F: First Man Into Space (1959)

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FirstmanintospaceposterIf you remember last year, while reviewing The Quatermass Xperiment, I referred to it as a “ground zero movie”, the direct ancestor of movies like this one. A mere two years later, once more a guy goes into space and comes back changed, and people die and popcorn gets bought.

Dan Prescott (Bill Edwards) is your stereotypical go-for-broke hot dog hardcore test pilot in the Navy. How much of a hardcore is he? In the plentiful stock footage, he is always represented by Chuck Yeager, that’s how hardcore he is.

Dan keeps pushing his rocket planes to go farther and farther, much to the chagrin of his more strait-laced brother Chuck (the ever-reliable Marshall Thompson). Dan, in fact, pushes his new plane past radio contact, 250 miles into space itself (title fulfillment: 100%!), encounters a weird cloud of meteor dust, and crashes back to Earth. Chuck and his crew find a strangely changed rocket plane: the dust has coated the entire vehicle, including the interior, with a hard, armor-like coating.

first-man-into-space-1It’s not too long before the murders start happening. Starting with cattle on the ranch where the rocket crashed, to a nurse at a blood bank, then a truck driver. Whatever it is that’s killing people and drinking blood, it can drive a car.

Whatever it is, of course, is Dan, also coated with the meteor dust, causing his hands to become bludgeons coated with the equivalent of diamond dust. His body has somehow adapted to live in space, and he is suffocating in Earth’s thick atmosphere. He’s been lashing out in survival mode, trying to get to his trusted mentor, Dr. Von Essen (Carl Jaffe) at the base, and the high altitude simulation chamber where he can breathe and deliver necessary exposition.

Man, talk about needing a spoiler alert on a lobby card

Man, talk about needing a spoiler alert on a lobby card

First Man Into Space, like the previous year’s Fiend Without a Face (also starring Thompson) is a fairly intelligent sci-fi monster movie produced by Richard Gordon, who was trying to establish a British movie company much like AIP in America. The original script, Satellite of Blood by Wyott Ordung, was in fact offered to AIP and turned down. Probably the most remarkable thing about the movie is that it is set in New Mexico, but was, in fact, filmed in Hampstead Heath, England, which explains some of the uncharacteristically wet exterior shots.

First Man Into Space is almost always going to wind up compared to the thematically similar Quatermass Xperiment, and suffer in that comparison. We perversely see too much and yet not enough of the monster – that actually is Edwards in that suit, and he could only wear it safely a few minutes at a time. There is precious little mystery and no pathos until the very end – there is just a bulletproof monsta on the loose. Eek! The development of the story feels a bit extended – the movie opens with another test flight that Dan pushes too far and crashes even before the flight that transforms him. But once that flight occurs, the movie steps forward at a steady pace, and was a fine waste of an afternoon in my youth. It doesn’t have the more bizarre aspects of Gordon’s other sci-fi flicks, like the aforementioned Fiend or The Atomic Submarine, but it has its own monster movie charms.

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