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A Few Great Pumpkins — Eighth Night: Forbidden Planet

A Few Great Pumpkins -- Eighth Night: Forbidden Planet

Fred M. Wilcox’s 1956 sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet may seem an odd addition to our Halloween spectacular, especially given that it’s more famous for its most memorable character, the bibendous, fey, talking robot Robbie, than actual scares. But I’ll proudly stand up and say that my regular childhood viewings, even those on sunny weekend afternoons, were marked with liberal doses of sheer terror. Whether it’d still work for me as truly scary now is perhaps questionable, but the terrific conceit of a gigantic, invisible monster stalking the unawares at night (I won’t ruin the surprise of its origins, one of my favorite all-time ideas of the genre) still compels me to think on it from time to time. Wilcox does a terrific job of teasing out our knowledge of the creature: starting with depressions in the ground caused by invisible, clawed feet, graduating to metal structures damaged by an obviously large beast, and then its initial terrible illumination by laser/taser fire in a massive firefight. In and amongst more placid sequences, these evening attacks play as any good business featuring a stalking murderous interloper should. By the film’s climax, as the whole forbidden planet is literally falling apart at the seams, and the creature stages a final attack, its true nature has been revealed and the film’s vaulted into the realm of one of the headier sci-fi confections of the day.

From the instant Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen) and his crew land on the distant planet Altair-4 to investigate a lost colony, things are, most decidedly, “off.” And given the planet’s remaining population of three—Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), and their servant Robbie—when corpses start piling up, questions mount even more quickly. Cyril Hume’s screenplay, loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest (when was the last time we’ve been able to say that about a new science fiction film?), is populated with a sense of creeping dread that questionable delivery from leads Nielsen, Francis, and Pidgeon can’t quite squash (it may well be that some of what’s so great about 50s sci-fi lies in how performance independent it can often be)—Planet ably pulls off the sci-fi/horror hybrid that’s flummoxed more than a few filmmakers. You wouldn’t expect this kind of slow-burn from a director who’d put out three Lassie movies in the years prior, but assisted by massive amounts of Theremin, spot-on production design which overflows with a feeling of fragile isolation, ingenious sound work and what were once state-of-the-art FX that remain surprisingly impressionistic, the whole thing adds up to well more than the sum of the average MST3K knock-off. It’s the perfect Halloween film for those who prefer science fiction to more traditional scary flicks.

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