Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... for a view clear enough to make Dr. Xavier go blind

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 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. 


1. THE TIME TRAVELERS
 (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.

2. JOURNEY TO THE SEVENTH PLANET
(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."

5. CONGO
(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) ridiculous- thanks mostly to a talking 'ape'. 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. The even bigger jeering point for the public of course was that 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 invited 'extinction'-based associations by smarmy critics. But time has made those snotty remarks fade into distant memory, while the film is still here, and analog effects now seem precious, tactile, something to savor now for their gem-like rarity. CONGO now glows with early 60s matinee nostalgia, reminiscent of those marvelously terrible old H. Rider Haggard-or-Edgar-Rice-Burroughs adaptations that used to come out all through the 70s, via Irwin Allen or Dino De Laurentiis. Sure they were cheap, slung together with potted plant jungles, hair cave men throwing spears; macroscoped lava lamp eruptions and terrarium lizards rear-projected behind B-list stars in pith helmets; the startled crew firing their period fowling pieces at big foam-rubber pteranodons zipping by on visible wires, the roar and rustle in the distance, before the whole land crumbles back into the sea. Sure, it was garbage, but we kids couldn't tell that. It seemed adult, and there were monsters. We ate it up.


In case you can't tell, I also got no problem with giant, perfectly cut
diamonds lying around, as if falling fruit, volcano rear projection, ape suits, etc. I can even stand the corny ape translation device and the ape's sappy bromance with 2nd tier-Swayze Dylan Walsh. It's all worth it for Laura Linney as the expedition leader, and the sublime ease with which she commands an all-male cadre into the Congo to find diamonds for Joe Don Baker's 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 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 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, even if only for a minute. Sometimes, a minute is all a movie needs. For CONGO, that's even almost true.

6. ROBOT MONSTER
(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, 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 confessional, I'm no fan of MST300. For me, it's like paying someone else to eat my food for me. I'll make the jokes thanks. I'm funny! Watching these kinds of films with my dad it was like a quip-forging contest. If I could make him laugh it was like winning an Oscar. He didn't laugh just to be polite. 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: 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 in the beginning, 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 that is George Barrows trundling to and fro like Baby Huey or Cliff Osmond in a giant gorilla costume with a diving bell helmet, carrying a screaming girl Al-lice (the sublimely haughty Claudia Barrett), up and down  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 "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" 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! Those 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) or stay safe from time inside the Canyon for the next film..

7. INVASION OF THE STAR CREATURES
(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 sounding so crazy they get a section-8 (not to mention they were AWOL at the time - shhh)?

It gets weirder from there, so be warned. Some of my fellow sci-fi critics, with no gift for recognizing the wry Bronson Canyon bongo drum laissez-faire underneath this 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, or me. If you dare to wonder what it would look like if Frank Tashlin, Three Stooges, and Bugs Bunny got together on a bad hooch bender and woke up in a 1959 low budget sci-fi film, gaze hither and wonder no more... but shudder!

As the goldbrickers, Robert Ball, Frankie Ray are just okay, but I love all the sidebar characters, like the George Armitage-Firesign Theater-Duck Soup-esque senior officers (such as the colonel who tenderly combs his platoon's eyebrows before taking them on maneuvers), and I love the two giant space broads (Gloria Victor and Dolores Reed). They're given great dialogue and display copious Russ Meyer-style 'Supervixen'-style authority. Their craft is staffed with 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--clearly an unbilled 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 players work behind the scenes here, including Haze (writing), Bruno VeSota (directing), showing they learned much from their two-day shoots with old Roger.

All those elements do their best to counterbalance the hacky dervitive schtick of the two leads, and depending on your taste, may not make it. BUT at least the boys imitate all other comedy teams, rather than just one or two. Ball, the stooge, gives us a whirling roster of Joe E. Brown, Bugs, Curly, Lewis and Bert Wheeler; straight man Frankie Ray incorporates micro-imitations in a steady overlapping blur, ranging from  Peter Lorre to Jimmy Cagney and Eddie G. Robinson in addition to all the other usual suspects. 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 --there's no self-sabotage from these boys! They do their country proud. So, if like me you've studiously avoided this film 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, 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.

8. ROCKETSHIP X-M
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)


THE TENTH VICTIM
 (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 '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 alreayd 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.


4. BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER
(1960) Dir. Edgar G. Ulmer
**1/2 (APT: A-)

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 movies that today are acknowledged masterpieces of economy (and narrative dissonance) like the surreal noir classic DETOUR. 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 at the time. Geometric geodesic angles and offsets (probably from an exhibit on futuristic living space) conjure a post-apocalyptic world that seems sterile and underground, organic yet metal, somehow buried under rubble yet whole, as if floors fell through each other at odd angles, like post-modern stalactites, creating a highly stylized dream space 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 fun is spoilt by a suspicious security chief who thinks Clarke's a spy for the enemy tribe, a bunch of mutants who roam above ground (or languish in a very stylish prison below). Played, rather excessively, by the intimidating Red Morgan, this security officer is given way too many pieces of scenery to chew--on. Ulmer lets him froth at the mouth and rages so long and bitterly he almost derails the whole film. Luckily he finds something legitimate to fret about when the mutants escape. Lucky Clarke finally geta 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 the script girl's daughter Arianne Ulmer is one of the fertile mini-skirted maidens, proving that, whatever losses to the Universal horror catalogue might have resulted, standing up to uncle Carl can bear sweet fruit! 

9. ANGRY RED PLANET
(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 their perfect camouflage in 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 into their rocky surroundings mimics 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 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:

10. CONTAMINATION
(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.

1 comment:

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

    ReplyDelete

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