In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the space race was on! The competition to reach and exploit the infinity of space between Cold War enemies USA and USSR was a constant theme of the news and popular culture. Who would be the first to breach Earth’s atmosphere? Who would be the first to set foot on the moon? To orbit Earth? Each side poured millions upon millions into the race to be the first to meet these milestones.
And each side had their own heroes…a new and special breed of fearless explorer who took the risk to conquer space. Sometimes the Space Race demanded the ultimate sacrifice, as pilots and astronauts gave their lives to reach their goals. Men like John Glenn and Yuri Gagarin became icons of their respective superpower…heroes whose names filled the newspapers and TV broadcasts.
It’s no wonder that this Space Race wound up giving moviemakers their own new frontier to conquer. During this period, a lot of films revolved around astronauts and space exploration. But in 1959, one modest little film took a daringly different approach to the heroes of the void…they turned one of them into a lumbering, bloodthirsty monster!
That movie was English director Robert Day’s First Man Into Space, a low budget movie that retold the story of Icarus for the modern age. In this case, Icarus was Lt. Dan Prescott, a daredevil who reached too far, too fast…and tumbled back to Earth as a murderous monstrosity. This was a risky—many would say tasteless—approach to take in a day and age when astronauts were portrayed as fearless, clean cut military men who typified everything a man could aspire to.
Along with the glory of space exploration, there was also fear of the unknown. Our knowledge of space was not as common or thorough back then as it is in the 21st century. There was real anxiety over what could be “out there….” Could there be killer radiation? Alien spores and viruses that could threaten life on Earth? Or maybe even vast and hostile intelligences? Of course, alien invaders were a very popular film subject in the 1950s, with the invaders signifying the fear of “the other”—those who were not the same as us.
First Man Into Space did not take that route. There were no alien monsters in the movie. Instead, one of our best and brightest became the monster. Imagine if Chuck Yeager or John Glenn returned to Earth from one of their pioneer voyages as a hideous mutant. In 1959, such an approach made First Man Into Space not only disturbingly creepy, but downright subversive.
I wouldn’t claim the movie to be a great classic or even above average in many respects, but it does have some hidden depths to it and can be interpreted in more than one way. It’s also a good example of concise, economic filmmaking, telling a tight story in less than 90 minutes. Obviously, it made an impression on someone…the late ‘70s schlock horror The Incredible Melting Man is pretty much an uncredited remake. But where First Man Into Space was a sober and grim story, Incredible Melting Man was dependent on campy, unbelievable gore and the admittedly brilliant makeup FX of Rick Baker to tell its story. It makes its impression in an entirely different way.
The movie was an American/British co-production, with filming taking place in both England and America. The American locations were Brooklyn, New York and New Mexico, while the British scenes were done in Hampstead Heath near London. The actors were almost entirely American, and one would be hard pressed to find any trace of British involvement with the exception of a peculiar cameo from Roger Delgado, later to be the evil Master in Dr. Who. The budget was slightly higher than for most sci-fi B-movies, which helped give it a solid appearance.
Let’s dive into the story of First Man Into Space. Spoilers follow!
Lt. Dan Prescott (Bill Edwards) is executing a test flight of the experimental Y-13 rocket-powered aircraft. The Y-13 is launched straight up like a rocket but once in the ionosphere, it can level off and fly like a plane. Monitoring Dan’s flight is his brother Chuck Prescott, along with Dr. Paul van Essen and Air Force Captain Ben Richards. We learn right away that stodgy, by-the-book Chuck is going to butt heads with his reckless younger brother, who insists on taking the Y-13 past its pre-determined limit. Dan is a risk taker with little use for authority. The Y-13 winds up entering a zone of weightlessness, which disorients Dan. Dr. Van Essen calmly guides Dan back to gravity and a safe landing.
Things get more tense when Dan skips his mandatory debriefing so he can hang out with his hot Italian girlfriend Francesca (Marla Landi). I have to say, I might make the same error, but stiff-necked Chuck is furious with Dan almost to the point of advising he not continue with the project. “I got where I am by taking chances,” snarls Dan. “While you’d be afraid to drive a go-kart across the street!” Captain Richards agrees that Dan is a handful but says there is no better pilot. He will take the Y-13 up again for the next stage of the project.
