The War In Space/Wakusei Daisenso (1977)


War In Space (1977)‘Skipper, it seems strange. Electric waves are calling us from Venus.’

In the near future, alien spaceships attack the Earth fleet and the planet’s orbiting space stations. A brilliant Japanese professor revives an old project to build an intergalactic battleship to combat this deadly threat.

The global phenomena that was the original ‘Star Wars’ (1977) was welcomed with open arms by film producers from all around the world, who immediately began knocking out their own space operas to compete at the box office. Japan differed slightly in this respect as, by all accounts, the release of the movie was delayed there, to allow the homemade ‘A Message From Space’ (1978) into theatres first. This probably accounts for the fact that this slightly earlier effort actually bears very little resemblance to the George Lucas film, beyond the laser battles in space. And there are an awful lot of those.

Apart from lots of (fairly) reasonable models shooting out multi-coloured rays, the film takes a mostly earthbound approach to its material, with a good deal of the usual clichés present and correct. There’s a lot of sitting around planning stuff, a tiresomely predictable love triangle, heroic self-sacrifice and notable world landmarks coming to explosive ends. Some of these fiery events look suspiciously similar to those in ‘The Last War’ (1961), which kind of scuppers the producer’s claim that this was the most expensive film to come out of Japan in years! But the main problem the film has is that it’s dull. Unbelievably dull.

There are a few scattered moments of interest. The aliens attempt infiltration of Earth disguised as human beings, but their masks seem to have come from a cheap joke shop as they tear easily and expose their green skin! Their mothership seems to have been modelled after a Roman galleon, complete with figurehead and what look a bit like rows of oars! Our main villain seems to be dressed as a Centurion (perhaps there was a spare uniforms in the wardrobe department!) and his sidekick is a pantomime Minotaur! This large actor threatens the captured heroine with a cardboard axe while she wonders why she’s suddenly wearing a very skimpy top and short shorts.

War In Space (1977)

‘Hi Honey, I’m home…’

Unfortunately, anyone expecting the sort of inspired lunacy of Italian rip-offs from a galaxy far, far away, such as ‘The Humanoid’ (1979) or ‘Starcrash’ (1978) (with Hammer Scream Queen Caroline Munro, Oscar Winner Christopher Plummer and a young David Hasselhoff!) are likely to go home seriously disappointed.

This has little to offer even the bad movie fan looking for a quick giggle. Models fly about, laser beams fire, things roar when they explode in the vacuum of space, hell, you know the drill by now.

Completely disposable space shenanigans. It’s a challenge to the memory to recall much of the experience even a few hours afterward.

Invisible Avenger/Tômei Ningen (1954)

Invisible Avenger (1954)‘Yes it seems he was studying these things, experimenting with protein collision using the Cyclot Theory.’

A motorist runs over an invisible man in the street. The authorities reveal that he was one of two survivors of a wartime experiment. Panic grips the country as a gang of criminals take advantage of the situation, blaming their crime spree on the surviving soldier…

Five years after Japanese science fiction got a kick start with ‘The Invisible Man Appears’ (1949), the box office went ballistic for ‘Godzilla, King of the Monsters’ (1954). Tucked away in the Big G’s mighty shadow was another production from Toho Studios; a return to the H. G. Wells story of scientific misadventure and ‘things that man must leave alone.’

As with the first Japanese ‘Invisible Man’, our unseen hero foregoes the usual ‘mad scientist and his reign of terror’ for reluctant involvement in criminal activity, as he is forced out of hiding to prove his innocence of a string of robberies. The gang recruit an elderly watchman to assist in their latest caper, promising him the money he needs for his blind granddaughter’s eye operation. Of course, they dispose of him instead, leaving the girl to rely on her neighbours; a kindly clown and a nightclub singer who spends most of her time resisting the advances of her boss, who might just have some skeletons in his closet.

As per usual in a Japanese film, the drama is played totally straight and the cast take the more outlandish twists and turns in the script in their stride. Principals Seizaburo Kawazu (the clown) and Yoshio Tsuchiya (the reporter) both later appeared in Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Yojimbo’ (1962) and Tsuchiya had already worked with the great director on ‘The Seven Samurai’ (1954). It’s a brisk and efficient production all round, with decent direction and black and white photography. The story does threaten to get a little mawkish at times but stops short of getting too sentimental, although there are few surprises for the audience along the way.

