The Wizard of Mars/Horrors of the Red Planet (1965)

The Wizard of Mars (1965)‘The meters are having convulsions; nothing I do will correct it!’

The first manned expedition to orbit the planet Mars runs into trouble, and the crew are forced to land on the surface. With only limited supplies, a desperate fight for survival begins as they trek across the desolate terrain in search of the main stage of their crippled spacecraft…

When cult films fans gather to discuss the much-debated question of the worst film director of all time, the name of David L Hewitt is not often a part of that discussion. That might be because of the scarcity of his output; just seven features (three of which were forgettable biker flicks). Or it could be because he delivered one halfway decent picture: ‘Journey To The Center of Time’ (1967). Whatever the reason, he’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Edward D Wood Jr, Larry Buchanan, Jerry Warren, Andy Milligan, or Al Adamson. But Hewitt does deserve some consideration. How can the man behind ‘Dr Terror’s Gallery of Horrors’ (1967), ‘The Mighty Gorga’ (1969) and ‘The Lucifer Complex’ (1978) be ignored? And his ride to the bottom started right here with his debut film, and it wasn’t very far to go afterwards.

Mars Probe 1 has reached the orbit of its destination, courtesy of a series of cardboard cut-outs moving across photographs of the starry sky. It’s all systems go for handsome Captain Steve (Roger Gentry), wacky co-pilot Charlie (Jerry Ranow), wise old Doc (Vic McGee) and ‘Woman who looks through the Camera Scope and pushes some buttons’, Dorothy (Eve Vernhardt). Remember her character’s name, by the way, because it’s important. Unfortunately, there’s no happy landing for our fantastic four as they get hit by poorly animated ‘space lightning’ as soon as they get too close to the red planet. The cabin begins to fill with smoke, a conflagration initially realised by what looks suspiciously like someone lying just below the camera line and puffing furiously on a cigarette.

The Wizard of Mars (1965)

‘It’s alright! I brought my magic gun!’

Even activating ‘all operable rocket systems’ doesn’t work and Gentry is forced to jettison the craft’s main stage before they crash into the surface. It’s quite an impact too, judging by the speeding stock footage rushing by on the flight deck monitor. But, not to worry, in the next scene everyone is just standing around in their spacesuits, ready to disembark. I guess it looked a lot worse than it was. A serious conversation about their predicament follows. The food situation isn’t so bad. Vernhardt explains that ‘we have enough fortified liquid in our nutrient reserve to last us to two, maybe three weeks’. Considering the trip there took nine months, I’m not sure what they were expecting to eat on the way home, but I guess we’ll have to let that pass. Oxygen is a problem, though. They only have about 90 hours left in their suit tanks, but McGee suggests they may be able to supplement that with the oxygen in the Martian atmosphere. So far, so good.

After this intensive session of repeating themselves and stating the bleeding obvious, they form a plan: find the main stage of their ship and call from help from there. How they are supposed to survive for another nine months until relief arrives…well, I’m sure they’ll think of something. Perhaps the main stage contains plenty of food and oxygen. Yes, that must be it. I guess it wasn’t damaged at all when it crashed into the Martian terrain. At several thousand miles an hour. And McGee’s idea about the Martian oxygen works out too! Later on, they just open their helmets and breathe normally.

Anyway, they set out on one of the nearby canals in a couple of rafts following the signal being transmitted by their lost craft. Why an expedition that never intended to land happens to have a couple of dinghies in storage is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps they just packed a lot of equipment on the offchance? The existence of the canals was generally debunked years before, but the Martian surface wasn’t photographed until the same year Hewitt’s film came out, so I guess we’ll have to give him a pass on that. Just. After all, the waterways did appear in ‘Robinson Crusoe On Mars’ (1964) as well.

The Wizard of Mars (1965)

‘Don’t call me a Flathead…’

Unfortunately, our heroes’ boat ride is spoilt by an out of control fog machine and an attack by some vaguely interested branches from some kind of half-awake aquatic plant monster. But they smash them with their oars, and Ranow’s shoots them with his rifle. It’s always good to see that someone has remembered to bring a firearm along on a space expedition. Especially one that never needs reloading. It’s also worth mentioning the soundtrack, a never ending accompaniment of strange electronic blips and squeaks. I guess it was supposed to be futuristic.

