Monday, May 21, 2018

Starcrash (Nat and Patrick Wachsberger Productions, 1978)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Yesterday afternoon there was a special screening at the Golden Hill site of the monthly Mars movie nights (http://marsmovieguide.com/) and the Vintage Sci-Fi screenings (http://sdvsf.org/) the third Friday and Saturday of each month, respectively: the proprietor decided to do a third one in a row and scheduled a matinee of two films proclaimed in advance as “Bad Movies.” They certainly lived up to that designation! The first was a 1978 Star Wars ripoff called … well, it’s uncertain whether the title is Star Crash (two words) or Starcrash (one word): Starcrash is what appears on the opening credits and how the film is listed on imdb.com, but the poster art says Star Crash and that’s how the proprietor of the Golden Hill screening promoted it. It’s another movie directed by Luigi Cozzi under the Anglo pseudonym “Lewis Coates,” and like Contamination, the 1980 “Coates” film shown last Friday, it’s a cheap ripoff of an American hit (Contamination was an obvious knock-off of Alien). Cozzi not only directed but also wrote the script with his co-producer, Nat Wachsberger (the other producer was Nat’s brother Patrick), whom I’d heard of only as the producer with whom Jerry Lewis famously butted heads on his 1982 production The Day the Clown Cried, whose plot premise — a famous clown incarcerated in Auschwitz during the Holocaust vainly tries to keep his fellow inmates amused until the Nazis knock them all off — anticipates the later hit Life Is Beautiful. 

The film features mostly a “C”-list cast of the era, including Marjoe Gortner (one of the odder celebrities thrown up by the 1970’s; his parents were traveling evangelists and they not only gave him an evangelical name — “Marjoe” is a mashup of “Mary” and “Joseph” — they trotted him out in front of revivals at age four and billed him as the world’s youngest evangelist, a career her pursued until the 1960’s, when he was sufficiently impressed by the youth culture in general and the hippies in particular that he shifted his message from fire-and-brimstone Christianity to peace-and-love Christianity, much to the disgust of his audiences — so he determined to do one last tour as a fire-and-brimstoner, have it filmed for a documentary, and then go for a secular career as an actor), Caroline Munro (though in the English dubbed version her voice was replaced by Candy Clark), David Hasselhoff and one genuinely important star, Christopher Plummer. The film opens in a spaceship being piloted by an android named Akton (Marjoe Gortner) and his human co-commander, Stella Star (Caroline Munro in some surprisingly skimpy outfits that show off her bod quite nicely), along with your usual tin-can robot whom I assumed was called “L” or “El” but is listed in the cast as “Elle” even though there’s nothing remotely feminine about him — neither in Judd Hamilton’s posture as he walks around in the black tin-can suit on screen or Hamilton Camp’s intonations as he supplies the voice on the soundtrack. 

The not-particularly-dynamic trio visit various planets and ultimately get embroiled in attempting to foil a plot by Count Zarth Arn (Joe Spinell) — as with the movie’s title, there’s confusion as to whether his last name is one word or two (it’s “Zarth Arn” in the opening credits and “Zartharn” in the closing ones) — who’s made up to look like a cross between Princess Leia and Shakespeare and who seems to have modeled his acting style on Vincent Price at his campiest. Zarth Arn is attempting to depose and kill the rightful Emperor (Christopher Plummer — one wonders how, just 13 years after The Sound of Music, his fortunes had fallen so low he had to take a job like this!) and also get rid of the Emperor’s son Simon (David Hasselhoff, who goes through most of the movie looking like he wished that talking car would come along and rescue him from it). In the end Elle gets disintegrated but is able to pull his parts back together, Akton also gets killed but isn’t so lucky as to be able to reassemble himself, the Count’s dastardly plot is defeated and the Emperor is restored to his rightful throne, while his son Simon and Stella Star are paired off. One other major name was associated with this film, composer John Barry, whose most famous piece is the “James Bond Theme” that’s been used in virtually all the Bond movies, and who wrote complete scores for most of the early Bonds. According to an imdb.com “Trivia” poster, the filmmakers carefully kept Barry from being able to watch any of the movie, lest he decide he didn’t want to be associated with something that dreadful and walk out of the project. 

