Moscow-Cassiopeia (1974)

Moscow Cassiopeia (1974)‘Why is Ira putting porridge into my shorts?’

Mysterious radio signals are detected emanating from the constellation of Cassiopeia. The Russian authorities decide to mount a manned expedition to investigate and adopt the science project of a 15 year-old genius as their mission plan. As it’s a 52-year round trip, they decide to send children instead of adults, and the budding Einstein is chosen to captain the ship while some of his classmates are recruited as crew.

Mention Russian Science Fiction films of the 1970s and you immediately think of the works of director Andrei Tarkovosky, who raised the bar for serious, philosophical work in the genre with the iconic movies ‘Solaris’ (1972) and ‘Stalker’ (1979). This project, however, takes the total opposite of such an approach, being a lightweight, vaguely comic, family orientated vehicle targeting adolescents as its intended audience. Yes, it’s ‘Tweens in Space’ and it’s exactly as hideous and tiresome as that sounds.

Our main man is teenage egghead Victor Sereda (Misha Yershov) whose brilliant ideas for a ‘annihilator relativistic nuclear starship’ and a deep space expedition to investigate the source of the radio signals impress the adults at his class presentation so much that they immediately start making it happen. I guess it’s lucky that they were the leaders of Russia’s space program, rather than the teachers you might normally have expected to attend. Also lurking in the wings as a facilitator is the mysterious lnnokently Smoktunovskiy, whose identity is never established and whose presence no-one ever questions.

Once our young crew are on their way, the main thrust of the drama centres on an anonymous, romantic note that was passed in class during Yershov’s original demonstration! Who was the author? Could it be Yershov’s dream girl (Olga Bityukova), or might it be nerdy intellectual Nadezhda Ovcharva? Perhaps it was even perky Irina Panfyorova, although she seems to have thing for his best mate Aleksandr Grigoryev instead. Yes, it’s the sort of hardcore science fiction speculation that Stanley Kubrick could only have dreamed of! Unfortunately for Yershov, he’s distracted from this riveting mystery when it turns out that troublesome classmate Lobanov (Vladimir Basov Ml) has stowed away on the spaceship. And what a jolly japester he turns out to be; pushing every random button that he can see, launching himself into space through the waste disposal system by mistake and then sitting on the main control panel and sending them all into hyperspace, something previously thought impossible! How I laughed at his antics.

Moscow Cassiopeia (1974)

Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1974…

Technically, the film is acceptable with the model work and other SFX proficent, if unimaginative. There’s also a holo-deck on board the ship for recreational purposes, a good 13 years before the crew of the Enterprise got one on ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation.’ On the debit side, it only seems to consist of a stretch of empty lakeshore.

The main problem with the film is that there simply aren’t enough laughs for a comedy or thrills for an adventure or action movie. Instead, we’re left to sink in the mire of Yershov’s overactive hormones and other even less than riveting romantic complications. In fact, the plot develops in such an unconvincing, infantile fashion that I fully expected Yershov to wake up at the climax and discover that it was all a dream (groan!) Instead, the film ends in the middle of the ‘action’ with ship and crew approaching their destination. Why? Because there’s a sequel (double groan!) It’s called ‘Teens in the Universe’ (1975) and it came out a year later, although it was undoubtedly shot ’back to back’ with this effort.

A real chore to get through.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910)

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910)We’re off to see the Wizard…

Young Dorothy discovers that the scarecrow on her family’s Kansas farm is alive. When a cyclone arrives, they are transported to the Land of Oz, where they meet a Tin Woodsman and a Lion. Travelling through a forest, they are captured by Momba the Witch…

L. Frank Baum began his career as an actor and writer in the theatre and was an unsuccessful storekeeper and newspaperman before hit the jackpot with his children’s novel ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ (1900). It was launched with the help of a Broadway musical stage play, and eventually became a global phenomenon. Unfortunately, Baum’s financial acumen was not as great as his literary prowess and, after the failure of his ambitious stage version in 1908 (which incorporated excerpts of film), he was declared bankrupt in 1910. As part of the settlement, Baum lost the rights to some of his books and this film was produced without his input.

