Because the screen is the only well-lit mirror in town

Friday, December 16, 2016

"I never said it wasn't terrible" - 10 quasi-terrific Sci-Fi curios streaming on Amazon Prime

Signs and wonders. While I get my parts together, rest assured (and often). And until then, old friend, if you need something to help put the kids to sleep, or to have in the background while you sleep on the couch and have Amazon Prime. Behold! Colorful, relatively un-gory, sometimes hilariously bad, you don't need snarky silhouettes in the bottom center of the screen to appreciate the badness of ROBOT MONSTER, for example. But don't get too exploratory without me. Amazon doesn't discriminate and there's loads of recently made SOV nowheresville stuff on there, so beware, and take these on this list here, to heart.  Curated by myself, they're all shot of real film, have restored colors (or sharp black and white) and look pretty good despite being bad. The star rating is the average between my fondness (for lost causes) and the actual quality (for non-bad movie lovers); the letter grade is for the Prime transfer itself.  

PS - All images are screenshots off Prime, for quality assurance. 

 (1964) Dir. Ib Melchoir
*** / Amazon Prime transfer - A+

Ib Melchoir, not exactly the most engaging sci-fi story teller (less pulp than wanted, more science than needed), he still always manages to give us just enough psychedelic rat monsters, robots, girl miasmas, mutants, and Weird Tales twists to make it worth enduring the endless in-between slogs of paternal pipe-smoking scientists pointing at maps and charts. A former war hero, Melchoir knew how to stretch a low MGM budget to make it look like a medium MGM budget, which equals a huge budget in a tax shelter country, like Sweden. So this looks like a million bucks, but ain't, honey. To offset the inevitable lapses into egghead longwinded analysis, straight-edge males refusing to fire on mutants (since killing is wrong even with a 'yawn' limited food supply), there are some hotties lolling topless in the artificial sun spa and zones rich in LOST HORIZONS-meets-MOLE PEOPLE casual disaffect.

By the time you realize you were dozing off somewhere back around the last slide lecture (a Melchoir specialty), a nice 'awake to the problem of overpopulation and/or getting wise to the genetic con job that is reproduction and life' kind of epiphany may well have erupted in your absence, addressing what was still considered a serious problem here on Earth back in the 60s-70s: overpopulation.

Somehow, today, though our population has more than doubled since then, we're not allowed to worry about it anymore. When may we unleash the kraken, Major? It's been idling a mighty spell.

Whatever your outraged stance on that last sentence, rest assured there's no browbeating here, instead Melchoir offers the same kind of mellow mix of awe and sleepiness you might feel during Walter Pidgeon's walking tour of the Krell wonders in 1956's  FORBIDDEN PLANET.  If you're wondering why it looks so damned good even today, know that the great Czech ex-pat Vilmos Zsigmond did the cinematography (he'd later shoot Spielberg's CLOSE ENCOUNTERS) and someone along the chain from the vault to restoration to transfer, there was someone who was looking out for this film -- I call her, Antidecasia. goddess of 35mm color restoration, and Zsigmond is clearly a royal consort.

(1962) Dir. Sidney W. Pink
*1/2 (Amazon Prime transfer - B-)

A visibly hungover, irascible John Agar leads an international space crew up Uranus or wherever, and there's a stop motion animation one-eyed rat monster, ghostly Swedish broads, a giant psychedelic eye, and fir trees. So far so good --right? No, Uranus looks like a thawed Disney Finland and the alien broads dress in overly-starched Dutch maid aprons rather than sexy mini-skirts, giving this allegedly loungecore space exploration a kind of dispiriting vibe like we're six years-old and being bored during a 60s-70s birthday party visit to a matinee showing some K. Gordon Murray fair tale import, one that will burn its way into our flu/fever dreams for years to come. Still, no matter how much it may put you to sleep like a longwinded grandpa's hazy memory of seeing Sputnik on the radio, keep it on until the end for the astro lounge credits - it's the star-swingin'-est theme song ever, set to groovy planet space scenes, like a series of Esquivel covers. If your AA sponsor permits you, mix yourself a 5 AM martini and let its dreamy lounge vibe provide the coup de gras for a little Melchoir coma (he co-scripted). As Teleport City's indomitable Keith puts it:
"Journey to the 7th Planet isn’t very good. It moves at a snail’s pace toward a predictable conclusion. The characters are pretty dull. The special effects are pretty awful, on the rare occasion that they make themselves known. And yet, as you can guess, there is something strangely compelling about the movie. It’s like an album you put on in the background."

