Thursday, September 24, 2020


You could do a lot worse with your retro escapist sci-fi yen then explore the six films that loosely comprise the Ivan Reiner/Antonio Margheriti  Gamma One series. Set in a mid-60s sexy space future that's rich in endearingly cheap analog (in-camera) special effects (i.e. laser guns fire actual flames that, of course, go up rather than out, like blow-torches), beautiful miniature cityscapes (as above), detailed space stations and big air launch pads, tough guy performances, cohesive interplanetary space-military jargon, and occasional stealth feminism--what a package! And binding it all together with the force of a wild planet's gravity; no-nonsense scripts rife with detailed scientific toughness. We're right in there amidst the revolving satellite communication rooms and interplanetary television relays via some combination global NASA and Air Force called the United Democracy Space Center that unites all the whirling stations together. 

What is so fascinating is how they are linked, not as some obvious (numbered) series, but with recurring characters, actors, sets, props, character names, miniatures, and a shared general mise-en-scene future: the same united government and revolving circular space stations in orbit around the solar system with names like "Gamma One" and "Gamma 3."  But this isn't a TV series-based movie series like the Star Trek films, nor a series stemming from instant pop culture pervasion like Star Wars. These films aren't titled to draw attention to the others in the series. Each stands alone but just uses the same characters, actors, writers, sets, and props, though the actors sometimes switch characters! So just is what is going on with this series, and why am I so fascinated?

The main four films that comprise the "Gamma One Quadrilogy" were shot over a two year period in the mid-60s by genre journeyman Antonio Margheriti (using the Americanized pseudonym 'Anthony Dawson') with co-producing and writing by American science fiction writer Ivan Reiner: Set in a future where mankind has moved out into space in much the way Werner von Braun imagined in those early-60s Disney documentaries (clearly used as inspiration): with inner tube slow spinning gyroscope-esque space stations, meant to revolve in a way that creates artificial gravity (though the FX guy clearly forgets that, amongst other things). Mostly set on the space station "Gamma One," we see men and women working side-by-side, clad in corsets and muted polyester uniforms. Interplanetary threats come in the form of 'wild' planets, mutant-making splinter societies, abominable snowmen, and unified intelligence 'diaphanoids.' They are all overcome by the station's intrepid commander, Rod Jackson (!). 

There is also a loosely connected prequel--that's actually one of Margheriti's best--the Claude Raines-starring Battle of the Worlds, from 1965. (not to be confused with War of the Planets or War Between Planets - they are three different films in the sort-of series, meant to evoke HG Wells, of course, but keeping 'War' and 'Worlds' separated by synonyms.)

One reason I lover them is the way they never bother to spoon-feed us an explanation of their detailed official procedures and intercommunication. You have to watch these films a few times to learn what the differences are between the Gamma, Alpha, and Delta space stations; you also have to learn the names of ships (given the names of planets, just to confuse) and manned satellites (like "Echo"), and they are not easy to keep separate as often the effects referred to are either not added (probably for budget reasons) or the same shots are used for these other planetary exteriors, hence the interior of a small outpost, a big satellite, and a planet surface may not be easily distinguishable). Also, the names of crew stay the same from film to film, but actors switch roles, furthering the mystery. Add the overly similar titling and chances are you've missed one. For example I was a fan of War Between Planets for a long time without realizing War of the Planets was a totally different film, albeit with some of the same cast in different roles, and that Battle of the Worlds was a whole other entity. 

Of course my enthusiasm for this odd duck series may blind me to their overall niche appeal. The special effects are pretty bad, especially in the central four. First, there are no optical effects at all in these central films. Forget about CGI, or hand-painted glowing shapes. In Margheriti's central quadrilogy, there's not even a laser beam scratched into the celluloid. When men are floating in space, the wires are always visible, tugging at their waistbands, and far away astronauts are represented by floating plastic toy! When these characters fire their lasers (one guy even pronounces them 'lazz-ers'), it's as giant cigarette lighters meet blow torches, so they have to aim at things only at targets above them as that's where the flame is going anyway. When the ships roar through the cosmos there's this prop with three of them flying in formation, each spitting fire into nose of the one behind from their exhaust as they roar through the darkened room. In the light of the sparks not only do you see the clear plastic rod connecting all three ships to each other, held up by some offscreen hand, you can make out the outlines of the studio back wall, painted black to resemble outer space but slightly shiny, and the thin line of light around the Exit door. The stars are almost afterthought. The Earth, when visible, is as 2D as if it was hanging in the back of kid's a stage show. Sometimes the darkness of space is more a light blue depending on how alert the lighting tech is. 

But who cares when the exterior miniatures are super cool like this? The imagination is there, and I'll take an unconvincing miniature on visible wires over even the most realistic CGI any day. 