The next flight begins and sure enough, Dan once again takes the Y-13 past its limits. He is exhilarated by going further up than any man before him and is suddenly determined to enter space itself. With Chuck and Richards yelling for him to level off, Dan hits the emergency booster and finds himself 250 miles above the Earth’s surface…the first man into space! But something unknown is waiting for him. The Y-13 suddenly enters a blizzard of strange particles that stick to the craft like mud. Dan ejects himself from the Y-13 and all contact with him is lost.
The next information comes when a farmer finds a parachute and the remains of the ejector pod on his property. Chuck investigates and finds the pod is basically intact but coated with a kind of hardened substance…the same material the Y-13 flew into. Dan is nowhere to be found, which is perplexing. Tests on the strange material find that it cannot be penetrated by any type of radiation, including x-rays and ultraviolet light.
Later that night, a lumbering, gasping figure approaches the blood bank in nearby Alvarado and violently breaks into it. A nurse hears bottles being broken in the blood storage area and enters the room…only to have her throat brutally slashed by something monstrous! The next day’s newspapers tell of the gruesome crime as well as violent attacks on local cattle, who are drained of blood. Chuck and Alvarado police chief Wilson investigate. The wounds of both the nurse and the cattle are sprinkled with shiny specks of metallic material. A terrible theory is starting to form in Chuck’s mind….
Dr. Van Essen discovers the specks are meteor dust. He also learns that the parts of the escape pod that are coated by the strange space material are completely intact and unaffected by radiation. The parts that are not coated have been turned into pulverized carbon. This weird space substance seems to be a kind of protective layer that keeps anything it coats free of dangerous radiation.
Meanwhile, the monster is still on the rampage. A trucker is attacked, and his blood drained in a diner’s parking lot. When two police pull over a car that’s driving erratically, they are horrified when a dead body tumbles out of the front seat and a grotesque creature lunges at them. We now get a good look at the former Dan Prescott, and he won’t be winning any beauty contests. Still wearing his space suit, he’s covered with a kind of stony crust, with only one staring eye and part of his mouth exposed. The makeup is gruesomely effective. And so is Dan. The cops are also slaughtered.
When these latest murders are discovered, there’s no longer any doubt in Chuck’s mind: The monster is Dan. Van Essen believes that when the Y-13 ejector pod was caught in the “blizzard” of the strange space material, the hatch popped open. For a terrible second, Dan was exposed to the vacuum of space and his blood began to boil. But this protective material formed an instant coating, saving his life and helping him survive the return trip to Earth. But his body is starved of oxygen and his mind has been driven to an animal level by the experience. Only two instincts now drive the former astronaut: He must replenish himself with fresh blood and he must somehow get “home”—the base where his ship was launched. The rock-like coating has made him impervious to bullets…as the cops found out the hard way.
As Chuck, Van Essen, Richards, and Francesca discuss the situation at the base, things come to a head when the hulking, wheezing Dan smashes through a window nearby. He’s returned home, but his mind is still deranged. And Van Essen believes he will soon run out of oxygen no matter how much blood he’s consumed. He doesn’t have long to live.
Chuck believes he can still somehow reach his brother. At first, it doesn’t look like that will happen, but finally Dan wheezes out his first word since returning to Earth: “Chuck?”
Van Essen says that if they can get Dan to the atmospheric testing chamber where high-altitude conditions can be created, it will help him breathe and possibly restore his mind. Van Essen gets on the base P.A. and calmly guides the confused and still dangerous monster through the evacuated base to the chamber.
They manage to get him into the chamber and Chuck, wearing an oxygen mask, stays there while Van Essen adjusts the atmosphere. The gamble works…Dan’s mind begins to clear, and he starts to speak. “It’s been so strange and dark…feel like I’m suffering from some terrible disease. Like I’ve got no blood in my veins.”