This 13-minute silent is the earliest surviving cinematic version of the story, with Baum’s 1908 footage being lost. It was loosely based on the original 1902 musical, although the story focuses far more on the conflict with the wicked witch. Obviously there are no songs, but there is one sequence where Dorothy does a few dance steps and the principals set off skipping two by two into the forest, although there’s no yellow brick road in evidence. Essentially what we get is a static camera shooting actors against painted studio backdrops that have very little depth, and animal costumes wouldn’t look out of place in the school pantomime.

As might be expected, what photographic effects there are recall the ‘stop the camera/start the camera’ tricks of French pioneer Georges Méliès, although there is a nice dissolve at one point as a character slowly vanishes. Costumes and settings are nowhere near as elaborate as Méliès’ creations, and it’s fairly obvious these filmmakers don’t possess his flair or expertise. The credits of the film are actually lost, and the identity of those involved is disputed by film historians. Otis Turner is usually given the nod as director but, more controversially, many believe that Dorothy was portrayed by a young Bebe Daniels. She played opposite Rudolph Valentino in ‘Monsieur Beaucaire’ (1924) and later became a star in early musical ’42nd Street’ (1932). Having married British actor Ben Lyon, the two relocated to England where they became stars all over again, along with members of their family, on radio, TV and film in the highly popular ‘Life With The Lyons’ show.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910)

‘Once more into the breach, dear Munkins…’

Of course, the film has little but curiosity value now, but there are some touches that are likely to raise a smile. Toto the Dog has been replaced by Imogene the Cow (apparently from the 1902 stage show), the Wizard produces doves from his top hat like a stage conjurer and his female assistants refuse to help him with his retirement plans because union rules mean they can’t work after noon.

Sequels quickly followed: ‘Dorothy and the Scarecrow in Oz’ (1910), ‘The Land of Oz’ (1910), and ‘John Dough and the Cherub’ (1910), all usually attributed to Turner as director. Unfortunately, to this date, they are all lost films. Baum regained the rights to his fictional world shortly afterwards, and formed his own film company, releasing three longer movies in 1914, one of which just about ran to feature length. Baum wrote 17 novels based in Oz, but his fortunes continued to fluctuate through the remainder of his life, mainly because of his love of bankrolling theatrical shows, several of which flopped. He died after a stroke in 1919.

An interesting fragment of film history, which may possess little merit in its own right, but was one of the important first steps down a very familiar road.

Rana: The Legend of Shadow Lake (1981)

Rana: The Legend of Shadow Lake (1981)‘Half man, half frog and half l don’t know what.’

A young boy finds a prehistoric bone on an island in a remote lake. The local university sends a professor to investigate, and a small logging crew tangle with the old man who lives in the woods. They are looking for gold, which the hermit believes is protected by the spirit of the lake…

In the half-dozen or so years immediately following the runaway success of Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’ (1975), it seemed that every body of water in the world was inhabited by dangerous and mysterious creatures. Rural Wisconsin was no exception. Regional filmmaker Bill Rebane had already ensured his place in the hallowed halls of cult cinema by sticking carpet samples onto his Volkswagen to create ‘The Giant Spider Invasion’ (1977) and within a few years had graduated to this brew of ancient Native American myth, survival adventure, hidden treasure and frog people.

The film mostly unfolds in an extended flashback as a grown up Kelly (Glenn Scherer) explains to his girlfriend (Doreen Moze) why they are spending their vacation in a cabin on the island. So most of what we see involves him as a young boy (Brad Ellington) accompanying his forest ranger father as they helps local boffin (Karen McDiarmid) and her niece (Julie Wheaton) investigate this mysterious fossil. Things turn ugly when the nearby logging crew reveal that their not interested in trees so much as gold, and the local hermit (Jerry Gregoris) express his dissatisfaction with their scheme via the medium of his shotgun. Gregoris is the last descendant of the original Native American tribe who lived in the area and made offerings to the spirits of the lake.