Let’s do some quick fast-forwarding through the rest of the so-called plot. Otherwise, this review will seem longer than the movie (if that’s possible). The crew float on an underground river through some caverns for five minutes. The crew wander through caves and see some lava (ten minutes). The crew wander about on the surface before finding the signal they were following is coming from an old space probe (five minutes). They sit around moping about it afterwards (seven minutes). Along the way, they stop now and then to state the bleeding obvious and moan a bit more. Conversational dialogue is supposed to provide insight into character and motivation; to give the audience a reason to care. Dialogue sample: Ranow: I wonder how far this goes. Gentry: I don’t know, we’ll soon find out.’ End of conversation.

Eventually, they discover a golden road in the sand, which has been almost completely buried for budgetary reasons. This leads to a fabulous, but deserted, city, where they don’t need to wear their spacesuits at all and meet the disembodied head of John Carradine! He appears superimposed on some photographs of galaxies and stars, and pontificates about evolution, time and other significant stuff. At one point he delivers a three and a half minute monologue in a single shot. McGee shines in this scene; simultaneously overacting and being incredibly wooden, which is quite an achievement.

So what’s it all about, Johnny? Well, the Martians stopped time by mistake, and are now trapped in the walls of their own city. They can never be released because that would involve replacing ‘the sphere within the mechanism’, a task apparently too complex for simple hoo-mans to understand. Of course, the crew go next door and find a globe sitting on a table and then locate the mechanism less than five minutes after that. It has a round hole in it.

The Wizard of Mars (1965)

‘I was in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ once, you know… and ‘Stagecoach’….

It’s difficult to convey in mere words the deadly monotony of the audience experience. Of course, some allowances can be made for the ultra-low budget and limited resources that Hewitt must have had at his disposal, but that doesn’t excuse the painfully thin script and lack of entertainment on offer. Dialogue scenes are slow and awkward, with some of the lines obviously just included to pad the running time. These conversations almost always take place in static settings as well. Perhaps Hewitt didn’t have the necessary expertise to film the cast moving and talking at the same time? The acting is also lifeless and bland, with Everhardt seemingly dubbed throughout and McGee a particular culprit. Carradine is good fun, of course, but there’s not all that much even he can do with a brief role where he appears as a floating head!

So why did I mention earlier on that Everhardt’s character name of Dorothy was significant? Well, Carradine is ‘The Wizard of Mars’, after all, and they do get to the ‘Emerald’ city along a ‘yellow brick road’. And I guess Everhardt’s three male companions could represent the lion, the tin man and the scarecrow, although I’ve no idea which is supposed to be which. The one Martian we do see was apparently modelled on one of the residents of Oz, though. Whether it was writer-director Hewitt’s initial intention to include more elements from L Frank Baum’s source material is unrecorded. If so, budgetary condierations likely precluded it, and the whole thing comes off as desperately half-assed.

Mars has been a cinematic graveyard for many filmmakers over the years, from Brian de Palma’s ‘Mission To Mars’ (2000) to Andrew Stanton’s mega-flop ‘John Carter’ (2012) and with many stops in between. Is Hewitt’s film the worst about the red planet ever made? Possibly, but there’s stiff competition for that dubious honour. Nicholas Webster’s ‘Mission Mars’ (1968) is truly excruciating, and be sure not to forget ‘Santa Claus Conquers the Martians’ (1964).

An intergalactic snoozeathon of truly epic proportions.

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.

Il Planeta Errante/War Between the Planets (1966)

Il-Planeta Errante (1966)‘Your’e an a-ok officer except for one thing – you never learned how to take orders.’

