The Bad Movie Report

The Wizard of Mars

Oh, come now, you may say. They didn't really name a movie that, did they?

Yes, they did.

They didn't really give L. Frank Baum screen credit, did they?

Horrors of the Red Planet - the BoxNo, but they should have.

So how come I never heard of it?

You may have. Genesis Video, as they apparently did with several other movies, re-titled The Wizard of Mars to the more marketable (I suppose) Horrors of the Red Planet. But you can't hide The Wizard of Mars from me, so I plopped down the $9.95 the store was demanding and scampered away into the dark, dark night. The Genesis box, reproduced here, promises what appears to be the Millennium Falcon using its Italian Gut-Buster Ray on some unfortunate astronaut. Needless to say, there is no Millennium Falcon, no gut busting, and not many horrors on the movie within. It was made in 1965, for God's sake.

The retitling also results in the first bit of unintentional humor, as The Wizard of Mars title is replaced with an electronic intercard reading, what else, Horrors of the Red Planet in a rather small, unimpressive font. Unfortunately this is preceded by a title stating grandly, "John Carradine as..." The final effect being something like...



horrors of the red planet

Mostly, The Wizard of Mars serves as a reminder of what used to pass as entertainment. No, really. I watched The Wizard of Mars several times as a child, and always came away satisfied that I had enjoyed a science-fiction experience. Then again, at that age, I felt much the same about Lost in Space. Come with me as I watch the film one more time, from the jaundiced viewpoint of 1999.

One thing the Genesis box promises which the movie does have aplenty is unfortunate astronauts. We are quickly introduced to the crew of Mars Probe 1, the first manned ship sent to orbit Mars. They are Steve (Roger Gentry), the All-American captain; "Doc" (Vic McGee), the mandatory mustachioed scientist; Charlie (Jerry Rannow), comic relief; and Dorothy (Eve Bernhardt), The Chick.

The cockpit of Mars Probe 1 looks pretty good, if standard, for a 60's rocketship. Well, 70's Jan. 1, 1975rocketship, as an onboard clock helpfully informs us that we are now in the far-flung future of Jan. 1, 1975*. It's unfortunate that, during some of the character close-ups, it is far too noticeable that the paper tape covering the joints in the set's construction has bubbled and creased in some places, revealing that Mars Probe 1 is made of sheet rock.

It is also a requisite of space films of this era that the ship will go through a meteor shower of some sort. Wizard foregoes this for a series of pulsating light"That was..... too close!" globes, followed by lightning, which interferes with the ship's systems. If the lightning seems familiar, it's bargain-basement stock footage - seen in Dracula vs. Frankenstein, among others. The phenomenon remains unexplained, but it's enough to send Mars Probe 1 hurtling toward the Red Planet.

It might be mentioned that Mars Probe 1 is only seen rushing away or toward the camera - it's as if they built the top and bottom of the model and neglected the build the middle; most shots are from the rear, as the rocket roars toward one of the many plentiful nebulae that lie between the Earth and Mars. And they're on constant burn - Mars Probe 1 must pack a lot of fuel. The flame erupting from the main stage also leaves a plume of smoke billowing upwards in the vacuum of space, because that is what spaceships did in the 60's, and that was the way we liked it, dammit!

Anyway. The crew jettisons their main stage in a vain attempt to regain control, but they still wind up crashing on Mars. They now have big problems: the hull has breached, and though their suits carry enough "liquid nutrients" for almost a month, they have next to no oxygen. They have to find the main stage, which, evidently, had all the good stuff in it.

There is another great linchpin of the low-budget 60's space movie, which is that Someone Must Have A Clever Idea. And why not? In the 60's , space was the Frontier of Clever Ideas. Wizard's Clever Idea is that the shipwrecked crew can use the thin Martian atmosphere to supplement their oxygen supply - Oxygen Helper, as it were. By doing this they can stretch out their air supply to four days. Okay, I think, at least they had a better grasp of the nature of Mars than Total Recall did. But then they ruin that by inflating two rubber rafts and drifting down the famous Martian Canals. You see, in the 60's, water still.... oh, never mind.

After a series of time-consuming adventures, including fending off weird ambulatory water-vine "Wha-?  This esophogus is trying to steal my rifle!"thingies, getting lost in Carlsbad Caverns, and having to walk through an active volcano, our heroes, fifteen minutes of air left, find that the signal they've been following is actually coming from an earlier, unmanned vehicle. Finally snapping, the Comic Relief ventilates it with his carbine, leading to the discovery that the craft still has some liquid oxygen in it's fuel tanks; they can now breathe for a few more days (Good work, Charlie! Now shoot something else!). That night, they weather a fearsome storm (with more of that familiar lightning) under the cover of the lander; in the morning, they discover that the winds of the night before have blown aside the sand of the Martian desert to reveal smooth stones, apparently cut and laid there by some intelligence... a golden road!

No, I am not making this up.

Look, at least it's not green, okay?The four follow the yellow road, since another signal has cropped up, in the direction the road is heading. At the end of the road is...a city!

No, I'm still not making this up.