Starcrash is one of those movies that starts out looking like it’s going to be a derivative but at least entertaining riff on someone else’s major film, but as it progresses (like a disease) it just gets sillier and sillier, and I got into an argument with one of the other audience members as to whether the dialogue by Cozzi (“Coates”), Wachsberger and R. A. Dillon was really as bad as it sounds or whether what made the film really awful was the porn-star style delivery of it by Gortner, Clark and Hasselhoff. Another imdb.com “Trivia” poster claims that in the later stages of the film they put more clothes on Caroline Munro to preserve the film’s PG rating — though there’s one later shot of her in an outfit that’s just a series of leather bands wrapped strategically around her, a scene that no doubt delighted the teenage straight boys that are the core audience for science-fiction films then and now!

Galaxina (Marimark Productions, Crown International Pictures, 1980)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The second film on the program, Galaxina, was so wretched it made Starcrash look like a neglected masterpiece by comparison! This time the principal culprit was writer, producer and director William Sachs, who made this movie for something called Marimark Productions (were his parents named Mary and Mark, and did he conjure up this name as a mashup the way Harvey and Bob Weinstein named Miramax after their parents, Miriam and Max?) in association with Crown International Pictures — once again confirming my general theory of bad cinema that especially awful movies come from studios with the word “International” in their names. The main interest in Galaxina comes from the actress — if, to quote Dwight Macdonald about Haya Harareet in Ben-Hur, I may use the term for courtesy — who plays the title role, a blonde robot who’s part of the crew of the space police patrol ship Infinity (which itself looks like a discarded dog bone). Her name was Dorothy R. Stratten, and she is considerably more famous for her tragic end than for anything she accomplished in her too-brief career. Born on February 28, 1960 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Stratten blossomed as a beauty in her teens and attracted the attention of a promoter named Paul Snider, who determined to make her first a Playboy centerfold and then a movie star. He got her into Playboy, which named her Playmate of the Year for 1979, and got her some parts in films like Americathon (1979) — a sadly underrated farce about a telethon held to rescue the U.S. from being totally broke — and Skatetown, U.S.A. as well as an episode of the TV series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Snider also married her but things didn’t go well between them: he came onto the set of Galaxina and harassed her.

Meanwhile, she had been cast by director Peter Bogdanovich in a semi-major film called They All Laughed, and she and Bogdanovich began an affair, which sent Snider into a jealous hissy-fit; he lured her to his apartment, tied her up, sexually assaulted her and killed her, then committed suicide. This tragedy became the subject of a quite good and tremendously underrated film by Bob Fosse, Star 80 (after the personalized license plate Snider had bought Stratten to predict she’d become a star in 1980, the year he actually killed her), and as with the few films made by Sharon Tate before she was butchered by Charles Manson’s “Family,” the macabre end of Stratten’s career has produced a cult around the few films she did live to make. The best thing that can be said for Galaxina was that Sachs deliberately intended it as a spoof of both Star Wars and Star Trek — though, to quote Dwight Macdonald again, this is one of those films that “in form and intent must be classified as comedies” even though, aside from a few modestly amusing lines here and there, the film contains nothing funny — at least nothing intentionally funny. From the moment we hear Avery Schreiber as starship commander Cornelius Butt (a name that in itself sums up William Sachs’s non-sense of humor!) intoning a “captain’s log” in the most sententious manner of William Shatner in the original Star Trek, we know what we’re in for: a film that’s way less funny than its creator clearly thought it was. The rest of the crew of the starship Infinity (in one of the film’s few genuine bits of wit, the crew members wear the infinity symbol as a patch on their uniforms) consists of Sergeant Thor (Stephen Macht, top-billed) and slacker Buzz (James David Hinton), and I must say these two guys did considerably more for me, uh, aesthetically than Marjoe Gortner and David Hasselhoff had in Starcrash. Two other crew members include Maurice (Lionel Mark Smith), who seems to have been designed as a cross between Mr. Spock and the Bat Boy from the Weekly World News; and Sam Wo (Tad Horino), who looks like Ho Chi Minh, constantly smokes what we presume to be an opium pipe, and delivers stupid-sounding aphorisms that just annoy the other people present.

