Post-shamanic Jungian psychedelic cinema criticism, from silents to screaming...

Monday, March 30, 2020

Slide, Vaquero! SHIP OF MONSTERS (1960)

It's spring in the pre-or-post disease era and, if you love bizarre old classic sci-fi musicals, time to crack open the YouTube and dive into my weirdest/best Mexican cinema discovery since La Maldicion del la Llorona (1963). Long unavailable on DVD, in English either dub or subtitles, it's now got quite legible subtitles on El Youtube -aqui!

For fans of classic matinee sci-fi/horror who'd rather have va-voom classic sex appeal in their sci-fi western comedies, rather than hokey Gene Autrey tunes (as one finds in that hokey 1935 serial The Phantom Empire - which is actually the closest thing this film has to a hermano), Mexico delivers Rogelio Gonzalez's Ship of Monsters. The plot: two glamorous Venusians coming home from a long quest rounding up fit male specimens from the galaxy to repopulate their female-only planet, make an emergency landing in Chihuahua, Mexico for their robot to make repairs. Perhaps you've guessed the rest. A freewheeling vaquero wins one of their hearts with his songs? Si, naturalmente, claro! 

I won't bore you with a list of the legion of 50s comedians who've gone to the moon or Venus to find all sorts of babes suffering from an extreme hombre shortage. Everyone from the Stooges to Abbot and Costello to Sonny Tufts went up to space and tangled with them. And that's the key difference - the ladies come here and meet the fabulous singing vaquero Eulalio González! Ay dios mio!  Pipporro! And he's cool!

Possessing a genuinely disarming smile, a naturalness in his awed reactions, a dewy twinkle in his dark glassy eyes, and a gently lilting yet masculine baritone voice that deepens to a questioning smolder at the end of every sentence, "Pipporro" also has a great kind of hippity-hop Elvis tango dance style that smolders while still being funny. An inexplicable juke box in his kitchen provides the instrumental back-up to his songs, which he performs to the agog wonderment of his alien women visitors (while their robot plays with his little brother outdoors). Gonzalez shows a great way with each of the ladies in turn: he's passionate, smitten, confident, and a little confused with the nice one; flattered but firm in his 'no!' to the one who comes onto him when the other leaves, and who then transforms into an evil vampiress and frees the monsters from their frozen cave hiding place to run amok. He holds fast. If a spark flies, it's true love and worth being faithful for even if you just met them both at the same time. I never understood why Flash would turn down Aura when Dale is just some blonde earth woman he barely met an hour earlier.. until now. Pipporro helps me understand

Ana Bertha Lepe is Gamma (the good one) and Lorena Velázquez is Beta, the bad one (she played many vampires and wrestling women in the course of her illustrious career, battling everyone from Santos to the Aztec Mummy). These ex-Miss Mexico beauty queens wield ray guns and rock tight-fitting uniforms and generally strut about the Chihuahua flats and into Pipporro's life in a way that puts most American beauties to shame. The alien monster male samples kept on ice from other planets are each unique and cleverly-if-cheaply--constructed. All are done with a mix of fourth grade art class-level papier mache and giddy ballsy passion. And they talk! They make rational decisions, and can make love as easily as they kill. Even a sabre tooth tiger skeleton man gets his opinion considered (and has a great Tom Waits-style croak of a voice). But the alien girls are always in control, able to pause Emilio in mid sentence to check up on the words he uses that they don't understand, accessing what we in our futuristic world might call Alexa reading from Wikipedia. My favorite line is when the narrator of the video they're watching on their laptop to learn about Mexico notes (while showing scenic travel footage) that's it's a lovely country and "for all they've tried, the Mexicans haven't been able to destroy it."

I have fallen in love with this film so much I don't even mind that Lauriano (Gonzalez's character's name) has a little brother, Chuy, (Herberto Davila, Jr) with whom he lives alone on a big ranch outside Chihuahua. I generally can't stand sci-fi films set in southern climates as they always have cute impish kids in them, but Chuy is no imp who should be in school instead of acting as guide for the American hero. Chuy is an able assistant around the ranch, going off to play with the robot when the talk gets adult but when the monsters fly into action, Chuy even tackles and kills one of the monsters all by himself with the fury of one of the kids in Over the Edge or The Bad News Bears! Imagine Abbott and Costello doing anything but running in a similar situation and you begin to understand what the males of America are up against. And these two women aren't afraid to either kick ass or make love to the monsters right there on camera. This has to be sexiest film presumably aimed at a younger audience since Young Frankenstein.

That's basically all there is... what else... hmm, some outfits worthy of Artist and Models (I could see this film as a collaboration between Tashlin and Bunuel) and some lovely female flesh on display--but each woman is resourceful, intelligent, strong and assertive. There's never a thought of turning the good one into a household drudge at the end, someone to gratefully darn the boys' socks and make the chiles. No, amigo. Would it was available on one of those great discs from the (now sadly defunct) La Casa Negra DVD label. Or, ideally, Criterion!

Man, am I losing my mind? I've been watching Tarkovsky, Godard, and Suzuki on Criterion too. I swear ta god: I'm fancy. I'm a highfalutin' intellectual.  Criterion should have me do one of their "Adventures in Moviegoing" collections. I'd frickin' nail it.  Ship of Monsters - front and center. This is Erich saying, I'm losing my mind. 

Friday, March 20, 2020

Gettin' Ripped: Luigi Cozzi's PAGANINI HORROR (1989) on Blu-ray

If ever there was a time to order Blu-rays of things you want to see on your desert island after civilization's you-know-what, it's the canon of Luigi "The Italian Ed Wood" Cozzi, which is now all available from one label or another. I've already blathered praise for his two masterworks Starcrash and Hercules. And now the lunatic eye slash-cum-time warp-devil-dipped and Pleasance-lipped slippery dippy house bash, Paganini Horror (1989) is available on a stunning Blu-ray (via Severin). In our terrifying times, don't we need to laugh at Italian versions of our basest music class fears, to see them bounced hurly burly into cosmic prisms? Shan't we a universe where time loops are illustrated by giant floating hourglasses and spray-painted equations a-go? It's about time, literally, figuratively and obsessively. Now let the music play.