Below I've sketched out your handy guide to the six films that can be considered the sextet. The Main Four, the Gamma One Quadrilogy are first up  

(note that the ratings for all these are relative - so a film with four stars is four stars in comparison to the others, and so forth - ALL are worth seeing more than once. If you're into that sort of thing.)

I criminali della galassia 
(1966) Dir. Antonio Margheriti 

Though it has easily the best of all the movie posters (above). a title that urges you to consider it in the same hipster vein as Wild, Wild West, and a lot of great miniatures, ideas, and kooky sets, the first in "Anthony Dawson's" official Gamma One quartet suffers IMHO from too many gross outs (and a hero whose horror of genetic difference is both reprehensible and contagious), with one or two too many outdoor scenes set back on Earth (nothing takes the air out of a goofy sci-fi movie like bright Italian sunlight), and a ridiculous villain who needs a shave and an audit: the corporate chemist "Mr. Nurmi" (Massimo Serato) and the saddest butterfly dancers you'll ever see. 

A eugenics-crazed lunatic with his own corporation-owned planet, Delphus, Mr. Nurmi has a master plan to abduct 'perfect specimens' of Earth via a chemical that shrinks them down to Barbie-size, so he can package them in briefcases for export. He's always clamoring about "perfection" even as his Klingon-esque eyebrows are peeling off under the sweaty soundstage kliegs (everyone in the cast shines with dew point sweat like they're in the Philippines). But more ridiculous is the incredible slowness of Mike Halstead (Tony Russel) of Space Command to figure out what's going on. He regularly misses obvious clues (clones appearing in several places at once) and dismisses his own sister's eyewitness accounts as hysteria, at least at first. Eventually, his team figure it out and, thanks to a cool sketch artist dome, get an exact ID, but the skeevy irritation lingers. 

Still, this is such a completely realized mise-en-scene, such cool futuristic miniatures, futuristic cars, ray guns, etc. that it's hard to stay bummed for long. Ivan Reiner (New York City-living Batman co-creator) gets sole screenwriting credit, indicating that the tenets of the series are really his baby. The impetus to make this a kind of loose "James Bond in space" series is clear here in this first film more than any of the ones that would follow. 

One-Offs: One tack that would disappear after this first entry is a typically-Italian anti-corporate motif in the form of gigantic chemical company CBM -who can get away with whatever they want, leaving Halstead to save the day by escaping house arrest (after Nurmi complains). It's a cliche'd antiauthoritarian slant that doesn't taste right in this kind of utopian collective future. We wouldn't see such division between human factions again, which is one of the series' main appeals --the government actually works.  

But here? "All these parts of people, shrunken organs," Halstead notes, "kind of makes me sick to my stomach."
Special Effects: As with most of the series, the effects are terrible - ray guns are basically sparklers and lighters cranked to eleven (all effects are in-camera) Luckily Margheriti would rather give you a poorly designed alien world than just have another static, cheap, talky scene. But oh brother, don't get me started about the grimy-looking "Proteo Theater" with its butterfly dancers! Man, does Nurmi have some odd ideas about entertainment.

Feminism:  The romantic bickering between the 'married to his job' Commander Mike Halstead (Tony Russell) and martial arts expert Connie, i.e. Lieutenant Gomez (Lisa Gastoni) has aged very badly. Connie doesn't give too good an impression of women in the workforce. When she gets the leering proposition to go away to Nurmi's off-limits corporate planet, Delphus, she takes leering Nurmi up on it. merely because he calls her "a marvelous jungle animal" that he wants to to "explore."  And when she snaps to Mike, "I want to be treated as a woman, not as an equal," you want to find the macho idiot who wrote that line (I hope it wasn't Reiner!) and belt him with a hardcover version of Molly Haskell's From Reverence to Rape. Worse still, Connie goes from demonstrating karate to freaking out when blood comes out of the shower on Delphus, then submissively letting herself be locked up in an old-school medical version of a pillory without any argument. The language used by the guy introducing her to Nurmi is also offensive ("she's 100% for our commander, like she's some kind of reserved bottle of wine." ) Halstead meanwhile is such a dumbass sexist he doesn't even notice how his own arrogance is responsible for driving her into the arms of a clearly villainous creep, so he's neither protective nor nurturing, making him utterly worthless as a boyfriend even by 60s Italian standards.  

Score: A.F. Lavagnino's orchestral theme is mighty wistful, with harp, synth, and chime accents as it lilts into drowsy floating lullaby accents even for things like space station maintenance. Echoey vibes and murky low end strings aid other areas with an aura of futuristic ominousness. 

Good Effects:  The beautifully-lit miniatures, reflecting launch pads with departing rockets, space port entrances, trains, and cityscapes, all a-glisten under black skies in memorable establishing shots. Dig the full size set of the front of UDSCO (United Democracies Space Command), replete with subway maps, check-in desk, shop windows, with the working futuristic cars (though when they're outside the feeling is more Dr. Who or The Prisoner more than James Bond.) Margheriti takes time to give us busy (indoor soundstage-shot) exteriors of the UDSC, replete with televisions in windows advertising things like the "Computo-doll" (a computer animated talking baby doll) and "Nu-Face" an at-home plastic surgery kit (another anti-establishment satiric angle that thankfully doesn't carry over to any of the other films). 