Space Station Gamma 1 is the Earth’s last hope for survival as it investigates the cause of the extreme weather conditions that are devastating the planet. The station’s crew detect a strange object in nearby space and set out to investigate…

Completely humourless Italian space opera from the directorial hands of Antonio Margheriti (better known to English-speaking audiences as Anthony M Dawson). After a co-directorial credit, Margheriti began his long career in the film industry with a similar property to this: ‘Assignment: Outer Space’ (1960) which also featured a heroic space station crew as man’s last, best hope. Margheriti had initially left the genre alone after that, specialising in ‘sword and sandal’ melodramas but returned in 1966 with a vengeance, delivering a loose quartet of science fiction ‘epics’ that were all centred around the activities of Space Station Gamma 1.

This film was a followup to ‘La Morte Viene Dal Planeta Aytin’ (‘Snow Devils/Devil Men from Space) (1966) and main man Giacomo Rossi Stuart returned as square-jawed Commander Rod Jackson. Also returning were heroines Ombretta Colli and Halina Zalewska, although, somewhat curiously, Colli  now appears to be playing Zakewska’s character from the first film! Something lost in translation on stateside distribution perhaps. Enzo Fiermonte also features again as big cheese General Norton, and other supporting actors reappear.

So what’s the film like? Well, it’s pretty tedious. We open with a news report of the chaos on Earth, although it looks suspiciously like stock footage of real life disasters, and a lot of it is in black and white. Scientists and military types meet in small offices (no ‘big table’ conference for them!) to sort it all out, and decide it’s a gravitational anomaly somewhere in space. Rossi Stuart and his crew get the gig, and track down the problem to an invading planetoid with psychedelic lighting. Rossi Stuart is in love with Communications cutie Lieutenant Colli but is engaged to civilian Zalewska, who also happens to be the General’s daughter. She arrives on the station right in the middle of the mission (really!?) so she can scowl at our lovebirds and make a bitchy remark or two. Yes, that’s all she does!

Anyway, there’s some aggro between Rossi Stuart and his rebellious second in command (yawn!), everyone speaks in meaningless military terminology (‘We have an immediate five-seven with full priority!’) and it all ends up with a predictable life or death, self-sacrificing mission on the planetoid. In fact, it all bares more than a passing resemblance to Michael Bay’s bloated bore-athon ‘Armageddon’ (1998), except without the ‘edgy’ MTV rock and endless shots of the fluttering stars and stripes.

Il Planeta Errante (1966)

Let’s go to work!

As far as I can tell, this was only picked up for US release after ‘Star Wars’ (1977) when an English dub track was added and the film retitled. Although the running time is barely 80 minutes, it appears that little was cut. However, Voiceover Man makes frequent intrusions to provide a very serious running commentary, presumably in case we’re not sure what is happening.

Production information on the Gamma 1 quartet is hard to find and the films don’t seem to follow any noticeable story arc. Leading man duties for the other two films were assumed by US actor Tony Russel, which included the gloriously silly and far more entertaining ‘I Criminali Della Galassia/Wild Wild Planet’ (1966).

This, on the other hand, is a dull, dreary space opera without an original thought in its head.

The Immortal (1969)

‘By human standards, you’re almost immortal!’The_Immortal_(1969)

An ageing millionaire industrialist is not expected to live after a plane crash, but makes a miraculous recovery. The attending physician believes the cause to be a blood transfusion from one of his employees; and further tests establish the donor to be virtually immortal, turning him from a test driver into the most valuable man in the world…

This science-fiction drama was one of the earliest to be filmed for American network television as a pilot for a possible series. The screenplay was an adaptation of James Gunn’s novel ‘The Immortals’, although the project differed in many aspects. Our leading man is Christopher George, who got his big break opposite John Wayne in ‘Eldorado’ (1966) and on TV show ‘The Rat Patrol’.

As the movie begins, our hero has got the life he wants; his dream job as a test driver for Braddock Industries, and a pretty fiancé (60s blonde bombshell Carol Lynley). On the debit side he has no idea about the identity of his parents and only a vague notion that he has a brother somewhere. But his perfect world comes crashing down when doc Ralph Bellamy uses his blood to treat old man Braddock (Barry Sullivan) and brings the evil industrialist back from the brink of death. The old man is delighted, of course, but wants to keep a fresh blood supply on hand, just in case. This idea doesn’t go down well with his scheming wife Jessica Walter, just before her breakout performance as Clint Eastwood’s no.1 fan in psychodrama ‘Play Misty For Me’ (1971).

