Saturday, May 21, 2016

An Extra-Crispy Chicken McNugget Threatens The Universe In "The Phantom Planet"

"Did you bring the dipping sauce?" A giant Chicken McNugget patrols the universe in "The Phantom Planet."

Hi-dee-ho, movie lovers.

Our feature presentation has something--literally--for everyone: cheap cartoon animation; a self-righteous hero with an extreme crew-cut; Richard "Jaws"/"Eegah" Kiel in a pivotal supporting role; silent screen star Francis X. Bushman as the wise elder of a rare space race; a Liz Taylor look-a-like, complete with Cleopatra eyeliner; a group of alien critters that resemble Walt Disney's Goofy; and a free-floating planet that bears an uncanny likeness to an extra crispy Chicken McNugget.

Like I said, something for everyone!

So set yourself down, prop up your feet and prepare to experience "The Phantom Planet" (1961) in all its no-budget, no-brain glory.

Our tale begins "in the future" (actually, 1980) where two nameless astronauts sit in their spaceship--which at certain angles resembles an Easy Glide Tampon--and under go a routine instruments check. Seconds later, they "drift off course" and face a barrage of Honey Bunches of Oats clusters. The camera starts to shake and, sure enough, our two nameless space cadets are soon toast.

They were expendable: Cast members This Guy and That Guy are the first victims of "The Phantom Planet"...after the audience, of course.

Over on the moon (where the USA parks its space program headquarters) the dour, square-headed, deeply crew-cutted Frank Chapman (Dean Fredricks) is informed that he's been chosen to lead a rescue mission to find the missing astronauts--and learn if there is any truth to this "phantom planet" rumor people are whispering about. Frank's superior also tells him that he won't get any "second chances" on this assignment, so he better not screw it up.

Accompanied by Lt. Ray Makonnen (Richard Webber), a fellow jet jockey who's given to spouting flowery peons about the powers of positive thinking ("Every year of my life I grow more and more convinced that the wisest and the best is to fix our attention on the good and beautiful..."), Chapman blasts off into space. Things seem pretty routine at first, until those deadly Honey Bunches of Oats reappear and begin hammering their spaceship for all its worth. Frank and Ray survive the onslaught ("Now I know why they made us practice those drills so much!" Ray declares), but some obscure part of the ship ends up damaged. This requires our heroes to suit and head outside (armed only with a socket wrench!) to make the needed repairs.

Unfortunately, Frank's air hose (or something) gets unhooked or cut or tangled or gummed-up, I don't know, and Ray has to drag his boss's hinder back into the ship. Frank is saved, but poor Ray takes a fatal hit from a rouge Honey Bunches of Oats cluster and is soon drifting out into space. As he floats to his doom, Ray begins reciting The Lord's Prayer.

Eventually, Chapman comes to and tries to figure out what to do next--and because our main character is not too bright, this is clearly going to take a while. Then a giant extra crispy Chicken McNugget zooms into view and forces Frank's ship to land on its surface via its "tractor beam." Once safely settled, Frank suits up (again) and decides to poke around a bit. No sooner does he take one step onto terra firma than Chapman trips, falls and knocks himself out. D'oh!

While Frank is lying flat on his face, a collection of mini-men dressed in smocks and chinos scamper on screen. Just when you begin to worry that "The Phantom Planet" will turn into an outer space version of Gulliver's Travels, Frank suddenly shrinks down to their size. When confronted by the mini-men, Frank takes a pop at one; however, the tiny aliens quickly over power him and drag him off to face Sesom (silent screen star Francis X. Bushman), the wise elder of their bite-size people.

"Remember, size doesn't matter": Astronaut Frank Chapman is discovered by the tiny inhabitants of "The Phantom Planet" (actually, Rayton).

Turns out the extra crispy Chicken McNugget is actually a planet called Rayton. Frank is found guilty of punching out a Raytonian, yet is given a suspended sentence. The wise elder then announces that Frank is the newest member of the Raytonian family. What's more, after the space cadet settles into his new life and finds a steady job, he will be allowed to select a mate from Rayton's female population (after all, membership has its privileges).