As for Galaxina herself, she’s dressed in a white jumpsuit that does a good job of showing off the curves of Dorothy Stratten’s body and sits in a white swivel chair in which she revolves herself — that’s all she does for the first half of the film until she finally develops (or at least exhibits) the capacity to speak in mid-movie. Thereupon she and Sgt. Thor fall in love, if you can call it that — she throws herself at him but he’s disappointed because she doesn’t have a vagina (referred to with a lot of cutesy-poo euphemisms aimed at preserving the film’s PG rating and therefore its accessibility to the horny teenage straight guys who were obviously its target audience), though she explains that one can be added as an optional part for an extra fee, and when he bemoans that they can’t have kids she says, “Those are an option, too.” The big sequence is one in which our slacker heroes land on a planet that was originally an Australia-style exile for particularly obnoxious criminals — including the descendants of a motorcycle gang who congregate around the one bike they have left over and solemnly intone the praises of their god, “Harley David Son.” There’s also a gimmick in which the slacker heroes visit something billed as a “Human Restaurant” whose alien clientele is an obvious ripoff of the Cantina Bar scene in the original Star Wars — only they realize, almost too late, that humans aren’t the intended clientele but rather the bill of fare (a gag done far more subtly and frighteningly in the “To Serve Man” episode of the original Twilight Zone). Needless to say, since this is supposed to be at least in part a Star Wars spoof there has to be a Darth Vader analogue — he’s called “Ordric” and the only visible difference between him and the real deal is his costume is red instead of black (and like Darth Vader he’s played by two different people, Ronald Knight physically and Percy Rodrigues vocally).

The whole plot turns around the need of both the good and the bad guys to find the “Blue Star,” a stone of infinite power whose possession will make its owner the master of the universe (didn’t Wagner and Tolkien do that already with a ring?), which the good guys recover from the bad guys, only the rock-eating monster the Infinity crew had previously arrested and then released when they needed his help after the bad guys had imprisoned them takes the Blue Star and eats it. About the only good thing about Galaxina is that, bereft of enough money to commission an original score, Sachs decided to use pre-existing music, and for the first two-thirds one gets to hear some great classical music on the soundtrack. Some of it was familiar from previous (and far better!) science-fiction films, including Franz Liszt’s Les Prèludes (the principal theme from the third and last Universal Flash Gordon serial, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, though Sachs used a lot more of the piece than the makers of the Flash Gordon film did!) and the inevitable opening of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra (heard in a bizarre scene in which Commander Butt approaches the rest of his crew on a moving platform). The film also includes bits of Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, and two excerpts from Rossini’s last opera, William Tell: not only the concluding “Lone Ranger” theme from the opera’s overture but the aria “Selva opaca,” quite nicely sung on the soundtrack but mimed to on screen incongruously by a male puppet as part of an interstellar TV broadcast that also features clips from the 1962 film First Spaceship on Venus, another Crown International release (and it’s a tribute to the awfulness of Galaxina that compared to it, even First Spaceship on Venus looks like a masterpiece!). The best way to sum up Galaxina is to say I came to it with low expectations — and it disappointed even those!

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Contamination (Alex Cinematografica, Barthonia Film, Lisa-Film, 1980)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Over the past two nights I’ve been attending both the Mars movie nights (http://marsmovieguide.com/) and the Vintage Sci-Fi screenings (http://sdvsf.org/) in Golden Hill and, in addition to one pretty decent movie (Five Million Years to Earth) which I reviewed in a previous moviemagg blog post, I saw three of the God-awfullest films I’ve ever seen in my life — and the proprietor is promising two equally awful movies at a special screening this afternoon, Star Crash and Galaxina (which sounds like the Ford Motor Company decided to market a muscle car to women). The Friday night Mars movie screening included Five Million Years to Earth (a film I think is a bit overrated — at least until the final reel it’s Hammer Studios being unexpectedly Val Lewtonesque in keeping the menace off screen and suggesting its presence with sound effects and things like plates falling off shelves and walls shaking, but at the end they bring out a visible monster that looks like a piece of cotton candy floating in space — and it suffers from the self-imposed challenge for writer Nigel Kneale of making an interesting movie when virtually all of it takes place in confined spaces, either an office or a hole in the ground) and a 1980 Italian-German co-production called Contamination, whose producer, co-writer and director, billed as “Lewis Coates” but really Luigi Cozzi, frankly intended the movie to be seen as an unaIuthorized sequel to the 1979 film Alien and even originally called it Alien Arrives on Earth

