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Space Children, The (Blu-ray Review)

25 Jun, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Michael Ray, Jackie Coogan.

Welcome to the least of Paramount’s supernatural late-’50s cheapies that intrigued the boomer-era demographic — a onetime co-feature to The Colossus of New York (concurrently getting Blu-ray treatment from Olive Films as well) that shows you can at least get a movie on the screen with just three or four components. In this case, we’re talking about a real beach with real ocean, a set that’s supposed to pass for a cave, a cast of vaguely familiar faces and the participation of a noted cinematographer in between assignments that he’d presumably rather have on his resume. This last would be Robert Aldrich/Stanley Kramer favorite Ernest Laszlo, who somehow managed to shoot both Kiss Me Deadly and It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World in the same career. Whatever else you want to say about a rare Blu-ray release that was previously a "Mystery Science Theater 3000" veteran as well, the photography combines with Colossus composer Van Cleave’s sparse scoring to constitute at least a dinky dose of “mood.” And the movie needs it because the dialogue is right out of an entry-level screenwriting course at Ed Wood Correspondence School.

It’s interesting to read some of the IMDB.com disconnect between fond nostalgists who saw Children as children during its original release and those who witnessed its vivisection as an asking-for-it target on "MST3K." In terms of the latter view, it’s true: the producers probably shouldn’t have allowed overweight and bald Jackie Coogan — whose long career spanned Chaplin’s classic The Kid, Mamie Van Doren’s hophead melodrama High School Confidential and Uncle Fester labors on TV’s "The Addams Family" — to sport loud patterned bathing trunks that would be more suitable for, say, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle if she wanted a breather from her standard garb.

The 1958 yarn takes place near an army base that’s about top test-launch a nuclear warhead that will inevitably up the Cold War ante — until some kind of celestial “force” out of The Day the Earth Stood Still playbook takes over the minds of army-scientist progeny who lives with their folks in beachside trailers near the site. Turned by it into peaceful zombies or something close, the kids do what they can to muck up the blast-off in the name of peace. Aiding this elementary/middle school revolution of sorts is a mysterious blob-like substance (note that Children came out the same year as The Blob and the equally messy Fiend without a Face). The thing keeps escalating in size until it starts to look like some super-chef’s omelet-for-2000 that Donald Trump might serve at a power breakfast for Birthers. This mega-glop also casts a spell on the parents in for a kind of Invaders from Mars effect, though it doesn’t turn the adults into the meanies as it does in that earlier and much superior kiddie sci-fi thriller.

As for the cast, Children came roughly midway in the relatively short-lived screen appearances by lead child actor Michel Ray, who had come to major prominence with 1956’s bullfighting drama The Brave One — the movie that mooned HUAC (and a 1.85 Sydney Greenstreet moon at that) by winning an Oscar for Blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo under a pseudonym that everyone but DC’s biggest doofuses knew was a phony. Ray was a handsome youngster but not too expressive here, which probably fit into director Jack Arnold’s intentions to fashion wall-to-wall kids’ somnambulism a couple years before Village of the Damned pulled off the feat more successfully. But don’t fret for Ray: he later became a member of the British Olympic ski team and married a woman whose last name was Heineken (all that money and plus a buzz whenever you want).

A fairly revered cult director, Arnold didn’t have the built-in resources here he had in some of his more famous sci-fi staples: It Came from Outer Space (3-D); Creature from the Black Lagoon (a possibly well-endowed Gill Man carrying swim-suited Julie Adams off to who-knows-what); Tarantula (well … a tarantula, plus the young Clint Eastwood); and The Incredible Shrinking Man (that damned spider in the basement). And he certainly didn’t have actors here as famed as even the ones in his other movies (though I’ve always been amused that Arnold later got the nod to direct Bob Hope and Lana Turner in Bachelor in Paradise, one of the last acceptable Hope vehicles). You may, however, recognize actress Peggy Webber (as Ray’s mom) from the nine million "Dragnet" episodes she did in the ‘50s — or find yourself curious about the neurotic in-need-of-Xanax spin she puts on her performance. In fact, the movie is fairly short on domestic harmony all around, given one alcoholically abusive stepdad (the Brando of On the Waterfront would likely term him a “juicehead”) played by, of all people, "Gilligan’s Island’s" future “professor” Russell Johnson. Ray’s dad, however, gives a fairly nice-guy role to Adam Williams — an actor whose roles I usually associate (thinking Without Warning or North by Northwest) with guys you wouldn’t want to ask over for burgers. In this movie, he’s merely confused, big-time.

See also Johnny Crawford as Ray’s kid brother — this around the time he was beginning his run in TV’s "The Rifleman." And then there’s Sandy Descher (her last big-screen role, though lots of TV would follow) as the one girl in the beach gang. Though fairly subdued this time around, Descher had previously displayed a pair of pipes to grace Barry Manilow’s most fervent wish list. It was when she let go with the bloodcurdling “them” in 1954’s mutation classic Them! — the one that gives desert authorities the opening inkling that they’re about to face something more than ants at a picnic. Ones that are, to be sure, far creepier than this movie’s omelet.


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