(1995) Dir.
**1/2 (Prime Image: A)

This "other" mid-90s Michael Crichton novel adaptation got a bad rap at the time for being 1) overbudget; 2) racist; 3) dinosaur-less; 4) bearing a ridiculous talking ape. Not since the 1976 KING KONG had so much money been spent on a movie featurng a guy in an ape suit. JURASSIC PARK had just come out a couple years earlier and so Crichton's name was now associated with this cutting edge effect called CGI, so CONGO's old school analog effects only invited 'extinction'-based associations by smarmy critics.  Now, however, the smoke has cleared and we can re-examine the film free of all liens. CONGO, it turns out, is worth the trip. It glows with early 60s matinee nostalgia, reminiscent of those terrible old H. Rider Haggard-or-Edgar-Rice-Burroughs adaptation safaris crafted by flim-flam sci-fi wizards like Irwin Allen and Dino De Laurentiis, those lost civilization adventures from the 60s-70s, slung together with potted jungles and terrarium lizards rear-projected and enlarged, lashing their tongues out at middle-aged lumpen former A-listers pretending to leap over great precipices and burbling science fair volcanoes or firing their period fowling pieces at big foam-rubber pteranodons zipping by on visible wires.

In case you can't tell, I also got no problem with giant
diamonds lying around, as if falling fruit, volcano rear projection, ape suits, the corny ape translation device, or even the ape's sappy bromance with 2nd tier-Swayze Dylan Walsh. Why, you may ask? Laura Linney as the expedition leader, ably commanding an all-male cadre into the Congo to find boss Joe Don Baker giant diamonds for his satellite space laser. Whether she's navigating the hierarchy of super-intelligent white apes, toppling Congolese juntas, or dealing with Tim Curry's greedy treachery, Linney stays savvy and cool, neither relying on bitchy bossing or sexy manipulation to get men to do her bidding. I like too how the mysterious white apes are all uniquely different from one another, with complex cross-tribal strategies, and there are moments when they're battling the automated machine gun sentries and laser fences that you think FORBIDDEN PLANET, ALIENS, and PLANET OF THE APES are all swirling together under Paul Simon lyrics about lasers in the jungle somewhere. In short, it's schlock paradise, just for a minute.

(1953) Dir. Phil Tucker
* / Image - B

Growing up, Ed Wood's PLAN NINE and BRIDE OF THE MONSTER were always on TV, but ROBOT MONSTER was just a myth, something we read about in the Medved's "Golden Turkey Awards" book and pined for, dreamt of, hoped one day to see. Now here it is forever, and it's even better/worse than anyone dared hope. Miracles and wonders. 

I loathe tow-head boychiks gallivanting around in shorts and fishbowl space helmets as much as the next guy, nor do I like "it was all a dream" resolutions --two problems that beset this Phil Tucker classic. But if you wait to start watching until after Johnny falls asleep in the cave in the beginning, and then turn it off before the last scene you can imagine it ends in a montage of ONE MILLION BC stock footage and inserts of Ro-man walking up to the camera and back and sticking his hand out with lightning scratched onto the emulsion by a pin (I used to do that on my own super 8mm films!). 
Is it worth all that trouble? Of course! See the herculean devotion to the cause of art that is George Barrows lumbering to and fro in a giant gorilla costume with a diving bell helmet, carrying a screaming girl Al-lice (a sublimely haughty Claudia Barrett), over and down the hills around Bronson Canyon! Savor the thundering Wagner-meets-playful Raymond Scott-ishness of Elmer Bernstein's booming score! Marvel at the only family left alive (due to the German doctor's whizzbang invisibility shield and immunity serum) who decide to tie daughter Al-lice's hand with a shoelace to stop her from escaping their bomb crater basement hideout to meet Ro-Man who feels "that she would understand." Gape at sexist lines like "you're either too smart to be so beautiful or too beautiful to be so smart." Be impressed Tucker's not afraid to have Ro-Man strangle a five year-old girl, and then rip Alice's dress. Bam - those church chimes come blaring down like someone shot a hole in THE OMEN. "If Ro-Man wants us, he should calculate us," notes the Operation Paperclip scientist father. "The great one himself sends the cosmic blast!" retorts the head Ro-Man from space Skype. It's so good you can see it again mere minutes after its over (especially if you stop when I say, during the giant dinosaur apocalypse so you can skip the dream ending) or go directly onwards, into the Canyon for the next film..

