The Wizard of Mars (1965) d. David L. Hewitt. Color, 78 min.


Just as there can be no life without birth, without death, life has no meaning. --The Wizard

It is not easy to treat this first entry in the Hewitt oeuvre succinctly. Indeed, its flaws are so numerous and flagrant that Jason MacIsaac at the Jabootu's Bad Movie Dimension website felt the need to expend 16,446 words synopsizing the film at tremendous length.

As almost all critics have pointed out, the movie owes a debt to The Wizard of Oz. The female lead character is named Dorothy, the heroes' spaceship is buffeted about and forced to land on Mars by a magnetic storm paralleling the tornado, there is a yellow brick road and emerald city, and the characters are whisked back out of Mars and onto their spaceship (with no real time having elapsed) à la Dorothy waking up from her dream as she returns from Oz. Indeed, L. Frank Baum has a writing credit given at the IMDB (though not in the film's credits).

It would have been great had the film been treated by the Mystery Science Theater people. It's well within the range of films they redacted: not nearly as bad as "Manos" The Hands of Fate, cleverer than Plan 9 from Outer Space, and possessing a couple of OK ideas, it is closest to the MST3K season 2 movie The Lost Continent. Lippert's Lost Continent featured some 16 minutes of forehead-slappingly uneventful footage of the characters climbing a mountain. Indeed, "rock climbing" established a new standard for directorially-inflicted pain on that show. Wizard of Mars forces upon us a 16-minute subterranean (submartian?) journey, first in rafts, and then on foot in red-hot magma chambers.

"Rock climbing" aside, the movie's flaws are easily stated. Hewitt commits the cardinal sin of filmmaking when he chronically breaks the law "don't tell, show!" The budget did not allow for much showing, alas. The indoor sets (6 in all, I think) are claustrophobically small, and the actors are constantly having to contort themselves to stay on frame and within the confines of the sets. The acting, limited in quality by the lack of funds, is by turns wooden and hammy. Eve Bernhardt (Dorothy) is consistently stilted; Vic McGee (Doc), annoyingly sweaty and fat, is absurdly rhetorical (Criswellian!) in an attempt not to be upstaged in his key scenes with John Carradine; Jerry Rannow (Charlie) is meant to be funny but mechanically repeats a few embarrassing facial tics which he thinks constitute method acting (I think of him as "the creep"); and Roger Gentry (Steve) is OK but unmemorable.

Toward the end of the film, John Carradine (playing the 'wizard', i.e., the collective mind of the Martians) appears in a stupefyingly long scene in which he communicates the history of Mars and much else. He wears a black turtleneck against a black background, making of him a disembodied head over which shots of some of the more prominent Messier objects are off-puttingly projected, sometimes obscuring his features. His backstory exposition is all delivered without a flashback, and with only a few intercuts with one of our heroes who asks a question to keep the wizard talking. It reminds one of a messenger's speech in a Greek tragedy: the spfx, too expensive to show, are well off-stage.

The basic plot is that the Martians were a fantastically-advanced race millions of years before. They ruled the galaxy, but couldn't stop the degenerative effects of time, so they devoted their racial energies to defeating time. They succeeded in this, encapsulating their physical bodies in crystal tubes which line the corridors of their last-surviving city like columns; the city itself is enveloped by their stasis-field. But (Carradine advises us) they discovered that in stopping time on Mars they had in fact retarded their racial progress toward the next stage of existence: they desire to go "beyond the edge of the galaxy," a concept Straczynski would employ while dismissing the Vorlons and Shadows in season 4 of Babylon 5.

All of the earthers' woes in and after crashing on Mars have been engineered by the Wizard of Mars (i.e., the collective intellect of the Martians) to bring the humans to the Martian city so that they can get time moving again. (The Martians, trapped within their crystal tubes, are incapable of physically acting on their own behalf.)

The film rises to the level of modestly interesting in its final 10 minutes. The discovery and "interview" with a Martian survivor trapped in his crystal cylinder is not bad at all, and the finding of the missing piece of the time machine (a crystal ball containing the Martian city as a simulacrum) and reinserting it into the mechanism--with attendant effects of instant decay of the city--is not a bad idea. The final scene, in which the time machine (a giant pendulum) moves ever more quickly (while the city decays pari passu), accompanied by a synthesized theremin-y soundtrack (with overlaid voices of a sort we will encounter again in 2001's Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo Soprano, Two Mixed Choirs, and Orchestra by Ligeti) was memorable enough to stay with me since childhood, when I last saw this film.

The story's Martians owe a lot to the Krell from Forbidden Planet. It is clear that screenwriters, producers, and director were familiar with the 1956 masterwork, since they appropriated (stole?) pieces from the highly distinctive FP soundtrack (produced electronically) to back their most effective scenes (though the music for the swinging pendulum appears to be original).

The Wizard of Mars is also in release as the Horrors of the Red Planet, Alien Massacre, and Journey into the Unknown on VHS. It is now available as a second feature (with Journey to the Centre of Time) on a DVD available in Australia.

MacIsaac's review on Jabootu:

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