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Target Earth

Target Earth(1954)

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How's this for a kick in the head? You take an overdose of sleeping pills, hoping to end it all. But somehow you survive the suicide attempt, only to wake up the following day and realize you're one of a handful of survivors left after the alien invasion of your city. That's the premise of Target Earth (1954), an ultra-low budget wonder from producer Herman Cohen (I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, 1957) and director Sherman Rose that is somewhat of an obscure title today. But the sheer starkness of the film, from its grim storyline to the doomsday setting (a virtually deserted Los Angeles) to Paul Dunlap's ominous score, gives it a distinct sense of menace that elevates it above most "end-of-the-world" B-movie thrillers. At the same time, the film has a joker up its sleeve - a giant, lumbering alien robot with a death ray. It might have given children the heebie-jeebies at kiddie matinees in the fifties but viewed today it works better as comic relief. A goofball contraption guaranteed to make every sci-fi geek envious (they'll want to have one of their very own just for laughs), this is one of the most weirdly proportioned cyborgs you'll ever see - woodblock shoulders lead down to cylinder arms with metal pinchers, an angular chest tapers down in a straight line to the rather dainty waistline which is fitted with what looks like a metal jockstrap, the legs look like inflated corrugated drainpipes. Originally Cohen wanted a whole army of these but due to budgetary limitations had to settle for much less. "We had to invade the city of Los Angeles with one robot," he later confessed.

Target Earth, now available in a digitally remastered widescreen DVD edition from VCI Entertainment, is a recent addition to the company's "Herman Cohen Collection" (Horrors of the Black Museum (1959) is also available). The film was made for approximately $85,000 and was responsible for launching Cohen's career as a sci-fi/horror producer (it was his first independent feature). Luckily, he had a first rate cast to work with including Richard Denning (Creature from the Black Lagoon, 1954), character actress Virginia Grey, and Kathleen Crowley who makes an appealing, if unconventional heroine (after all, she did try to kill herself in the opening credit sequence!). The storyline, based on the novella, Deadly City, by Ivor Jorgensen (a pen name for Paul W. Fairman) bears some striking similarities to John Wyndham's nightmarish novel, The Day of the Triffids. (The latter opens with a man recovering in a hospital room from an eye operation and slowly learning of a strange meteor shower the night before that blinded everyone who saw it. Like the Crowley character in Target Earth, he spends some time stumbling around the deserted city before he encounters the REAL horror - man-eating plants from outer space.)

In Attack of the Monster Movie Makers: Interviews with 20 Genre Giants by Tom Weaver, Cohen recalled the making of Target Earth: "We shot at Kling Studios - Charlie Chaplin Studios - which is now A&M. And we shot in location all over the place. We shot on weekends without garage, you name it. We shot on the empty streets of L.A. early in the morning on four or five weekends, to get the scenes of the evacuated city. A friend of mine was a cop with the L.A.P.D., and he came with us one early Sunday morning in his uniform. (We didn't have any permits. We could've got in real trouble.) We cleared the streets in downtown L.A. The only problem we had was that there was a Catholic church right across from where we were shooting. There were no people on the street, we were shooting and then all of a sudden the church doors swing open and the people came piling out! "Oh, God! Stop the cameras!" We forgot that they were all in there!"

Production anecdotes like the above are featured in Herman Cohen's running commentary on the Target Earth DVD, one of the many extra features on this VCI disk. You'll learn that Robert Roark, the actor who plays the homicidal prison escapee in the film, was only cast because his father was an investor in the film. Or how about this? Steve Calvert, the guy in the robot costume, regularly worked as a bartender at Ciro's on Sunset Strip when he wasn't working on B-horror flicks (He also played the apes in Bride of the Gorilla, 1951 and Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, 1952). Other disk extras include Herman Cohen: Cohen My Way, an affectionate video tribute to the late filmmaker by his lifelong friend Didier Chatelain and film historian Tom Weaver; the original theatrical trailer, biographies, and some playful 3D motion menus which are a bit slow, clunky and awkward (like the robot) by most disk navigation standards.

For more information about Target Earth, visit VCI Entertainment. To order Target Earth, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeff Stafford