Operation Ganymed (1977)

Operation Ganymed (1977)‘They think we’re the little green men from Jupiter.’

Due to a communications failure, an exploratory deep space mission is presumed lost. However, the five surviving astronauts arrive back in Earth orbit ahead of schedule, only to find they cannot contact anyone on the planet. They re-enter the atmosphere with an emergency manoeuvre and ditch in the sea, ending up on a rocky, inhospitable coastline…

Serious-minded West German science fiction that bases its spacecraft and mission procedure on existing technologies to convey a realistic and believable scenario. Our astronauts are a glum bunch led by mission commander Horst Frank. Initially he remains icy cool in the face of adversity while his men seem lacking in the sort of personal qualities that you might have thought essential for the job. It’s a wonder how they got past the original psychological evaluations, let alone get back from Jupiter after the mission went south! But eventually everyone’s on the same page, and we’re in for a gritty tale of survival as our heroes try to reach civilisation across a barren wasteland.

Unfortunately, for all the plausibility and a committed cast, there’s an unmistakable feeling around the halfway point that, just like our stranded crew, things really aren’t going anywhere. Flashback montages of their mission training serve little purpose other than flagging up what we already knew about certain characters, and there’s a suspicion is just a matter of padding out the running time. There is an extended flashback to exploration on Ganymede too, and it’s important to the story, but the sequence unfolds at a deadly pace and has a very predictable outcome. The final twist in the tale isn’t exactly overwhelming either, although there is a pleasing sense of ambiguity about it.

Operation Ganymed (1977)

The photo shoot for their latest album cover hadn’t quite gone as planned…

Director Rainer Erler had most of his experience in the TV arena and there’s an unmistakable feel of an episode from a half-hour anthology show boosted to feature length. Horst Frank was mostly known for playing villains, particularly in the Western genre, but had a prominent role in Dario Argento’s ‘Cat O’Nine Tails’ (1971). Veteran character actor Dieter Laser later found fame – or perhaps that should be infamy?! – as the mad scientist who creates ‘The Human Centipede’ (2009).

Crew member Jürgen Prochnow became a star in epic World War 2 submarine drama ‘Das Boot’ (1981), went to Hollywood and took major roles in David Lynch’s ‘Dune’ (1984),  ‘Beverley Hills Cop 2’ (1987), ‘The English Patient’ (1996), ‘The Da Vinci Code’ (2006) and many others. His career even survived an appearance in Uwe Boll’s ‘House of the Dead’ (2003)!

It was going against the trend in the late 1970s to make a reality based science fiction film, although perhaps production had already begun before the global impact of films such as ‘Star Wars’ (1977) and ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (1977). This effort simply needed far more plot and a livelier cast of characters to attain a decent level of entertainment.

Kyofu densetsu: Kaiki! Furankenshutain/The Monster of Frankenstein (1981)

The Monster of Frankenstein (1981)‘In fact, we found the victim of an equally brutal murder in the park this morning. Ah, this is excellent tea!’

Dr Frankenstein creates a monster from cadavers but rejects his creation. It goes on the rampage but eventually befriends the scientist’s daughter and her blind grandfather. Unfortunately, Frankenstein is obsessed with destroying the creature and the local population are only too happy to join in…

Before Marvel became the global cinematic juggernaut it is today, their early steps into TV and film were pretty random, and betrayed a total lack of strategy or planning. Witness this early 1980s Japanese Anime feature based on their comic book series ‘The Monster of Frankenstein.’ This is a strange beast indeed; a very serious adaptation that embraces adult themes, dramatic tragedy and a fair amount of of gore. It’s certainly not for young children, and took three years before being released in the US in a dubbed version.

Of course, Mary Shelley’s original novel has been brought to the screen in countless incarnations, most of them bearing only a passing resemblance to the source material. To some extent that’s the case here, but the results are at least true to the spirit of the novel, with Frankenstein the scientist the definite villain of the piece and the monster a misunderstood and tragic figure. The film’s cleverest move is to give Frankenstein a young daughter and turn the blind hermit familiar from ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’ (1935) into the scientist’s father and former mentor. This allows for an emotional core to proceedings, which centre on the creature’s arrival in the scientist’s hometown and a chain of unfortunate events and misunderstandings that inevitably lead to a bleak, and surprisingly hard-hitting, finish.