Maybe you saw the cover for this weird Italian gem, with the skeleton playing violin (left) and drew some cheap late-80s punk (the late-80s Italian kind, ala Ghosthouse -which Cozzi almost directed)-meets-slasher opinion about it. Maybe you figured it would be the usual tactless ladle of topless broads and denim-jacketed idiots offed gorily in some house where money for the electric bill grows on trees. Your conclusions couldn't be more wrong. Busto Arsizio's favorite son delivers all his usual tropes and tics: plenty of strong women in spandex and wild hair, planetary shifts, portentous gazes that lead to nothing; lasers and wild light effects, godawful dubbing, spiritual homage-paying (the spirits of Jack Kirby, Ray Harryhausen, Alex Raymond, and Bernie Krigstein all watch over Cozzi's shoulder in numb surprise)... Man, I am talking myself into watching this all over again.... Again? Hmmm? 

Bad in many ways but never dull or unpleasant or lacking for color, it reaches a climax at around three minutes in and just keep building from there until we're out in space, riding cosmic hourglasses to the moon. Dario Nicolodi gets star billing as Sylvia, the owner of the fabled "House in the Key of G", which she rents out for--in this case--a music video shoot for "Paganini Horror" the new song based on the mysterious last piece of written music by our titular virtuoso. Nicolodi announces Paganini conducted black mass rituals there back in the 19th century; he disemboweled his bride and used her intestines as strings for his Stradivarius. And that's how he hit those weird notes only he could hit. Now we know! Lead singer Kate  (Jasmin Maimone) exclaims that this will be "like Michael Jackson's Thriller!"Manager Lavinia (Maria Cristina Mastrangeli) hires Argento-style horror maven Mark Singer (Pietro Genuardi) who hangs white sheets around, spray paints the words "Paganini Horror" and puts the hot bassist Rita in a devil mask. And did I mention the All-seeing eye lamp, and the candles? There's a mention of mannequins, but we don't see near enough.

Alas, the most beautiful bassist in all the world, Rita (Luana Ravegnini), is the first to die, and that's my biggest issue with this film. Why her?  Why not literally anyone else? It seems very spiteful of our murdering Paganini. The doe-eyed assistant manager is next. And if we thought it would be one of those lure-and-slash tales, where everyone is knocked over like dominos, we're soon proven wrong. Holes opening up under people's feet, electric energy pulses through those who fall into it.. Albert Einstein looks on, balefully, from a tacked-up poster; electric shocks zap anyone who tries to escape the house... of Paganini! As for that final piece of music, well, no one ever called composer Vince Tempura a modern Paganini to his face; he does okay with the non-diegetic part of the score, not so much the Paganini-attributed song the band plays (If Paganini is the Jimi Page of his era, it would be the theme from Death Wish II).

Naturally the knife his spirit uses has to off the band has a treble clef-shaped handle. It's Cozzi! Naturally there's a cello case coffin and our heroine burns up in it. Not all of the characters die from being stabbed by a steel-hipped Stradivarius: guitarist Elena (Michel Klipstein) gets infected by "a special fungus... like they discovered in the 1800s, on logs... floating along...  certain European rivers, notes Lavania, "wood that was used to make a special kind of violin, the Stradivarius." Elena becomes a hideous fungus-covered monster, Lavinia says "this is the fungus, for sure... I saw it... magnified... in a TV documentary." Music is magic. Though parts drag and there are too many stairs, we get way more with Paganini Horror than you might expect from such a simple and familiar set-up.

If a film professor tells you that when childhood flashbacks occur in red bathrooms
 it symbolizes the uterus, kill them instantly.
We open on the ominous synth notes dotting along as a strange young girl rides up a foggy Venice canal, her violin in her hand and the look of satanic royalty in the way she sits, centered with the violin case in her lap and an evil confident look on her face, the prow of the boat like the tip of some kind of fast moving sea serpent, snaking through the lonely mist as Vince Tempera's soundtrack pulses like Tangerine Dream. At home, amidst her collection of weird dolls, the music echoes with vocals, the girl picks up a Barbie-sized doll with a brown skull face and long white hair (a ringer for the Paganini spirit to come) and stirs mom's bath with it. A stark red wall is behind them...

After the untimely death of the bassist with the best hair, performance, form, grace and make-up of the bunch, the most unconscionable choice is that Donald Pleasance is dubbed by someone else!! His replacement does an okay enough job - especially in his rant about demons when he climbs up to the top of an under-reconstruction clock tower in Venice and throws all the money he got for the Paganini score to the wind. Watching Pleasance try to keep a straight face while talking to money ("fly away, demons, so the real ones can take your place... so what happens with Paganini will repeat itself.... extracted by the one to whom it belongs, his majesty, Satan!") makes for a pretty well modulated rant, but what's the point of even having him in a film if not for that deliciously silkenly seismographic voice?

The dubbing is pretty bad in both versions. Dubbig seems to be Cozzi's Achilles' heel. He seems to have no interest in it, being too busy down the hall painting laser effects onto the celluloid. The result is that kind of lazy mixing where everyone sounds like they're right up on the mic in a quiet sound booth rather than out in the actual environment depicted. Oh well, that's just part of the Cozzi effect. One side effect of it all is the hilarious near-constant screaming of his nearly all-female cast. There is so much that the actresses seem to be running out of breath, their screams trail off, like they're barely trying to keep a straight face, both in the dubbing and the image, running out of wind, the way a child whose been crying for hours starts to almost riff with their crying voice. Is Cozzi making them laugh too much or have they just lost interest?

But what a journey to get to that point! What saves it all and makes it a true gem is the real palpable love and respect for the genre, for strong women characters, and for movie making. It translates to the screen. When Ravegnini and the other girl band members gaze into the camera for their music video, you can tell they're feeling safe and part of the pack, they're not taking it very seriously but they love it. Franco Lecca's deep yellow and red-accented cinematography makes everyone seem lovely with natural skin color (rather than the ghastly pale or gaudy tan we sometimes get in Italian horror films) and Spanish style architecture captured in burnished oranges and browns. Too bad when they go outside it's all bad day-for-night that makes everyone look purple and green. Why?