This one begins in New York City, with the twin towers of the World Trade Center (you remember) vividly visible in the background, with the arrival of a derelict ship called the Caribbean Lady. The ship steams into New York harbor with no visible living crew members on board, and its only cargo is boxes of something called “Café UniverX” which is supposed to be coffee (the script makes a big deal about the “X” not only being capitalized but in a different font from the rest of the name). Only four guys in haz-mat suits (which at least meant the people who prepared the English-language edition could dub them easily without worrying about synchronizing lip movements, a task that eluded them when the film featured dialogue by people whose faces were visible) go into the ship’s hold and find its captain and three other crew members afflicted by a strange, hitherto unknown disease that literally blows up its victims’ organs from inside, Cozzi a.k.a. “Coates” having decided that if the famous scene in Alien in which the alien bursts out of the victim’s chest scared the living daylights out of millions of moviegoers around the world, he could go Ridley Scott one better and have a human’s entire guts blow up inside him and splatter blood and gore across the screen. Alas, even the first time this shot is too disgusting and gross to be genuinely scary, and it pales by repetition. 

The authorities eventually find out the reason this is happening is that those mysterious boxes contain, not coffee, but giant green pulsating things that look like enormous avocados (a comparison actually made in the dialogue) and, when they get warm, explode and release a silicon-based bacterium that causes humans to spill their guts — literally — and then croak. Three of the haz-mat guys die of the bacterium when one of the “eggs” (the term used for them through most of the movie even though one of the pickier scientist characters protests that it’s inaccurate) rolls under a radiator, which explodes it and starts the disease. The one who survives is a New York City police detective named Tony Aris (Marino Masé), and he teams up with the leader of the homeland security (or whatever they called it in 1980) team, Col. Stella Holmes (Louise Marleau, who actually turns in the film’s most interesting performance), to investigate the mysterious deaths and find out what’s up with that derelict ship and that oddball cargo. Col. Holmes ultimately traces it to a previous expedition in which two astronauts, Ian Hubbard (Ian McCulloch) and Hamilton (Siegfried Rauch), went to Mars — only Hubbard came back a drunken wreck and Hamilton disappeared and was presumed dead when his private plane crashed six months after he returned. Holmes and Aris find Hubbard and sober him up enough to accompany them on a trip to Colombia, where the “coffee” shipments originated, and they trace the UniverX plantation and find, predictably, it’s been turned into a giant operation to pack more eggs and send them out all over the world to annihilate the human population so the silicon-based beings who plotted all this out can take over Earth. 

What’s more, it turns out that Hamilton and his girlfriend and co-conspirator Perla de la Cruz (Gisela Hahn) are running the operation, and just when you begin to wonder why a human like Hamilton would be administering an operation that will render the human race extinct, his vocal register changes and it’s revealed he’s really one of the aliens who’s taken Hamilton’s form in order to lead the operation. Eventually the good guys are able to destroy the eggs either by freezing them or burning them up with a flame-thrower (a major plot hole; if the eggs are hatched by heating them, isn’t applying a flame thrower to them the last thing you’d want to do?), until at the very end it seems like earth is saved — until one of those horrible open-ended non-endings intervenes and we see, in sight of the World Trade Center, an egg on the streets of New York City exploding and spewing forth its bacteria. (This made me wonder why Luigi Cozzi didn’t return to this material after 9/11 and concoct a sequel in which the World Trade Center towers are brought down by alien bacteria and the aliens only fake it to look like a terror attack.) Contamination might have been a better movie if “Coates” and co-writer Erich Tomek hadn’t inserted all the gory scenes, if they hadn’t put in all the sexual (and sexist) by-play between Hubbard and Aris as to who would get to go to bed with Col. Holmes (neither, as it turned out — good for her! — though it was a bit disappointing to see Aris get eaten by one of the monsters in the closing scenes since I was hoping he would pair up with Holmes and Hubbard would fall back into his gutter), and if the whole thing hadn’t been beset by a typical bad-movie air of tackiness. It’s the sort of film that it’s hard to put your finger on just what went wrong, but nothing really goes right either.