The Monster of Frankenstein (1981)

‘Don’t worry, this won’t hurt a bit…’

Certainly, the film’s greatest strength is the storytelling. I’m not familiar with the original comic book series so I have no idea how closely it’s been adapted here, but it’s skilfully and economically done with some fresh and interesting choices. Also, without the limitations of an actor in a costume, the production delivers a truly giant and impressive creature.

Information on the technical crew behind this enterprise seems somewhat limited but Toyoo Ashida was in charge of animation. He was a veteran of Japanese TV and has credits stretching right back to the early 1970s. Of course the technique on display doesn’t rival the achievements of more modern artists working for Studio Ghibli for example, but it still delivers with a style appropriate to its comic book roots, and the young heroine will seem familiar to those who follow more recent achievements in the genre.

An interesting variation on the Frankenstein legend, including some smart narrative choices. If you’re a fan of the story, or Japanese Anime in general, you should really check this out.

The Alien Factor (1978)

The Alien Factor (1978)‘Ed’s body has deteriorated beyond old age almost to the point of being a decayed corpse.’

An alien spacecraft crashes unseen in the woods near a small town. Shortly afterwards, locals begin turning up dead, leaving the authorities baffled and blaming wild animals. The Sheriff wants to call in the state police but the Mayor is cooking up a big business deal and wants to keep a lid on things…

Don Dohler was an independent filmmaker who was behind a string of low-budget horror and science fiction pictures in the early days of the home VHS rental boom. He’d begun his career with a couple of well-regarded short subjects and a self published film magazine before moving into features. This was his first effort, a fairly generic horror/science fiction mashup featuring extra terrestrials on the rampage in a small, isolated rural community.

The film is a typical example of the genre, with the usual awkward dialogue and stilted line delivery familiar to followers of no budget cinema. We get a tried and tested cast of characters; the heroic Sheriff, the dodgy Town Mayor who doesn’t want bad publicity, the quirky boffin who fetches up on a meteor hunt. None of them have any depth to begin with and the script provides no character development that would encourage emotional investment from an audience. In fact, we find out almost nothing about anyone, besides the fact that they like all like to repeat plot points we already know.

SFX are not too bad for such an obviously cheap production, although the aliens are just tall men in costumes. Special mention must go to the musical score which mostly consists of harsh electronic noises, inserted seemingly at random. On the credit side, the snow bound forest landscapes are quite an effective backdrop to the action and Dohler at least keeps things moving, although some scenes are clearly just padding to boost the running time.

The Alien Factor (1978)

Their first dance was not a massive success…

As is par for the course in the circumstances, many of the crew did double duty on the technical side, fulfilling multiple roles. Many of them were still on board with Dohler when he did the whole thing again with remake ‘Nightbeast’ (1982) and ‘The Galaxy Invader’ (1985), which covered much the same  ground. Ernest D Farino didn’t stick around for long though; next up was work on John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ (1982) and a little number called ‘The Terminator’ (1984) for James Cameron. Here he’s credited with designing the opening titles, which are pretty good, considering he probably only had limited resources at his disposal, and the stop-motion monster at the climax, which isn’t. 

‘Nightbeast’ (1982) has another name you might recognise on the crew: J J Abrams! It’s his first professional credit in any capacity – and his only one – for providing ‘Sound Effects.’

A minor science fiction programmer, let down by an uninteresting script that fails to add any wrinkles to a familiar idea, and a cast who lack the ability to inject any life into their cardboard characters.

Fury In Marrakesh (1966)

Fury In Marrakesh (1966)‘The man you killed was in her dressing room – and he wasn’t there for fun!’

An international cartel of villains plan to flood the world with counterfeit banknotes hidden by the Nazis. One of their employees steals some of the loot, and her spending activities alert the US security agencies. The CIA send an untested agent to investigate…

Fairly typical Eurospy product with this week’s ‘Bond on a Budget’ being Canadian actor Stephen Forsyth as CIA man Bob Dixon. He’s mostly joined by an Italian cast, but this is an Italian-French co- production so we also get the lovely Dominique Boschero, who was so good as the evil ‘Queen of the World’ in ‘The Fantastic Argoman/The Incredible Paris Incident (1967). Actually, there’s more than the usual ration of eye candy for the discerning gentleman viewer with ruthless blondes Antonella Margia and Cristina Gaioni and Chinese agent Mitsouka, who actually had an unbilled role opposite Sean Connery in ‘Thunderball’ (1965).

