Friday, December 16, 2016

Dig these 10 Quasi-Terrific Vintage Sci-Fi Near-Classics Ready to Freely Stream on Amazon (and elsewhere)

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 these sweet nuggets. But don't get too exploratory without me. Amazon doesn't discriminate and there's loads of recently made SOV nowheresville stuff on there, and nothing's more depressing to stumble on looking for that 50s-60s sci-fi cult fix to get you over some rough bump in the night. So beware, and pick only from these... on this list here... curated by me, myself, and mois. They're all shot out of real film, all have restored colors (or sharp black and white) and look pretty good despite being bad. Best of all they're not grating on the nerves, they might leave you nonplussed but not nauseous. They may put you to sleep, but you won't wake up in a sour misanthropic mood. 

The star rating is the average between my fondness (for lost causes) and general Maltin-standardized decency; 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 wasn't 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 MGM/UA celluloid vault to color restoration to digital transfer--was looking out for this film, making sure it looks pristine as brand new. I call her, Antidecasia. goddess of 35mm color restoration, and Zsigmond is clearly her royal consort.


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

An irascible John Agar leads an international space crew up Neptune or wherever the 7th planet is for you, and there rests an all seeing eye out to appear as their worst fears and/or most hidden desires in a futile effort to stay alive and in command of their own planet. Hell no! Neither a stop motion animation one-eyed rat monster, ghost Swedish women (all blonde and alluring and sheathed in white ostrich feather clouds), a giant psychedelic eye; and fir trees and an old cabin in the woods to give homesick astronauts a reason to want to leave, all combine to give this covert condemnation of space expansionism a weird vibe between Squaresville 50s sci-fi and the loungecore space exploration of Antonio Margheriti's "Gamma One" Tetralogy 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 super melancholy astro lounge in the wee-wee hours credits - it's the star-swingin'-est theme song ever, playing over groovy but low key planet pictures and animated comet credits. If your AA sponsor permits, 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. (...) 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) over-budget; 2) racist; 3) dinosaur-less; 4) and--thanks mostly to a talking 'ape'-- idiotic. Not since the 1976 KING KONG had so much money been spent on the 'special effect' of a guy running around in an ape suit and now with a special voice modulator - he could talk. Meanwhile, JURASSIC PARK had just come out a couple years earlier; Crichton's name was now associated with this cutting edge effect called CGI. CONGO's old school analog effects only invited 'extinction'-based associations by the era's smarmy critics. Well, time has been kind to CONGO: those snotty remarks by those now weakened critics' voices have rightly faded into distant memory; and those analog effects now seem preciously tactile, and warmly aglow in 60s matinee nostalgia, reminiscent of those terrible old H. Rider Haggard-or-Edgar-Rice-Burroughs adaptations--slung together with potted plant jungles and rear-projected iguanas hissing at B-list stars in pith helmets--that dotted matinees through the 60s-70s. Sure, even then we kids thought those films were awful, but now we even love them. That's the power of age to brighten murky waters.

In case you can't tell, I also got no problem with anything in this awful film. I love that giant, perfectly cut diamonds lie around on the soundstage red sandy ground, as if falling fruit; I love the volcano rear projection, ape suits, etc. I can even stand the good ape's sappy bromance with that 2nd tier-Swayze (Dylan Walsh) who plays his handler.  Any indignity is worth it for the glory that is Laura Linney as the expedition leader. 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 cliche'd bitchy bossiness 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 the white explorers set up to defend their camp at night, that you think wow, man: FORBIDDEN PLANET, ALIENS, and PLANET OF THE APES are all swirling together under Paul Simon lyrics about lasers in the jungle somewhere. In one brilliant moment, it achieves schlock paradise. Sometimes, a moment is all a movie needs.

For CONGO, that's even almost true.

(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, and tape, and cherish, and mercilessly taunt. Now here ROBOT is forever, and it's even better/worse than anyone dared hope. Miracles and wonders. 

I love bad movies, but I'm no fan of MST300. For me, it's like paying someone else to eat my food. I'll make the jokes thanks.  Watching these kinds of films with my dad as a kid, it was like a quip-forging contest. If I could make him laugh with some droll aside, it was like winning an Oscar. He didn't laugh just to be polite, so you knew you scored if he did. So I worked at it. How dare MST just march in and steal the glory? 

Now you know a little about me. Here's some more bio tidbits about my bad film preferences: I loathe tow-head boychiks gallivanting around in shorts and fishbowl space helmets, nor do I like "it was all a dream" resolutions --ROBOT has both. But if you wait to start watching it until after Johnny falls asleep in the cave and then turn it off before he wakes up, then 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!). Which is how the world ends, right on time, and in due fairness to Ro-Man! 

