B-grade 1950s sci-fi movies have a rating system all their own, and one whose logic is not immediately apparent to new viewers. What separates Robot Monster (1953) and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) from The She-Creature (1956) and Fire Maidens From Outer Space (1956)? All those movies are pieces of crap, cheaply made, poorly acted and outfitted with props and special effects that were laughably bad 70 years ago, and come across as almost surreal for modern audiences. All were directed, edited and written by hacks and incompetents who had no idea what they were doing. Yet the former pair are infectiously watchable while the latter pair are only good when used as an impromptu cure for insomnia. Like everything else in this world worth a damn, it’s a matter of commitment. Plan 9 and Robot Monster are fully married to their premise; they are being made by dedicated auteurs with a serious artistic vision they desperately want to realize. Sure, their vision is so far beyond their means (both in terms of logistics and talent) that the result is hilarious, but you have to respect them for trying. The nigh-unwatchable dreck, turned out by mercenary filmmakers in the hopes of making a few bucks on the other hand, cannot match the similarly incompetent struggles of the hopelessly ambitious. Missile to the Moon is by no means on the level of Plan 9 From Outer Space or Robot Monster, either in terms of ambition or incompetence, but it demonstrates a commitment to it’s wacky premise that was sorely lacking in it’s precursors.
In the late 1950s the US missile program was lagging behind their Soviet counterparts, a technological gap that would become full-fledged panic once the Russians succeeded in launching an artificial satellite. In the real world the US closed the gap by turning to Wernher von Braun and his team of ex-Nazi scientists, and increasing the funding of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. This coupled with an increased in funding for science education would let the Americans get caught up with and then eventually surpass their Soviet rivals. In the world of Missile to the Moon they are bearing down hard on one Dirk Green, a reclusive inventor who has been tinkering with rockets in the desert for years with the aid of only a single assistant, one Steve Dayton. Together they’ve successfully built a craft that could fly to the moon. Dirk’s achievements are so significant that I’m hardly surprised when the government, in the form of Col. Wickers, turns up one day to commandeer the whole project; even the staunchest supporters of the 2nd amendment usually draw the line at ICBMs. You can’t really blame them, were Dirk to sell his inventions to a rival nation it would constitute a threat to national security, the government was interested in ICBMs mainly as a delivery system for nuclear bombs, and space exploration was a secondary concern. Dirk isn’t having it though, because he has a secret. He’s really a moon-man (selenite) that’s been stranded on the earth after leaving to see if the planet was habitable for his people. Now he needs to get back and he’s not about to let some government pencil pusher get in his way. The fact that the moon, with it’s dwindling resources, cannot afford to build another space ship of it’s own makes his mission all the more urgent.
Dirk might be able to fly the ship himself, but it would be a lot easier with some help. Fortunately for him two teenage delinquents have just escaped from the nearby prison and they’re waiting for the heat to die down in Dirk’s rocket-ship. The sheriff assures us that “these are two smart boys” and that “one of the prisoners is a pretty shrewd kid, the other one is smart, too smart.” Either the sheriff is dumber than a rock, or he has an overly inflated view of his charges intelligence, because the two hoods are nothing more than a pair of knuckleheads. Dirk easily captures the pair and shanghais them into being his rocket-ship crew. Lon, the more sympathetic of the two (he’s the pretty shrewd one) is eager to help, but Gary (smart, too smart) only goes along with Dirk’s plan at gunpoint. When they start the countdown procedure, Steve and his fiancé June, notice that there’s some strange activity with the ship and head out to investigate. They wind up trapped inside just as the ship is about to take off. Looks like the two scientists, the two convicts and the girl area all moon-bound, though Dirk is the only one who seems particularly happy about it.
