Behind this bland, forgettable and indescriptive title is one of that decade’s more interesting low budget items. “Blood Rust” was probably the script’s original name, and this refers to the red coloring of Mars which, as is found out on the return of a space probe, is a fungal overgrowth that could easily thrive on the Earth. THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, while not exactly a remake, shares both the panicky concept and something akin to realism in its approach. SPACE MASTER’s an Edward Bernds quickie, no nonsense drive-in fare with logic secondary to pace, but there’s a continual teetering on the edge of DETOUR-like brilliance that makes it, if not a classic, quite exceptional.
The strength of writing is ever evident, as the threat to humanity theme is subverted away from the usual conquering hero routine to documentary-like police procedural, the pursuers taking on near anonymity as our attentions, and sympathies, focus on the fleeing “Typhoid Mary”. She’s finely played by Lyn Thomas, a mature and intelligent 50s beauty in the Jan Sterling mode. We’re told just as much as we need to know about her, that she once was involved in an S&M fling (I kid you not, it’s ALL THERE in 1958) with arrogant scientist Paul Frees (Richard Deacon doing Clifton Webb, and does he deliver cutting lines!) Their unholy reliance resulted in a child that she now wants back in her new life of respectability. His experiments with the alien fungus result in his hideous death and the government, knowing that she was with him at the time, has to track her down so that she won’t infect the world. However, they can’t throw the public into panic (cover-up stuff, another first) by saying why they’ve put out an all-points bulletin out on her, so she goes into hiding and flees so that she won’t be framed for his murder! Now I ask you, how often do you run into plot intricacies (as opposed to absurdities) like this during your typical monster movie round-up?
At the same time SPACE MASTER X-7 is as frustrating as it’s intriguing, because get-it-out-on-schedule Bernds never quite takes that extra step ahead of his time. There’s a beautiful scene involving Miss Thomas and a cop the predates PSYCHO, where you’re rooting for her to get away and the world’s fate be damned, and though this perversion of empathy carries on the irony of it is somehow lost in the climactic shuffle. Said climax, stunningly prepared for in both mood and pacing, aboard a threatened air liner complete with children on the threshold of death, is shied away from in terms of intensity when it could’ve become a Hitchockian runaway carousel. One feels, by the movie’s end, that something truly magnificent just didn’t quite break free from the shackles of its period’s conventions.
I think this one’s ripe for a remake and hopefully by someone with brains and taste. It certainly has a plot, very friendly to updating, that doesn’t sit still. One thing that gets this film footnoted out of the collective amnesia is the presence of Moe Howard as a cab driver. He’s funny as can be but plays it straight, as a regular Joe who finds himself in the midst of things, and makes one wish that, like brother Shemp, he and the rest of those Stooges would’ve done a little more dramatic character work.