Speech Act Theory as expressed in How to Do Things with Words by J.L. Austin is the idea that language is actually a mode of action rather than just a means of communication. Constative language conveys information and are either true or false. “The cat is black.” Is a constative use of language. We call language that serves as a mode of action Performative language. This is language that causes something to happen by making assertions. The act of making the assertion is the same as performing the act. For example, “You’re Fired.” Is the same act as firing someone.
Now what does all this have to do with a 1950’s horror movie? I’m glad you asked. Phantom from Space is a pretty run of the mill 50’s sci-fi flick made on what looks like a buck fifty with a few nicely done special effects. The gimmick of this film is a little different and it has the saddest ending of all the 50s flicks I’ve ever seen. An alien comes to Earth and people die. He gets chased and we soon learn out of his space suit he is invisible. He’s just trying to get his helmet back so he can breathe! Spoiler: The friggin guy dies at the end and it’s pretty pathetic. But the whole film he keeps tapping out this code in an attempt to communicate something. Even in the end as the small cast hover watching him gasping for his last breathe, they notice he is trying to convey something verbally, but they can’t hear him. The dog with them reacts as though he can hear something, but they try tapping out his code in an attempt to communicate. But it’s all to no avail as the alien falls dead due to lack of breathable atmosphere. Of course when he dies, he becomes visible and looks like an albino body builder. (Frustrating note: the meaning of the tapping code is never figured out.)
There’s a lot of miscommunication in this film and while the alien’s speech acts are communicative they are also performative. The humans attempt multiple interpretations, but fail in the end. The other speech act in the film that sparks my interest is the determination of every single character to avoid committing to saying they are dealing with an alien from outer space. Nobody seems to want to be the one to say it out loud for fear of being thought crazy. As if the act of saying it in a constative way makes it so, a reality they are not prepared to accept or even deal with.
For me that makes this C movie a little more interesting.