Ugh, why, Paganini, why kill Rita first? Why not get Pleasance to do his own dub? Why the bad day-for-night? Why the bad vibe end?

Irregardless, there are still enough gateways to other dimensions and strange doorways and all the other trimmings to make six ordinary movies, even if full half the film is just one girl or the other walking up and down stairs and down halls, or screaming. The insane dialogue, terrible dubbing and wacky insanity is all there. We can't blame the master if some turkey who didn't get it took out all the cosmic cutaways. We sure can wish for a full restored director's cut. Wishing is free.


There's a nice interview with Cozzi at his sci-fi store; and the footage excised by the producer fills in a lot of the blanks we don't get and would there was a copy with all the original shots (love the hourglasses floating in space) and an explanation of why that kid would shell out a bag of money to some sinister Hobbes Lane type for an alleged authentic Paganini score.

Anyway, Severin has done wonders with what they got (Did the color grading just give out for the exterior shots, or was it supposed to look like that? Am I quibbling) All we need now from Severin (here's hoping it's coming soon) is Cozzi's unofficial meta-Suspiria-sequel (recently re-available on Prime), The Black Cat (aka Demons 6: Anus Profundis) from 1990. The Prime copy is full frame and from video, but there must be a better source!

And while we're on the subject, what about that crazy shot-on-video quasi-autobiographical Blood on Melies' Moon? I saw a clip wherein the great one himself ruminates in his bedroom about coming to terms with being labeled "The Italian Ed Wood." I guess I'm not the first to call him that. But he should know: we love Ed Wood way more than a more highly regarded artist like, say, Fritz Lang. I have a billion theories why that is but the main one might be the Brechtian distancing opening us up to the interplay of our own imagination, like having the curtains around your favorite play suddenly flung open, allowing us to see all the man behind the curtain. We get a bit of that in, say, Bergman's Magic Flute or Olivier's Henry V but it's intentional and hence a little pompous compared to the accidental Brechts like Wood and Cozzi (Godard--erasing his auteur footsteps around the sudden exposure of Brechtian mechanics as if Danny Torrance slinking backwards in his own tracks racing ahead of his crazed insatiable audience in the Overlook maze--is the Mr. In-Between.)

Maybe it's all too short with a hyper-ironic, if unsatisfying, ending that makes all the parts click into perfect place, the way some insane carnival ride turns out to be "Take the A Train" all along in a Charles Mingus composition. Maybe it was trimmed of its cosmic portent, maybe Rita died too soon; maybe Donald doesn't dub himself like he should, but the Cozzi magic is still there and this film is meant to be treasured for a lifetime of Cozzi binges. Who knows how long that lifetime will be? Einstein on the poster looking wryly your way knows: honey, you better pounce.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Retreat to Move Forward: YOR, THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE (1983)

We live in a mighty strange time, but when things look bleakest, don't forget about our ace in the hole. Nothing can be too bad when we have so very many good Italian-made drive-in movies so easily available - closer than our fingertips really. YOR, THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE (1983) is a stellar example, part of the post-CONAN barbarian surge that got us through Satanic panic, the war on drugs, and the collapse of the social sphere. Now that the social sphere is no bigger than a snapchat window, let Yor come smash it wider! Woo! Antonio "Anthony Dawson" Margheriti ("Mar--garehhh-tee") directed, so you can be it's slam bang without feeling rushed, buoyant but deadpan, guileless and sincere in its ensemble acting without being dull, and bedecked with dinosaurs and lasers, mirror halls, and gorgeous cave girls with thrilling backstories. File it on your A-list shelf next to FLASH GORDON (1980) and SHE (1982) and you'll never want for giddy (but too deadpan to be straight-up camp) qua-glam rock-and-roll, post-reality, early-80s sci-fi action madness.

Only if you know what I mean, though, man. There's no explaining it to those who don't get the need for a good stone knife plunged between the eyes of a dinosaur.

Because let's face it, the cinematic world of cavemen fighting dinosaurs--which paleontologists never tire of reminding us never happened--is circumnavigated and mapped by the prehistoric Hammer movies of the 60s-70s: ONE MILLION BC, WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH, and PREHISTORIC WOMEN can get stodgy and po-faced, filling the minutes with too much patriarchal (or matricidal) head-butting and never enough monsters, energy, and beguiling girls who do more than just lounge in the cave entranceway waiting for a cue. On the other side are the 80s campy winks and cleavage fests from you know who (I hate to name names) that cater way too specifically to a 14 year-old boys and their bored single fathers. YOR is beyond both camps: it won't embarrass us when real live girls are in the room, but it also won't bum us out with too much talking stick-passing. This isn't 1984 anymore, and we are not newly-laid eleventh graders turning our house into an orgy den of hooky-playing couples while mom and dad are at work. Times change! We wouldn't let those creeps in our house now for a hundred dollars. But YOR is beyond houses, beyond time, beyond laid.

The moment the "De Angelis'" rock opera anthem theme song churns to life and begins its shriek into the theme song ether: "He is a man from the future / a man from yesterday / his game is destiny!" you start making room in your desert island disc stash.
Proud and we desire
He's never seen the sun!
He's always on the run!
The list goes on and on.
The English is weird but the intent is universal 80s rock star badass. Barely have the opening theme's last chords ended when Yor (Reb "the real Captain America" Brown) has already killed a life-size papier mache triceratops/stegosaurus combination monster in vivid, up-close battle. It's one of the best, most realistic struggles between man and dinosaur ever. Yor is right in there, stabbing away, blood dripping down, its eyes wild with fear and fury. We feel complex emotions about since it's a stegosaurus and thus a plant eater, merely trying to protect its young cub. It's a tough world. At least Yor's kill of the big beast feeds the whole village and he's welcomed as an honored guest. They dance around licentiously and party in ways that grunting bunch of neanderthals in ONE MILLION BC never would. Wooo! Yor shouts. And you feel he's having a good time, genuinely. And it's terrific because hey, it's rare in this murky kill-and-be-killed era. Conan smiles what, one time? It's rare too to see a bro like Yor rocking out and not kind of think he's a tool. But Yor is down to drop his meat bone and grab his axe and run to battle in a hot second if ape men descend. It's all in the balance.

