Equinoxes & Eclipses

Waxing & Waning Memories

Photo ©1995, 2013 Gerhard

Hey, that’s me, in 1995, at the Spirits of Independence S.R. Bissette’s Tyrant® booth, in front of a banner Cindy Leszczak created (with my fabric-painted Tyrant T. rex prominent) for my convention and trade show appearances. I was shooting for the moon, baby!

Last month, Gerhard (miss you, Ger!) shared this photo on the Moment of Cerebus blog, with the following comments:

Jeff Tundis had posted a bunch of my old photos on his Art of Gerhard website quite a while ago. I’ve just started going through my old photos again and here are a few that aren’t on his website.

1995: The Equinox Hotel, Resort and Spa, Manchester, Vermont. Absolutely, without a doubt, hands down, the all-round, BEST EVER venue for a signing… Uncle Steve really came through in procuring this amazingly lavish location for the Spirits of Independence tour.”

Actually, it was John Rovnak, then-proprietor of the Manchester VT brick-and-mortar Comics Route, who suggested and procured the Equinox, and it was indeed one of the greatest ever!

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Here’s my two-cents on another cinematic moon voyage that kissed theater screens one full decade after Rocketship X-M, which would be the same year Phil Tucker‘s The Cape Canaveral Monsters opened:

* I finally screened David Bradley‘s Columbia sf opus 12 TO THE MOON (1959) after New Years, after putting it off for—oh, decades, really. It’s another 1950s sf oddity I’d never seen before. Well, not all the way through. I tried to watch it on a late-night TV broadcast back when I was (appropriate to the title) 12 years old, but (no surprise) it put me right to sleep, and I dreamed something completely unlike the actual movie.

I’ve finally supplanted that false-impression with the real McCoy, and by the bald-headed-Christ, it’s even weirder than what I’d dreamed as a 12-year-old. Thus, I love the movie, though you’ll not find it on anyone’s list of “recommended sf films,” I assure you. By any mainstream yardstick, it barely measures up to the worst episode of Lost in Space, but I like those, too. Yes, it’s turgid and terrible, but it’s also oddly wonderful, all at once. I can hear my pal Mike Dobbs sighing all the way from over here.

As it’s almost impossible to synopsize the film, I’ve got to try. Let’s see, um, uhhhhh…. ah, fuck it, I can’t. Still, we need to establish some narrative reference points if I’m to share any observations about the damned thing. I’ll just offer you the official Columbia pressbook’s capsule summary (excavated and scanned from the SpiderBaby Archives collection):

Got that? Good. Remember it, whether you can make sense of it or not.

I’ll give away the game in part at this juncture to reveal

(a) we never see the subterranean hidden moon civilization;

(b) we never see the “selenites” (to borrow H.G. Wells‘s name for moon dwellers in the much livelier First Men “In” The Moon), save for a vaguely-humanoid-shaped white static/misty blur shown once and only once, and barely-glimpsed shadows;

(c) they are telepathic, but communicate via a strip of broadcast teletype glyph graphics only the female Asian member of the crew can decode; and

(d) it turns out the selenites are omniscient, omnipresent, and all-powerful, capable of long-distance deep-freezing of the spaceship, localized geographies, and apparently the whole of planet Earth, but

(e) they are benevolent peace-loving beings, really, truly. It’s just that humans are such shits and we are such a suspect species. You can’t blame them, really, for wanting us to keep our distance and get the hell away from them.

Just go with the flow, and stay for the ride.
I was eager to finally see the movie in part because it had been touted in Forrest J Ackerman and Jim Warren‘s Spacemen magazine, the lackluster, hard-to-find, ill-fated sf companion to Famous Monsters of Filmland (and, truth to tell, closer to the type of magazine Ackerman had actually wanted to do in the first place). It had even scored a cover appearance (shown here), but—well, it never sounded very interesting as a movie, really. It was one of those movies FJA would obliquely refer to without evidencing any liking or passion for the movie, actually. Sort of like flouride, or a day-old bowl of Cream of Wheat without any brown sugar on it, or something under the woodpile out back.

Besides—what, no monsters? This was a distinct liability for any space movie for a 12-year-old, but I was already reading hard sf literature and so I was curious. Besides, I’d read or been told (somewhere) that Robert Heinlein had played some role in the film. Wrong! No, he hadn’t; that was Project Moonbase, a tedious 1953 successor to George Pal and Heinlein‘s seminal Destination Moon I finally caught up with on another grueling late-night TV broadcast (it proved most memorable for being the first sf movie positing a female American President, played by Ernestine Barrier). But I still thought  he had when I forced myself to stay up past midnight and try, try, tryzzzzzzzzzzzz…

Though I didn’t make the connection until much later, it turned out I’d read about David Bradley in the pages of Famous Monsters, via the occasional enigmatic photo from, and reference to, an apparently impossible-to-see movie version of Peer Gynt. I later (in junior high at Harwood Union High School) saw listings in 16mm film catalogues for Peer Gynt (more on that in a second), and still couldn’t quite fathom what it might be or have been—or concoct an excuse (or the means or venue) to rent it to see it for myself.