(1959) Dir. Bruno Ve Sota
 **1/73464.006th  (Amazon Image - A-)

Here's a diverting cross between a raggedy Monogram East Side Kids misadventure, a YOU BET YOUR LIFE-era Groucho Marx failed TV pilot, and a 50s Roger Corman beatnik horror-comedy. The plot has a pair of goldbricking privates accidentally stumbling on a space ship wherein two sexy gigantic buxom space women and their twirling carrot monster underlings are hatching a plan to conquer the Earth. The boys have to warn their C.O., but how can they without getting a section-8?

It gets weirder from there, so be warned.

Some of my fellow sci-fi critics, with no gift for recognizing wry Bronson Canyon bongo drum laissez-faire underneath this pair's blue collar comedy "antics" but for those of us who wonder what it would look like if Frank Tashlin, Three Stooges, and Bugs Bunny got together on a bad hooch bender, now we know. And we're glad we wondered, because we'd have never guessed it would be... this. As the goldbrickers, Robert Ball, Frankie Ray are just okay, but I love the side bars, like the George Armitage-Firesign Theater-Duck Soup-esque officers (such as the colonel who tenderly combs his platoon's eyebrows before taking them on maneuvers) and the two giant space broads (Gloria Victor and Dolores Reed) are given dialogue and Russ Meyer Vavoom authority. Their craft is staffed with carrot monsters who run and dance and twirl their fringe tops. Who could refrain that had a heart to love? There are also some whooping, dancing, peace-pipe passing hipster Native Americans (you'll want to study the crazy dance moves of their chief--clearly Jonathan Haze with a deep tan) and all sorts of absurdist self-aware Brechtian throwaway movements, tapping into the same kind of zany underground west coast beatnik disaffect that makes Corman films like BUCKET OF BLOOD and SHOP OF HORRORS so durable. In fact, a lot of Corman stock company actors work behind the scenes here, including Haze [writing] and Bruno VeSota as the director, and they clearly picked up on the same deadpan beatnik absurdity.

The weakest aspect of the film, actually, are the dated hackiness of the leads, but even they have the taste to not just imitate one set of comedians but all of them. Ball gives us a whirling roster of Joe E. Brown, Bugs, Curly, and Bert Wheeler; Frankie Ray goes more for sly tossed off imitations ranging from Peter Lorre to Cagney and Eddie G. Robinson. If the patter between them can get a little Vaudeville corny, well, one gets the same shit in Wheeler and Woolsey movies, and you seem to love those! So suck it up, private! At least they know how to play it cool when giant space broads takes them onto their laps. If like me you've studiously avoided this film due to reliable critical consensus, then you'll want to track down those critics and give them a hearty bitch slap while shouting Tura Satana quotes. Any movie with two legitimately giant hotties, wild-eyed carrot monsters, cheap laser guns, and "electronic noise" by Jack Cookerly and Elliott Fisher (aka Jack Loose) can't be all bad. Make it the triple feature bridge between Godard's ALPHAVILLE and Jack Cunha's MISSILE TO THE MOON and suddenly, it will all make sense. Don't ask what 'kind,' just sinse it.

1950) Dir. Kurt Neumann
*** / Amazon Image - B+

1950 was the year science fiction broke, with George Pal’s Technicolor DESTINATION MOON launching itself into America’s consciousness via a juggernaut of space publicity. Riding the cosmic wake of that juggernaut was ROCKETSHIP X-M, made for a fraction of MOON’s budget in glorious black and white and later red-tint. The story is, as the ads summarized; “four guys and a girl in space!” Said guys consist of mustachioed brainiac Dr. Eckstrom, (John Emery), obligatory hick who never shuts up about Texas (Noah Beery Jr.), dour pretty-boy pilot Harry (Hugh O’Brian) and starry-eyed super-sexist Col. Floyd (Lloyd Bridges), who falls for Swiss scientist Dr. Lisa Van Horne (Osa Massen), “the girl” battling male egos in her bid to substitute her own calculations. Starting off at a press conference while the countdown to blast-off ticks ominously in the background, the film wastes no time in getting its crew into space. But soon a miscalculation in their fuel mixture drives them off their original moon-bound course towards Mars (no doubt easier to get to), where the guys and girl find some shocking secrets (and red tinting), like boulder-tossing mutant survivors of a global nuclear holocaust who look suspiciously like cavemen.