Framing stories are usually a device to paper over the cracks when a film has financial issues; a fate which befell Rebane’s first picture, the dreadful ‘Monster A-Go Go’ (1965), which was eventually finished by splatter king Herschel Gordon Lewis. Here, there’s no real other evidence of a troubled production, just the inevitable abundance of chat over action, which is almost guaranteed in the low- budget arena. Most of the cast have very limited other credits; Scherer having a few small roles in higher profile projects such as ‘Cocoon: The Return’ (1988) and Alan Ross going on to write Rebane’s next film, ‘The Demons of Ludlow’ (1983). But, given that, the performances are mostly naturalistic and that helps to get the audience through the 90 minute runtime.

Rana: The Legend of Shadow Lake (1981)

‘You don’t want to go there, sir! Not to the lake, sir!’

And help is needed, because the real problem here is that the film drags. Rebane conjures little suspense from various cast members wandering about in the woods, and some of the music cues are a little odd. The final reveal is also an underwhelming ‘man in a monster suit’ moment and, although I’ve seen worse, it’s not exactly impressive. The story is half-baked too, with the use of Native American mythology verging on window dressing, but the results are workmanlike if you’re not too critical.

A fairly typical example of the sort of low-budget filler that was a staple of the home video rental market in the early 1980s.

Killer Leopard (1954)

Killer Leopard (1954)‘Better go easy on the grog, guv’nor, it don’t mix with the ‘eat.’

An American movie star sets off into the jungle in pursuit of her errant husband, who has embezzled money and is trying to buy illegal diamonds to cover his crime. Meanwhile, a man-eating leopard is roaming the region, terrorising the natives…

We’re back on the Dark Continent with Bomba the Jungle Boy! Yes, former child star Johnny Sheffield dons the loin cloth for the eleventh time to stare off-camera at library footage of African wildlife and go mucking around again in the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Gardens. This time around he’s joined by Beverly Garland, just a couple of years before she became Roger Corman’s go-to gal for fighting intergalactic carrots and crab monsters. Our heroic couple are in pursuit of naughty Donald Murphy (‘Frankenstein’s Daughter’ (1958)) who’s linked up with dodgy cockney sparra jungle guide Barry Bernard (‘Return of the Fly’ (1959)) to get some illegal sparklers off Harry Cording (‘Dangers of the Canadian Mounted’ (1948)).

‘Bomba the Jungle Boy’ was the creation of a publishing syndicate who wanted a rival to ‘Tarzan’ so it seemed a logical choice when the character made the transition to the big screen to give the title role to Sheffield, who had played ‘Boy’ to Johnny Weismuller’s ‘King of the Jungle’ over at MGM. In fact, Sheffield barely stepped out of the jungle (or the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Gardens) in his entire film career, although that probably had as much to do with his lack of charisma as typecasting. Here, he is a little better than usual, exchanging slightly flirty dialogue with Garland in what are probably the film’s best scenes.

Elsewhere, it’s business as usual from writer-producer-director Ford Beebe, who was largely responsible for the 12-film series, directing all of them and writing about half, including this one. Leonard Mudie makes his usual appearance as Commissioner Barnes, Smoki Whitfield gets a few lines as the helpful Eli, native bearers dessert (don’t they always?) and a couple of visiting chaps in pith helmets deliver lots of (uninteresting) exposition. And, co-incidentally, that’s the film’s main problem, the script crawling from one scene of flat, lifeless dialogue to the next, with almost nothing happening in between. One of the few action sequences has Garland take a swim in the river, only to be menaced by various pieces of stock footage. Luckily, Bomba is around to drag her out as she’s suddenly become too exhausted to do it herself, despite having splashed around for less than a minute.

Killer Leopard (1954)

‘Show us the way back to the car park or else.’

Yes, this is a weak brew indeed, without any trace of the silliness that made entries like ‘Bomba and the Hidden City’ (1950) vaguely entertaining. It is good to see under-rated performers like Bernard and Cording get more to do than the usual ‘bits’ they were given, but the script is totally uninspired and the characters one-dimensional. It’s to Bernard’s considerable credit that he makes at least something out of his adventurous rogue, so the audience isn’t completely sure of his eventual fate.

