Universal Monsters: This Island Earth (1955)

Written by Franklin Coen and George Callahan
Directed by Joseph M. Newman
Starring Jeff Morrow, Faith Domergue, Rex Reason
US Release June 10, 1955 (New York City premiere)
RT 87 min.
Home Video Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)

In recent years, a creature from a space adventure has been added to the membership roster of the Universal Monsters. It is the Metaluna Mutant from This Island Earth (1955).  It’s cool-looking, all right, with its bulbous head, round eyes positioned lower than its shoulders, and long arms with pincers for hands.  But it doesn’t appear until almost an hour and 15 minutes into the movie, and only for a very short time.

There are actually two mutants. One appears briefly before a building on Metaluna comes tumbling down on top of it.  The other manages to stow away on the ship escaping the planet, which is under attack by meteors from warring planet Zagon.  It doesn’t seem like they could do much harm, but one manages to mortally wound friendly alien, Exeter (Jeff Morrow) and scare the mascara off Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue).

Whether or not the Metaluna Mutant should be considered a Universal Monster doesn’t concern me. This Island Earth was released before the final Creature from the Black Lagoon sequel, The Creature Walks Among Us, so it’s within the appropriate time frame.  While its actions may not be memorable, its appearance is unforgettable.  It’s like equal opportunity employment to include an otherworldly creature among the vampires, man-made monsters and wolf men.

This was the first time I’ve ever watched This Island Earth and I rather enjoyed it, going against the expectation that I wouldn’t like a movie ridiculed by Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s rather talky with its scientific explanations for everything, but has a good set-up and mystery that is sustained through a large part of the story.  In fact, we don’t find out what Exeter and his race really want until its final moments.

Excepting Phantom of the Opera (1943), it’s the only Universal Monsters movie that’s in color. It’s glorious color, at that.  As if to emphasize the point, all the controls for Metalunan technology are color wheels that look something like Simon games, or those vintage contraptions that changes the color of your Christmas tree.  (How about those references for people who are old and people who are really old?!?)  It’s pretty to look at and adds depth to otherwise bare spaceship interiors.

The special effects are not bad for their time. I liked when the spaceship flew along the surface of Metaluna, which looks like it’s made out of grey Swiss cheese. If you fly into one of the holes, though, the city lies beneath.  It’s less impressive than the surface because it’s merely a painting.  You have to wonder what it would have been like to experience This Island Earth in 1955.  Would it have been as spectacular as one of today’s technical extravaganzas?  Were people enthralled?

When I watch these movies, I try, as often as I can remember, to imagine what they were like at the time they were made, not what they’re like today. “Imagination” is the key word here.  Not only am I imagining the experience of seeing the movie with fresh eyes, but I’m also exercising a lot more imagination to make the movie even work.  That was a requirement at the time.  Today, though, we barely have to imagine anything that filmmakers can’t simply show us.

With imagination comes joy. There’s a different feeling after watching This Island Earth (or any Universal Monsters movie, really) than you have after watching a recent genre release.  If not joy, perhaps “fun” is a less extreme word.  These movies are fun.  It doesn’t matter if they’re silly; they have good intentions and accomplish an awful lot of magic with very few resources.

Better yet, if you continue to think about them after you watch them, your imagination enhances them, transforming them into something else entirely. They become classics of the cinema and our favorite movies.  Even if they’re not that good when you re-watch them, your imagination is sparked once again and the process repeats.  This is the value of a cheesy old sci-fi movie from the 1950s like This Island Earth.  This is the power they have.