I will forgive the terrible blue eyeshadow/pink lipstick combination of the enemy kung fu women because one of them gets ti abduct/kill a young moppet for no clear reason. There's a great hotel room fight between a bunch of them and the three space force Gamma 1 officers (which include a young Franco Nero in a supporting part); though it's funny kung fu Connie hangs in limbo on Delphis all the while. And there's a cool mid-air escape from an apartment window by Halstead after he's confined to quarters, when his crew (including Nero) swing by to pick him up in a craft before zipping over to Delphus! the ship swings around like a crazy pendulum over the miniature city and I love every second. There's a cool shoot-out where the boys massacre a whole army of mutant clones, their four arms waving menacingly (some only have two but who's complaining?) and a final all-out brawl as the set is flooded with bloody eviscera-water that' evokes both Danny Torrance's special Overlook elevator and the flooding of the Romans after Moses gets across the Red Sea. And I have no problem with Connie riding out the big climax in her underwear. It lets us know that sexy poster is no lie after all! 

Unexcusable Offenses: Nurmi's mission on Halstead's station is to create living, autonomous human organs for transplants; Halstead looks at them and expresses his distaste; and then we're supposed to buy that a villain hung up on perfection wouldn't think his beautiful people might object to a life spent lounging by an open swimming pool full of blood and pureed human viscera (which they're also expected to shower with)? I felt like my whole DVD collection needed to be fumigated. 

Parts of the film seem to have been cut for budget for time, with 'Dawson' way more interesed in shoveling on the gross anti-science beyond logic (Nurmi's grand plan to become one with Connie involves literally slicing their bodies in half, literally--has anyone really thought this through?).

The tour of his place (under the blood lake) is freaky though, with a room full of deformed mutants straight of an AIP Lovecraft adaptation and trays full of severed limbs being dumped into the lake as 'leftovers'.  Even with all this ickiness, for me the most disquieting is the uncanny look Nurmi's cloned henchman--a tall sharp-nosed man with an obscenely bald head barely covered by a fascist infantry cap, wearing a cheap black rubber raincoat too sizes too small. He's like that weird guy you have to be friends with in school since he's the only other kid who listens to punk rock. Luckily all his clones have four arms (making them "a freak... a sickening freak" according to Halstead). The rest of Nurmi's 'perfection' army are women suffering a surfeit of oily make-up, unflattering costumes (only the men wear corsets in the future!) and godawful hair styles. 

Enzo Fiermonte: He's called General Fowler here (the "Italian Burt Lancaster" plays a general in all four of the main quadrilogy but never keeps the same name)

Obsessive Details for the Weird Fan like Me: there's a pixie-faced brunette girl who keeps popping up as an extra in all these films as one of the crew. Here she actually gets some lines of dialogue (like "there's another phone call for you, commander, they say it's urgent," when passing him the phone). I have yet to find out who she is, but it's fascinating that she's always around in all four films--a kind of ancestor to Cobie Smulders' SHIELD character in those MCU movies). 

Look for the only half-shrunk scientist (Franco Doria) close to the bottom of the screen, to survive at the end, when Connie is revealed in a fetching bathing suit and the gang is kicking back with cocktails by the (normal-colored) swimming pool. He's not bitter; he's impressed "it's not humorous, it's extraordinary!" (We don't get a cutaway to a close-up of him that might make the moment land). Try to figure out what is going on with Fowler and the thing he found in the wreckage ("my lucky number") that we don't get an insert close-up to see, or what drug he's talking about ("Sactanon"?) that he got on Delphus that "cleared (his) mind completely." Another cutaway seems to be missing... but that's the Margheriti touch. If you wanted 'perfection' you wouldn't be here. 

I diafanoidi vengono da Marte 
(1966) Dir. Antonio Margheriti

Now safely off of Earth and up on Gamma 1, Commander Mike Halstead (Tony Russel) and Lieutenant Connie Gomez (Lisa Gastoni) are celebrating New Years at a big cross-all-Gamma stations party. People are hammered but Halstead and Gomez are still up to their old 'not as cute as they think' bickering, and all the stations are competing for the best space display. Gamma One's entry: a live space ballet of cheerleader-style astronaut formations spelling "Happy New Year" (in English!). Clearly it's a shrewd time to launch an invasion. One of the officers on duty that night, Captain Jacques Dubois (the Satanic-looking Michael Lemoine) is possessed by a green-lit fog while getting off or on duty. A hive mind of bodiless creatures roaming the galaxy in search of the ideal hosts are soon attacking all the space stations through their green light displays (which the revelers presume are fireworks or DTs). Though the Gamma crews are all too busy getting drunk and/or snogging (designer Berenice Saprano created lots of futuristic--albeit tasteful--dresses for the ladies) to take it seriously at first. 