As you can probably guess, Frank is not happy about this turn of events. He wants to return to his normal size, return to his ship and return to the moon. However, the continued safety of Rayton requires as few people as possible know about its existence. See, the Raytonians are the sworn enemies of a group of meanies called Solarites or "fire people". The Solarites want this thing-a-ma-jig the Raytons have invented (don't ask) and if they get their paws on it, well, "they will then attack Earth." Thus, for the sake of everybody, Frank must stay put. It's understandable that this type of news would be hard swallow under any circumstances, but, really, the Ratons are giving Frank a good deal. After all, he has full citizenship and equal rights; he'll be able to have a useful career; he can marry and start a family--it's more like relocating to Denmark than forced captivity. Unlike other alien races, Frank isn't being subjected to anal probes, brain implants, gelding, torture, slavery or organ harvesting. As I noted earlier, this is a fair deal, not perfect, but fair.

But I digress...

Crabby as he is, Frank still manages to attract the attention of Rayton's most eligible bachlorettes: Liana (Colleen Grey) and Zetha (Delores Faith). Liana is Sesom's daughter and she's a bit of a Little Miss Can't Be Wrong. Zetha, who is Rayton's answer to Liz Taylor, is mute. She lost her power of speech when she saw a Solarite. Complicating matters is a chap named Herron (Anthony Dexter), who has long torched for Liana. Naturally, he doesn't appreciate it one bit when Liana starts throwing herself at Frank. In fact, Herron is so determined to to be rid of his rival that he challenges Frank to "a duel."

Unlike on Earth, "a duel" on Rayton isn't pistols at twenty paces at dawn. Instead, it's a shoving match where the aggrieved parties try to push each other into a solar panel or a disintegrater, while all of Rayton watches (since Rayton doesn't appear to have TV and thus its citizens can't watch "Game of Thrones" or "Outlander", these shoving matches/duels constitute a major form or entertainment).

 Which one will Frank propose to? Liana (left) daughter of Sesom or Zetha (right)? Tune in for "The Bachelor: The Final Rose" live from Rayton to find out!

OK, so. Herron and Frank toss each other around for a bit. Then they both come to the conclusion that their "duel" is pretty pointless. After all, Frank has never shown any interest in Liana. What's more, Herron realizes that he really isn't mad at Frank, per se. Rather, he's stewing because Liana is flaunting herself in front of another guy when she knows perfectly well that he (Herron) wants to marry her and Frank is just a scapegoat because Liana is such a drama queen and is apparently never happier than when she's stirring up needless drama--kinda like this one relative of mine (who shall remain nameless) who is a real pill and who just loves to cause needless trouble, especially during the holidays. So the duel abruptly ends and the guys decide to bury the hatchet, in a manner of speaking. Later on, Frank hooks up with Zetha and it appears that the grumpy guy from Earth may finally be beginning to adjust to his new life.

But wait! Remember those Solarites? And remember that thing--a-ma-jig the Raytons created that those "fire people" want? Well, those uppity bad guys are back and they are ready to rumble! That means the Raytonians must man their battle stations and prepare to give their mortal enemies a huge dose of whup-ass in an epic confrontation...that lasts about 30 seconds. Seriously! The Solarites are simply no match for the Raytonians, which makes you wonder why the mini-people were so worried to begin with.

However, trouble brews elsewhere.

You see, in their never-ending clashes with the Solarites, the Raytonians have managed to nab exactly one--one!--Solarite. The poor bastard has been kept imprisoned in some force-field type cell and he hasn't been happy about it. Zetha, you may recall, was so horrified by the sight of this critter that she lost her power of speech. Anyway, during the last epic confrontation between the two enemies, the force field keeping the captive Solarite captive short-circuits. This means the alien baddie is now free to stomp around Rayton and cause all types of havoc.

About this time, you might be wondering what these Solarites look like. Well, brace yourselves. Solarites are tall drinks-of-water with patches of Yak wool stuck to their skin. Their feet are long and flat and their hands looks like lobster claws. Their faces are dominated by huge pop eyes, similar to the ones sported by Goofy. Perched on top of their heads is a pointed cap that resembles those fur hats Cossacks wore. Solarites also favor short grass skirts. They don't speak and they stagger around like a drunk squishing potato bugs. Unlike those dragon-like beasties with acid for blood in "Aliens", the Solarites are more likely to make a person wet their pants from laughing than lose their voice out of fear. Personally, the fact that Richard "Jaws"/"Eegah" Kiel was cast as this Solarite in his first screen credit is what's important here, not the damage any of these flat-footed dorks could cause on Rayton.

Richard Kiel as you've never seen him before...or since.