It’s a decent setup story wise and, from the quality of the cast, it was obviously a high end project for the ABC network. Sure, the budget imposes restrictions; we never see the initial plane crash, and there’s no attempt to introduce any of the hi-tech trappings that might have given proceedings a little more punch. Things are in safe hands behind the scenes, though; director Joseph Sargent was a veteran who had helmed episodes of the original ‘Star Trek’, ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’, ‘The Fugitive’ and ‘The Invaders’ among several others. He also delivered ‘Colossus: The Forbin Project’ (1970), a cautionary tale about artificial intelligence that appears strangely prescient almost 50 years later. His subsequent career included ‘The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3’ (1974) but descended into lots of fact-based TV drama. It also included ‘Jaws: The Revenge’ (1987)!

Initially, it seems surprising that this pilot was picked up for a series; after all, when the leading character’s sole distinguished characteristic is ‘not dying’, you do wonder about the scope of dramatic possibilities. But it soon becomes clear; it’s a blatant attempt to recreate the network’s big hit show ‘The Fugitive’, the mysterious brother standing in for Richard Kimble’s one-armed man. George bums around the country righting wrongs, and being chased by Don Knight, henchmen of new villain David Brian, who replaced Sullivan.

The Immortal (1969)

Government Health Warnings aren’t for everyone.

There is potential in the story; with the character’s origins a mystery, but all questions were left unanswered when the plug was pulled after 15 episodes. Ratings were only fair, although the show, like many others, has gained a small cult following over the years. And yes, the main character is also a bit like Architect David Vincent from ‘The Invaders’, and a lot like David Banner from late 1970’s CBS show ‘The Incredible Hulk’ which starred Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno.

George became a familiar face as a rugged leading man on US TV in the 1970s, often appearing with wife Lynda Day George, although his film career got bogged down with projects like silly, ursine ‘Jaws’ (1975) rip-off ‘Grizzly’ (1976), and dull ‘Halloween’ (1978) photostat ‘Graduation Day’ (1981). He’s probably best remembered now for Lucio Fulci’s hysterical splatterfest ‘City of the Living Dead’ (1980), which incurred the wrath of the UK media and film censors (along with almost every other horror film of the era). Given his appearance here, it’s somewhat ironic that George died at the relatively young age of 52, after suffering a massive heart attack.

A middling project at best, but one with potential that could have been developed over the course of a series. Remakes aren’t usually a good idea but perhaps it’s time for someone to take another look…

H2S (1969)

H2S‘How about pretending to be a mantis giving birth?’

A young student finds himself involved with a rebellion against authority at a strange university. Eventually, he escapes to a mountain wilderness with one of the female students, but their new life together brings its own problems…

Once in a while, trawling through the underbelly of obscure and low-budget cinema brings you to a film that defies analysis. All that can be done is to describe what happens on the screen, and confess yourself completely stumped. This is such a film.

Matters open with a 5-minute educational(?) sequence about the behaviour of rats. When population reaches critical mass, they eat each other. Lovely. Then we meet our hero Tommoso, a small, young man who dresses in shiny shoes with large buckles, green stockings, rolled-up trousers, a blazer, and a bright green shirt. His hair is fluorescent orange. Yes, he looks like a leprechaun. Why? Who knows? He’s enrolled at a rather unusual establishment of higher education (or he may have been kidnapped) where tuition consists of watching little girls killing goldfish, and other informative demonstrations. These are led by US actor Lionel Stander, still several years away from his most famous role as old retainer Max on T\/’s ‘Hart to Hart’ with Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers.

Not surprisingly, the students would rather be doing media studies or hanging out at the Uni bar,  so they stage a rebellion that involves wrapping their Principal in toilet rolls. He gets his own back, though, when he invites the student leader to lunch, and then eats her instead. He’s aided in his nefarious schemes by a very tall and strangely dressed woman who bares an unmistakable resemblance to a giant bird. This is probably significant. Why? Who knows?