Margheriti proves himself a master of well executed crowd movements in the the way the emergency is gradually relayed from just an observation of a small spike in background radiation all the way to evacuation of all guests, and the way the guests--drunk--make it disembarkation no easy task. Ivan Reiner is joined by Renato Morretti for the detail-rich scripting. 

Effects: I think the glowing green lights everyone sees flashing in the corner of their eyes are supposed to be something tangible Margheriti hopes will be added in later (in vain). The closest thing to an alien representation is some rushing green smoke illuminated by an off-camera green gel (and occasionally the sight of some weird floating blob thing that Margheriti seems ashamed of its almost subliminal). We have to take Halstead's right hand man's word that "you did it commander - you knocked 'em right out of orbit" by- luring them between two lead shields and then blasting 'lazzers' at them. When he tells the crew to "get ready with the .38s!" it's pretty funny - imagining shooting bullets at puffs of smoke. We're a long way from the same year's Planet of the Vampires, which managed to get by with using a few bicycle reflector lights to depict a similar alien threat (bodiless spirits possessing astronauts - an all-too common--and cost-cutting--threat). But we're still in the same country, with the same abundant creative spirit and ability to a do a whole lot on a relatively small budget. Maybe Italans just have an aversion to out-of-camera effects? Even MY effects--pin scratches on super 8mm as kid--would have been something. They use them in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, they should be good enough for Margheriti. 

Egregious Offenses: Though never as full of gross ideas as the Wild Wild Planet there are some gastronomically distressing concepts at play. For one, there's this dusty old automat kind of setup on Mars station, long abandoned, wherein you just push a button and get "lobster tails ala bracco" instantly delivered from inside a steel block. But then second officer Franco Nero sits right down and gorges himself without the slightest qualm, never considering it must have been a long time since anyone reloaded the freezer, or maybe even plugged it in). When he's all done and mutters "What do we do with the garbage, leave it for the maid?" I find it especially wrankling. It's been a long time since I heard a lobster so disgraced coming and going! The "garbage"?

Enzo Fiermonte status: Imdb has him billed General Halstead here (Mike's father!). But actually he's playing the scientist Werner and slightly less behind the learning curve than usual, with probing questions like, "Did something happen, if so, what? Then we can ask... why?" Later he becomes one of the first scientists to want to experience an alien mind meld ("I would like to... experience this.") Halstead Sr. is more of the mind that "We'll need some of that boy's wild bravado before this is all over," after his son disobeys orders yet again. 

Plusses: Lots of groovy tracking shots this time, one involving a helmet-less stagger across a flat Martian exterior surface at the climax, with a red tinted space sky and full size ships and vehicles gaspingly passed (all indoor soundstage with cool lighting). There is also a marvelous walk across what is a big hangar / boiler room / garage / soundstage garage on either Gamma One or Earth, as the crew set out on their journey to a remote mining planet (Mars?); and a long, kind of pointlessly elongated automated walkway journey down into the dark recesses of the mine where the "hosting" ceremony is going on. The big New Years parties on all the various space stations and Earth HQ are also shown in elaborate detail, as if we'll see these people again (we never do).  These are easily the best parts, where all the money and creativity was lavished. 

Feminism: Along with the first film, this is one of the sexist of the series, with Sanchez easily hypnotized into a green trance, and spending most of the movie a zombie, and there's an older officer as well (same deal). They don't get much dialogue but Sanchez gets all pissy when--again--Mike treats her like an officer in front of the troops instead of like a sex object ("how dare you treat me with respect!") She looks good though, and there are more than a few pretty faces floating around at the party (such as that unbilled, pixie-faced, Smulders of SHIELD forerunner I mentioned earlier). "When are you coming to Alpha 2 to teach our girls karate?" asks a fellow communications officer when Connie drops into her department (Yo, a call back!) But then emergency signals erupt from Delta-2, which she throws to Mike to keep him from 'getting involved' with a bedroom-eyes making 'two-bit ground chick' (unbilled). 

Final Thoughts: The difference between these first two films (with Halstead) and the next two are interesting in a thematic countercultural way, reflecting how rapidly outlooks can shift when the world is falling apart outside the studio. The first two films have a deep vein of subtext about the lunatic desire for 'sameness' that requires the extermination of 'imperfect' specimens, a dread of enforced uniformity that cuts both ways. But in these next two, the other side is already missedm its remnants incorporated into a 'whole' that includes both sides. There's no longer any division within the human ranks. The threats are completely external, and therefore--in my mind--far more pleasurable for repeat viewing. 