As is so often the case with rouge critter baddies in low-rent sci-fi cheese, the newly freed Solarite has a thing for the ladies. While stumbling around Rayton, the Solarite finds Zetha asleep in her room. She can't scream, remember, so when she opens her peppers and sees the baddie in all his glory, she faints dead away. The Solarite then scoops her up and staggers off.

"The Phantom Planet" reaches the first of many thrilling (?) climaxes when Frank, Herron, Sesom and Liana all converge on the Solarite and Zetha. The plan is for the guys to duke it out with the alien, pushing him into the disintergrater panels used for "duels" for Rayton. This seems like a fine strategy, except for one thing: the Solarite may have the moves of a drunk Wallaby, but he's not easy to push around. At one point, it looks as if the alien beastie may be pulling out a surprise move on Frank, but have no fear: Zetha finally regains her voice and screams bloody murder, warning Frank and allowing him to shove the Solarite into the disintergrater panels. Once the rouge critter is fried into nothingness, everybody enjoys a group hug and Zetha collapses in Frank's arms.

Rayton is safe at last, the Solarites are defeated, Zetha has regained the power of speech and declares her undying love for Frank ("I've loved you from the moment I first saw you!" she warbles) and Frank appears to have settled into his new home. What's more, Liana seems resigned to marrying Herron and the groom-to-be is thrilled. All that's needed now is to call on the Martha Stewart of Rayton and prepare a double-wedding.

Uh, no. Sorry to burst your romantic bubble movie lovers, but true love will not win out this time. See, the USA's space program has sent a team out to find Frank--against orders, mind you--and guess what? They have found Rayton! They are about to land on the planet's surface! What is Frank to do?

Our hero hims and haws for a minute, then decides he must return to Earth. After all, he can't bring Zetha home to meet the folks because she's the size of a Polly Pocket. Even though she loves Frank to bits, Zetha is a good sport about this and she sends Frank off. Of course, now that she can talk again, Zetha's marriage prospects on Rayton have improved considerably and I have no doubt she'll find happiness soon enough. So, with the help of Herron, Frank scampers back into his flight suit and magically regains his normal size just in time for the away-team to find him and bring him back to Earth...a bittersweet ending to a truly nutty movie.

"Well, I dodged that bullet...": Zetha (Delores Faith) is glad her short-lived engagement to crabby Frank Chapman is off.

In his book Cult Science Fiction Films, author Welch Everman argues that "The Phantom Planet" suffers from what he calls "The Tarzan Syndrome": a white guy stumbling into a foreign land/planet, where he proves himself to be smarter than any of the natives and then winds up the boss of everybody. It's an interesting theory and, yes, it has a sadly racist subtext. Nevertheless, I have to agree with Mr. Everman. Crabby as he is, Frank is presented as smarter and stronger than the typical Raytonian--only Herron comes close to being his equal--just because he's white and from Earth. Wise Sesom drops lots of hints that Frank is on the fast track to succeeding him and our anti-hero hasn't been on Rayton 24 hours! Only his return to Earth (via the moon) prevents Frank from becoming the head cheese on Rayton.

Early in this article I mentioned "The Phantom Planet"s low budget appearance. This wasn't just for snark's sake. During my research into the flick, I learned that all the interior spaceship sets, the space suits and the special effects were pinched from the "Men Into Space" TV series. That clearly means the flick's budget couldn't cover these things, so hat's off to director William Marshall, a former actor and band leader, for economizing and finding these necessities on the the cheap! The thrifty director even saved on cast members by giving his son Mike a small role in the film.

Dean Fredericks, as the crabby Frank Chapman, had just finished 34 episodes of the TV series "Steven Canyon", based on the classic comic strip, when he appeared in this flick. Both roles required him to do nothing more that puff out his chest, cross his arms and glare at people. Dean's other role of note was as the Hindu manservant(!?) on Johnny Weissmuller's "Jungle Jim" TV series (1955-56). Movie fans know, of course, that Johnny Weissmuller was Tarzan in a series of hit movies--and his Jane was Maureen O'Sullivan, a fine actress (and schoolmate of Vivien Leigh's) who was also the mother of Mia Farrow.

Thanks to the wonderful, funderful world of Junk Cinema, we have a movie that personifies "The Tarzan Syndrome" starring a guy who once worked on a series starring moviedom's best known Tarzan, with sets borrowed a short-lived TV series and was then served to the general public on a double with "Assignment Outer Space"--with Richard Kiel in his film debut! Is this a cool world or what?!

Until next time movie lovers, help me SAVE THE MOVIES!