Tomato escapes all this horror to a snowy mountainside along with fellow malcontent Alice, where they build a shiny log cabin, and decide to speak only in grunts. Things seem to be going well, if rather slowly for the audience, until Alice gets bored and starts wanting things. Most of these involve nasty role-playing games that push Tomato to the point of death. What’s it got to do with the first half of the film? Who knows? But Tomato isn’t very happy about the way the relationship is developing, and decides to go back to school…Probably to finish his education and take his place in normal society. Who knows?

This is the kind of obscure, freewheeling satire that could only have been made in the late 1960s, or under the influence of suspicious substances. Or probably both. Writer-Director Roberto Faenza was an art student (surprise, surprise!) and the rumour is that the film was banned in Italy, and all copies were ordered destroyed. Why? Well, it’s all about conformity and rebellion I guess, and without an in depth knowledge of Italian politics, I can’t really tell you any more. It’s certain that the film was never released outside that country, and that Faenza didn’t make another movie for 10 years, although he has carved out a respectable career in Italian film since.

H2S (1969)

‘Excuse me, can I go to the bathroom?’

Our young leads are played by Denis Gilmore and Carole André. Gilmore was a Brit, and returned to the old country to star in much-loved living dead biker flick ‘Psychomania’ (1973), while André appeared in Visconti’s much less distinguished project ‘Death In Venice’ (1971). Her career took an upswing later on, though, when she showed up for cult 1980s cheesefest Yor, The Hunter from the Future’ (1983).

Perhaps the most remarkable fact about this film (apart from its actual existence in the first place) is that the music score is by Oscar-winning film composer Ennio Morricone! His work here is very good, but even long time fans of the composer will have to admit that there are some…um, slightly eccentric entries in his filmography.

Not exactly entertaining, but strangely fascinating. Although, not necessarily in a good way…

Matchless (1967)

Matchless_(1967)‘A spy plot as flawless as her beauty – as reckless as her body!’

A foreign correspondent gets into a bit of bother behind the Iron Curtain and ends up incarcerated in a Chinese prison. Luckily, his kindness to an ancient inmate results in the gift of a ring that allows him to become invisible. Recruited by the U.S. security forces, his first mission is to infiltrate the organisation of a megalomaniac who has put world domination high on his agenda.

Cheerful action comedy which walks the line between some serious Eurospy action and out and out spoof. This weeks ‘Bond on a Budget’ is American actor Patrick O’Neal who finds himself embroiled in the nefarious schemes of nasty rich businessman Donald Pleasance, who rocks a neat beard-tache combo and a pair of funky shades. We never really find out what he’s up to but there’s some vials of nasty looking chemicals in a bank vault in Germany and he likes to fix boxing matches using a ringside hypnotist. He’s just evil ok?

Neal makes a refreshingly fallible secret agent, swapping smarm and self-assurance for more of a friendly ‘bull in a china shop’ approach as he lurches from one crisis to another, armed mostly with an eye roll and a ready quip. He has to disrobe for invisibility purposes, and some strategic camera angles add to the humour long before the similar, but more obvious gags in ‘Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery’ (1997).

Matchless (1967)

‘Ladies, I can explain…just give me a minute…’

The story’s nothing special, betraying few original concepts or touches, but the action is decently staged, including a car chase late on which somewhat implausibly involves travelling by train. The supporting cast help proceedings along with Pleasance delivering a childish and spiteful villain, perennial bad guy Henry Silva laughing like a lunatic and sexy Nicoletta Machiavelli and Elisabetta Wu providing good value as a pair of femme fatales.

The most interesting player here though is heroine Ira Von Fürstenberg, birth name: Her Serene Highness Princess Virginia Carolina Theresa Pancrazia Galdina of Fürstenberg. Yes, she was a real life Italian Princess, going the reverse Grace Kelly route and, in fact, being romantically linked with Prince Rainier after Kelly’s death in the 1980s. Von Fürstenberg actually married for the first time (to a Prince, naturally) in 1955 at the age of 15, apparently against her wishes. Two sons resulted; one was a Mexican Olympian and the other died of massive organ failure in a Bangkok prison. Her acting career may never have reached the heights but she’s a lively presence here, and exhibits more screen presence than many a European beauty of the time, although she does look dubbed on the English print. She best remembered now for her role in Mario Bava’s ‘Five Dolls for an August Moon’ (1970).