It's clear though he loves to rock out, Yor doesn't quite fit, because, you see, he's blonde and what's that strange medallion on his neck? He doesn't remember. He's got some weird past he has to find out about. But for moment - Woo! Some celebratory dancing, crazy drumming, and licentious bonding with the statuesque if slightly weatherbeaten Corinne Clery as Kalaa (!), and we're already feeling the love.

Two minutes later the tribe is attacked by giant hulking ape men, the leader of whom is lusting after Kalaa. Since Yor happens to be single and she's done the dance to woo him, it's clear they are meant for mating so it comes as a shock when he spirits her off before they even have a moment to copulate. He must rescue her, and does so in a very familiar looking cave structure via a long chase and battle that would be the climax in any other movie but here is just the first in a long line of wild rescues to come. Woo! He rides into their midst, hang gliding on a bat monster's stiffened corpse! If you're not down for this trip by now, stick your hand in the Aboria tree of manliness and see if the sting is as painful as they say. Cuz honey, you're nuts. WoO!

Kalaa's guardian is the trusty Pag (Luciano "Italian Peter Lorre" Pigozzi) who ambles along on the adventures, rounding out their new wandering threesome. Over desert hill and rolling cliff they wander, meeting new faces all the time, and if the goddess of fire worshipping lepers Roa (the comely and overly-made-up Aysha Gul) turns out to be a real hottie, if you'll forgive the expression and if, like Yor, she thought she was the only blonde with a round medallion in the world, then nature must take it's course. Paag reminds Kalaa that in this realm a man may take many wives (Woo!). This is Flash Gordon if Flash wasn't such a prude with Aura, Ming's sexy daughter, out of loyalty to Dale, a jealous Earth girl whom he literally just met only hours beforehand. Don't you hate when chick's do that? Not here. Yor's no prude, bro, and Kalaa may get mad but she's no uppity cockblocker. This is Italy, or Israel, or somewhere sex isn't for lewd snickering or indignant eye rolls. it's just a thing that happens and is ver-a sexy.

There will be other women in Yor's life before it's all over. Carol André shows up in the third act, on the mysterious island where lasers and complex machinery rule the day. And my favorite, the beguiling Marina Rocchi, whom Yor saves from a (again admirably life-size) dimetrodon.

One thing that stands out, that really makes this a latent beloved film of mine: the monsters here are very much in their natural element. In a lot of the stop motion dinosaur action we get via Harryhausen, for example, can err on the side of the science fair diorama: we see dinosaurs fight and hang out in the midst of barren desert, i.e. how their habitat looks now, all these millions of years later, making us wonder how they can possibly survive with no vegetation or cover (but making it easy to appreciate Harryhausen's animation.) In YOR, the beasts emerge from caves and jungle and it's hard to tell where they end and their surroundings begin. Their natural camouflage means they strike from wthin deep thickets and pond murk, with Yor and Kala climbing all over these giant (life-size) heads, hacking away, the beasts dying but slowly, from loss of blood, savagely stabbed again and agin in soft tissue areas. We're allowed to feel mixed emotions once the look in their big saurian eyes changes from rage to fear and then then the flesh of the dead beasts are eaten at big celebratory feasts, so it's OK. That's just how it is. He'll kill again and again and always the same.

Man, what a film. Where has it been all these years? I remember the commercial for Yor! One Saturday morning or late Friday night in the 80s and thinking: Conan with lasers, dinosaurs and Reb Brown hang gliding off a dead bat creature into action against a bunch of ape men, looking kind of like the Marvel character Ka-Zar. I mean, I could tell it was pretty low budget, but its imagination and gonzo gumption was clear. We who loved bad sci-fi and dinosaur movies could hardly believe it would ever be as great as it looked. Yet we never heard from Yor again until it showed up on Amazon streaming 30 years later.

Hell, 30 or so years isn't too long and ten bucks ain't too high (the Blu-ray is out now. I bought it for my brother last X-mas and he fell asleep within five minutes!)

In short, Yor- it's time has come. If you love ConanFlash Gordon, and even--despite its dour tone--the 1966 remake of One Million BC, as much as I do... if you sit around wishing there were Blu-rays of 1982's Sword and the Sorcerer (only avail. with a Rifftrax on a shitty dupe) and 1983's Hearts and Armor, well, maybe you're a nostalgic completist who may be waiting awhile. In the meantime, if someone tries to fob some hyper-banal mainstream imitations like Ladyhawke or Legend off on you instead... you know what to do.

Competition of Kalaa (from top); Marina Rocchi, Aysha Gul, Carol Andre
And like Luigi Cozzi's so-bad-it's-sublime Hercules, YOR scores big with me as there are more women in the cast than men, or it's at least the numbers are even. And though they do get rescued now and again they nonetheless are warriors, net-weavers, and/or holding significant scientific positions.

A special shout to Reb Brown as Yor! He would have been perfect as Flash Gordon, as he lacks the kind of self-conscious aww-shucksitude apparent in Sam Jones' twinkly eyes. Not that that film isn't the best or that we don't all love Sam Jones, but Reb Brown would have crushed it. Naive as he is, Brown is acing clearly from the heart. There's not a gram of self-consciousness in him. I dig that he also encourages those he meets to drink the blood of the slain triceratops in a dim nod to Siegfried. "Drinking the blood of your enemy gives you their power." It's just one of the fantastic little details Marghareti peppers the film with. Not all his films hit the mark but over the years he sure has given us a still under-appreciated canon of energetic termite art. Woo! Proud and we desire! Now more than ever, the man from the future is the man from yesterday. We have all the time in the world to scan their silver discs and figure out if they are our grandfathers or are great-grandchildren. At this point in human history, we could go either way and still be proud to have a YOR in the tree.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Retro-Futurism was Sure to Go: 10 Cool International 60s Sci-fi Trips Streaming via Spaceships Prime and Criterion

 Lately I've been unable to escape a yen for all things sci-fi mid-60s --the stretch between Sputnik and the moon landing, when an ex-Nazi rocketeer named Werner released through Disney a series of fascinating speculative documentaries about NASA's plans for the moon landing, for orbiting satellites, space stations, and explorations of Mars and Venus and movies presumed we'd have all that shit up in the air by the 1980s or 90s --2001 at the latest. Boy were they all wrong. We've got the movies, though, and they look better than ever.

