Early Astronauts in the Movies: Mutated and Mutilated, Irradiated and Impregnated

I recently took some out-of-town guests to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Dulles, VA (a.k.a. the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center). Unlike the Air and Space Museum that's part of the National Mall in Washington DC, the Dulles museum is a gigantic hangar that contains the largest collection of full-sized aircraft for public display. The collection spans from the earliest attempts at technology-enabled flight to some of the more modern examples, such as the F-14 Tomcat fighter and the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane.

In the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar section of the museum, which displays the Space Shuttle Enterprise, I found this interesting artifact from the early days of space travel:

If I ever find myself living in a trailer park, my aluminum-sided trailer
will have these words clearly displayed on its side and I will always
answer the door wearing a white biohazard suit.

Seeing this decontamination trailer on display alongside the various satellites, rockets and shuttles reminded me of the deliriously paranoid fears that our early space program evoked among certain segments of the public and the countless pulp novels, comic books, and B-movies that were made to capitalize on these fears. Read on for five examples (in chronological order) of how the entertainment industry cashed in on the unknown, years before anyone even bothered to set foot on the moon.

After the real-life moon landing, there were plenty of other creature features about contaminated astronauts returning to Earth, such as The Incredible Melting Man and The Astronaut's Wife. Nevertheless, the list below recognizes the true pioneers who led the way in portraying humanity's first steps into space in the most illogical, inaccurate and misinformed ways imaginable. For this achievement, we salute them!

1. The Quatermass Experiment, a.k.a The Creeping Unknown (1955)

If you watch any of the contaminated astronaut movies on this list, makes sure that it is this one. For a film that centers on a plot that has become a bad cliche over the years--namely, an astronaut infected by something that slowly transforms him into a carnivorous monster--The Quatermass Experiment plays it straight and it works. The movie is about an astronaut, who slowly transforms into an alien creature after the first flight ever into space, and the scientist who pursues him, Dr. Bernard Quatermass. The Quatermass character would appear in two sequels, Quatermass II: Enemy from Space (1957) and Quatermass and the Pit, a.k.a. Five Million Years to Earth (1967), as well as in a few radio serials and TV series. The enigmatic Dr. Quatermass was one of inspirations for another sci-fi doctor from England, Doctor Who.

2. Night of the Blood Beast (1958)

Leave it to Roger Corman to follow up one of the best contaminated astronaut movies with one of the worst. In this Corman-produced film (which was co-produced and co-written by Corman's brother Gene), an astronaut returns to Earth with alien embryos implanted in his abdomen after the first flight ever into space. The budget for this film was so tiny that the "Blood Beast" costume it used was recycled from other B-movie, Teenage Caveman. Naturally, Night of the Blood Beast was later spoofed in 1995 on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

3. The First Man Into Space (1959)

In this low-budget film, an astronaut is transformed into a malformed creature with an unquenchable thirst for blood after a brief flight into the ionosphere brings him into contact with some kind of meteorite dust. This film was produced by b-movie maven Richard Gordon, whose production credits include Corridors of Blood, Devil Doll, Voodoo Blood Death, and the famous invisible flying brain movie, Fiend Without a Face.

4. The Fantastic Four (1961)

OK, so this example wasn't so much of an attempt to cash in on the fear of space travel as it was an attempt to cash in on the popularity of DC Comics' Justice League title. Nevertheless, having an audience that's ready and willing to believe that there are things lurking in outer space that can mutate and deform the human body into anything imaginable (and then some) probably helped to spur the popularity of this superhero team. The Fantastic Four are four astronauts who gained superpowers after being exposed to cosmic rays during a scientific mission in space. The powers include physical elasticity, invisibility, the projection of force fields, flight, the ability to control flames, superhuman strength, and orange, stone-like skin.

While the Fantastic Four didn't start as a movie, their comic book origin qualifies them for inclusion on this list. Furthermore, these heroes are not without their own cinematic embarrassment--provided by none other than Roger Corman himself. Before the two big budget, big screen films about this superhero team (The Fantastic Four in 2005 and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer in 2007), Corman produced a very, VERY low-budget version (under $2 million) of The Fantastic Four in 1994. Because this film was made by a German production company called Constantin Film for the sole purpose of maintaining its option for the Fantastic Four film rights, the end product is abysmal and was never intended for release on the big screen (even though the cast and crew were told otherwise). But don't just take my word for it--you can see it for yourself over on YouTube.

5. Monster A-Go-Go (1965)

We've already had Roger Corman's contributions to this list, so here's the one from another notorious B-movie king, Herschell Gordon Lewis. Lewis is mostly known for creating the "splatter film" subgenre (ergo his nickname "Godfather of Gore"), but he also co-directed this piece of sci-fi schlock, a film that some rank among the worst films ever made. To say that Lewis "co-directed" this movie isn't entirely accurate; he actually bought the unfinished film from Bill Rebane, who abandoned the project after it ran out of funding in 1961, and inserted his own scenes and dialogue. The end product is a disjointed mess, from beginning to sudden, incoherent end. In this turkey, an astronaut returns to Earth as a large, radioactive monster after a flight into space. Like Night of the Blood Beast, Monster A-Go-Go was also spoofed on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and you can watch one of the movie's original and unabashedly hokey TV ads on YouTube here.


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