Preceding the actual moon landing by 19 years, and DESTINATION MOON by several weeks, this staunch Kurt Neumann production manages to still seem somewhat modern today thanks to moody black and white cinematography, low-key performances (they're all on a small quite ship, so no need to shout). An intelligent script from a then-blacklisted (hence uncredited) Dalton Trumbo uses the pros and cons of male-female dynamics rather well (Van Horne insists on substituting her own figures in a way that promotes Eckstrom's sexist resistance, and vice versa), even an element of gender-reversal in the romance between Dr. Van Horne and Floyd, with Floyd spending much of the film sweet-talking her into loosening up (the way a housewife of the era might be expected to soothe her hard-working hubby).

Contrasted to the Technicolor, gee-whiz science lecture/red menace posturings of MOON in fact, X-M can be read as almost subversive. Sure, some aspects of the film do seem dated, such as the comic moments of “selective gravity” (only a few objects float, at random intervals) and Beery’s incessant and corny Texas 'color' (the kind of thing that was a staple on any WW2 movie submarine, bomber, or PT boat). But these things fade in the darkness of the movie’s more mature themes, such as a strong anti-nuclear message and downbeat ending that lend the film a grim, fatalistic edge far more aligned with late 1940’s film noir than 1950’s science fiction, with a hushed acting style so low-key it could almost be a Val Lewton.  (review orig. published Scarlet Street, 2001)

 (1965) Dir. Elio Petri
** (Transfer - A)

As I've written in the past, director Elio Petri's career seems to run on its own parallel track to the evolution of Italian cinema, his work anticipates major trends but then moves on from them right when the breakthrough comes and the slew of imitations swells behind him, like an explosion  walked away from in slow motion. Here he blows up pop culture a full year ahead Antonioni's inestimably influential Blow-up, but instead of blasting a hole in the wall of the Plato's Cave, like Antonioni does, Petri merely cores out a satire of the TV generation that today seems so dated, so broadly and smugly anti-pop culture it makes William Holden's pompous final NETWORK monologue (the "this is real life, Diana, you can't change the channel" speech) seem unpatronizing.

Depicting an inevitable future reality show where people are hunted down and shot in public for big prizes and ratings, this could be a wild forerunner to Death Race 2000, but instead it's too busy being sexist and artsy. Luckily the hunter this season is Ursula Andress--looking beautiful as always. The prey--wearing a black turtleneck and sporting cropped blonde hair, is Marcello Mastroianni and, unluckily, he isn't wearing his trademark sunglasses, and he really should, as he has horrible swollen purple bags under his eyes (he looks like mid-70s Sally Can't Dance speed freak-era Lou Reed if Lou was dumb enough to take his shades off). The harder Mastroianni tries to pass his weariness off as jet-set ennui, the more we wish he'd insisted on doing his own hair and keeping his shades. Was he trying to do contacts? Dude, I tried that once, same result. Put those glasses on and don't let Petri art you up too badly!

We could have used some actual killing (as in, either Andress or Mastroianni) but TENTH is too tame; there's way too much dumb flirting and chasing and not enough chutzpah, lots of dialogue-free stretches and make use of the landscape and urban sightS with breaks for the inevitable falling in love and escaping. And, for all the supposed awareness of dated mores, watching Marcello regularly outsmart such a clever sexy woman during her pursuit carries a misogynistic and unchivalrous undertone. It also irks that, even though he's a well-funded TV star, Marcello is so bad with money he's constantly having his girlfriend's furnishings repossessed, including her comic book collection! When she calls them "the classics" one almost hears the smacks from the author's Marxist collective's high-fives.

For Americans today, alas, seeing the smarminess with which Petri presents this grim pop art future is a bit like watching your father drunkenly hitting on your girlfriend at Thanksgiving, laughing at his own lame 'cool kid' jokes. If you like post-modern pop style of the period--who doesn't?--you should see it anyway - and if you prefer lots of unsubtle communist ideology sewn into your commodified spectacle, hey ---rock on, comrade. Pow!

(1960) Dir. Edgar G. Ulmer
**1/2 (APT: A-)

The Edgar G. Ulmer story is the stuff of anachronistic filmmaker legend: a seasoned hand at pre-Hitler UFA, he fled the Nazis like so many of his cooler countrymen and was all set to be Universal horror's next F.W. Murnau but instead he fell in love with his script girl, who happened to be already married to studio head Carl Laemmle's nephew. "Uncle Carl" wasn't having him as the alienator of his niece's affections so booted him out of Universal after one great film (THE BLACK CAT). Decamping to poverty row's PRC, working with budgets so low his work went unharried by hack producers, Ulmer made movies that today are acknowledged masterpieces of economy (and narrative dissonance) like DETOUR. That said, TIME BARRIER is not one's not one of his best, even though he makes great after-hours use of a futuristic Dallas World's Fair exhibit--all geometric geodesic angles and offsets--to conjure a post-apocalyptic world that seems sterile and underground, somehow buried under rubble, as if buildings fell as smooth stalactites, creating a highly stylized dream theater vibe that's emblematic of German Expressionism: action seems to occur well outside the boundaries of space and time, in some geometrically disjointed 'corner'-dominated reality.