Invisible Avenger (1954)

🎵Don’t you love farce?
My fault, I fear
I thought that you’d want what I want
Sorry, my dear 🎵

In a way, the film foreshadows the development of the character as a secret agent in the 1970s on US television. The NBC Network launched former ‘Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ David MacCallum as ‘The Invisible Man’ in their 1975 season, who tried to cure his invisibility while working as an operative for the Klae Corporation. When that didn’t take, the network tried again with the unintentionally hilarious ‘Gemini Man’ featuring Ben Murphy working for INTERSECT and turning himself invisible with a digital watch. Unsurprisingly, it was cancelled after only 5 episodes had been broadcast.

The SFX here are courtesy of Eiji Tsuburaya, who provided the same service to ‘The Invisible Man Appears’ (1949) and was head monster-wrangler for Toho until his death at the end of the 1960s. It appears there hadn’t been a huge amount of technical progress in the five years since the first film, but still the usual motifs are efficiently delivered. After all, where would we be without the floating cigarette and the sinking seat cushions? By this point, Tsuburaya was able to use his own name, having been forced to hide behind a corporate identity in the post-war years, due to his work for the defeated regime during the conflict.

Although no great shakes, this is pleasing production, assisted by its relative brief running time of 70 minutes. Further adventures for the Japanese version of the character followed in ‘Invisible Man Vs. Human Fly’ (1957).

Legend of Dinosaurs and Monster Birds (1977)

Legend of Dinosaurs and Monster Birds (1977)‘lt’s really super big news!’

A young hiker falls into an ice cave near the foot of Mt. Fuji and finds it filled with large, petrified dinosaur eggs. An ambitious young geologist goes searching for the site, looking to justify the discredited work of his dead father and to make a buck or two on the side as well. Meanwhile, the crowd at the local Dragon Festival want their ticket money back when the event is suddenly attacked by a giant Plesiosaur.

This curiously gory tale of a legendary lake monster who finally meets its match against a giant pterodactyl was a product of Japan’s Toei Studio. Although it sounds a lot like one of the monster mashups coming from the rival ‘Godzilla’ stable, this effort is more likely to have been inspired by the worldwide success of ‘Jaws’ (1975). In effect, we have a very similar setup; a local waterfront community threatened by an aquatic menace with a taste for human flesh. Only this time the slightly more plausible presence of a killer shark is replaced with that of a savage dinosaur.

Although there is apparently a lot of local monster folklore in the area where our story is set, the film never bothers to justify this Dino’s sudden rampage or to explain why she suddenly fancies snacking on the local human population rather than sticking with her usual diet of crabs and shellfish. Oh, well. At least we get plenty of blood and guts and dismembered limbs as a young woman is attacked in a dinghy and mercilessly slaughtered!

Very little is shown of either monster at first, although this was probably down to budget constraints, rather than any skill on the part of director Junji Kurata. In fact after the initial, mysterious attacks, the film completely loses its momentum. We get a boring half-baked romance and a tiresome search for the creatures, accompanied by the usual scorn and disbelief from the authorities. The film actually attempts a serious approach to its material, rather than the (ever so) slightly silly vibe of Toho’s monster rave-ups, but this is completely torpedoed around the halfway mark when we get our first good look at this Japanese Nessie. Godzilla, she ain’t.

Legend of Dinosaurs and Monster Birds (1977)

The mixed-species Synchronised Swimming event took a turn no-one had expected.

At first our scaly heroine is just a large, mechanical head, swinging around slowly with jaw flapping, accompanied by an (ever-so) slightly out of place disco soundtrack. Later on, she becomes an unconvincing giant puppet to fight the newly-hatched pterodactyl because I guess fighting each other is what giant puppet monsters do. The most frightening aspect of the whole enterprise is the Japanese Country band that open the Dragon Festival. Fortunately, our cut-price Nessie is only too willing to deliver an appropriate critique of their performance.

Apparently, this film became quite the cult hit in the USSR. It was the only monster movie released there until the 1990s but, by all accounts, it was the incidental trappings of a modern, capitalist country that fascinated the Soviet audience. All in all, it’s a curious project, given that giant monster movies were no longer box office gold, even in Japan. Toho’s original ‘Godzilla’ series had been mothballed two years earlier after ‘The Terror of Mechagodzilla’ (1975) proved to be the least commercially successful of the Big G’s screen outings (and it still is, all these years later).

The international success of ‘Jaws’ (1975) spawned many cheap imitations from around the world, but it still seems quite a leap from shark attacks to prehistoric dinos duking it out and knocking down model trees.

Worth a watch if you get a laugh from cardboard creatures, but probably best to try and find the ‘highlights’ on YouTube.

Lucky The Inscrutable/Agente Speciale L.K. (1967)

Lucky The Inscrutable (1967)‘Along with all my other talents, l happen to be a master of false bottoms.’