The Wild, Wild Planet (Mercury Productions, Southern Cross, MGM, 1966)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi movies were along pretty much the same lines as Contamination, though at least they were considerably less gory. The first, The Wild, Wild Planet was also an Italian production, though the English dubbing was considerably better than it was for Contamination. This was made in 1966 and featured at least one actor who went on to at least some degree of international stardom: Franco Nero, billed fifth and playing “Jake,” a lieutenant in the commando brigade led by the film’s star, Tony Russell (some sources list his last name with just one “l” and he was almost certainly another Italian being billed under an Anglo name), playing Commander Mike Halstead. This was yet another story of an alien invader trying to destroy all life on Earth as we know it as a preface to colonization, though it had some intriguing aspects: the principal villain, Dr. Nurmi (Massimo Serato), is an executive with a mysterious corporation called “CBM” (for Chemical, Biological, Medical), and he’s masterminding bizarre experiments that basically involve the manufacture of synthetic humans, who come out of the mold the size of Barbie dolls and are then blown up to full human size in another set of molds. (The Barbie comparison was almost inevitable given that a member of Halstead’s squad is actually named “Ken” — played by Carlo Giustini, billed as “Charles Justin.”) 

Halstead is particularly put out because Nurmi and his agents have kidnapped his girlfriend, Lt. Connie Gomez (Lisa Gastini, who actually turns in the closest approximation to acting of anyone in this film), and he has sinister plans for her which he explains towards the end: “Soon she will be ready for the great moment when she and I will become one person; when my flesh will absorb hers. We will be one, one dual person. That will be the perfect combination of my work — the total fusion, the great moment.” (I couldn’t help but wonder how my Transgender friends would respond to this scene.) The film progresses (like a disease) to a climax taking place in a blood-soaked pool — the detritus of Nurmi’s previous experimental failures (much like the ones in Bela Lugosi’s Bowery at Midnight which tore him up at the end, ditto for Basil Rathbone in The Black Sleep, or the “thing in the closet” in The Brain That Wouldn’t Die) and the various spare human parts he’s accumulated (at least two of the creatures in this film look otherwise like normal humans but have four arms, courtesy of a skin-grafting process Nurmi has invented, which inevitably led me to joke, “That’s what happens when you have a mad scientist who’s also a practicing Hindu”) having soaked the water in blood — in which Halstead frees Connie and the bad guys get theirs, though apparently the film was made under a co-production deal between MGM and an Italian company called Southern Cross, and part of the deal was they made four films taking place in this universe at once. The others were called War of the Planets, War Between the Planets and Snow Devils, and are referred to as the “Gamma One Quadrilogy.” The idea that there are three other movies out there of such mind-numbing awfulness as this one beggars the mind. 

There is one genuinely cool thing about The Wild, Wild Planet: the model sets representing the future outpost at which most of the movie takes place, though among the most obvious models in the history of moviemaking (another of my MST3K-style jokes: “Special effects by the director’s 12-year-old son!”), are genuinely interesting and fun to look at. So are the cars in which the characters drive, which look something like Jetsons-style pods, though instead of actually flying they hover a few inches over the road, kept in that position by the air-based system that also propels them. Of course, director Antonio Margheriti (billed in the opening credits as “Anthony Dawson,” a name he used on quite a few of the U.S. releases of his films) can’t help but show us the little wheels that are actually supporting the cars in some shots, but still the effect is cool. Also a positive in this film is the musical score by a progressive rock group called “I Goblin” (though it’s unclear whether “I” is the English first-person singular pronoun or the Italian plural “and”), who sound like someone’s idea of a mashup between Led Zeppelin and Tangerine Dream and whom I wouldn’t mind hearing more of — indeed, The Wild, Wild Planet might be a better movie if they deleted the dlalogue, left the music and turned the whole thing into a 90-minute music video for I Goblin. Other than that, though, The Wild, Wild Planet is a silly movie which all too faithfully reproduces the conventions of James Bond movies (including their horrible sexism) and transmits them to outer space — in fact, I suspect that’s how “Dawson” and his writers, Ivan Reiner (no relation to Carl or Rob, I’m sure!) and Renato Moretti, got this green-lighted: “Hey, it’s James Bond as science fiction!”