Von Braun points out his plan for a new space station in a 1955 Disney film. 
This round revolving shape would henceforth be the go-to design
for the next decade+'s science fiction space stations. Sehr gut, Werner!
more post-Axis friendly sci-fi 
It was the Silver Age: the genre grew up out of the comic book lunacy and atomic caution of the golden 50s and into a colorful forward-launching space opera cocktail elegance. It was a good time especially for strong female characters, as they no longer had to fight sexist blowhards to be respected as officers in space command, heads of communications and operations, doctors in astro-biology and chemistry, etc. They could be pretty without having male crew members making comments behind their backs, or to their faces. I've deliberately eschewed any movie with even a hint of that dated sexism, even in critique form. I've also avoided any streaming titles of less than watchable quality, though your mileage may vary. So.... What are we waiting for!? The future's not going to get much older! Blast-off!

(1962) Dir. Wesley Barry
***1/2 / Amazon Image - A

I'm beginning to see what the fuss was about vis-a-vis Andy Warhol's favorite movie. It's fast becoming one of mine, containing everything I love in a film these days and the image quality on the Prime edition is sublime: lots of deep dark colors and grays, extendable tubes, silver eyeballs, skeletons, space age decor, pulp novel skies, heightened theatricality, and spooky analog sci-fi music. I love the total absence of exterior shots and the way it all unfolds over one long night, before backdrops that seem lifted right out off the covers of heady early-60s space age science fiction novels. Don Megowan stars as "The" Craigis, a member of the Order of Flesh and Blood, a hate group of sorts, out to halt the production of humanoid robots. The robots, with their grey skin and silver eyes, look too human for the Order and they're afraid of getting replaced as the machines grow indistinguishable from the (dwindling due to radioactive fallout) human population. Dudley Manlove is one of the robots, cementing the film's queer-coded message (i.e. 'we're closer than you know, we mean you no harm, and we won't need to stay invisible much longer"). David Cross (no relation) is Pax, the 'clicker' (as the robots are derisively called) in 'rapport' with Cragis' sister Esme (Frances McCann). Cragis tries to get her to stop it, as her rapport makes him look bad with the order, but not everyone is afraid of having all their needs met by a mechanical device while they wait for the inevitable end.

Beautiful to look at and never boring (even if no one seems to ever move), this is clearly some writer's real labor of love. I like to imagine it got workshopped at some off-off-Broadway East Village coffeehouse all through the 50s before making it to the big screen as it's clearly well edited. For all its measured talkiness, it's never dull, uneven, or repetitive. Occasional deadpan jokes ("we did make you a bit thinner,") that land like gentle spiders amidst the vocalizing space age echoes. Shout out to George Milan as Acto, the 'clicker' with the most lines. Able to seem comforting yet otherworldly at the same time, he makes a great team with Dudley Manlove as his right "man". Manlove or no, this is so much more than a Woodian bad movie, not that it wouldn't be welcome at the convention I imagine it plays best watched by oneself, late at night, with a loved one sleeping next to you (as I tend to do). It Warhol were alive he'd be watching it on his phone right now, so serve the cause of Art by watching Creation of the Humanoids... even sooner.

(1966) Dir. Antonio Margheriti
*** / Amazon Image - A

An instant immersion in a future world of moon bases and orbiting space stations, cocktails, anti-matter bombs, and astronauts soaring through black soundstage space on visible wires onto planets that breathe out through their craters. Giacomo Rossi Stuart (Kill Baby, Kill) is commander Rod Jacskon, tasked with finding the gravitational disturbance that's destroying earth's weather patterns. Terry Sanchez (Ombretta Colli) is his head of communications on Gamma One, his space station; Rod loves her but his dopey cat-eyed fiancee (Halina Zalewski) is down on Earth happens to be the general's daughter. There's no time for that kind of thing now, Terry. If we don't find the source of the disturbance there'll be no earth to go back to; and--as the ineffective General Norton (Enzo Fiermonte) puts it--"it's not a matter of days, but hours! 

The wild planet they find causing the trouble is an uninhabited but impressive red ball, 25 miles in diamaeter, with fields of cold red gelatin quicksand and islands of hairy ground surrounding craters breathing out plumes of cold steam. Going into one to plant anti-matter charges, they find themselves attacked by white tendrils that bleed but repair themselves as soon as Rod stops hacking at them. It's quite a destination.

I love this crazy movie. It has some of the best dubbing ever, matching the lips with weird hesitance and fast-talking when necessary. Dialogue is rich.... and wondrous, using the weird pauses of the actors to create mood and drama... rather than just making them sound drunk (though there's that too): "Read your retros - don't get clogged, Mack!" / "Who's got the flagship?!" / "I'm engaged to her, Terry... not that... I want to be." / "OK, Terry, but it's every man for himself"

The imdb score is unfairly low, and perhaps based on old faded VHS pan and scans but the Prime print puts it on a whole other level. The deep greys, blacks and reds that make up the bulk of the colors look really rich and alluring now, making Gamma-1 seem the place to be. So if space opera style drama and mature adults doing work as an organized group in constant radio communication is your bag, with plenty of women in capable professional positions (Rod doesn't really even try to stop Terry from going along on all the dangerous missions) and a general always the last to know anything, this film should be the cornerstone of your spiritual Euro-6os science fiction pyramid. As Commander Rod says "use your retros!"

(1968) Dir. Peter Bogdanovich
*** / Amazon Image - D+

When I can't sleep in a foreign land I like to fall asleep to this crazy movie, with Mamie Van Doren and assorted blondes wearing seashell tops and mermaid fin-evoking hiphuggers, as Venusian mermaids telepathically interacting with cosmonauts from a relatively expensive-looking Russian science fiction film. As the cosmonauts encountering man-eating plants and various dinosaurs, the mermaids watch and sing and wait, and when the cosmonauts shoot down their pterodactyl god (in self defense), they get really mad and start singing volcanos and floods into existence.