Il pianeta errante 
(1966) Dir. Antonio Margheriti 

You guessed it - the Italian title to this one is the "runaway planet" or "The Errant Planet" if you want to be exact. But distributors eager perhaps to capitalize on all the press they did for the last film could... no, no, anyway you look at it, the nearly identical titles makes no sense, especially considering how similar the films are as far as cast and props, so that you might get very confused and miss one or the other, as I did for a long long time. 

Cast: This is one of my favorites as it has Giacomo Rossi Stuart (from my favorite Bava, Kill Baby Kill!), who--with his regular voiceover dubber--a master at matching GRS's terse lip movements with great torrents of snapped dialogue, which is the way a coiled natural leader with a GI Joe-style handle like Commander Rod Jacskon would sound. Matching the lips with weird..  hesitance... and... fast-talking whennecessary." And the dialogue is rich.... and wondrous, using the weird pauses of the actors to create mood and drama rather than just making them sound drunk as they often do in the hands of lesser dubbing outfits. Even if neither you nor the actors understand what a lot of i means, it sounds official, so is reassuring: "Read your retros - don't get clogged, Mack!" / "Who's got the flagship?!"

Colli's Sanchez is in charge of communications and she's way more low-key and professional than Lisa Gastoni was with Mike Halstead in the first two films. They've been having an affair when not too busy with space and it's clear Terry can handle staying professional without throwing girly fits; and there's just one hitch - Rod's dopey, cat-eyed fiancee (Halina Zalewski of Long Hair of Death fame) is down on Earth, and happens to be the General's daughter. Pietro Maretellenzana is Toby, AKA Capt. Dubrowski, who is buddies of sorts with Commander Jackson but has a hard time taking orders.

FX: The space exterior (beyond the pull of the space wheel) is once again the worst part as far as being convincing, and therefore the best. While the astronauts stand on the edge of the platform, the stars don't move as they would if the wheel was actually spinning (to create gravity) like Von Braun envisioned, and naturally the flying through space is all done from wires so everyone looks like they're lifted up by the seat of their britches, swinging back and forth like hypnotist watches. Man it's ridiculous but the music is nice and ominous and weird throughout, full of electronics instead of the usual orchestras.

Enzo Fiermonte status: He's called General Norton here, and Janet (Zalewska) accompanies him like a secretary or something, even getting him to cut short an important meeting so she can whine about not hearing from Rod on Gamma One! Norton, that's so unprofessional! 

that unknown pixie-faced extra - left, behind Ombretta Coli.

There are no weird aliens, but the errant planet, soaring too close to earth's gravitational field, creates enough geologic and tidal disturbances that it's more devastating than an invasion (most of the calamity is offscreen but what there is looks amazing), This "wild planet" is uninhabited but impressive and alive within itself, with fields of cold red gelatin quicksand and islands of hairy ground surrounding craters breathing out plumes of cold steam, valves breathing away. Going into one of the craters, they find a world like Fantastic Voyage's bloodstream. While trying to plant anti-matter bombs they're attacked by long veinlike white tendrils that bleed but repair themselves as soon as Rod stops hacking at them.

 If we've seen the look of this interior before, those long tendrils were hanging around in the first film in the series, the Hobbit to the quartet's Lord of the Rings, if you will, Battle of the Worlds, which we speak of later. And back in 1964 in Margheriti's Battle of the Worlds it was almost the same exact planet! It's like it's back again, but in a slightly different universe.

The imdb score is unfairly low, and perhaps based on old faded VHS pan and scans (or memories of being horribly bored as a kid, catching it on TV in a horribly washed-out print) but the upgraded version, courtesy a very wonderful DVD double feature with Creation of the Humanoids from Dark Sky (one of my favorite DVDs ever ever). It lets the scheme of dark colors-- greys, blacks and deep red that make up the bulk of the palette look really rich and alluring. 

So, if space opera style drama and mature, adults doing work as an organized group in constant radio communication, painstakingly but never boringly conveyed, is your bag, this is like your homebase, the raw go-to for all your Italian swinging cocktail space station needs.  I can see it any old time, and if nothing else, it rocks me to sleep like a baby (if it doesn't do the job, Humanoids sure will). That cool dubbing voice of Stuart's "Don't get clogged, Mac!" --it's like the manly manna to lure me out of any panic attack as gelatinous planet surface seems to envelop my inner ship, essentially burying me alive in existential dread. "Use your retros!" Rod... take care of... Toby's boy!

La morte viene dal pianeta Aytin
(1966) Dir. Antonio Margheriti

Reiner Alert: One again the name Ivan Reiner crops up in the writing and producing credits.  He never wrote any non-Gamma movies (but one of his co-writers Bill Finger co-created Batman with Bob Kane and invented most of the cooler characters--Joker, Cat Woman, Riddler which makes total sense when you see this as those are all obviously the best part). Reiner, Finger and Charles Sinclair then went on to do The Green Slime in Japan.  

