Highlands & Islands

Space oddities: Scotland's influence on 50s US B-movies

The British Film Institute's new Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder season will see more than 1,000 screenings at more than 200 venues across the UK from now until December.

Two of the features on the programme - The Man From Planet X and Devil Girl From Mars - will be shown at Inverness' Eden Court.

Made in the 1950s, the black and white B-movies were set in the Scottish Highlands but shot on small budgets in the US.

Prof Barry Grant, of Canada's Brock University and an expert on the sci-fi genre, says the films have gained a cult status more than 60 years after they were first shown in cinemas.

Image copyright BFI

The Man from Planet X was directed by Edgar G Ulmer, who had earlier made 1945 thriller Detour starring Tom Neal.

Released in 1951, Planet X's plot involves a remote Scottish island where a professor is observing a mysterious planet that has appeared close to Earth.

A spaceship lands on the island from Planet X and from the craft emerges an alien seeking contact with Earthlings. However, another scientist has an evil plan to exploit the strange visitor.

The cast includes Margaret Field, the late mother of Oscar-winning actress Sally Field - star of Forrest Gump, Lincoln and The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

Image copyright Bfi

"Director Edgar G Ulmer is widely regarded for his ability to make the most of his small budgets, a method of working he deliberately chose," says Prof Grant.

Some of the backdrops for the B-movie were leftovers from the 1948 production of Joan of Arc.

Prof Grant adds: "In Man From Planet X, shot in only six days, Ulmer infuses his Highlands setting with a genuinely spooky atmosphere.

"The chiaroscuro lighting of the eponymous alien is chillingly effective.

"And most importantly, the film offers a thoughtful depiction of alien contact along with a telling critique of the human side of that encounter.

Image copyright BFI

"The Man from Planet X definitely rises above the campy fun of Devil Girl from Mars." says Prof Grant.

Directed by David MacDonald and released in 1954, it stars Nyah "a statuesque, leather-clad woman from another world".

The Martian and her robot familiar land near a small Scottish town with the aim of boosting the Red Planet's dramatically declining male population with Highlanders.

But she finds the Scotsmen reluctant to travel to with her to Mars, and the local women unwilling to let them go without a fight.

Image copyright BFI

"Given their small budgets, neither Man From Planet X or Devil Girl From Mars was filmed on location in the Scottish Highlands," says Prof Grant.

"The Highlands are merely invoked as an eerie if not exotic location, the kind of vaguely mysterious and wild place out of which the likes of Lon Chaney Jr (star of 1941's The Wolf Man) might spring under a full moon.

"Despite being made on small budgets, both movies have a cult reputation."

Close encounters of the tartan kind

Scotland has continued to feature in alien-themed TV and film plots since the 1950s' B-movies.

The country's landscape has been the backdrop to everything from Doctor Who to big budget Hollywood movies.

Image copyright film promo
Image caption Scarlett Johansson played an alien in Under the Skin

Under the Skin, released in 2013 and starring Scarlett Johansson, was based on a novel of the same name by Highlands-based author Michel Faber.

With Johansson playing an alien, scenes were shot in Glencoe and Glasgow.

Scenes for the Ridley Scott-directed 2012 sci-fi Prometheus, starring Michael Fassbender and Charlize Theron, were shot on Skye.

And in 1975's four-part Doctor Who - Terror of the Zygons - aliens living in the depths of Loch Ness are conspiring to take over Earth.

Image caption Tom Baker as Doctor Who in Terror of the Zygons

Away from television and film, Scotland has forged links with Mars.

In October 2012, the small Scottish community of Glenelg was twinned with its namesake on the Red Planet.

Nasa's roving robotic laboratory, Curiosity, was at the time headed for a geological feature on Mars called Glenelg.

Back on Earth, residents of Glenelg in the west Highlands held celebrations, which included the twinning ceremony and a ceilidh.

Image copyright BFI

The Man from Planet X and Devil Girl from Mars will be shown as a double feature at Eden Court on 14 December.

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