It turned out that David Bradley was an interesting character, one of the first 16mm amateur filmmakers of note to make the leap to theatrical feature films. Bradley remains renowned for having discovered and cast 17-year-old Charlton Heston in two amateur 16mm productions/adaptations, Peer Gynt (1941) and Julius Ceaser (1950), which finally hit DVD some years ago after being available in the 1960s as sure-to-disappoint-teachers-and-classrooms 16mm rental items. After that, Bradley managed to make the leap to Hollywood, or, to be more precise, the Hollywood fringes.

Not to be confused with the current actor, this David Bradley (1920-1997) made the jump from 16mm to making Talk About a Stranger (1952), Dragstrip Riot (1958), 12 to the Moon (finished in 1959, released in 1960), and most famously The Madmen of Mandoras (1963), which was recut and retitled They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1968), thus ensuring Bradley‘s second-stage propulsion into infamy.

Having now finally seen the actual movie (instead of whatever was playing on my inner eyelids that early morning in 1967), 12 to the Moon was as static as I’d remembered it being (based on what little I saw of it), but far more curious than I’d ever suspected. Taken on its own oddball terms, and in the context of Bradley‘s body of work, it’s actually a fun little movie; even Marge enjoyed it, sort of, from a distance. She mocked it, but she kept asking what was going on. That’s a sign of enjoyment, of a kind.

First of all, you’ve got to give Bradley brownie points for positing an international mixed-gender space team in a 1950s Cold War sf movie released by a major studio, predating First Spaceship on Venus (Kurt Maetzig‘s East German/Polish Stanisław Lem adaptation Der schweigende Stern / Milcząca Gwiazda, 1960, released in the US in 1962*), pre-Ikarie XB-1 (Jindřich Polák‘s 1963 Czech sf gem released stateside as Voyage to the End of the Universe, 1964), and pre-Star Trek (1966). That alone makes this a notable curio, despite the relentless and often risible milking of those international stereotypes and malingering post-WW2 ire (see, the German astronaut—who is close to death, really—is the son of the concentration camp comandant who murdered the parents of the Jewish astronaut… oh, you’ll see, it’s very profound and moving and stilted and silly and pious and dramatic).

Bradley plays this diversity with po-faced earnestness from the opening roll-call introduction of his cast as they march aboard their ship. They file one by one through a claustrophobic staging area where two military officials meet/greet them while Francis X. Bushman‘s narrator introduces them by name to the audience, a procession capped by the embarrassing spectacle of the stiff-prick American leader of the expedition being seemingly incapable of making eye contact with anyone save the off-camera crew or lights. He ignores the on-camera greetings every other member of the team delivered to robotically shift his gaze to something more important—his patronizing lost leadership skills? The mission? The moon? The future?—way over there someplace, coming off as a prig and idiot, preparing us for the akimbo Bradley dramaturgy to come.

Best of all, pre-Jess Franco, there’s even a Dr. Orloff!

Now, let me talk about about how the movie itself outstrips my dim memories of my “dream version” when I lost track of the broadcast at age 12.

Well, for one thing, the movie is, well, dreamlike in and of itself, in its own stilted, sterile manner. It’s hard to articulate, really, and it’s arch in a way no other patented “bad film” kinetics I’ve ever seen approximate. Yes, there are laughable, absurdist elements (dig those crazy flags, baby) that are obvious and painful, but Bradley had his own artifice. As a director, he had a way of posing and isolating his cast members in stasis that still feels to me like sub-high-school theatrical staging: when two or more players have an exchange, they do so apart from not just the rest of the cast, but way off by themselves, over there, where the lens pinned them like formaldehyde-soaked specimens.

This makes even the most naturalistic of the actors (and three of them really do give their all, though it’s a hopeless endeavor) come off as overly mannered, and for those whose performances are completely divorced from reality, they seem to go through their motions in separate, hermetically-sealed compartments—and I’m talking about when they’re out of their astronaut gear and helmets, when they’re supposedly in the same cramped interior quarters together.