Cast: Giacomi-Rossi Stuart's Commander Rod Jackson is back from the previous film and is no longer with either Sanchez, He's sweatier; his crazy hairpiece is too blonde and brill-creamed over-the-top, it doesn't look comfortable, and Rod's English voice artist is different from the last guy, not in a good way. His robotic nasality is serviceable but lacks the sexy sense of virile authority and precision bought from the last film. Ombretta Colli is back, though now she's called Lisa and has strange cheekbones, a terrible wig, and is engaged to someone else. Halena Zalewski wears the same outfit and sagging reptilian black hair bun, ill-advised short sleeves, and dumpy gold lame jumpsuit. She's no longer engaged to Rod and no longer the general's daughter - now she's called Lt. Sanchez. Geoffredo Unger us back from the grave as Rod's right hand man, we see them hanging out with a ginger kid who I can only assume is Toby's orphaned son--seen at the end of the last film at his dad's funeral. Well, the kid only gets the one scene (thank goodness) and the scene is rather painful, with the two men clearly sweating in their ugly grey and yellow jumpsuits (looking extra terrible since it's clearly hot out and even the people in swim suits are sheened over with perspiration; and the ladies the tracking shots follow are rather frumpy compared to the leggy, stacked countess who has one great scene playing min-golf and answering the phone in a yard plainly only recently seeded. 

As a whole, this is a very segmented film, not unlike Empire Strikes Back in that it seems to be several different stories welded together, from the weird intro of Rod and Pulaski's vacation spots (which we never see again) to a visit to "Nepal" to climb the Himalayas (or at least a few snowy sloped hills somewhere), to a cave leading to the Snowmen's secret relay station; and then out to space to blow up one of Jupiter's moons. The 'night life' sequence with their guide (Wilbert Bradley doing an impression of a sherpa that would embarrass Alan Bourdillon Trahearne), have a sweaty pale claustrophobia that makes us glad to get on the mountain

That's all minor quibbles, of course, Each part is interesting, especially the scenes inside the snowmen's little cave weather station. The last section, the flight to Jupiter, has everything we've by now come to adore about the series, from those white air force helmets to the high wire astronauts swinging through the darkness of studio space to plant bombs on asteroids; and of course the same endearing exploding miniatures moonscapes and space stations we've seen in by now all four films. The image on the existing/circulating DVD print (also shown on TCM a lot) looks great overall, with some lovely deep impressive blacks in the cave scenes that make it the best section of the movie. I especially like the shots of the ether filtering swirling through the vents. Drawbacks include the poverty-stricken look of some of the space cockpit shots and the step back from the previous film as far as stealth feminism. Sanchez ignores the state of the disaster-stricken world to shallowly chide Rod about being with Lisa up in the Himalayas. Her character is no longer the cool professional Sanchez played by Colli the last film. We can't imagine this Sanchez coming along on a dangerous mission and carrying her own. There is that cool girl astronaut in the big ship who gets a few lines of dialogue (like "generators are go.") but overall the female presence is skimpy. 

Music: Angelo Francesco Lavagnino's theme song is second only to the Green Slime for series best, with a slinky lead guitar and a pleasingly ominous beat. The main instrument for the rest seems to be a clanging piano, lower keys banged and strings hit with a hammer for a pleasing clanf; a rippling bongo beat rolls beneath. I love it.

Enzo Fiermonte status: He gets to stay General Norton this time, even if his daughter is now nonexistent (With Zalewska playing Lt. Sanchez). He's just as ineffectual as ever, getting all flustered when Jackson isn't right at his post even though he just approved leave, getting mad he didn't use the heli-jet, not realizing it's been destroyed, and so forth. The scenes of him back on the ground with a cadre of other grey-haired officers are kind of ugly; everyone has that sheen of sweat from glaring lights, and when they smile they should hide their socialized dental work.

Uniforms: Lots of ugly costumes this time, Rod's space suit when he returns to Gamma One looks like a silver hefty bag sewn together over a tacky aquamarine drugstore Halloween costume and some cut in half plastic scuba tanks.  I like the red triangle on their navy blue uniform with the light blue trim in the middle scenes though. As I said, Zalewska's costume is the worst, this frumpy sagging gold lame overalls kind of thing hanging over black short sleeves (she's the only one with short sleeves, and it's not a good look; once she finally switches to a long sleeve black turtleneck it's much better). As with Wild Wild Planet the costumes and make-up are all substantially cheap-looking, but once we're in the caves with the snowmen there's at least some nice painted frost and clever lighting (purples and greens). Best of all, the snowmen themselves: giant actors in elegant in green vinyl bathing suits over dark grey long underwear, superior arm hair, red capes and sashes; with puffy grey hair, flaky blue makeup, frosty beards and big medallions; they look like a cadre of Germanic salt and pepper "bears" at some 70s disco. 