Actually, the city looks like something that would feel more at home in an aquarium, but hey. Let it go. Within the city, our fearless crew finds not only a musty but breathable atmosphere, but that the wallsJoel Gray puts in another exceptional performance. are almost entirely composed of columns... no, wait, not columns! Tubes of some sort! and in these tubes... aliens! Aliens with huge heads! Exposed brains! Tiny, wizened faces! And chimpanzee ears! (People watching crap films for as long as I will recognize this as the self-same creature of the amazing Space Monster, which tried to communicate by rapidly sticking its tongue in and out of its mouth. No, I am still not making this up!)

Anyway. All the aliens are still alive, and at their behest, the astronauts follow the halls to a central meeting place, which is so huge they can't even be shown entering it, and there, the aliens meld their minds to address the Earthmen in the form of a huge, floating Head of John Carradine.

"I am the Horrors of the Red Planet!  Behold me and tremble!"Perhaps this meeting place is actually their planetarium, as a slide show of various galaxies and nebulae play behind and through the transparent Carradine as he tells the tale of the aliens: conquered worlds, explored the universe, blah de blah de blah. When their empire inevitably crumbled, they gathered together in this city and used their power to actually stop time, plucking the city out of the timestream, so they could spend eternity unraveling the mysteries of the universe. Well, they unraveled the last mystery a few dozen millennia ago, and they are starting to seriously rethink this whole stopped-time-immortality thing. They'd start time back up themselves, you understand, but that requires physical strength, and they just can't do it, being poor little big-brained monkey-eared guys. For that, they need strong American muscles.

It's nothing you haven't heard before, but Carradine makes it sound good.

"A unique fixer-upper, the ad said."In a sealed chamber, the crew find a giant pendulum in the shape of the sun (a nifty setpiece). Comic Relief climbs the pendulum to fit in the central part: a snow globe containing the city itself (plucked out of time, you see). The pendulum starts, and the city begins to disintegrate. The crew run back through seemingly endless corridors, as minimum-wage grips above the columns throw Styrofoam rocks at them. At last, caught outside without their suits, the astronauts collapse at the end of the yellow br.... ah, golden road. Then they vanish.

Only to find themselves on the miraculously whole, smokily hurtling Mars Probe 1. The crew is dirty, dehydrated, and the men have several day's growth of beard. Central is on the radio, complaining that they're two minutes late with their report.. Cap'n Steve stares at the microphone in shock. "Two minutes?" The end.

Let's get the actors out of the way first, shall we? First, kudos to all of them for sweltering in those spacesuits for however long it took them to film the exteriors in the desert - easily half the film. Both Cap'n Steve and Doc did a few more roles in genre films; Gentry is alright, if unextraordinary, but McGee isn't - in particular, after haranguing the Giant Floating Carradine Head, he makes a Hey, Vic, can you actually act?parallel gesture with his hands that would cause him to be slapped down by any high school drama coach. This is Eve Bernhardt's only film, and she is the most obviously looped of the cast - whether this is actually her voice or not is unknown - in any case, she's not allowed to do much more than whine lines like "Are you sure it will work?" and "What are we going to do?" It was not rewarding to be The Chick in these movies - you were only there to be menaced and protected (and ultimately, comforted).

The guy I wanted to see more of was Charlie - that's right, the Comic Relief. Those of you who have been with me for a while know that I usually hope for comic reliefs to die agonizing, sticky deaths. Charlie's different - his jokes are just as bad as the electric eel jokes in Reptilicus, but he's also the only actor that actually shows a range of emotions. This is Jerry Rannow's only film credit, apparently. Too bad - he really showed promise.

And Carradine - well, lots and lots has been written about John Carradine. I just want to say this one more time: I honor the man's Work Ethic. An actor should act, and dammit, he did. Without judging his material, without worrying that he might wind up looking like a horse's ass, he did the damned job, and almost always did it well. Excelsior!

Oh, if only the rest of the movie could have kept up with those two. Past the spaceship and city sets, the movie takes place almost completely outdoors, with various rocky and desert climes standing in for Mars, and often quite well, but it's there that we run into trouble. Though they constantly talk about the current, the rafts always seem to be stuck in a calm stream. Boating through the caves is achieved with a similar lack of motion - they could be traveling through ViewMaster slides, for all I can tell. We never see them actually going into or leaving an interesting place - we always join them in the next location, inside the caves, inside the city, or the planetarium. Again, budget conspires to rob us of some possible suspense.

But then, I never noticed this when I was 12 years old.

Like it's spiritual brothers, The Angry Red Planet and Journey to the 7th Planet, the Wizard of Mars reflects a time where we were not, as a movie-going public, blinded by Industrial Light and Magic or jaded by non-stop over-the-top stories . But in a time where every movie that claims to be science fiction turns out to actually be another horror movie or action film that just happens to take place in space, The Wizard of Mars may just have a message or two; mainly that science fiction is possible without huge explosions,"It's only tuning in country stations!" massive laser battles, or cute, easily marketable creatures... and that a budget still helps.

I'll leave it to the guys who hang out in the halls during conventions talking too loudly to figure out exactly who's supposed to be the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion. I have my thoughts, but they.... are my own.

Now who has a copy of Space Monster? Wanna trade?



No, really. I didn't make it up.

- January 17, 1999

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