The story of this brilliant melange is cinematic legend: Roger Corman acquired the rights to several Russian science fiction films on a trip east and brought in a young Peter Bogdanovich to restructure, dub into English, and shoot surrounding footage for starring Mamie Van Doren and a cadre of her fellow blonde sea nymphs (with great hip hugger green lame flair slacks subliminally evoking mermaid tails -- a truly inspired high-fashion solution courtesy Alice Mitchell). Who cares if it makes sense? With the audio's near constant flow of ocean sounds, eerie pitch-shifting electronic wind mixing with occasional bursts of Keith Benjamin's score, electronic ship and robot noises, and Bogdanovich's hipster narration (as the younger, romantically inclined cosmonaut, replete with allusions to Welles in Lady from Shanghai), the spooky swooping two-note siren's song, all whirling together, it's the best white noise in the galaxy.

Some of the ways Peter (and production coordinator Polly Platt) merged new and old footage is ingenious: a Hollywood-made rubber pterodactyl corpse washes up in the surf for the girls to find, pray over and send back... back to the sea (after its shot in the Russian film).  I love the dopey, near muppet-like voice (uncredited) of Commander Lockhart, and the chef's hat Mamie wears when praying (evoking the hat worn by the one Venusian we see in a reflection at the very end of the Russian version); I love the way the sirens completely blend in with the rocks around them when lolling in the sun (the way seals often do) or the attention to clever details in the underwater scenes (the Russian footage showing nice undersea flourishes like a cloth octopus, merging with our LA sirens spying and undulating).

The Prime copy is bad, but there is no existing good quality DVD I know of, and frankly that's a shame. I have the Retromedia double disk set that includes the Russian original (Planet of Storms)- which looks the best--and contains more monster footage but the image skips and freezes around chapter 5, right when I wanted to see more of those crazy running man-sized allosaurus/T-rex things. Of the three of Corman's Russian adaptations in the set, I couldn't get too far into the achingly dull Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (waaay too much Faith Domergue on the radio); I thought Battle Beyond the Sun was a hootzzz with that way-too-dark space monster and all the cavorting on a tiny rock moon but still, maddeningly dull. I like that though. To make matters worse, the Prehistoric Women on the Retromedia skips in the projector/image! It's burnt-in, so the disk doesn't freeze, but gosh RetroMedia, what a drag! (PS - if you know of a good quality non-skipping transfer of VTTPOPW let me know!) It's worth getting the set just for the great quality of the Russian original, which includes a lot of cogently presented arguments on behalf of the ancient aliens hypothesis. Too bad it freezes up. How convenient.

(1966) Dir. Mario Bava
**** / Amazon Image - A+

Fourth on the bill, Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires is actually the best as far as gorgeous cinematography and clever, if not always successful, in-camera effects (Mario Bava is still ahead of his time). The storyline fuses elements of Last Man on Earth with Invasion of the Body Snatchers and looks forward to Night of the Living Dead, and most notably Alien, which clearly borrowed more than a few things. Wise choice, as it's a gorgeous and fascinating film that would be worth seeing even if you had to see it in Italian without subtitles (and didn't speak it). The plot concerns a rescue mission to a strange foggy planet where the soon-dead crewmen are taken over by fourth dimensional aliens eager to hitch a ride off their dying world. The co-ed crew wear sexy high-collared black leather uniforms with deep yellow trim (the sexiest, coolest and most high fashion space crew uniforms ever), and their ship is a huge minimalist black floored matte and mirage wonder. The outside miniatures make the ship look at times like soap on the rope anchored to the bottom of an aquarium (but that's okay) and the planet is a bizarre landscape or red and blue gels, swirling fog, petrified tentacle tree rocks, quicksand type burbling pits, and weird noises and disembodied voices barely audible in the whooshing winds. The shots of the outside guards looking deep into fog for signs of life are some of the most eerily beautiful in all of science fiction. The dubbing is good (lead Barry Sullivan does his own) and the music is super eerie. It just gets better with every viewing, especially in this HD color-restored super-marvelous shape.

(1966) Dir. Hajime Sato
** / Amazon Image - A+

Thanks to an amazing Prime HD image (sourced no doubt from a terrific Blu-ray print), this is a fun, terrible Japanese fusion of underwater Bondian supervillain lair-trashing and Jules Verne-style fish people enslavement ala AIP's War Gods of the Deep, Japan's Atragon, and Italy's Island of the Fishmen (AKA Screamers - also on Prime). Sonny Chiba a blond gaijin named Peggy Neal (The X from Outer Space - see below) star as a pair of intrepid scientist/reporters who follow fishmen tracks in search of a missing scientist and wind up at the bottom of the sea. Both are so youthfully gorgeous and well-lit you understand their horror when the evil sunglasses-wearing villain (so you can't tell if he's Asian?) starts converting them to ugly fish people. Biloxi-born Neal can't act the horror and revulsion stuff nearly as well as the exuberant marine life photographer stuff, and the inevitable fish people are a bit of a disappointment - all cross-eyed but they're a gas when their mind control radio signal gets jammed up and they run amok shooting and killing everyone. Meanwhile American Naval officer friend (Franz Gruber!) labors to convince the top brass to send a search sub once the pair go missing. He won't take no for an answer! But will he find them in time?

He does, of course, but then it all gets really wonky with its editing.  We get all sorts of odd gaps, like asides and pauses that make no sense in the usually frenzied editing scheme of an 'underwater lair about to implode' kind of climax. I mean the pauses between reactions that actors and directors presume the editor will snip off in order to 'time-image' action continuity (i.e. the general space of time between a shot of someone looking at something / to what they're looking at). When the gang are trying to escape and battling the bad guy's minions for space on the emergency elevator, this sluggish pace as each new emotion is formed on the actor's faces, is super aggravating. But once you've seen it enough times that the weird pacing doesn't bother you, I imagine it will scale bad movie heights. I already love the way Chiba has to carefully fight with the monsters so as not rip the obviously very thin plastic trash-bag style material used to make the monster skin; and the way the fights drag on while the professor and Neal just stand there, looking aghast, rather than doing anything to help, for minutes on end.