Odd Touches: it takes awhile to kick in at first there's some weird things; the winter station workers have a cool blue and black uniform and there's a beefy silver-haired actor as the commander of the station - a weird symbiosis to the big snow devil aliens and his salt and pepper beard. There's a yeti footprint in plaster, a global warming plot, and a sudden kiss in a tent that works for being so innocent; she's looking for her MIA husband, and he just happened to be there, and so it doesn't progress but it also doesn't get awkward between them afterwards. They're adults, in the 60s, and European, so it's all good. Lines like 'you still think of me as the abominable snowman," said in a posh Brit accent, rule. "One more step and I'll kill the female."

FX: As with all the other films in the series, the effects are all in-camera, so laser guns shoot a mix of sparklers and flames, like giant cigarette lighters or blowtorches, but this time they do shoot kind of straight ahead slightly more before flying up so everyone looks like their trying to hit the ceiling over their target's head. There are some new gorgeous exterior miniatures, including a snowbound arctic station and burning heli-jet sabotage. The shots or Rod and his crew flying from asteroid to asteroid, planting their magnet/bombs have a great foreground / background depth that's almost Wellesian. 

(1968) Dir. Kinji Fukasaku
Writer/co-producer Ivan Reiner is back one more time as is the space station design and overall vibe / mise-en-scene; instead of Gamma 1 this time (or in addition to), it's Gamma 3, further out there. Neither Jackson or Halstead are around, nor is Margheriti, but Fukasaku more than makes up for it with a well-oiled thrill machine. Shot in English with what seems to be a bigger budget, a better sense of pace and dynamics than the Margheriti films, it's a load of cohesive fun. This time the Toby-Rod dynamic from Between is back, with the square-jawed Commander Rankin (the iron cool Robert Horton) sent on an urgent mission to blow up an encroaching asteroid. First he has to go to space station Gamma 3 and that means bumping into station chief Vince Elliott (Richard Baywatch Jaeckel, sporting an aggressive blonde buzzcut and a short guy shoulder chip.) Elliott questions his decisions every step of the way, and then the mission is almost blown thanks to a dawdling biologist (the inescapable Ted Gunther) who finds a glowing green slime ball on his sample case. Uh oh. Naturally he has to bring a chunk back with him, though in a way it's not even his fault the thing gets loose and spreads like wildfire. Rankin trashes the sample case, runs decontamination three times ("three times!?" exclaims Elliott), but it's Vince who ends up killing more men in his attempts to aid the ever-clumsy Gunther.

Back on Gamma 3, Rankin moves in on more than station command, there's also the chief medical officer, sexy-lipped Luciana Paluzzi (Thunderball), dressed here in sexy silver glitter open-midriff disco-heralding jump suit. The camerawork is tight, the sets are cohesive, impressive and just artistic enough to seem inviting, with impressive close-ups; and tough (non-dubbed) English language dialogue, and of course the monsters are incredibly endearing, if sloppily-painted, and they make a groovy whir-squeal noise as they go breaking through walls in search of the electric current that stimulates their cell division. I remember my first ever rubber monster thumb puppet from the 25 cents gum ball machine when I was two or three. I loved that thing. And it looked just like these slimy monsters, so maybe I'm prejudiced. I also love the scenes of the army of cute blonde nurses wheeling wounded patients' hospital beds away from the monsters and the care the filmmakers take in displaying corridor maps so we know just where 'c-block' is.

FX: The first in the sextet to use optical effects, this has bright yellow laser beams painted on, and some process shots as the men fly around in space outside the station, zapping monsters as they swing by on their wires. 

Pros: It's probably the best parable for letting liberal empathy make you a bad leader --Vince is the kind of bleeding heart who would "kill ten to save one" as Rankin puts it (summing up one of Vince's past blunders). Paluzzi sticks up for Vince in that same puppy dog pity way that Katniss frets over little Peta in The Hunger Games. There is also a good parable to glean with the way the slime spreads and multiplies as an invasive species, ala COVID wherein once an invasive organism jumps containment, you have to keep evacuating, no room to fret and 'try', It's not long before the whole station must be blown to shreds before it crashes and spreads its tentacled plague to the world! 

In short, this movie is the best of everything. 

Score: Love that theme song with the Tommy Holland-ish lead vocal. And the Toshiaki Tsushima / Charles Fox score is very slinky, with lots of pizzicato string bends that mimic the sounds of the instrumentation, blaring horn stabs, modernist xylophones, blowsy bassoons, and the occasional thunderous string passage.