Considering content and plot development, this runs a little long at 100 minutes, and some tightening in the editing suite would undoubtedly have helped with the pacing. But the cast is personable and, although it fails to rise above the pack of similar capers coming out of continental Europe at the time, it’s a pleasant enough ride.

Hands of A Stranger (1962)

Hands_of_A_Stranger_(1962)‘They gave him the hands of a killer!’

A brilliant young pianist is involved in a serious car accident on the way home from his first big recital. His hands are smashed beyond repair but a daring surgeon replaces them with those from a recently delivered corpse. Although the operation is a complete success, the pianist has serious difficulties accepting what has happened to him, and the emotional pressure leads to murder…

The fourth, and to date the last, cinematic take on Maurice Renard’s successful novel ‘Les Mains d’Orlac (The Hands of Orlac)’ published in 1920. The most well-known adaptation is the twisted classic ‘Mad Love’ (1935) with Peter Lorre, which drips with gothic atmosphere and boasts a gloriously demented performance from its star. The other versions are the original silent with Conrad Veidt from 1924 (rather dull) and a low budget 1960 film that wastes Christopher Lee in a supporting role.

Coming so soon after the 1960 film, this project runs the risk of redundancy before it even begins, but actually emerges as the most thoughtful take on the story, although its execution is somewhat flawed. The film has an opening right out of film noir when a shady character is gunned down by hoodlums on an empty street. It’s quite an impressive sequence and establishes that the origin of pianist James Noah’s new hands is somewhat dubious. Unfortunately, this removes a layer of ambiguity which the film would have been better advised to maintain, especially as the exact identity of the donor is never revealed.

Elsewhere, the dialogue is intelligent but somewhat overwritten as Noah and surgeon Paul Lukather discourse on the ‘creation of beauty.’ lt’s not so overdone as to prompt laughter, but it’s not all that realistic all the same. Better are the exchanges between Lukather and knowing cop Laurence Haddon, who makes far more out of a generic role than most performers would have managed. But it’s Noah who is the centre of the film and his nervy, intense portrayal of an artist on the edge of madness is quite effective. His self-obsession before the accident and treatmeht of his sister Joan Harvey helps to make his breakdown all the more credible. Also in the cast is a young Sally Kellerman, getting a small role almost a decade before her breakout in blockbuster hit ‘M*A*S*H (1969).

Hands of A Stranger (1962)

‘A wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom’

What impresses in general about the film is its serious intent, and a determination to present the material in a matter of fact, non-sensational way. There is a discussion about how the new hands might possibly have retained the spirit of their former owner, but it’s all played down in favour of  more realistic explanations. Unfortunately, a small budget does mean the audience gets a lot of talk, and so the action, when it finally arrives, is not all that persuasive.

Director Newt Arnold also had a hand in the script, and it’s a pity that his resources were limited. There’s a particularly effective sequence at a fairground which displays a good deal of visual flair and imagination.

A middling entertainment with an unfairly poor reputation.

The Last War (Sekai Denso) (1961)

The Last War (1961)‘The Next War Will Be the Last War.’

Japanese diplomats attempt to arbitrate as the uneasy international situation between the Alliance and the Federation moves dangerously close to all-out nuclear conflict. Meanwhile, an accident at a missile base threatens to tip the planet into World War 3.

Very sincere and earnest Japanese film about the possible outbreak of nuclear war. The main focus of the drama is on a typical ‘nuclear’ family living in Tokyo. Father is a taxi driver who plays the stock market, mother is a housewife in poor health and their pretty daughter is in love with a dashing sailor. The youngsters are planning to get married, and try their best to ignore the countdown to Armageddon. The setup is almost identical to ‘Atomic War Bride’ (1960), a Yugoslavian film of the same era, but, in all probability, that’s more a reflection of the prevailing times than anything else.