Consider, for instance, Bradley‘s nominal eleventh-hour “villain.” Even before his revelatory betrayal of all mankind, when the de rigueur saboteur foreign astronaut (no spoiler from moi!) speaks, he speaks and moves contained, compartmentalized, quarantined, as if in a chambered alcove of-but-not-of the single-room capsule—and when he has his big moment, he is fixed in the same gray cinematic amber, suddenly critical to, even as he remains apart from, the film’s own distinctive non-reality.

This fragmenting of the cinematic “space” (in all senses of the term, given the genre at work here) becomes rather compelling. It’s as if the isolation and miniaturization of the human face all space movies struggle with—the actors emoting through those tiny helmet faceplates (in comicbook terms, “inset panels” within the larger panel of the screen)—had become the pure distillation, the driving aesthetic, of the entire movie. Much like the Adolf-Hitler-head-in-a-bubble (Bill Freed) in Bradley‘s most infamous/available/often-screened movie, They Saved Hitler’s Brain, there’s something electrically weird and autistic and pure about this.

Had Bradley been able to recognize this aspect of his work, maybe do something, anything with it, some savvy critic would have called him Kubrickian by now, but he was incapable of mustering anything remotely inviting or intelligent in terms of conscious effects. Like Ed Wood, Phil Tucker (whose Robot Monster and especially Cape Canaveral Monsters I love), and Larry Buchanan, there was no pretense (save to relevance—the Israel/German conflict—and a false grandeur) or intent to deceive (save the illusory deceptions of special effects, however impoverished the means or results) at work. Bradley was honestly doing his best work as a storyteller here, doing what he did, in as straightforward a manner as he knew how. This was his moon shot: his best-ever shot. Really.

But it was and is an ongoing fragmentation of cinematic and emotional space, and once that fragmentation devolves into the usual staging-of-the-impossible-to-afford-on-Bradley‘s-budget pulp sf spectacles (i.e., the freezing of the ship, the deep-freezing of New York City, the deep-freezing of the continents, etc.) rendered non-spectacular on ever-tinier monitor screens, we’re in a looking-glass realm of overly-familiar-cheapjack-sf-movie terrain rendered, well, uncannily different than the usual genre trappings in ways I can’t describe.

It’s not alchemy—this shit never turns to gold—but it is fun, to me, and has its own whacked look and flavor.

More traditionally staged were the film’s lunar sequences, with the patented phoney moonscape antics (including lunar quicksand: oh, how we kids loved quicksand sequences in movies, particularly extraterrestrial quicksand) spiced with more dreamlike interludes.

Most dreamy of all was and is the disappearance of the male/female astronauts who explore the lunar cavern. I certainly wouldn’t have noticed it as a kid, but it’s by far the most human expression of the entire film, as they discard their helmets (the obligatory “hey-there’s-air-we-can-breathe-normally” scene) and suddenly, inexplicably, embrace and start necking. Now in heat, this bolt of unexpectedly adult lust propels them to run, hand-in-hand like teenage lovers, deeper into the cave (Freudians: take note), where they are swallowed by bright light and mist—and vanish from the narrative altogether. It’s the most evocative and ethereal moment in all Bradley‘s body of work.

When their expedition partners enter the cave (noting, but surprisingly unsurprised by, the discovery of their discarded helmets), they find only an impenetrable wall of ice where we saw the hot-to-trot-lovers enveloped by vapors.

If only something, anything more of this had infused the rest of the movie; if only we’d had a visual glimpse, a tease, of their eventual fate (we’re told, via the glyphs, about their fate—and their critical role in the finale—but again, no spoilers from me). Now, that’s the ending I still wish I could dream to 12 to the Moon and have stick.

However, I never dreamed the detail of the moon civilization wanting cats! Yes, the unseen selenites have an affection for cats. In fact, prior to letting the surviving astronauts depart the moon’s surface, the moon beings insist the two caged felines be left behind. This odd conceit fits so neatly into the whole loopy Cat Women of the Moon (1953) mythos—I just loved that touch.

As for Columbia‘s theatrical release of 12 to the Moon: it looks like it was pretty much dumped by the studio into perfunctory release, at best. Who can blame ‘em? It was then unceremoniously exiled to TV in record time, which is understandable, given the film.

Still, it did get theatrical play from a major studio player of the time—the best shot Bradley ever got, in fact. It was all downhill from the moon.