A suave, super spy is sent to less than exotic climes by his chief, Archangel, to break up a counterfeiting operation. On the way, he runs into a spot of bother with guns, girls and gadgets (without the gadgets) but a killer smirk and some half-arsed witticisms are just two of the weapons in his arsenal. Well, the only ones really…

Italian/Spanish spy spoof brought to us by cult director Jesus ‘Jess’ Franco, and starring Ray Danton as this week’s ‘Bond on a Budget’. Unfortunately, as it turns out, he’s on a very small budget indeed. Yes, instead of the usual round of Paris, Lisbon and Casablanca, poor Danton gets brief stopovers in London and Rome, before he’s sent to Tirana in Albania. And he never gets to leave. It’s not exactly the French Riviera, is it?

Actually, the film opens well, with a scene that evokes nothing so much as ‘West Side Story’ (1963)! A gang of cool cats wait in the street for their mark, girls coo prettily on the soundtrack, and the photography is quite gorgeous. Not that any of this helps the operative who meets his Waterloo at the hands of the gang and sets the film’s plot in motion. Such as it is. Yes, it’s bad. Everything heads around the u-bend immediately. The fight choreography is lame for a start. Ah, it’s supposed to be a comedy. Only it isn’t remotely funny. Slight problem that.

Actually, the film gets increasingly bizarre, frantic and desperate as it goes, the running time unreeling at the rate of the rapidly expiring production budget. Most of the so-called plot developments are simply an excuse for another ‘madcap’ chase scene, and these are executed with very little stunt work and a complete absence of wit or flair. The addition of ‘comedy’ music also means there’s a distinct echo of old two-reelers from the silent movie days!

Lucky The Inscrutable (1967)

‘Have you heard of something called deodorant?’

Are there any girls? Well, yes, there’s plenty of eye candy for Danton to smarm over, but none stick around long enough to make any real impression apart from the lovely Rosabela Neri. Typically, she’s wasted in just a couple of scenes as a sexy Albanian policewoman.

Are there any guns?  Yes, plenty. Sometimes it even looks as if the cast are firing them. We also get scratchy, black and white artillery emplacements firing on Danton’s private plane! Shame it’s a colour movie. Are there any gadgets? Well…no. Not really. None at all, in fact.

Director Franco went onto become something of a cult figure in Euro-cinema with a prodigious output of 203 features! It’s inevitable that the quality is all over the place, of course, but there’s no denying the sense of visual style that he brought to such projects as ‘She Killed In Ecstasy’ (1971) and ‘Vampyros Lesbos’ (1972). Unfortunately, his skills as a storyteller were less well developed, and that was a problem as he scripted most of his pictures. And with his habit of regularly knocking out more than half a dozen projects a year, there are some truly wretched examples of his work, such as ‘Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein’ (1972) and ‘The Castle of Fu Manchu’ (1969). The latter was a collaboration with Christopher Lee and the two also worked together on other, better films such as ‘The’Bloody Judge’ (1970) and ‘Count Dracula’ (1970), although these also suffered from a lack of production values. And this film is one of Franco’s real bargain basement efforts. The cheapness is even acknowledged in the film’s ridiculous climax, which is about as useless as it gets.

Spy spoofs were ten a penny in the 1960s, but you’d be hard pressed to find a worse example than this. The best aspect of the film is its brief length, but this is small consolation to the audience, as the film overstays its welcome in the first quarter of an hour.

Not recommended. Even for hard core Eurospy freaks.

Flashman (1967)

Flashman (1967)‘I’m afraid you’re wasting your bullets. They only tickle.’

Thieves murder a professor for his invisibility formula and use it to help them rob a bank. Unfortunately, a lot of their ill-gotten gains had already been replaced with counterfeit notes by a gang of beautiful women and, worse still, the chief teller is actually crime fighter Flashman in disguise.

Painfully uninspired cross between a caper movie and a superhero flick, which struggles throughout to find a focus for its rambling storyline. ls it Paolo Gozlino’s ‘Flashman’, a hero with a silly costume and not much else? ls it Claudie Lange’s girl gang, who cosy up to bank staff at work and swap out real currency with funny money right under their noses? Or is it lvano Staccioli’s cigarette floating in mid-air and chair cushions sinking under his invisible arse? Well, it’s all of these things, and none at all, really.

We open with a swinging montage of bright, primary colours and the camera zooming crazily in and out on tinted stills from the film. Girlie singers sing the name of the movie. Yeah, it’s the Sixties, baby! This Italian movie tries desperately to mine that ‘anything goes’ vibe but fails miserably to capture the spirit of the age with a pedestrian, laboured script which is little more than a scribble on a table napkin.