The story has a test pilot's (Robert Clarke) sound barrier acceleration experiment launch him not only faster than the speed of sound but far into the future, to a world gone mutant, sterile and way, way underground. Naturally, a few old character actor eunuchs have a few young maidens on hand that are dying for a real man's --ahem--essence. However, the suspicious security chief thinks Clarke's a spy for the mutants, who roam above ground or languish in a very stylish prison below. Played by the intimidating Red Morgan, this security officer is given way too many pieces of scenery to chew--on an on he froths and rages--but things perk up once the mutants escape and Ulmer gets some sexy mileage out of the always-fun 'last virile male in an underground babe-land' pulp fantasy seduction. The script is by a decorated WW2 photographer Arthur C. Pierce. Ulmer's daughter Arianne Ulmer is one of the fertile mini-skirted maidens, proving standing up to uncle Carl bears sweet fruit.

(1956) - Dir. Ib Melchoir
*1/2 / Amazon Image - A

It's sleepy time with Ib Melchoir again, delivering the yackity crap and engaging weirdo monsters X-M lacked. This time the expeditionary ship has an angry red-haired girl in the crew--the circle in the middle of their side of the yin-yang, and the monsters are clearly 2-D puppets designed by the great Basil Wolverton (or at the very least, inspired by him). It's kind of a cheap move, but when they come staggering out of the rocks, glowing with that bright red tinting. it's kind of unique to the genre and sure beats XM's savages. The weird negative red effects look relatively vivid in the fresh transfer up on Prime, aand I like the way the animals blend neatly into their rocky surroundings for once, mimicking the animals outlined by all the deranged paredoliacs scouring Mars Rover photos on the Earth's web.

That said, I've never actually watched this film for more than 20 minutes at a time. Not sure what my issue with it is, unless it's the usual Melchoir ZZzz-factor. I figured you should know though, that it looks damn good.

PS - Oh wait, I just tried again. Now I remember: I heartily dislike the approach of landing on a strange world and blasting everything that moves. Dude, that rat spider monster you just blinded might have been a source of wisdom! Where's Dr. Carrington when you need him? Then the leader wants to leave the minute they get there because of the monsters, which is like going to the Running of the Bulls in Spain, then getting a hangnail so deciding to go home before the bulls even arrive.

Man oh man, what a shitshow of a list. Luckily it ends on a potent note:

(1980) Dir. Lugio Cozzi
*** / Prime Image - C- / Shudder Image - A

This Italian ALIEN-inspired sci-fi adventure gets a bad rap in some circles but I adore it. Rather than just have some amok alien eating crew members, this keeps itself on Earth in the present, and decides to focus in on the pod-to-stomach-stage, with rows of ugly watermelon slime pods that explode when ripe and cause instant explosions in the stomach of everyone in horseshoe vicinity. I dig the obvious phone book size padding under the victim's shirts before the explosions; I dig the traumatic Freudian-cave-on-Mars flashbacks. I dig the vibe between the NYC cop who discovers the initial shipment (Marino Mase), the female colonel of the Army's special disease control unit (Louise Marleau) and the traumatized astronaut (Ian McCulloch). The three team up in a sexy 'share-the-woman' synergy (ala DESIGN FOR LIVING, and PAINT YOUR WAGON) and head down to Colombia (the pod shipments erupting in NYC storage hangars were supposed to be coffee) where they're soon ensnared up in a big slimy alien's world domination plan, ala IT CONQUERED THE WORLD.

Louise Marleau's heroine finds a worth opposite number in lovely blonde Gisela Hahn as the evil mastermind's right hand, and I love the alien himself, especially that bicycle reflector eye and the glistening artichoke coloring. Lastly, what really earns my goofball admiration is the Goblin soundtrack. That late-70s-80s European prog rock style has aged well. I don't know what else you need to make you love this dumbass film the way that I do. Whatever's missing, you don't need it.

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