There are also plenty of gadgets for Forsyth to utilise but sadly most of them only appear in a sequence where he goes to get fitted out for his mission, a scene not entirely unfamiliar to anyone with a passing knowledge of ‘Q’ Division. He does get to use a flame thrower disguised as a cigarette lighter, an infra-red viewer and a balloon parachute, although we don’t see this actually deployed.

Fury In Marrakesh (1966)

He was not impressed with the latest 3-D experience.

Most of the action takes place in New York and Morocco so we get a few typical ‘tourist board’ shots, and a tour of the cabarets of Marrakesh, but the climax comes together in the Alps. This features some good stunt work with a light plane and a helicopter, although we do get a story ‘twist’ that’s so obvious that it barely deserves the description.

Writer Ernesto Gastaldi later got involved with the screenplays of a couple of comedy Spaghetti Westerns developed from ideas by great director Sergio Leone: ‘My Name is Nobody’ (1973) and ‘A Genius, Two Friends and An Idiot’ (1975).  Directors Mino Loy and Luciano Martino were better known as producers, although Martino scripted almost 100 films, one of which was Sergio Leone’s full directorial debut ‘The Colossus of Rhodes’ (1961). Forsyth worked up a few more credits, but quit acting in the early 1970’s to become a composer.

A fairly formulaic entry in the Eurospy cycle, with decent enough production values to ensure that it’s a cut above the worst of the genre, but without the creativity or invention to make it stand out from the crowd.

The Devil’s Man/Devilman Story (1967)

The Devil's Man/Devilman Story (1967)‘You are only as beautiful as I am ugly. Señorita, you want some chestnuts?’

A brilliant brain surgeon is kidnapped shortly after he arrives in Rome with his daughter. An American journalist agrees to work with her to track him down, but their investigations lead them into danger in the uncharted African desert.

It’s always a little tricky evaluating films made on foreign shores (Italy, in this case) that have been ‘adapted’ for release in US and UK markets. This one was quite probably pretty bad in the first place, but the attentions of an ‘overenthusiastic’ editor certainly don’t do it any favours, and leave us drowning in a sea of incoherence. The picture opens with a very brief pre-credit sequence of a man escaping from some kind of secret base guarded by desert tribesman. He isn’t properly introduced, and never appears again, although we do find out who he was supposed to be. But that’s an ongoing problem here; character identities are never probably established, and several of them don’t even get names, despite featuring quite prominently.

There is also some confusion as to the featured cast. According to the imdb, our brain surgeon is played by Giovanni Cianfriglia who, as Ken Wood, appeared as masked crimefighter Superargo in a couple of films around the same time. Cianfriglia filled out that superhero suit quite impressively with his athletic physique and muscular development. He was most definitely not a small, grey haired man approaching his sixties! Simiarly, imdb credits Euro-babe Diana Lorys as ‘Yasmin’ but, unless our friend with the ready scissors excised her role completely, she doesn’t appear either. So what gives? Well, it appears that the problem’s arisen because this film shares a lot of the same players as ‘Superargo and the Faceless Giants’ (1968). Both movies star Guy Madison (more familiar from US Westerns!), heroine Luisa Baratto and suppprting actor Valentino Macchi. Also both were directed by Paolo Bianchini (Paul Maxwell for US audiences). So, Cianfraglia and Lorys, who appeared in the ‘Superargo’ film, have ended up credited here as well.

Back at the story, once the opening credits have rolled, we join Professor Whatsisname (played by someone or other) and daughter Baratto (Liz Barrett for US audiences) as they disembark at Rome’s main airport. It’s a strange sequence. The Professor checks in with a passport that looks like a comic book, people wander aimlessly about the terminal for five minutes, a lounge lizard croons on the soundtrack and the camera tilts at some truly alarming ‘dutch’ angles. I guess it was supposed to be ‘style’ but it looks more like the camera operator had a few too many at lunchtime. There’s no other sequence quite like it in the film.

