The Man from Planet X (1951) / Beyond the Time Barrier (1960) / The Amazing Transparent Man (1960)
DIRECTED BY EDGAR G. ULMER/1950, 1960, 1960
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: MARCH 29, 2022/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
Exile, marital infidelity, anti-Nazism, immigration, and international scope… All that and more play into the catch-as-catch-can genre-hopping career of filmmaker Edgar G. Ulmer. As versatile as it is distinctive, as makeshift as it is accomplished, the filmography of Ulmer has, long since his death in 1972, ascended in cultural fascination and respect.
With his signature films Detour (1947) and The Black Cat (1934), Ulmer made his mark upon film history. Those films, though (a dark, no-budget Film Noir and a star-driven Universal Studios horror entry, respectively), merely represent a fraction of the director’s output. More-so than most filmmakers, Ulmer’s subsequent career fell into a cycle of catch-as-catch-can Poverty Row genre quickies; the kind of stuff that aspires to the level of “B-movie”.
Film buffs today, however, tend to be hard pressed to lament his fateful penny-pinching landings. The whole of Ulmer’s filmography, as pockmarked and makeshift as it gets, stands as an unlikely testament to the potential of the cinematic arts. That, and it’s in-the-blood obsessive quality. (That goes for all of us). Even within Ulmer’s cheapest endeavors, a committed formal and dramatic dignity wins out over cruel nature’s unrelenting steamroller. Against myriads of (often unusual) steep production odds, Ulmer fully commits. His monochromatic atmospheres are rightly beguiling; his on-screen talent giving their all- no matter how utterly nonsensical the material. Case in point, the three brief features gathered by Kino Lorber for their great Edgar G. Ulmer Sci-Fi Collection.
Collected onto a single disc, we have one genre classic and two worthy also-rans. The former is nothing less than Ulmer’s 1951 Noir-soaked fog-machined sci-fi/horror, The Man from Planet X. As it should, this movie leads the chronological pack with a rapturous transfer and a not one, not two, but three latter-day audio commentary tracks. While evidently not quite as stretched thin on committed production talent as the other two films of this set, Planet X is nevertheless a bona fide haze-soaked cheapie. Would we have it any other way?
While the mute titular alien sports a surreally oversized noggin reminiscent of an evolved crash test dummy, his sheer blankness hits home both in terms of menace and his own desperate fright. It’s his ship that has crashed in Scotland, making him the story’s stranger in a strange land, a full decade prior to Robert Heinlein’s elevated and inverted take on the notion of “spaceman”. This, though, is the baseline model- charged with xenophobia, survival drive, and the on-the-fly poor judgment on both sides when a very “unknown unknown” suddenly becomes a “known unknown” in close proximity. The film stars Robert Clarke as a reporter who attempts first contact with the crashed xenomorph. Margaret Field is the requisite castle-dwelling professor’s daughter, and an oily William Schallert is the treacherous fiend looking exploit the event.
By contrast, the least of these is sandwiched in middle. Beyond the Time Barrier (1960) is a straight-faced tale of a military test pilot (again the upright Robert Clarke, who somehow lost money producing this cheapie) who finds himself in the futuristic year of 2024. In said world of tomorrow, all semblance of nature is long gone, exchanged for a kind of starkly enclosed world of a Buster-Crabb-serial-interiors of years earlier. Darlene Tompkins plays the beautiful but dispirited deaf-mute princess of this dire world. Can he avert the plague and rescue the princess from her tyrannical life in his desperate escape?
Apparently, the Omega variant of COVID finally manifested because the outside world is (we’re told) ravaged by some sort of dire plague. When the banished mutants rise up and attack the enclosed hierarchal structure, the supposed horde is five people in bald caps on all fours acting all savage. The shots of bigger groups of mutants charging is, I believe, from Island of Lost Souls (but don’t hold me to that… these shots are definitely from a pre-existing movie. One with a budget). The shots of the exterior city from afar is a detailed if obvious painting that we see more than once. Despite an attractive and engaged cast and plenty of future-world intrigue, Beyond the Time Barrier remains heavily grounded, lacking any much-needed zest and/or zeal.
If Man from Planet X is the celebrated film of the three, and Beyond the Time Barrier is the ostensible dud, then The Amazing Transparent Man (also from 1960), is the undervalued gem. Although the seams are very much showing in this rudimentary invisible man tale, Ulmer commits fully to the material and his cast follows suit. Looking and feeling like a glorified episode of The Outer Limits, with a barely-feature-length running time to match, Transparent Man employs clever go-for-broke techniques throughout. At several points, Ulmer’s camera shifts from third person to first and back again, all in a single prolonged shot. It’s like the visual equivalent of a Bob Dylan lyric, or something one might expect from mid-career Fellini. To sell such daredevil shots, the actors must truly be onboard and up to the task. They are.