Il Pianeta degli uomini spenti / Translation: Planet of Extinct Men
(1961) Dir. Antonio Margheriti

Sort of the early prequel to Margheriti's 1966-7 "Gamma One" Tetralogy (note its American title is Battle of the Worlds, and is not be confused his War Between the Planets or War of the Planets, both of which came later). When a runaway planet enters out solar system, the world's leading observatories look to a wondrously hammy Claude Raines as a deservedly arrogant master of physics. Ever the sport, Raines dubs his own voice, superbly, and even wears a big space helmet during the big alien planet-landing climax, finally taking off his owlish black-rimmed spectacles. Racing around like a kid in a candy store through miles of alien tubing and red gel lights (an early version of the similar "runaway" in War Between the Planets), Raines saves the day by issuing grating 'music of the spheres' from his portable synthesizer. (enemy UFOs are maneuver via sound waves, leading to lots of overlaid asynchronous tones as ships race into heavily-edited dogfights). Mixing Mycroft Holmes and Henry II, Raine's mathematician physicist is so brilliant he can just write an equation on the observatory floor in chalk for the world's leaders to see (via camera phones) and the world is saved. A pair of young couples (one from a Martian outpost, and a pair from his own observatory) fawn over him and stand around in awe and then saddle up when it's time to ride out of orbit and take on "the Outsider" (as Raines dubs it). In many ways I like this film more than that Wild Wild Planet that came next in Margheriti's sci-fi development, though really both are essential. As with the others, the real show-stoppers are the gorgeous paperback-cover-ready planet and launch pad exterior miniatures. If this Battle should lack a more fully realized mise-en-scene compared to Margheriti's later Gamma One series, it does have a great rapid pace, with no word of dialogue failing to bring about a global reaction in the next scene (it can be confusing at first, almost like one long 'previously on' opening segment of a two part episode); and Raines keeps it vibrant, powering through the limits in budget with his florid A-list acting titan larger-than-life gumption. "Put me in contact with the department bigwigs; the time has come to look them in the eye."

Score: Mario Migliardi's score smoothes over any soft patches and helps to give the trippy rocky cliff over ocean scenery a proto-giallo / Sketches of Spain-style jazzy sense of forlorn class. That said, the barrage of jarring synth noises in the second half, during Raines' 'music of the spheres' phase, may wake and annoy your sleeping girlfriend if you don't keep the volume low.

Prayer for a Remastered 2K Blu-ray: Long a PD title, one can dream of seeing this one day remastered to look as good as the (above) War Between the Planets. What else is the stuffing of the stars, professor, if not such dreams? As it is, the big climax finds the astronauts all gawking at what looks like a Rauschenberg 'black' painting leaning against the tunnel floor, but is supposed to be dead aliens. It doesn't even matter; the dubbing and techno-speak dialogue are sublime and Raines raises the roof to the stars.

Honorable Mention: 

Uch├╗ daikaij├╗ Girara
(1963) Dir. Kazui Nihonmatsu

Though it shares no co-creators, it's pretty clear this was at least a partial inspiration for The Green Slime.  We get it all: a groovy theme song, an international cast of young people (including a love triangle) drinking cocktails at moon or space station lounges; and a small biological sample, growing insanely and eating all our stored energy once brought in from outer space. Green Slime does it better but The X got there first, and is a lot of fun if you don't mind the goofiness. Featuring a happy astro-theme song and groovy lounge soundtrack (courtesy Taku Izumi), a cheerful shade of blue for the outer space backgrounds, cute if unconvincing miniatures, a goofy chicken monster, and cheap-ass sets, X is set--like its Gamma One descendants--in what was--in the early-60s--considered our inevitable immediate future (all that's missing are the Von Braun-designed rotating space stations). Peggy Neal (Terror from Beneath the Sea) is the cute blonde gaijin astrobiologist Lisa in a group with three Japanese males 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, who likes him too but knows Michiko crushes so much harder, etc. Japanese sci-fi gaijin mainstay 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. An acid etched hole going down multiple floors perhaps inspired the acid blood in Alien (1979), but this time there's also a chicken size footprint etched in acid. And then a huge one outside! Our space egg has hatched and immediately grown kaiju massive! They name it Guilila for some reason, and it's got a head like a fighter jet collided with a Christmas tree, which I mean as a compliment. 

With all the fun jetting back and forth from the moon to Earth to Mars, the encounters with the orange soap dish UFO, plux that loungedelic Taku Izumi theme song always playing low in the background, the luminous glowing skin of the two lead actresses, and Guilala's aerodynamic head curling its wings up when blasting laser spitballs, it doesn't matter if Guilala's attacks are a bit on the weaker side compared to his more esteemed Toho comrades, and the miniatures never really convince. It's hardly why we turn to movies like this and the Gamma One Sextet again and agin, is it? 

Grooving at the moon's astro-lounge, foggily

You can find BATTLE OF THE WORLDS and WAR BETWEEN PLANETS streaming on Amazon Prime. For more cool 60s science fiction on Prime, check out this post from a few months ago. 

As for rest, you can find them on nice DVRs from Warner Archive. The X FROM OUTER SPACE is on the Criterion Channel but in a very soft print. You'd be better to find the Blu-ray or a a Japanese import.  
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