In the pulsating climax, Bomba wrestles the big cat, which is brilliantly rendered through the medium of library footage close-ups and a stuffed toy. lt’s been referred to as a leopard throughout, despite being completely black, and is even referred to as a panther by one of the cast. But, before you sneer, apparently the ‘leopard’ designation is the correct one for Africa; the cats being known as ‘jaguars’ in the Americas. Panther is the general term for both. So a leopard can change its spots, after all!

A perfunctory, weary programmer, made vaguely tolerable by the professionalism of its supporting cast.

Horror Island (1941)

Horror Island (1941)‘Can somebody tell me why lobsters don’t like beer?’

A down on his luck adventurer starts offering treasure hunting tours to the deserted island he inherited from his piratical ancestor. He and his first mate have already fixed up the old castle with various spooky gimmicks but, after the first party arrive, events take a sinister turn culminating in murder…

Efficient, light-hearted comedy thriller from Universal’s studios tireless ‘B-picture’ unit, who often made up for limited time and resources with a high level of sheer professionalism. Here, producer Ben Pivar reunites his two leading players from ‘The Mummy’s Hand’ (1940), Dick Foran and Peggy Moran, to topline the action. Foran is our square-jawed hero; the fast-talking sea captain always trying to stay one step ahead of his creditors, and Moran the society girl who takes a trip to the island to try and ensure he pays up after a fender bender on the waterfront. Joining them on their treasure hunt are a string of familiar character players, including Leo Carillo, Fuzzy Knight, Hobart Cavanaugh and Walter Catlett.

Filmed in just 12 days (for the princely sum of $93,000), this and ‘Man Made Monster’ (1941) were sufficient to snare director George Waggner the gig on Universal’s classic ‘The Wolf Man’ (1941) with Lon Chaney Jr. And it’s not surprising. Here, he delivers a textbook ‘bottom of the bill’ 60 minute programmer; ticking all the necessary comedic, romantic and creepy boxes, which would have left contemporary audiences duly entertained. There are no real surprises to the script and it’s obvious exactly where things are going from the start, but the trip has a pleasing familiarity, thanks mostly to the easy chemistry between our two leads.

Horror Island (1941)

‘Look! I think we can escape from the studio through there!’

Moran’s career neatly encapsulates the work of a ‘contract’ actress at a major studio in Hollywood’s hey-day. She started with a few unbilled ‘bits’ before running afoul of George Zucco and his Tana leaves in ‘The Mummy’s Hand’ (1940). By the close of 1942, she had appeared in another 20 films. She quit acting the following year to get married, and never graced the silver screen again. In just six years, she had accumulated an amazing 35 acting credits!

Perhaps the film’s most remarkable feature is that it reached theatres a mere 25 days after shooting began! This possible world record was achieved by recycling sets (mainly from ‘Dracula’ (1931) and ‘Tower of London’ (1939)), nabbing the musical soundtrack from other productions, such as ‘The Invisible Man Returns’ (1940) and having everyone work punishing hours in direct contravention of union rules. I guess the show had to go on!

Bright, breezy entertainment that’s always watchable but is unlikely to remain long in the memory.

The Golden Bat/Õgon Bat (1966)

The Golden Bat (1966)‘Idiot! Do you think Nuzo, the ruler of the universe, can lose to the Golden Bat?’

An amateur astronomer finds himself recruited to a secret UN Task Force after he notices anomalies in the orbit of strange new planet Icarus. Before long he is involved in the fight against alien forces, who plan to crash Icraus into the Earth and destroy the human race…

Juvenile Science Fiction hi-jinks from Japan featuring Õgon Bat, arguably the world’s oldest superhero and precursor to Batman. His origin story began even before the invention of moving pictures, as he first appeared as a character in ‘Kamishibai’ travelling shows, where a series of drawings would be accompanied by a storyteller’s narration! Although this type of entertainment eventually declined in popularity after World War II, the character survived and finally made his screen bow in ‘Õgon Bat: Matenro no Kaijin’ (1950) before getting a serious makeover with this project in the mid-1960s.