Our main man is Lord Burman, working undercover in his own banking to foil the counterfeiting ring, and then getting the blame for the more direct methods of the invisible bank robber and his pals. A quick exit is necessary through a convenient window, which leaves the guards flummoxed as he simply disappears! l guess it’s because he has a silly costume back in his closet at home. Also along for the ride is sister sidekick Ann Marie Williams, who contributes a series of silly outfits, outlandish makeup and little else. Flashman’s main squeeze is Micaela Pignatelli (from ‘Goldface, The Fantastic Superman’ (1967)!!), who ends up tied to the train tracks to the accompaniment of tiresome ‘comedy’ music (note the inverted commas).

Flashman (1967)

‘Something for the weekend, sir?’

No, the film doesn’t take itself very seriously, which is a bonus, so there is a fair bit of knock about humour, usually at the expense of ‘the man’, in the form of Police Inspector Baxter (Jack Ary). Sadly, it lacks, wit, style and any kind of madcap sensibility that might have provided some entertainment value. Instead, we have a succession of lifeless developments that really go nowhere, and painfully obvious pratfalls. ln the end, the film simply disintegrates into an extended climactic, chase sequence, which sorely tries the patience.

The only notable creative touch comes from director ????, who sometimes favours close-ups so huge that we can only see part of the actor’s faces. But I guess we have to be kind and assume that it’s some kind of aspect ratio issue, rather than a testament to the amount of strange substances consumed on set.

Enough material for an unfunny comedy sketch does not make for a good film.

The Invisible Man Appears/Tômei ningen arawaru (1949)

The Invisible Man Appears (1949)‘Gadzooks, it’s the cops! Let’s go!’

An elderly scientist has been working to perfect an invisibility formula for over ten years. His two best students are also tackling the problem, albeit from different angles, whilst they compete for the hand of his eldest daughter. Unfortunately, the naive professor makes the mistake of showing his research to a slimy businessman…

Apparently, Japan’s first science fiction movie, this serious-minded excursion into H. G. Wells territory is modelled after the Universal ‘Invisible Man’ series of the 1930s and early 1940s. One of the ‘unmasking’ scenes even bares a close resemblance to Claude Rains ‘unwrapping’ in the guest room of the pub in ‘The Invisible Man’ (1933) itself. We also get the usual round of floating cigarettes, sinking seat cushions and naked footprints appearing out of nowhere.

However, instead of the usual ‘mad scientist on the run’ plot, this story focuses more on the criminal possibilities afforded by invisibility, specifically the efforts of a gang of crooks to heist a priceless diamond necklace called ‘Amour Tears.’ Actually, with its skilful use of light and shadow and impressive black and white cinematography, the film often looks more like an American Film Noir than anything else. There’s also an element of mystery about the identity of the Invisible Man, which is unusual, even if the solution is not that hard to guess.

One of the notable facts about this production is the participation of Eiji Tsuburaya, who was in charge of the SFX. These are fairly slick, given the vintage of the film,  but still not quite as good as those delivered by Hollywood in previous years. Tsuburaya was actually blacklisted at the time, having worked with the governing regime during World War II, but he sidestepped the ban by forming his own company, which was credited rather than him. Five years later, he was instrumental in bringing ‘Godzilla, King of the Monsters’ (1954) to life and a long career followed as head of FX with Toho Studios and their stable of monsters. The only other familiar name is that of actor Shosaku Sugiyama, who appeared in ‘Daimajin’ (1966) for rival studio Daei. This folk tale featured a giant statue on the rampage in a coastal community and spawned two sequels.

The Invisible Man Appears (1949)

‘No one will recognise me with these sunglasses on…’

The film was quite a domestic hit and Japanese cinema returned to the character, if not this incarnation, on several occasions. Whether it can be successfully argued that this project paved the way for Japan’s science fiction bonanza of the 1950s is doubtful. This often plays far more like a crime picture with some fantastic trimmings than science fiction and it’s more likely that Japanese filmmakers were still taking their main inspiration from Hollywood rather than from their own recent cinematic history.

A sober and sometimes thoughtful thriller, which puts a slightly different slant on what is now an all-too familiar tale to modern audiences. It may not bring a whole lot of original ideas to the table but presents what it has in a cool, professional manner and provides a decent level of entertainment.

The Phantom of Paris (1931)

The Phantom of Paris (1931)‘And those shapes…they look like giants asleep.’

A stage illusionist escapes from prison on the eve of his execution for a murder he didn’t commit. He vows vengeance on the guilty party but, after a surprising turn of events, finds himself impersonating the murderer and living his life.