While the pressbook I’ve added to the collection at some point is a single pressbook promoting 12 to the Moon with the dire British The Electronic Monster (Escapement, 1958/1960, and, if memory serves, Richard Gordon had a hand in importing this movie to the US), apparently Columbia actually double-billed Bradley‘s black-and-white space opera with one of two other films. I can see it being a proper (if bleak) bottom-of-the-bill with the splashy Toho colorful space war epic 宇宙大戦争 / Uchū Daisensō / Battle in Outer Space (1959/1960), I can’t imagine how it would have unreeled after the infamous Terence Fisher/Hammer Films thugee death-cult historical melodrama…

12 to the Moon was quickly lost in the shuffle, relegated to one of the Columbia TV movie syndication packages. It only played once on late-night television—on CBC’s Science Fiction Theater on Monday nights, 12 midnight—in our northern Vermont region, and it’s absent from most of the TV movie guide reference books of the 1960s and 1970s, suffering the same broadcast limbo as its co-feature in some markets, Battle in Outer Space (which was tougher to find/see than even Gorath of all the Toho tokusatsu).

Still, seeing Bradley‘s opus at last, I was surprised at the relative production values and the film’s loopy rhythms, concepts, and conceits. It’s a very curious film on its own terms, and oddly rewarding. I’m glad I finally caught up with it; I like its aftertaste even more than the movie itself.

While typical of Bradley‘s low-budget efforts—the static posed shots, the maladroit exposition, emphatically overstated dialogue and dramaturgy, the narcotic repetition of effects—it is also atypically imaginative, even experimental. Yes, the refusal to show the inner-Moon civilization is a dodge—a cheap and cynical bait-and-switch ripoff—but it becomes rather evocative in Bradley‘s hands.

Best of all was and is the sequence in which the two youthful astronauts (the Brazilian and the Swede, natch) peel off their helmets, embrace, and passionately kiss before losing themselves in a suffocating blanket of fog seeping from the deeper lunar orifices. It’s jarring and hilarious, but it’s also an unusually bold, erotic explosion detonating not just in this one stodgy movie, but amid the entire calcified genre circa 1960 (particularly in its cheapjack space-age incarnations).

It’s the liveliest moment in the movie, and I wouldn’t have grocked it at all at age 12. Sure, “the moon men made them do it”—the moon and lovers always having been a dependable pop culture cliche—but it was, in its day, probably the only 1960 drive-in movie to acknowledge/mirror/invite what was going on in at least a few of the cars at the drive-in that night. “The hell with this stupid movie, let’s go screw in the back seat!”

It’s as if the couple didn’t just bolt off the cramped set of Bradley‘s movie—in plain view of the camera, and of the audience—to snatch a quick fuck in steamy seclusion, but as if they were impulsively bagging the whole smothering Eisenhower-era Cold War 1950s and all of the bullshit pristine ticky-tack space-race baggage to immediately go do something better and more real like, right now. 1960s, here we come!

Yes, it’s as clumsily staged as the rest of the whole damned movie.

But the sudden, recognizable, palpable human heat and abandonment to that passion in a deep-freeze vacuum is an eruption that’s still alluring and exquisite and dreamy and quite lovely in ways it shouldn’t be, but is.

It’s no ticket to the moon, but I’ll take it.

* I wrote about Der schweigende Stern / Milcząca Gwiazda / First Spaceship on Venus on the original Myrant blog:

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Swamp Thing® and ©DC Comics Inc/DC Entertainment Inc.; sketch art ©2012 Stephen R. Bissette. All other artwork and photographs © respective years by their respective proprietors, posted for educational and archival purposes only.


Discussion (6) ¬

  1. Mike Dobbs

    Siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh!

  2. Henry R. Kujawa

    For some reason, after reading your description of the couple going off to “get busy” right in the middle of a mission, I’m beginning to think the name “12 TO THE MOON” might be an in-joke. As, in 12″, etc. Then of course there’s “Moonie”, Nick Cuti’s character (click on my website link).

  3. Henry R. Kujawa

    “the worst episode of Lost in Space”

    Hmm. “A DAY AT THE ZOO” ? “SPACE BEAUTY” ? (note both of these feature Leonard Stone, who’s actually a good actor, who manages to do possibly the worst acting job in the entire 3 years of the show– and that’s really saying something!)

    “THE SPACE VIKINGS” ?
    “THE QUESTING BEAST” ?

    It’s gotta be one of those… (When I re-watched the one with Stanley Adams, I was shocked that, compared to several others, it actually wasn’t that bad!!)

  4. B Smith

    Hey, nothing wrong with “The Questing Beast” – about the only episode where Dr Smith shows genuine contrition for his actions, and actually does something for somebody else’s benefit for once. And anything with Hans Conried in it’s gotta be worth watching.

  5. Nancy A. Collins

    MST3K had 12 TO THE MOON as one of its ‘experiments’. I can’t imagine watching this thing sans puppets and riffing. All I remember about it is that the Moon People stole the Earthling’s cats.

  6. Mark Masztal

    The Spirits tour was a lot of fun. I still have my Tyrant beer bottles in my office and fond memories of driving him in the dark down those winding foggy roads.

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