But hey, I'll watch whatever Peggy Neal and Sonny Chiba drag doomsday out forever if they want when the quality of the image is this divine. Everyone in the underwater lair wears white tunics, and Neal's hangs on her just perfectly; beaming with vitality and poise, flipping her short bob of a blonde hairdo, she's a perfect visual counterpoint to Chiba, with those deep dark eyes that all but drown any viewer foolish enough to gaze in them too long. Watching them be each dabbed with some wet gauze flakes that are supposed to be scales, just around the sides of the face. is a tad upsetting but nowhere near as bad as her tantrum at the end! Priceless moments like these make it imperative that you come along when Peggy Neal and Sonny Chiba discover there's TERROR BENEATH THE SEA.

Il Pianeta degli uomini spenti / Translation: Planet of Extinct Men
(1961) Dir. Antonio Marghereti
**1/2 / Amazon Image - C- / D+

There is a stand-alone version of this on Prime (the "Comic Book Edition") but it's been so yellowed by someone's idea of color grading (for the old yellowed newsprint effect of old comics?) I find I prefer the "Double Doses of Sci-fi: Hostile Planets and Doomsday" version (starting on the 0:17 mark - ending 1:22) It's a shoddy looking analog transfer clearly taken from a VHS tape but--as with the above Planet of Prehistoric Women--there is no good HD upgrade available. Take what you can get, and say thank you to the nice Prime.

Sort of the grandpa of Margheriti's 1966-7 "Gamma One" Tetralogy (its title should not be confused with 1966's War Between the Planets or War of the Planets as those are all separate films), here is an aged, vaguely portly Claude Rains, hamming wildly but never less that magnetic and dubbing his own voice throughout. Such a team player, he sells the dialogue like its Shakespeare and even wears a space helmet during the big climax, racing around like a kid in a candy store through all the miles of alien tubing and red gel lights. A lovable but aloof intellectual curmudgeon who tends his garden in the house next to one of the 'best' observatories in the world, his Professor Benson is a mix of Mycroft Holmes and Peter O'Toole doing Henry II, a mathematician physicist is so brilliant he can just write an equation on the floor in chalk for the world's leaders to see via camera phones, and the world is saved. Meanwhile the young people fawn and stand around in awe and then saddle up when it's time to ride out of orbit and take on "the Outsider." Mario Migliardi's score smoothes over any soft patches and giving the rocky island scenery a proto-giallo sense of class. One can dream of one day seeing this look as good as the above War Between the Planets. What else is the stuffing of the stars, Professor?

Operazione Goldman / Operation Goldman
(1966) Dir. Antonio Margheriti
*** / Amazon Image - A-

As with some other features on our list, above and below, we're still exploring the uninhabitable vastnesses and it's still a trip, man, and in this, a superior example of one of the countless spy movies that proliferated in the mid-60s (from Goldfinger and Thunderball), we get both rocket topplings and a trippy undersea lair powered by an undersea volcano. Figures it's from that inexhaustible mastro Antonio Margheriti, as it's got the same sense of spontaneous termite energy as his "Gamma One" films. Packed in amidst the quips, drinks, and car chases lurks some exciting footage of real-life Nasa rocket failures seamlessly interwoven with spy Anthony Eisley's staggering around in front of an ocean of fire. The rest of the time he's either being shot at by a lovely blonde (Wandisa Guida) or trying to score with his lovely handler, Captain Flanagan (Diana Lorys) in what's supposed to Florida but sure looks Mediterranean. Action highlights also include a long chase/brawl through a brewery from the loading docks all the way down the grain silos. And that underwater lair is a major trip. Mid-60s Bond imitations could be stodgy with endless travelogue footage, stripteases, comic relief, static plot-heavy dialogue, trite pick-up lines and fashions so dated and sexist you can smell the cheap cologne in the air even now, but Lightning Bolt is worth standing in the rain for. Riz Ortolani spy music is on-point and on-message throughout and the sublime HD prime print makes the old new again.

(PS Just don't let it convince you to try others in Prime's vast mid-60s European faux-Bond arsenal, most are incorrectly formatted, just for starters. Operation Kid Brother starring Neil Connery isn't bad, even if it has a shockingly imitative Morricone score.)

(1965) Dir. Robert Gaffney
**/ Amazon Image - A

I couldn't let you leave the gates of Prime without first unearthing some American trash from the period, like this, which has the same kinetic weird nouvelle-pulp energy we fist saw in Rollin's Viol du Vampire and Franco's Diabolical Dr. Z., and Japan's The Manster albeit while still staying as gosh-darn American as apple pie (filmed in Puerto Rico!). The plot follows a pair of aliens--the bald pointy eared, vaguely Uncle Fester-meets-Jon Lovitz Dr. Nadir (Lou Cutell) and the aloof Princess Marcuzen (Marilyn Hanold)--as they abduct a bunch of women to zap back to their home planet (their side has won a nuclear war but now all the women are sterile), threatening any resistors with their pet space monster - Growl!. Meanwhile, there's lovely black-and-white footage of driving past NASA's gates and a press conference with their newest astronaut, who--alas--freezes halfway through the Q&A - and so we find the secret: he's a robot! When his ship crashes (thanks to alien toppling powers), Frankie falls to earth a burnt amnesiac who proceeds to run amok until his creator (the great James Karen!) and his girlfirned find him and turn him against the marauding aliens who happen to have landed right nearby. Puerto Rico seems like quite the happenin' spot. FMTSM gets a bad rap in some circles but I think it's just goofy enough to be fun without being campy (it knows the best approach is to always play it deadpan straight up rather than falling back on Goldfootian-camp). Never before has military footage from our Air Force and Army training maneuvers been so seamlessly interwoven to indicate a coordinated attack on a parked UFO. And the Prime print is stunning, revealing once again that good black-and-white cinematography is ageless, as are mid-60s plaid bikini bathing suits. And snap your fingers along to the end song by The Distant Cousins! 