As things get easier for Dan, they become more difficult for Chuck. Dan continues his pathetic tale: “I’ve been groping my way through a maze of fear and doubt.” He describes when the space storm hit “…like 50,000 machine guns all hammering at once.” While Dan speaks, Van Essen monitors his body condition. When Richards asks how high Dan flew, the voice of the gung-ho pilot returns for a minute, excitedly saying he went as high as 300 miles above Earth.
But his heart is beginning to weaken. When Chuck tells Van Essen to increase the atmosphere, Dan says “It’s no use…I’m finished.” He speaks to Francesca: “I’m sorry it had to be this way. But I just had to be…the first man into space.” And those are Dan’s last words, as his body finally gives out.
Chuck is taken out of the chamber just in time save his own life. The final word goes to a somber Van Essen: “The conquest of new worlds always makes demands on human life. And there will always be men who accept the risks.”
To be honest, First Man Into Space was not the first film to feature an astronaut returning to Earth and becoming a monster. That honor goes to 1955’s The Creeping Unknown, the first of the Quatermass movies from Hammer Studios. In that worthy film, Victor Carroon crash lands back on Earth after a space voyage and is infected with an alien organism that gradually turns him into a hideous devouring blob. There are strong similarities between the two films, but also important differences that help First Man rise above a mere knockoff.
First Man Into Space begins in a conventional, even hokey manner as the differing personalities of Chuck and Dan are showcased. The concept of sibling rivalry in a military milieu is cliched, but in this case, it was absolutely necessary to set up the horror to come later in the movie. Dan is a cocky hotshot and not entirely likable, but his joy as he breaks the barriers of space is infectious. Dan grins broadly when he leaves Earth’s atmosphere. This makes it all the more horrible when we see him later on as a gasping, crusty monster who drains people’s blood. Bill Edwards does a fine job with both drastic sides of Dan’s character.
To play the part of a stodgy, by-the-book career military man, you couldn’t get a better guy than Marshall Thompson, who was the star of two other excellent space age chillers, Fiend Without A Face and It! The Terror From Beyond Space. Chuck is not exactly a ground-breaking character in any way and is typical of his time, but there are some small moments where he comes across as something more. At first, he and Francesca are bitter enemies, but eventually they become closer when their genuine concern for Dan becomes obvious. Chuck tells her, “I was always making sure Dan didn’t climb too high in the trees when we were kids.” He is still doing the same thing here in the movie. Thompson’s best moment is a very small one: when Dan is in the high-altitude chamber waiting for the atmosphere to change, Chuck reaches out and pats Dan’s shoulder in brotherly fashion.
That’s maybe the most striking thing about First Man Into Space, how most of the cast tries to help Dan even when he is at his most violent and monstrous. In The Creeping Unknown, when Carroon finally becomes a monster, the only thought is to kill and destroy him. Nobody is more merciless towards Carroon than Prof. Quatermass, the man who sent him into space.
It’s a different story in First Man. Once Dan the killer creature breaks through the window at the base, all thoughts turn to trying to restore his mind and maybe even cure him. Van Essen, who first helped Dan cope with weightlessness, again becomes the calm voice of reason. Even before Dan’s wits return, the scientist’s voice seems to soothe him. Wilson, the lead cop whose men were murdered by Dan, could have taken some clear shots at him but refrains. In the era of the ‘50s, when aliens and monsters were almost always menaces to be destroyed without mercy, the different approach taken here makes this movie very unusual.
Most monster movies end with a shootout. This one ends with Dan coming to his senses in his last moments. We see traces of the hero pilot again for just a moment. The murders Dan commits earlier are done without mercy, like the attacks of a rabid animal. He probably doesn’t even remember committing them as his mind is restored. Those last few minutes of Dan telling of his experience is the best part of the movie.
Is the message of the film that Dan should have obeyed orders? He would have probably avoided the horror that happened to him if he did. But if it hadn’t happened to him, it would have happened to somebody else. I don’t think the message is entirely that man should “stay in his lane”. But it does say that sometimes the results of taking those risks can be horrible. Van Essen’s final speech, which could be seen as corny by some, is maybe a little deeper than it first seems.
First Man Into Space is a modest film to be sure, but as a look into man’s race into the unknown depths of space, it’s far from thoughtless. It’s more subversive than it seems on the surface….