French author Gaston Leroux is now only really remembered for his twisted classic ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ but he wrote many other novels, and these included a series featuring gentleman thief ‘Cheri-Bibi.’ The exploits of Bibi and his criminal gang were more romantic escapades than anything else, although Leroux delivered them as straight adventure tales and endowed Bibi with a strong moral compass. This film adaptation reduces our hero to a far less morally ambiguous figure, of course, casting him as a low-born magician who takes Paris by storm and catches the eye of rich, young socialite Leila Hyams. Her father doesn’t approve, of course, and a (not very) tangled web of murder and mystery ensues.

Despite being made in the early days of the ‘talkies’ this MGM production is surprisingly free of the usual, stilted qualities that tend to haunt films made at that time. The story flows well, the performances are surprisingly restrained, if still a little mannered, and there’s a more mobile camera than usual. The script is nothing special, though, and there’s a lack of the action, thrills and romance that an audience of the time would probably have expected. In fact, there’s pretty much only one reason this film is likely to be watched and discussed in a modern era, and that’s the presence of its leading man.

John Gilbert was a bona fide global megastar in the 1920s. After Rudolph Valentino’s death, he became the silver screen’s great lover, being paired with Greta Garbo in ‘Flesh and the Devil’ (1926) and ‘Love’ (1927). Unfortunately, he was to become the poster boy for the ‘star who failed to make the transition into talkies’. Apparently, audiences laughed at his effeminate voice in his first sound film ‘His Glorious Night’ (1929) and his career simply never recovered. His vocal talents were ‘unsuitable for talkies’ and he made just two more films after the end of his MGM contract in 1933, one of which saw him co-starring with Garbo for one last time, on her insistence. He died three years later of a heart attack, most likely brought on by his chronic alcoholism.

But the truth may not be that simple. Gilbert’s voice in this picture is fine. Absolutely nothing unusual about it at all. So what happened? Well, by the late 1920s many stars had been able to negotiate fabulous contracts with the studios, because of their pulling power at the box office. Lillian Gish was a prime example of this. Other leading actors were wilful and ‘difficult’ such as the luminous Louise Brooks. Then sound changed the game. lt gave studio moguls a heaven-sent opportunity to kick their rebellious stars back into line. It’s amazing how many of them were found to have ‘voices unsuitable for talkies’ (Brooks for example), or, like Gish, ‘weren’t accepted by the public in speaking roles.’

The Phantom of Paris (1931)

Mr. Creosote was looking for a new girlfriend…

What happened to Gilbert may be even more sinister. His relationship with head of MGM, Louis B Mayer, was one of mutual hatred. Allegedly, Gilbert even physically assaulted Mayer on one occasion over a remark the latter made about Garbo. There’s also a rumour that Mayer had Gilbert’s voice speeded up for comic effect in ‘His Glorious Night’ (1929). The film still exists, apparently, but it’s not available for general viewing so it’s impossible to judge.

It’s certainly true that the public’s only source for movie news at the time were trade papers, movie magazines and gossip columns, all of which were entirely dependent on stories fed to them by the major studios. Additionally, the studios also had complete control of distribution and owned all the movie theatres. A star who went up against the system really had no chance.

Which is a shame. Although Gilbert’s performance here does little to suggest he could have recaptured his glory days in the new medium, he is still far more ‘modern’ in his style than many of his contemporaries, who still favoured extravagant gestures and painfully slow delivery of dialogue. He plays the villain in disguise pretty well too, adding a credibility to events that would have been seriously lacking if he’d not been up to the task. ln fact, he put me in mind a little of William Powell, who transitioned seamlessly between the two filmic worlds, and gained a head start on his rivals that he later turned into 3 Oscar Nominations.

Hyams is also worth noticing here. She gives a very naturalistic performance as Gilbert’s underwritten love interest. She was also a refugee from the silent days, best remembered for original ‘The Cat and the Canary’ (1927), but you’d never know it from her appearance here. A glittering career might have followed if not for her decision to appear in two controversial films in 1932. Both ‘The Island of Lost Souls’ (1932) and Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks’ (1932) were banned for many years in the UK, and it’s still illegal to show the latter in certain American states.  The first ran into problems because of its visceral take on source material ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’ by H G Wells, the second because Browning chose to populate his cast with real circus performers, some with extreme disabilities. Hyams retired from the business in 1936 to concentrate on her marriage. lt was obviously a good choice as she remained united with Phil Berg until her death in 1977.

A picture more remarkable for the history that surrounds it than the film itself, this is still a mildly entertaining diversion for fans of classic Hollywood.