Target Earth (DVD)

“Well, at least now we know what we’re up against. If only we had a little time to work out a defense.”

Herman Cohen was a producer of generally low-budget films during the 1950s and 1960s, many of which were released under the American International Pictures (AIP) banner (I Was a Teenage Werewolf, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, and Horrors of the Black Museum, to name a few). Prior to his AIP involvement, Cohen was responsible for one of the better-remembered UFO paranoia films of the 1950s — Target Earth, released in 1954. The film was based on a short story by Paul Fairman entitled The Deadly City, and related the situation of four people overlooked in the evacuation of a large city threatened by an invasion of robots from the planet Venus. The four people struggle to escape from the city while dealing with a fifth individual, a psychotic killer who wants to use them as his passport from the danger zone. Meanwhile, government scientists are working overtime trying to come up with a way to counter the deadly robots.

The best thing about Target Earth is its opening half. The situation is a familiar one: a single person or a small band of people seemingly alone in what would normally be a bustling metropolis, but which now instead is eerily devoid of life, as seen in such films as The Omega Man or the very recent 28 Days Later. A young woman (Kathleen Crowley) awakens after an abortive attempt at an overdose of sleeping pills and, as she walks or runs down empty streets, gradually comes to grips with the fact that everyone else has disappeared. This generates real suspense while presenting quite a stylish introduction to the heart of the film. Eventually the young woman meets up with three other people (a handsome and somewhat resourceful businessman [Richard Denning], and a bickering couple [Virginia Grey, Richard Reeves]). Together, they have to contend with a killer who needs their help, but has his own agenda. These new characters are all reminders of stereotypes in later disaster pictures, and it is with their appearance that the film’s appeal begins to lessen. Then, the picture’s low budget origins really become apparent in the presentation of the invading robots. They are represented by one lone robot (seemingly escaped from an early-1940s Republic serial) — one robot was all the budget allowed for, and it was apparently constructed in producer Cohen’s garage out of the usual boxes and cylinders of scrap metal. With its appearance, the film’s remaining illusion of tension evaporates. We are eventually left to watch the heroine scream and the hero look steely-jawed as he shields her from the approaching robot while teetering on the edge of a roof.

Even though the film’s second half is a letdown, the overall impression is still positive. The whole show’s over in a brisk 75 minutes, and the main cast members are competent actors who take the proceedings seriously. Richard Denning and Virginia Grey, particularly, are veteran performers who know how to get the best out of sketchily-defined characters. Kathleen Crowley does some of the better work of her short but unheralded career. Sherman Rose’s direction is competent and without fanfare. It was his first such effort after many years as a film editor. Look for the reliable Whit Bissell as the chief scientist and producer Cohen in a cameo as a lab assistant.

Every low budget science fiction film from the 1950s should wish for as good a presentation on DVD as VCI has accorded Target Earth. First of all, the film itself sports a very nice 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. The black and white film, despite the inevitable speckles and the sort of modest grain and softness that one might expect from low budget source material, looks quite sharp with some very deep blacks and generally excellent shadow detail. The Dolby Digital mono sound is quite adequate and is accompanied by little background hiss. Paul Dunlap’s suitably eerie, if familiar-sounding, background music comes off quite well. There is no subtitling included.

VCI has provided a nice suite of supplements, beginning with a pleasant audio commentary by Herman Cohen. This is the same commentary that Cohen, who has since passed away, did for the Roan Group laserdisc release eight or nine years ago. Cohen does not talk continuously, but when he does, he usually provides interesting information about casting, production details, and the like, although I think he does remind us a little too much about the film’s low budget origins. There is also an informative 20-minute tribute to Herman Cohen, using copious stills and narration by Didier Chatelain, a longtime Cohen friend and associate. Decent biographies are provided for the four principal actors and the director, along with three theatrical trailers (Target Earth, Horrors of the Black Museum, and The Headless Ghost).

THE VERDICT

Target Earth is not a bad example of the UFO-paranoia films of the 1950s, although its low budget nature ultimately reduces its effectiveness. The VCI presentation is first-rate and is recommended to anyone interested in this genre of films.

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