Everyone works together harmoniously, expect for Gary who is by turn, sullen, hostile, and violent. The big problem arises when he’s left alone with June, a rather foolish decision in retrospect, and tries to sexually assault her. Dirk returns just in time to see what’s going on and decides the young punk could use a lesson in manners via an ass-whupping. Good idea! There’s just one problem with his plan: Dirk is a feeble, doughy middle-age moon-man, and Gary is a stocky James Dean wannabe who just escaped from a place where lifting weights and fist-fights were the only means of recreation. The fight goes about as well for Dirk as you would expect, until the ship passes through an asteroid field. It seems that every one of these movies needs to have a scene where the ship is almost destroyed by asteroids while en route to the moon. It happened in Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) and again in Fire Maidens of Outer Space (1956), but in both those cases the asteroids had no impact on the film’s plot whatsoever, and really just served as a device to pad the runtime. Not so in Missile to the Moon, here the asteroids jolt the ship around enough that they knock a 50-pound battery loose that proceeds to clonk Dirk in the head. In a rare Hollywood concession to real-life human frailty, the injury kills Dirk. As he’s bleeding out, he hands a silver medallion to Steve and orders him to keep the rocket on course and not alter the landing site. The medallion is proof of Dirk’s selenites status, and the landing zone is right next to the last surviving population of selenites.
The crew disembarks from their cardboard and stock-footage rocket-ship and begins to explore the lunar surface in some extremely shoddy looking space-suits. Missile to the Moon is not about to slack on the crappy special effects either because soon the expedition encounters a pack of rock-monsters. These hulking, lumbering beasts are shaped roughly like the claymation character Gumby, and move at a slow shuffle (the actors inside them cannot bend any joints in their legs). The rock-monsters are definitely in the running for least threatening monsters I’ve ever seen a film protagonist flee screaming from, indeed the running itself seems excessive as a brisk walk would be more than sufficient to outrun these sluggish monsters. The panicky explorers bolt for a nearby cave, where they discover, much like the early expedition of Cat-Women of the Moon, that the air in the caverns is breathable. Also like their predecessors they toss of their suits and leave them lying in a heap, unguarded on the cavern floor. At least they can plead inexperience, none of these people even expected to be going to the moon the day before. After disrobing, they last all of ten second before they are captured by the selenites.
Naturally, as this is another rip-off of Cat-Women of the Moon, the selenites are a race of more or less human women with weird make-up and psychic powers. Initially, the selenites mistake Steve for Dirk, thanks to Dirk’s medallion, and welcome their wayward son and his new friends with a banquet. There is some indication that all is not well on the moon though, as The Lido, the blind queen of the selenites mentions that the food they are now eating is centuries old. Evidentially, the moon has depleted whatever resources it once had and the few survivors of the selenite civilization are desperate to get off-world and fast. Dirk had intended to hand over the rocket-ship to the Lido and her people, but Steve and the others need it to get back to earth. The Lido is no fool, she realizes that Steve is not Dirk, but doesn’t tip her hand for fear of scaring the humans off too quick. She, reasonably enough, thinks it’s better to cooperate with the only people who know how to fly the rocket-ship.
The only one who isn’t happy with the situation is June, who is feeling rather insecure about her appearance when surrounded by so many beautiful, half-naked women. She confesses that “If I had knew there was gonna be this kind of competition I would have undressed for the occasion.” The misogynistic, attempted-rapist Gary doesn’t help when he cheerfully insults her appearance. Under the circumstances then, she can probably be forgiven for flipping out when a selenite named Alpha starts insisting that she and Steve are going to be married. Evidentially, arranged marriage is common enough on the moon, and Alpha was promised to Dirk when she was still a child, now that “Dirk” has returned they can get on with the ceremony. June’s outburst is what clues Alpha into the notion that Steve isn’t the wayward moon-man at all, but instead an earthling imposter. Alpha brings this new to the Lido, who is not surprised in the least. Alpha and Lido have different ideas about how to deal with the earthlings, Lido favoring a charm offensive to gain their rocket-ship expertise and Alpha wants nothing more than to slaughter the lot of them and take Steve as her virgin-husband. They settle this differences in the classic selenite fashion: a psychic duel, which Lido wins handily. Alpha’s a cheat though, and as soon as she’s away from Lido she releases The Dark Creatures to take care of these earthling interlopers.