For a start, we have Sonny Chiba and his team of white-coated eggheads, who come over more as action heroes than serious boffins. Luckily, they have elderly inventor Andrew Hughes to provide some much needed gravitas, although involving his pre-teen granddaughter in proceedings seems a dubious parental decision at best. They all live in a secret HQ inside a Japanese alp and have a range of super vehicles at their disposal that resemble Gerry Anderson creations from TV shows like ’Thunderbirds’ and ‘Stingray.’

It’s fortunate we have these guys as they are the only ones who can stop Planet Icarus when it suddenly swerves onto a collision course with Earth. Their method? Use their ‘Super Destruction Beam Cannon’ (patent pending) of course! Unfortunately, it isn’t quite finished and they’re out looking for the final component when they come across a fragment of Atlantis (as you do!) which has somewhat unexpectedly risen from the sea. It brings with it the mummified remains of the Golden Bat, who returns every ten thousand years or so to help the human race in its hour of greatest need. He’s not looking too chipper until the prof’s granddaughter (sensibly along for the ride on this dangerous mission!) gives him a little drinkie of water. Then he’s raring to go; all death’s head mask, flowing cape and maniacal laugh. He might fly like ‘Turkish Superman’ (1978) (i.e. not in a tremendously convincing way) but he has super strength and is handy in a scrap with that silver baton!

And Earth needs the Golden Bat because Icarus isn’t trying to get friendly with the home world by accident. No, it’s been diverted by Nuzo, the ruler of universe. He’s a rather an odd chap too; looking like nothing so much as a mutant pantomime teddy bear. He also has a detachable metal claw for one hand, although it does looks suspiciously as if it’s made from silver cardboard. He’s out to destroy mankind simply because no-one else in the universe has the right to exist apart from him! Perfectly reasonable. It’s a policy he enforces close to home too; killing everyone who fails him in a stunning exhibition of excellent man-management and motivational skills. Who would want to work for him? Well, his three chief lieutenants are Keloid, Piranha and Jackal. Keloid (Youichi Numada) in particular enjoys his job a tad more than is strictly healthy for his mental wellbeing.

The Golden Bat (1966)

‘Idiots!’

Events move swiftly across the brief 72-minute running time, with the usual ration of last minute escapes, silly dialogue and unconvincing model work. The Prof’s granddaughter summons our superhero via a rubber bat that she wears as a brooch, avoiding a security beam means jumping in the air while the camera performs rapid sweeps so you can’t see what just happened, Icarus takes a chunk out of the moon (I think!), and the Golden Bat just can’t stop laughing. What a good sense of humour he has! Almost unhinged, you might say.

This is all harmless fun for the kiddies market and still holds up today as breezy, undemanding entertainment. Chiba went onto become a martial arts legend after his breakout role as ‘The Street Fighter’ (1974) and Quentin Tarantino was apparently thrilled when the old master accepted the prominent role of Uma Thurman’s teacher in ‘Kill Bill Vol. 1′ (2003). Hughes was a Turkish actor who appeared in many Japanese films in the 1960s and 1970s, including Toho Studio’s ‘Destroy All Monsters’ (1968) and ‘King Kong Escapes’ (1967).

But what of the Golden Bat himself? Well, he appeared in Manga and a 52-episode anime series followed on network television a year after this film. Comedy biopic ‘Õgon Batto ga Yattekuru’ (1972) seems to have been his final appearance on the big screen, however.

‘Where, where, where does he come from, the Golden Bat?’ asks the title song. Only the bats know, apparently…

The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946)

The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946)‘But it won’t really be like dying. You’ll live on in this beautiful plant.’