Is it worth all that trouble? Of course! See the herculean devotion to the cause of art on the part of George Barrows, trundling to and fro like Baby Huey or Cliff Osmond in a giant gorilla costume with a diving bell helmet, carrying the screaming love interest, Al-lice (the sublimely haughty Claudia Barrett), up and down Bronson Canyon! Savor the thundering Wagner-meets-Raymond Scott-ishness of Elmer Bernstein's booming score! Marvel at the decision of the only family left alive (due to the German doctor's "invisibility shield" and "immunity serum") 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" him. 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! Elmer's church chimes come blaring down like someone shot a hole through Goldsmith's OMEN theme. "If Ro-Man wants us, he should calculate us," notes the Operation Paperclip scientist Vater. "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 and skip the dream ending). 

(1959) Dir. Bruno Ve Sota
Here's a diverting cross between a 40s Monogram East Side Kids romp, an episode of YOU BET YOUR LIFE with Groucho Marx talking to a stripper and a buck private, and a 50s Roger Corman beatnik horror-comedy. The plot has a pair of goldbricking privates in the US Army accidentally stumbling on a parked spaceship, hidden in the caves of Bronson Canyon (!) 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 without sounding so crazy they get a section-8 (not to mention they were AWOL at the time - shhh), and meanwhile the babes are huge and hot, so there's a kind of a quandry at work. Morally. 

It gets weirder from there, so be warned. Some of my fellow sci-fi critics, with no gift for recognizing the wry Bronson bongo drum laissez-faire underneath this strange pair's blue collar comedy "antics" might have already warned you away from this title (I stayed away for decades on their advice), but don't listen to them! If you dare to wonder what it would look like if Frank Tashlin, George Armitage, and the editors of Mad Magazine got together on a bad hooch bender and and woke up to find they'd filmed a low budget sexy sci-fi comedy while in four day black-out, gaze hither and wonder no more..

Needless to say, a nice buzz and low expectations are required.

As the goldbrickers, Robert Ball, Frankie Ray are just okay--trying too hard to imitate too many comedians at once--BUT the side players make up the difference, especially the Firesign Theater-Duck Soup-esque senior officers (such as the colonel who tenderly combs his platoon's eyebrows before taking them on maneuvers). Gloria Victor and Dolores Reed are aces as the two statuesque aliens. They're given great dialogue and display copious Russ Meyer-style 'Supervixen'-style authority over a crew of carrot monsters who run, leap, dance and twirl their fringe tops. There are also some whooping, dancing, peace-pipe passing hipster Native Americans (you'll want to study the crazy dance moves of their chief --I'm guessing an uncredited Jonathan Haze) and all sorts of absurdist self-aware Brechtian throwaway moments, 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, some of the people who worked on those two films are at work behind the scenes here, including Haze (writing) and Bruno VeSota (directing); clearly they learned much from their two-day shoots with old Roger.

Still, while these wry and hammy supporters do their best to counterbalance the hacky derivitive schtick of the two leads, you may find it debatable if they succeed. For me, personally, I admire that the pair don't just imitate one established comedy duo (the way, say, Sammy Petrillo and Duke Mitchell do for Dean and Jerry in Bela Lugosi meets a Brooklyn Gorilla), they imitate them all. As the stooge of the pair, Ball gives us a whirling roster of Joe E. Brown, Huntz Hall, Bob Hope, Mel Blanc doing his Bugs Bunny playing a manicurist, Curly Howard, Jerry Lewis, Lou Costello, and Bert Wheeler. Straight man Frankie Ray plays it cooler and wider, incorporating micro-imitations in a steady overlapping blur. He moves from Peter Lorre to Jimmy Cagney to Eddie G. Robinson, to Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, Robert Woolsey, and Leo Gorcey and Ralph Meeker. If the patter between them can get a little half-assed in its Vaudeville schitck-aping, well, one gets the same shit in Wheeler and Woolsey movies, and hey, at least they know how to play it cool when giant space broads takes them onto their laps --there's no self-sabotage or snickering shyness from these boys! They do their nation, and their CO, proud. 