Now Come with me to Criterion Channel...!

Uchû daikaijû Girara
(1963) Dir. Kazui Nihonmatsu
*** / Criterion Image - B-

With a happy astro-theme song and groovy lounge soundtrack (courtesy Taku Izumi), cheerful blue colored outer space backgrounds, and cute if unconvincing space miniatures and sets, X is set in that once-seemingly inevitable future of permanent bases on the moon, operated by a United World Order where young people of both genders hold high-level positions on orbiting space stations and meet after hours at the space lounge to dance and be interrupted by urgent news. Here we got cute blonde gaijin astrobiologist Lisa (Peggy Neal) as the girl in a group of four bound for Mars, stopping off on the moon to party with cute Michiko (Itoko Harada), whose got a crush on Capt. Sano (Shun'ya Wazaki), who crushes on Lisa (Neal) who likes him too but knows Michiko crushes so much harder. Franz Gruber sports a goatee as a high-ranking scientific advisor (he also counsels Lisa when hearts gets too heavy). Planetary danger erupts when Lisa collects a tiny alien spore she found stuck to the ship's tail fin and brings it down to earth in one of those sample jars that alien spores tend to escape from when everyone is off having cocktails. This one leaves a chicken size footprint etched in acid and immediately grows kaiju massive; though joyful and triumphant, Guilala's attacks are a bit on the weaker side compared to his more esteemed Toho comrade, but with all the fun jetting back and forth from the moon to Earth, the soap dish UFO visits, the widescreen medium shot compositions, the luminous glowing skin of the two lead actresses, and Guilala's aerodynamic head curling its edges when blasting laser spitballs, you won't mind the soft foggy print Criterion works with.

Grooving at the moon's astro-lounge
The Criterion image is soft but hey - if not for their "It came from Shochiku" Eclipse series, it wouldn't be out on anything but a $60 Japanese import. To think, I may never have known it. And as a result I wouldn't have gone on to hunt down and see Atragon and Latitude Zero on overpriced Tokyo Shock DVDs.  Man, I'm sick just thinking about it, because if there are cocktails being served on space stations or the moon in a 60s science fiction film, I shall be crawling forth, insatiable. Let me know if there are any I missed, and they shall be trampled!

(1972) Dir. Andre Tarkovsky
 **** / Criterion Image - B

Tarkovsky's acclaimed science fiction masterpiece (which seems like a 60s film, due perhaps to the slower pop trend shifting behind the Iron Curtain) is set in a future where a space station orbits above an all-ocean possibly sentient planet that causes long dead lovers to re-appear, with amnesia, is based on a novel by Russian sci-fi novelist Stanislav Lem. Slow and long, yet never less than compelling... and certainly no slower than its western counterpoint, 2001 - albeit less tripped-out. My recommendation for newcomers: turn up the volume because the ambient sound gets pretty trippy once you let the slowness hypnotize you, which is what it's for. The long drive through Moscow's tunnels and elevated highways to the the airport for example, becomes otherworldly when you tune into the way the sound of the traffic begins to discombobulate into the rush of rockets and radio static. The slow pans around rooms where Kris's (Donatas Bationis) dead ex-wife Khari (Natalya Bondarchuk) appears in different points in time and space, for example, it's way out there, if you meet it halfway - which isn't easy. I've seen it five times and only managed to stay awake to the end once. With its meaning entombed in its weird mise-en-scene of ever shifting memory, in its refusal to yield a momentous narrative or to promise some wild lightshow climax, but with every edit and mismatched glimpse of things there and not there evoking the bathroom/bedroom rebirthing scene of 2001, as if stretched to three hours and including a girl, a child, and a father, and a film projector, with Jupiter being swapped out for a fictional solar ocean... where was I?

Did I nod off?

But what better film to wake up to, rousing from some odd dream, and to find still playing (as I did last night)? To not have to rewind or scroll back, but to just sit up and keep watching where you woke up from, until you nod off, again. To watch in between bouts of consciousness, to blank out right in the middle of some portentous cosmic revelation realized in the engulfing silence of space, knowing perhaps it's the only or best way to experience it? Too much alertness and it might just seem... zzzz.

Adieu to the cautious cocktails and radiation-eating hopes of the space age. Adios to swinging astronauts being hoisted around on wires while saving the day. Dasvidaniya to the idea of a perfect romance with a mystical anima projection in the form of an ex-wife at the prime of her hotness. Such is the realization of Tarkovsky's most surreal film. It takes ideas similar to those in many other older science fiction films (including Ib Melchoir's Journey to the Seventh Planet) and drafts a meaning so high and profound it can use swirls of algae on still water, wind-rustled plants, stormy clouds, trees hanging over empty space, and a beautifully knit autumnal-colored afghan wrap held against the glow of a round space station window, to evoke the inscrutable majesty of that alien otherness beyond even the reach of our sleeping unconscious, past the light behind the dark behind the man behind the curtain, that fractal form of probing consciousness we damage the minute we behold it the way water crystalks change just from our looking at them. Such things lie far beyond the limits of special effects, and even human imagination, to interpret in any concrete form.

So we bid farewell even to the most.... basic.... functions...zzz

 (If you refuse to watch SOLARIS, let the tenth film on this list be Criterion's DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968- Dir. Ishoro Honda) Yeah, boy, Akira Ifukube's pounding score, female aliens (above) turning into rocks, and a full roster of kaiju favorites uniting to really stomp the shit out of Ghidorah. I mean it's like six against one, and they basically curb stomp the poor thing. It's not like he came there voluntarily! He was controlled by the Kilaaks, same as they all were hitherto the signal being broken! Get Criterion channel now!! I also recommend GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER (1964), also on Criterion, which has a cool alien possessed princess side plot, and the numbers are much more even --since Ghidorah counts as three monsters at least... because of his three heads.

For other cool Communist sci-fi films from the 70s that seem like they're from our 60s, I highly recommend these two films from East Germany (avail. only in OOP DVD and sometimes youtube)

Im Staub der Sterne
(1978) Dir. 
*** / DVD image - B-
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