A young woman is hired to be the paid companion of the owner of an old mansion on the outskirts of a cattle farming community. The only occupants of the house are her new employer, who is a blind, middle-aged woman, and her sinister servant who cannot speak. Before too long, the new arrival feels she is at the mercy of strange, implacable forces…

Gale Sondergaard made quite an impression as ‘The Spider Woman’ (1944) in Universal’s ‘Sherlock Holmes’ series, justifiably taking her place as one of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce’s finest opponents. Two years later, she’d earned the reward of this apparent sequel, directed by Arthur Lubin. Sadly, it’s a sequel in name only, with the cool and elegant Adrea Spedding replaced here by the cool and elegant Zenobia Dollard (best character name ever!), who isn’t interested in pajama murders so much as in a bit of unconventional horticulture. There are some spiders in her greenhouse, though, so I guess the title is justified!

Universal Studio’s ‘B’ picture unit was nothing if not highly professional, often achieving significant quality on small budgets and limited production schedules. They rarely put a foot wrong in their prodigious output, but there’s always the exception that proves the rule and, unfortunately, this weak offering is such an example. That the film runs less than an hour and looks as if it’s been considerably trimmed in post production should tell you all that you need to know.

The film begins with our heroine (Brenda Joyce) arriving in the town of Domingo to take up her new duties as Sondergaard’s latest ‘live in’ companion, her predecessor having returned home or left to get married or something like that. At the bus stop, she runs into local cow farmer and old acquaintance Kirby Grant (an actor more at home in Westerns), who has feelings for her that she doesn’t reciprocate. It’s a circumstance not pleasing to Sondergaard, who has specifically advertised for someone who has no family or friends and is not known to anyone in the area. Yes, it’s the sort of job opening that only people in the movies would dream of taking! Things go from bad to worse pretty quickly for Joyce when she arrives at the house to be greeted Rondo Hatton as mute servant Mario the Monster Man! Seriously, that is the name of the character.

Hatton was a once handsome man, who developed the rare, disfiguring disease acromegaly, which caused extreme glandular swelling in his face and hands. Ironically, this led to a career as a ‘movie monster’ in a string of Universal pictures, including his memorable turn as the ’Hoxton Creeper’ in another Rathbone-Bruce ‘Sherlock Holmes’ movie ‘The Pearl of Death’ (1944). By the time this film saw theatres, he was already dead from a heart attack, most likely brought on by his unusual condition. If coming face to face with Rondo wasn’t enough, Joyce sounds finds herself suffering from serious fatigue (could it be something to do with the milk Sondergaard insists she drinks before bed every night?) and is seriously puzzled by strange clicking noises in her closet, which are actually never explained.

The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946)

‘See? This is much more beautiful than the Borgia Pearl…’

Grant is also having a hard time too, as a mysterious disease is decimating the local ungulate population. He’s so worried that he calls in the Man from the Ministry (Milburn Stone) but he can’t locate the poison weeds that he thinks are responsible for the bovine slaughter. All this is not particularly original and I have a suspicion that this was an old, unproduced script that had been knocking around the studio for some time before some bright spark thought to attach Sondergaard and the ‘Spider Woman’ tag.

Things really fall apart in the last act and there is some evidence that an entire section of the movie was cut out before release. The action jumps suddenly to the closing scenes, five actors credited in the cast list never appear and Sondergaard references a couple of story developments that the audience has never witnessed. Joyce has been indifferent to Grant’s ‘down home’ charms throughout but now, apparently, they’ve been falling in love during the course of the film, and have had a serious row of some kind! And there’s another problem. Hatton is mute and Sondergaard is blind, so how does everyone think they communicate? Telepathy? Hatton actually uses some kind of sign language, which is fine because Sondergaard is faking anyway, which should be no surprise to anyone in the audience. But why on earth is she pretending to be blind in the first place? What’s the point?! Perhaps the excised footage would have answered some of these questions. Perhaps not.

Any value left in the proceedings is down to the professionalism of the cast, and Sondergaard is as charismatic as ever. Without her, this would really be a trial to sit through. Joyce is wasted in her usual ‘damsel in distress’ role and Grant was probably more at home in the saddle. That was certainly true of Stone who finally found fame in the last role of his 40 year career, spending two decades as ‘Doc’ on TV’s classic western ‘Gunsmoke’.

A disappointing feature that falls far below the usual standard of Universal’s programme features. Watch it for Sondergaard. There’s nothing else to see here.