In sum, if you've studiously avoided this film, as I have, due to the aforementioned reliable critical consensus, then you'll want to track down those critics and give them a hearty bitch slap while shouting random Tura Satana quotes. Any movie with two legitimately giant hotties, wild-eyed carrot monsters, cheap laser guns, "electronic noise" by Jack Cookerly and Elliott Fisher (aka Jack Loose), peace pipe toking Native Americans, and woozy theremin can't be all bad. Make it a double feature with Jack Cunha's MISSILE TO THE MOON and suddenly, it will all make sense. Don't ask what 'kind' of sense, 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 and 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 sensing errors that Eckstrom's sexist resistance prevents fixing), 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 posturing of MOON, 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 Hollywood movie submarine, bomber, or PT boat). But these things fade in the darkness of the movie’s more mature themes, 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

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 'pop' cinema: his work anticipates major trends but then moves on from them right when the breakthrough comes and the slew of imitations tumble out from behind him, like an explosion he's already walked away from in slow motion. Here he explodes 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 actually unpatronizing by contrast.

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. Maybe that's because the hunter this season is played by Ursula Andress--looking beautiful and stylish as always. And the prey--wearing a black turtleneck and sporting cropped blonde hair, is Marcello Mastroianni. That's when the problems start, due to some really unfortunate fashion choices. It's not a good look for him and he should really be wearing his trademark shades, as he has horrible swollen purple bags under his eyes all through the film (with that terrible blonde crew-cut he looks like mid-70s Sally Can't Dance speed freak-era Lou Reed, but Lou at lest kept his shades on). The harder Mastroianni tries to pass his weariness off as jet-set ennui, the more we wish he'd insisted on going back to his old trademark look. Was he trying to rock contacts? Dude, I tried them for a few years myself, same result, swollen eyes trying to get rid of them. Put those glasses on and don't let Petri art you up too badly!

Also for a film supposedly about savagery we could have used more actual killing (as in killing Mastroianni) but TENTH is too tame; there's way too much dumb flirting and chasing and not enough chutzpah, too many dialogue-free stretches acting as little more than travelogues with breaks for the inevitable falling in love and escaping within pop art gallery spaces. And, for all the film's supposed awareness of sexual equality, watching Marcello regularly outsmart his female opponent at every step 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). But they're not married, so how does that work? There's no law behind it, just intellectuals thinking they're making non-idiot points.

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 and taking off his glasses so he'll 'look younger' but then being too blind to find her again after she sneaks off. 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! For the rest of us, there's A Quiet Place in the Country waiting.

(1960) Dir. Edgar G. Ulmer

The bio of Edgar G. Ulmer is the stuff of legend: a seasoned hand at pre-Hitler UFA, he fled the Nazis like so many of his countrymen and was all set to be Universal's new voice in horror but he fell in love with his script girl on his first film THE BLACK CAT (1934). She happened to be already married to studio head Carl Laemmle's nephew. "Uncle Carl" wasn't having this artsy immigrant as the alienator of his niece's affections, and so booted him out after the film was released. Decamping to poverty row's PRC, Ulmer (now married to the script girl) started working with budgets so low his  hack producers gave him total freedom. He came to love that freedom, making acknowledged masterpieces of economy (and narrative dissonance) like the surreal noir classic DETOUR for the French to later admire. For 1960's TIME BARRIER he forges a city of a post-nuclear future out of a futuristic Dallas World's Fair exhibit that was in the process of being torn down. Geometric geodesic angles and offsets (probably from an exhibit on futuristic living space) conjure a post-apocalyptic world that seems sterile, organic, metal, somehow buried, as if floors fell through each other at odd angles, like post-modern stalactites, creating a highly stylized dream space emblematic of his native 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 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 fun is spoilt by a suspicious security chief who thinks Clarke is a spy for a bunch of mutants. Played, rather excessively, by the intimidating Red Morgan, this security officer is given way too many pieces of scenery to chew on... and on. Ulmer lets him froth at the mouth for so long he almost derails the whole film. Luckily he finds something legitimate to fret about when the mutants escape, allowing Clarke to finally get some 'last virile male in babe-land' action, I think (or does he blow it? I can never remember). The script is by a decorated WW2 photographer Arthur C. Pierce. Ulmer's and that script girl's daughter, Arianne, is one of the fertile mini-skirted maidens, proving that--whatever losses to the Universal horror catalogue might have resulted from their union--standing up to uncle Carl can still bear sweet fruit! 

(1956) - Dir. Ib Melchoir

It's sleepy time with Ib Melchoir again, delivering the yackity crap and engaging the weirdo monsters ROCKETSHIP 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 the monsters come staggering out, glowing with that bright red tinting, it works. The weird negative red effects look relatively vivid in the fresh transfer up on Prime, and I like the way the animals blend into their rocky surroundings, evoking all 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 or Dr. Who 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

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.

1 comment:

  1. Helpful reviews! Will check out a couple of these I haven't already seen.


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