KL Studio Classics utilized vintage poster art for its tryptic packaging artwork, boldly sported on the case proper and on its surrounding slipcase. So vibrant and dynamic are the images that it may well appeal to casual fans of old sci-fi movies that don’t necessarily know who Edgar G. Ulmer was. Time Barrier and Transparent Man have been granted new 2K masters, employed here. Planet X, already the classic of the three, thankfully looks as good if not better than the other two. One could get lost in certain shots of that film.
For the three-fer of Planet X’s commentaries, two of them derive from Shout Factory’s 2017 stand-alone Blu-ray. The first and best is hosted by longtime film historian Tom Weaver, eventually passing the baton David Schecter, Dr. Robert J. Kiss and filmmaker Joe Dante (!). Weaver launches the track with one honey of an opening hook, setting up an old conspiracy theory that the early surge of crashed UFO movies was spawned by the U.S. government’s attempts to nullify interest in the heavily rumored Roswell spacecraft crash. Balderdash, most certainly, but a compelling yarn that reels us in immediately.
Joe Dante comes onto the commentary to talk about the man from Planet X’s appearance in his own underrated 2003’s Looney Tunes: Back in Action, amid many of his fellow 1950s sci-fi/horror notable monsters, invaders, and robots. Weaver is interested in covering all manner of non-Ulmer Planet X details (the props, the already rock-decorated Hal Roach Studio in which it was shot, its own intentional trumping of Howard Hawks’ far more well-promoted contemporary spaceman film, The Thing from Another World, and more assorted details). David Schecter comes on to talk about Charles Koff’s utilitarian musical score, and Dr. Robert J. Kiss goes over the film’s release details.
The second commentary is, by design, more “Ulmer-centric” than Weaver’s. It features film historian Gary D. Rhodes and Edgar G. Ulmer’s daughter, Arianne Ulmer Cipes. Rhodes speaks fondly of his friendship with late leading man Robert Clarke before turning it over to DVD Savant‘s Glenn Erickson to present his recent conversation with Ulmer Cipes. She gives lively details of her efforts to preserve her father’s legacy (starting at zero) as well as her relationship with her parents. It’s another satisfying track, rounding out most details anyone might be wanting about the box office hit, The Man from Planet X.
But wait, there’s more…! KL Studio Classics has provided a NEW audio commentary for Planet X by film historian Richard Harland Smith. It’s a very solid general-coverage track, very well researched and assembled. Harland Smith’s scripted delivery can’t measure up to Weaver’s animated presence on the first track, but there are lively glimpses when he goes off script.
The commentary for Beyond the Time Barrier is once again hosted by Tom Weaver, who’s added production value to this track (sound effects, re-created voices and alternate music cues, and even invasive current events pull-quotes) is in turns both quite appreciated and eye-rolling. Weaver’s overriding lightheaded tone, amid his above-and-beyond research (including- holy cow- placing a call to a runway crew to see if the film’s neglected future runway would still be useable) though, is ultimately fun- in the spirit of the fandom of these humble but savored films. Weaver splits the full effort with returning historians and fans David Schecter and Gary D. Rhodes.
Finally, the fifth of this set’s commentaries is another newly recorded effort, this one a conversational effort about The Amazing Transparent Man by film historian David Del Valle. Del Valle doesn’t go out of his way to prop up the film, the widely disparaged product of a five-day also-ran of a shoot, though he does acknowledge that it ain’t so bad, really. I’ve already maintained that the movie is even better than that, but nevertheless, Del Valle does a great job of carrying us along in his respectful if not worshipful history of Transparent Man. The effects are not the best and the Atomic Age/veiled Red Scare plotting (an evil scientist wants to create an army of invisible soldiers in the interest of military superiority) is clunky at best, but Del Valle does a great job of giving all credit where credit is due. Only later in his track does he bring up the fact that he lived across the street from the director’s wife, Shirley!
A grump, a hard-ass, a perfectionist of indiscriminate imperfections- all were said to be true of Edgar G. Ulmer. Ulmer, though, as evidenced by his most colorful black & white filmography, was also the rare devotee of genre storytelling. With the help of his ardent producers and crew as well as his tremendously committed actors, the driven filmmaker made the most of his detouring career amid personal controversy and persistent challenges. KL’s gathering of these three science fiction yarns (complete with their theatrical trailers) is a darn near irresistible for any fans of the genre, particularly for the money when compared to previous editions. Though Ulmer himself is not without broader appreciation in film buff circles, at least two of these three titles have resided below even that radar. The Edgar G. Ulmer Sci-Fi Collection lands them in fine form.