They Came from Beyond Space (Amicus, 1967)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The last movie on the Vintage Sci-Fi lineup, They Came from Beyond Space, was by far the best of these three — though in this case “best” is strictly a relative term. It was a 1967 British production from Amicus Studios, a short-lived company that was trying to compete with Hammer and whose main coup was scoring the theatrical-film rights to the BBC series Doctor Who and making two reasonably appealing films of it with Peter Cushing as the Doctor (though, probably since they made Cushing a generic Earthling mad scientist instead of an alien Time Lord, these aren’t considered canonical by the Doctor Who cult). According to imdb.com, they shot this one as a double-bill partner with something called The Terrornauts and Freddie Francis, a Hammer refugee who directed both, said the company blew so much of the budget on The Terrornauts they had to do They Came from Beyond Space on the ultra-cheap. The story begins with a meteor shower from outer space that lands on earth in a perfect “V” formation, and to their credit the authorities, instead of denying the obvious for several reels as they usually do in films like this, immediately conclude that the “meteors” are actually craft from outer space, though where they’re from and what they’re doing remain a mystery. Super-scientist Dr. Curtis Temple (Robert Hutton, a better actor than usual in roles like this) wants to go to the deserted field in Cornwall where the things from beyond space landed, only because of a car crash (his hobby is collecting and restoring antique cars and he drives a beautiful 1920’s-era Bentley through most of the film) he’s got a silver plate in his head and his doctor refuses him permission to go. 

So the delegation is led by his assistant and girlfriend, Lee Mason (Jennifer Jayne, who once again, like the female leads in Contamination and The Wild, Wild Planet, turns in the film’s best performance), only when they get to the site where the spacecraft landed she and everyone else in the crew are taken over and put under mind control by the aliens who launched them. So Temple decides to go out to the site himself, and it turns out he’s shielded from the aliens’ mind-control gimmick by the silver plate in his head. He’s there to investigate why the aliens — or, rather, the human scientists under alien control — have requisitioned heavy-duty construction items and are building a huge factory on the deserted Johnson farm. (They’ve also mind-controlled a local banker into approving their loan request for a million pounds.) It turns out they’re from the moon — or at least that’s where they’re based: they actually come from a planet named Zaad in another system, only they developed their mental powers to such an extent that they were able to dispense with their bodies altogether and become pure mental energy. Alas, as anyone who’d seen Forbidden Planet (which was obviously on the watch list of this film’s writers, Milton Subotsky and Joseph Millard — Subotsky wrote the script from Millard’s source novel, which had the far more engaging title The Gods Hate Kansas — along with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the original Invaders from Mars and even The 27th Day) would know, turning yourselves into pure mental energy has its downsides. In this case, the downside is that the aliens have become excessively bored and they’re now beaming themselves around the universe trying to find a planet where they can take the form of the native population, colonize it and regain normal corporeal form so they can die. To do this, they start a plague on earth that appears to kill everyone it infects — though they then revive them and turn them into slave labor in the big factory they’ve built almost literally overnight on the Johnson farm — and they also launch a rocket to and from their base on the moon where they take the bodies of the plague victims and revive them to be their workforce, and where the “Master of the Moon” (Michael Gough, the only member of this cast I’d ever heard of before), their leader, has his base of operations. 

They’ve also taken over Lee Mason and turned her into their straw boss on Earth, and of course this makes Temple determined to defeat the aliens and return his main squeeze to normal humanity. That he succeeds in this was actually somewhat disappointing to me since there’s a subsidiary character, a platinum-haired woman gas-station attendant near the Johnson farm (she isn’t given a name in the film but she’s played by the appealing Luanshya Greer) who practically rapes him when he comes in to get gas for that cool 1920’s Bentley and whom I thought was being set up to become his new girlfriend after the old one got killed while still under alien possession. It seems that silver is the one shield against the aliens’ mind-control system and also that the ray gun the alien-controlled humans have been carrying (and which Temple misses several opportunities to steal from the people carrying them until it finally occurs to him to grab one) is actually harmless to humans — it merely stuns them — but deadly to the aliens, and if it’s fired at an alien-controlled human the human will become unconscious but will quickly wake and be free of the alien influence. Through the use of this weapon Temple and his assistant Richard Arden (Bernard Kay) are able to liberate Lee and the others on the Johnson farm from the aliens, though they also end up trapped on the rocket to the moon, where in a 27th Day-ish finish Temple tells the aliens that if they had just come to the leaders of the earth with their problem and offered to live with us in peace instead of trying world conquest, we would have said yes and helped them with their plight. Michael Gough’s character makes a brief reference to the history of human wars as a reason why that didn’t occur to them, but he doesn’t argue the point very long and the film creaks to one of the most unbelievable “happy” endings in the history of cinema. They Came from Beyond Space is a dorky title and a pretty mediocre film, but after Contamination and The Wild, Wild Planet “mediocre” was a definite step up!

