her character that makes more than the pretty face or the girl in peril (credit the writing for this, also, but she sells it and does so very well).
The bickering couple (Vicki Harris and Jim Wilson) are played very well by Virginia Grey and Richard Reeves. Besides playing good drunks when they are introduced, the two give better performances that the other two, who are the main stars. Grey had a long career stretching from the last days of the silent movies through the mid 1970s. She had been a contract actor for MGM and had gotten supporting roles in A-movies and leading ones in B-movies. She gives an A performance up against the robot. Reeves had a long career and worked a lot in television, often playing a tough guy or a heavy. But he was in everything from westerns to comedies to G-man showshis television filmography reads like a TV Land programming exec's wet dream (of the 25 shows currently airing on that network, Reeves has been in episodes of fiveof the 25, twelve didn't air until after he had died). He manages the tough guy with a softer side pretty well and like Grey, he's believable.
Even the two other minor characters, Charles Otis and Davis (the one running from the law), played by Mort Marshall and Robert Roark, respectively, are nicely done. Marshall is nervous and paranoidhe's seen the destruction and knows what is comingand has snapped because of it. Roarkthe son of the dentist mentioned aboveis a bit grittier than the other characters (the part calls for it) and does it well. He's a human element of danger in a world menaced by an alien invasion. The story about his hiring may be a bit misleadinghe had prior acting experience though all but one of his few roles were uncredited. His modest career also including television appearances before and after Target Earth.
Certainly nothing of Oscar caliber, but then again, unlike most B-movies, nothing that really makes the viewer start wondering when Crow and Tom Servo are going to chime in.
Cohen appears unbilled as a lab technician in two very brief cameos with a single line of dialogue.
Target: Target Earth
The movie is really a bit underrated even among many B-movie fansthat robot and the high expectations following the opening scenes seems to kill it for themand mostly unknown among people who don't watch these old movies. But it's worth it to see a little picture that could. It far surpasses what should be expected for the budget and production limitations it was saddled with. It's fun and looks remarkably good under the circumstances. And it's a far better way to pass 75 minutes than most of what passes for television and movies these days.
Don't think too hard, relax and allow yourself to be entertainedit's supposed to be fun. And quit carping about the damn robot.
(Sources: DVD with producer commentary and the Internet Movie Data Base)
Movies referenced above which I have seen: Creature from the Black Lagoon, Horrors of the Black Museum, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, and I Was a Teenage Werewolf (of course I've seen I Love Lucy and I apologize if I've oversold this one).