The Dark Creatures are really a singular, impossibly shitty spider puppet supposedly left over from Tarantula (1955). The monster does look somewhat creepy, but more in a way that makes you fearful of the deranged mind that created it, not the puppet itself. Indeed, the only positive thing I can say about this monster is that it’s slightly more intimidating than the shuffling rock-men we were treated to earlier. Unsurprisingly, the Dark Creatures fails to kill even a single one of the earthlings, though they do get a selenite that was in the caverns by accident. The Lido is pissed at Alpha for disobeying orders, and makes her displeasure known. This is a mistake, because Alpha has had about as much of the queen’s arrogance as she can take. It’s time for a coup, but since she’s no match for The Lido’s psychic powers she opts to take her out with more conventional means: It looks like the classic “backstab” is in order. Now secure on her throne, the new Lido decides its time to kill the earthlings and force Steve to be her husband. Alpha’s plan is a welcome bit of role reversal on the classic “villain forcing the damsel in distress to marry him” trope from the pulp era. Little does she know that Lon and a selenite named Zema, have begun an illicit romance of their own, and the traitorous Zema values her love of the earth-man above her loyalty to her new queen, and indeed the survival of the selenite species. Zema is willing to help the earthlings rescue Steve and escape the moon, now there’s only the question of can they make it in time.
The most striking thing about Missile to the Moon, which distinguishes it from its rather duller predecessors, is it’s lively and well-written cast of characters. Cat-Women of the Moon and Fire Maidens of Outer Space had to make due with a bunch of boring stock characters, some of them with no personality whatsoever. Missile to the Moon’s dramatis personae may not be wholly original, but they are at the very least compelling. Dirk, for instance is an arrogant old mad scientist who is also the last scion of a dying race, desperate to save what remains of his people. Gary and Lon offer a rare crossbreeding of 1950s sci-fi with 1950s juvenile delinquent scare films. Tellingly, the two characters are not identical, with Gary being a real selfish prick, while Lon is skittish and sensitive to the point where you have to wonder how he survived in the big house. Steve and June are the only figures that can be said to be entirely generic, a risk that is always dangerous for the central heroes in these kinds of movies. By B-movie standards, and particularly within Missile to the Moon’s subgenre, these characters are fresh and exciting. There’s nobody on this expedition who is just taking up space.
The surprisingly adept writing and credible performances are only made more impressive when compared to the impossibly shitty special effects. I touched above on the rubber-suits of the rock people and the horrendous spider puppet, but the whole movie is littered with crappy visual effects of all kinds. The backdrops are all painted cardboard, as are the fins of the rocket when the characters are suppose to be acting at its base. The scene of the rocket taking off is lifted from the V-2 tests (which every fan of 50s sci-fi films has probably seen about a hundred times). That’s par for course in these kinds of films, but Missile to the Moon doesn’t even attempt to make the rocket in the backdrop look like the V-2 being shown in the stock footage. Then there’s the little fact that the surface of the moon in this film is infested with vegetation despite the fact that it’s in the airless vacuum of space.
The greatest strength of Missile to the Moon though is it’s relentless pacing. Far too many mid-century sci-fi movies meander and dither aimlessly taking up space through their second acts. Action is parceled out miserly, with ample filler layered on throughout, and almost invariably the whole thing goes on too long. Missile to the Moon is not guilty of any of this; it has plenty of action throughout barely stopping to catch its breath every now and then. Even better the whole thing wraps up somewhere south of the 80 minute mark, meaning that even if the film had been impossibly boring it would still be possible to stomach it. This is the single greatest test for a so bad it’s good movie in my mind: anyone can make a boring piece of crap on the cheap, but an entertaining fun piece of crap takes a great deal more skill. Missile to the Moon delivers the goods, and it seems all the more impressive having just seen two almost identical films try and fail.