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Five Million Years to Earth, a.k.a. Quatermass and the Pit (Hammer, 20th Century-Fox, 1967)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Mars movie screening (http://marsmovieguide.com/) consisted of two films of quite different levels of artistic interest and quality. The first was a 1967 production from Hammer Films called … well, in its native Britain it was called Quatermass and the Pit, but in the U.S. it was retitled Five Million Years to Earth. The reason for the title change was it was actually based on the third of four British TV miniseries written by Nigel Kneale and based on the character of Professor Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir), an annoying know-it-all who specializes in investigating whatsis’s and whatnots from outer space. The series began with The Quatermass Experiment in 1955 and that got turned into a film — as did its immediate sequel — with U.S. actor Brian Donlevy as Quatermass. Though Kneale had to wait nine years for this set of TV scripts to be turned into a movie (the first two Quatermass serials had been filmed within a year or two after the TV versions), he said it was the first film he’d actually liked because he though Andrew Keir a far better Quatermass than Donlevy, whom he described as an old U.S. character actor who was a hopeless alcoholic by the time the Quatermass films were made. (Incidentally I’d always assumed the name was pronounced like the word “quarter” with the first “r” removed, but the people in the movie pronounce the first two syllables to rhyme with “crater” — to my mind a much less attractive sound.) I must admit to a certain prejudice against this movie because of the circumstances under which I first saw it — it was double-billed with another Hammer production, a pretty standard sword-and-sandals film called The Viking Queen (which I liked better then but probably wouldn’t now), and my mom, my brother and I walked in on Five Million Years to Earth in the middle, tried to make heads or tails of what was going on, and ultimately tried the old trick of staying long enough through the next showing at least to see what we’d missed — and this is decidedly not a film that works seen out of sequence. 

In sequence, it seems a mixed bag, a surprising attempt given Hammer’s usual orientation (which was to take the old Universal monster movies and up both the sex and the gore) to do a Val Lewton-style chiller in which, at least until the end, the menace is unseen. The plot is about a group of workers at the Hobbs Lane subway station in London who are digging tunnels for an extension of the line until they uncover what look like human remains — only they’re not human: they’re ape-men who inhabited the planet five million years previously and they have much larger skulls than any known hominids, living or fossil, which presumably means they had bigger brains. The subway workers keep digging until they find a solid object that at first they believe — and the authorities concur — is a leftover bomb from World War II. But eventually they realize that it’s actually a spaceship and the ape-men were either the inhabitants of the ship from another planet or the aliens jump-started evolution and we’re the result. This is classed as a Mars movie because that’s supposedly where the aliens came from originally — the theory being that they could transport themselves between the planets but lacked the technology to make it here from another solar system — and while much of it is just people arguing either at the site of the excavation or in offices (Quatermass’s particular bane is British army colonel Breen, played by Julian Glover, who insists on treating the site as a bomb threat even when it’s apparent to virtually everyone else in the movie that it’s more than that), there are some quite good effects in which the evil energy lurking around the site makes the walls shake, blows crockery off shelves (in one scene a bartender serves Quatermass a whiskey in a coffee cup and apologizes, saying that the whatsit has broken all his good glasses) and in general menaces the surrounding population while itself remaining invisible. 

Unfortunately, though Kneale wrote the script himself and Roy Ward Baker (whose presence puts everyone in this cast one degree of separation from Marilyn Monroe; her first top-billed movie, 1952’s Don’t Bother to Knock, was directed by Baker) directed (quite effectively, given how much of this film takes place in tightly enclosed spaces), the “suits” at Hammer couldn’t resist a full-bore visible monster in the final reel, something which looks like a piece of cotton candy floating in mid-air and which is annihilated by one of the film’s leads, anthropologist Dr. Matthew Roney (James Donald, top-billed), when he smashes a construction crane into it, though apparently at the cost of his own life. Five Million Years to Earth is a difficult film to evaluate because it’s obviously trying so hard to be subtle, to be different, to be something beyond Hammer’s normal fare at the time — but at the same time it’s awfully dull through much of the running time and the human conflicts are pretty stock for this sort of drama (science vs. duty, and also the sexual conflicts involved since there’s one token woman in the dramatis personae, Barbara Judd, played by Barbara Shelley, though she comes off pretty much as just “one of the boys” instead of a possible romantic or sexual crush object). It’s a movie that still doesn’t work for me even though I liked it a lot better than I had the first time around!