Once they’ve arrived at the hotel, the Prof is off for some scientific meeting, leaving Baratto to wander aimlessly about the streets of Rome for five minutes, being offered chestnuts by some ugly bloke and such like total irrelevancies. Eventually, she goes to see her father and finds him gone and his colleague murdered. Up pops reporter Guy Madison who stops her calling the police (they never get called) and persuades her to investigate her father’s disappearance with him as he’s found clues in the lab referring to ‘Dorothy’ and the initials ‘K.B.’ She goes along with this, despite never having met him before or knowing who he is. They catch a taxi outside, which he stops suddenly a few minutes later so he can go and meet ‘Dorothy’ on a bridge. She’s just there. Somehow. She doesn’t know ‘K.B.’ but the initials are on her key ring! Cut to Madison talking with some bloke. We gather this is supposed to be ‘K.B.’ He never appears in the film again. Neither does Dorothy. Who were they exactly again? Now, all this total incoherence begs an obvious question. If you have to edit a film down to 82 minutes from a longer cut, why would you reatin the lengthy scenes at the airport and Barrato being offered chestnuts and instead bin vital exposition scenes that might actually have helped the plot make some kind of sense? It’s a mystery that will probably never been solved.

The Devil's Man/Devilman Story (1967)

‘Didn’t you think I was good as Superargo?’

Anyway, the trail leads to the African desert, where they have absolutely no trouble in getting a line on this ‘secret base’ and the ‘Devil Man’ who rules the local region. On the way they are suddenly attacked by a huge tribe of desert nomads who look like they’ve arrived from another movie entirely and, given that less than a half a dozen share the frame with our heroic couple, they probably have.

Then it’s off to the base where our ‘Phantom of the Opera’ villain has recruited the Prof to help transfer an electronic brain into his head (or something like that). On his staff is veteran Italian character actor Luciano Pigozzi, who is always good value, and is fondly remembered from other such ‘guilty pleasures’ as ‘Lycanthropus (Werewolf In A Girls’ Dormitory’) (1961) and ‘Yor, The Hunter From The Future’ (1983). Anyway, Madison throws punches at guards, fires a gun, the desert tribesmen attack (at least I think it’s them, it’s all a bit dark!), and everything blows up. In fact, it all blows up so violently that either the SFX team had some dynamite they had to use up or explosion footage from other films was on sale that week (probably the latter).

This was probably not a good film in any version, but the US cut is quite the trainwreck. Highly recommended.

Message From Space (1978)

Message From Space (1978)‘You don’t believe in these silly nuts. A nut is a nut, after all.’

The intergalactic raiders of Gavanas conquer the peaceful Jullicians. The leader of the subjected people sends eight mystical seeds out into the cosmos to search for the eight heroes who will deliver them from their enemies. A trio of young punks and an idle rich girl are four of the recipients, along with a grizzled old General and his pet robot. Can they possibly succeed?

The global impact of ‘Star Wars’ (1977) created a cinematic science fiction bandwagon in the following decade that filmmakers from all around the world were only too eager to join. This particular effort originated in Japan, which is not surprising given their cinematic history. Actually, sources differ concerning the origin of this project, some claiming the film was already in the can prior to the unleashing of the George Lucas phenomena. What does seem clear is that the release of ‘Star Wars’ (1977) was delayed in Japan so this effort could reach the big screen first.

lt does seem rather hard to believe that this film was created independently of its far more famous US counterpart. It’s not the main story so much as the trappings that come with it. We get a Jullician Princess-heroine in a white bedsheet with an interesting hairdo (involving a lettuce, by the looks of it), a ‘cute’ robot bearing more than a resemblance to R2D2, and main villain Emperor Rockseia Xll in a strange silver mask, who wouldn’t have looked out of place on TV fighting The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Although he does take orders for his old mum in a wheelchair. It’s hard to imagine Darth Vader putting up with that. It’s also curious to note that the concept of the eight heroes is highly reminiscent of ancient folklore and also ‘The Seven Samurai’ (1954), a film cheerfully ripped off in its turn by producer Roger Corman in his own totally unconnected space epic ‘Battle Beyond the Stars’ (1980).

Recruited for American audiences are veteran character actor Vic Morrow, who had become a star on TV show ‘Combat!’ in the early 1960s, and hot shot heroes Philip Casnoff and perky Peggy Ann Brennan. For hometown audiences, there’s martial arts legend Sonny Chiba, who had form in cheap science fiction after headlining ‘Invasion of the Neptune Men’ (1962). He’d obviously not learned his lesson. Morrow’s career was none too healthy by this point, and he must have been pleased to pick up an easy paycheque. Ironically, his star was on the rise again only a few years later when he met with a deadly helicopter rotor blade on the set of ‘The Twilight Zone —The Movie’ (1982), a tragic accident that went on to prove that big Hollywood directors can afford really expensive lawyers. Casnoff went on to win a Golden Globe for his performance as Frank Sinatra in a TV biopic in 1993.

Message From Space (1978)

This film was made before ‘Star Wars’ right?

Sadly, the greatest cast could not have saved this. lt’s hopelessly cheesy. To begin with, our heroes are ‘chosen’ by glowing walnuts. Yes, I know they’re magical seeds that have scoured the cosmos, but they look a lot like walnuts. One turns up in Morrow’s drink when he’s at a bar with his ‘cute’ little robot. By the look on his face, you can tell it’s not ‘Happy Hour’. Aside from Morrow, everyone overacts dreadfully, probably just trying to get some life out of the damp, ‘dead on arrival’ script.

What makes things immeasurably worse is the bargain basement SFX. The spaceship models are probably the best element, but even they are obviously models and wouldn’t fool a 5-year old. Everything else looks cobbled together from cardboard and sellotape, and there are typically bad examples of ‘laser’ effects that are supposed to put the audience in mind of lightsabres.

All in all, a truly hopeless effort, redeemed by a few, scattered laugh-out loud moments.

Castle of Evil (1966)

Castle of Evil (1966)‘That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me without their hand on my knee.’

A dying scientist calls six old acquaintances to his island home to listen to his last will and testament. By the time, they arrive he is apparently already dead, but asks them to find his murderer anyway…

Initially intriguing variation on an ‘Old Dark House’ mystery, assisted by a veteran cast who do their best to paper over the cracks of a desperately uninteresting screenplay. Sure, there’s a slight science fiction twist to the usual ‘Agatha Christie’ setup, but events develop very slowly and the film mostly consists of predictable character interactions, talk, and more talk.

Luckily, we have an experienced cast who know how to get the best out of this list of walking cyphers; the faded good time girl, the failed doctor, the greedy lawyer, the masterful hero, the innocent heroine, etc. etc. Virginia Mayo was a bona fide movie star in the 1940s with a featured role in Best Picture Oscar Winner ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ (1946) and as love interest opposite Danny Kaye in ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ (1947), Gregory Peck in ‘Captain Horatio Hornblower’ (1951) and even James Cagney in the classic ‘White Heat’ (1949). Hugh Marlowe had appeared in supporting roles in ‘Twelve O’Clock High’ (1949), ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ (1951) and another winner of Best Picture, ‘All About Eve’ (1950). Lisa Gaye had been an inmate at ‘The House On Haunted Hill’ (1958) and Scott Brady and David Brian were familiar faces from TV and feature Westerns. But perhaps the most notable presence was the debuting Shelley Morrison, whose long career was pretty undistinguished until she appeared as a somewhat less sinister housekeeper in TV sitcom smash ‘Will & Grace’ over 30 years later.

Castle of Evil (1966)

Spending too much time under the sun lamp proved to be a bad idea.

Unfortunately, what lets this enterprise down is the pedestrian script by Charles A Wallace, who’d mostly penned episodes of TV Westerns like ‘Tales of Wells Fargo’ and ‘Johnny Ringo’. There is simply no life in it, as our cast bravely mouth cliché after chilé as the plot treads water.  The mystery is suddenly all explained in one scene after about an hour, leaving nothing left but a slow limp to a climax so flat and abrupt that the credits seem to appear before it’s really over.

Wallace and director Francis D Lyon had worked together before (more TV Westerns), and did again on Lyon’s last picture, the Adam West-Nancy Kwan crime thriller ‘The Girl Who Knew Too Much’ (1969). Lyon did have a little previous experience in the fantasy genre though, having delivered aquatic aliens in damp squib ‘Destination Inner Space’ (1966) and some ‘guilty pleasure’ chuckles in midnight movie favourite ‘Cult of the Cobra’ (1955).

Sadly, this is a doodle of a movie; a thin premise scribbled on the back of the script pages of far better films.