Friday, May 18, 2018

Hitler’s England (British and American Public Television, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night at 10 p.m. I watched a fascinating British documentary from their History series, “Hitler’s England,” about the German occupation of the British Channel Islands, a small archipelago about 14 miles from the British coast across the English Channel (and therefore actually closer, geographically, to France than Britain, which may explain why a lot of the Channel Islanders have French-sounding names — including Bob Le Sueur, the principal interviewee). In 1940 the Nazis landed troops on the Channel Islands — Jersey, Guernsey, Sark and Aldoney — which then, as now, had an anomalous status politically: though they were under the direct sovereignty of the British Crown they were not officially part of the United Kingdom. Even someone as stalwart as Winston Churchill realized early on that the Channel Islands were indefensible and allowed the German armies to march in there (or fly in on transport planes small enough for the Jersey and Guernsey airports to accommodate them) and take over. For the first two years, 1940 to 1942, the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands was actually relatively humane — the Germans put a decent and sympathetic general in charge, life on the islands (best known for their farm products and the famous Jersey and Guernsey cattle) went on pretty much as before, and the 18 Jews left on the islands after most of them were evacuated to Britain itself were mostly left alone — but in 1942 Hitler and his crew turned up the screws on the islanders.

One young Jewish woman named Theresa Schmidt suffered the wretched luck of being on Guernsey when the occupation started; she was working as a nanny for a well-to-do British couple and they fled on one of the last boats from the islands back to the official U.K., but Theresa was ineligible because she was Austrian, and since the Nazi Anschluss of 1938 the British had considered Austria legally part of Germany, so poor Theresa was declared an “enemy alien” and marked for deportation. She ended up in Auschwitz and survived about a year there before disappearing from the records, presumably worked to death as a slave laborer and then dumped in one of the infamous ovens. The Nazis’ change of attitude towards the Channel Islanders was fallout from Hitler’s decision in 1941 to invade the Soviet Union and seek Lebensraum (“living space”) for the Germans by expropriating and slaughtering the supposedly genetically inferior Slavs — though it’s not mentioned in this program, Hitler never wanted to be at war with Britain because he regarded the Brits, along with Germans and Scandinavians, as part of his mythical Aryan “master race” — while at the same time he ordered the creation of the Atlantic Wall, a network of mass fortifications stretching across the coast from Denmark to the border between France and Spain. Since there weren’t enough physical resources or willing workers to build the giant forts Hitler had in mind, he impressed Russian prisoners of war into service as slave laborers and shipped them to, among other places, the Channel Islands, where because of their proximity to France he intended to make them one of the bulwarks of his defense against an Allied invasion. It was the arrival of the Russians — near-death, many wearing rags on their feet instead of shoes in a cold English Channel winter, and forced to labor on these insane fortifications through which Hitler, like other dictators before and since, thought he could permanently wall himself off from his enemies — that awoke the Channel Islanders to what the war and the Nazis were really like.

The show, hosted by Midsomer Murders star John Nettles — who’s also an historian who’s written a book about the Channel Islands occupation, Jewels and Jackboots, and who got interested in the history of the Channel Islands because his previous detective series, Bergerac (1981-1991), was set there (and the program showed a still of him from 1991 that made him look quite sexy and hot, far from the rumpled “British Columbo” he appeared as in Midsomer Murders) — interviewed quite a number of survivors from the occupation days, including Molly Bihet (who wrote her own memoir called A Child’s War), Thomas Renfrey (among a number of Channel Islanders who were forcibly taken to Germany and interned there, where they remained for about two years until the Allies won the overall war and liberated them) and Werner and Phyllis Rung — she was a nurse on the island and he was a German medic; they met when he had to treat her for tonsillitis and after the war they re-met in 1947 and eventually married (and they’re both still alive, still together and were jointly interviewed even though he, despite having been married to a British woman for 70 years, still barely knows English and had to be interviewed in German with a voice-over translation). To say this is a little-known chapter in the history of World War II would be an understatement — I’d never heard of it before and even Charles had known that the tiny island of Sark had been occupied but hadn’t known that about the relatively larger Jersey and Guernsey — yet it’s also a fascinating one and shows how it really was a world war, reaching into even the remotest places where people were used to just being left alone!