Unsurprisingly, given that this is coming out of Japan less than 20 years after the twin holocausts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hearts are being worn boldly on sleeves here. We see nothing of the protagonists in the conflict, beyond a few soldiers and pilots, concentrating more on the interactions and everyday business of our typical Japanese family. These are inevitably simplistic, so there is little in the way of real drama or emotional impact until we reach the scene of what may be their final meal together. This is a very similar approach to that taken by Nevil Shute in his apocalyptic novel ‘On The Beach’, which was successfully filmed in 1959 with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner, and this film does owe a debt to that production.

The Last War (1961)

Why did you wear yellow? They can’t see my name in the credits…

The SFX and model work on show here is rather better than those employed on the ’Kaiju’ movies of the time; perhaps because mushroom clouds and Armageddon were far more serious matters than attacks by giant intergalactic monsters with halitosis. However, audience engagement is not assisted by the musical soundtrack, which often verges on the sentimental and manipulative, an over-emphasis that perhaps resulted from the lack of telling action on screen.

A very heartfelt and laudable piece of work, which unfortunately fails to do justice to its serious subject due to the lack of human drama.

The Planets Against Us (1961)

Planets_Against_Us_(1961)‘Only in her jade eyes is there a world as mysterious as the one I see in yours.’

A private plane crash in the Sahara desert leaves no survivors. Surprisingly, one passenger keeps turning up at major disasters just before they happen…

Rather dull and poorly developed Italian science fiction, with aliens resurrecting handsome corpse Michel Lemoine to be the spearhead of their invasion force. It’s a concept that saw better service in Gerry Anderson’s puppet TV extravaganza ‘Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons’ later on in the decade. But these aliens aren’t just retaliating, they’ve used up all the resources on their home world and consider Earth a good prospect for relocation. Despite the mess we’ve made of it. A bit of a fixer-upper really, but I guess that’s why they’re trying to get it on the cheap.

The main action (such as it is) involves serious men in grey suits trying to track down Lemon as he attends ritzy parties, sort of flirts with a scientist’s beautiful daughter, and then goes back to the apartment of a beautiful artist instead. Although what that has to do with his mission is anybody’s guess. Proceedings drag and events turn the picture into a dull police procedural with a vague science-fiction twist.


Alien Cyborg Elvis

Actually, Lemon is a bit of a let-down with the babes, what with being a cyborg and his serious radiation issues. Yes, once the gloves are off, his touch is quite thrilling but not really in the way that leads to long-term relationships. The climax of the film boasts shoddy SFX and some curious business with a couple of children, but the ‘direct to camera’ warning to the audience is quite amusing.

In its original form, it doesn’t look like the finished project had much going for it. Some of the process shots are as bad as anything in a 1940s serial, and central performances fail to spark any serious audience involvement. But proceedings probably did make more sense in the original version than in the American release. This is dubbed with clumsy dialogue that is often laughable, and has been cut to ribbons by a particularly zealous editor, who looks like he executed his duties when on a particularly heavy caffeine binge.

A lacklustre enterprise then; generally forgotten and perhaps best left that way.

Planeta Bur (Planet of Storms) (1962)

Planeta_Bur_(1962)‘According to quotes from the Smith corporation, the cost of building a highway to the ‘Sirius’ is 37 million dollars’

Three Soviet spaceships are approaching Venus on the first expedition to the planet when one is hit by a meteorite. The two remaining crews go ahead with landing but local conditions and the wildlife prove to be quite a problem.

The Russians had jumped out in front in the space race with the launch of Sputnik, and film director Pavel Klushantsev had reflected that triumph with his film ‘Road To The Stars’ (1958), a semi-documentary that traced the history of rocketry but also speculated on the future of space exploration. This included an orbiting space station and a mining colony on the moon. It turned out that project was merely a dry run for Klushantsev’s first step into full-on dramatic science fiction, here depicting the trials and tribulations of the first manned expedition to Venus.

Unfortunately, our heroic cosmonauts don’t get it all their own way. Far from it. One of their ships is destroyed just before going into orbit by a pesky meteorite, and things don’t work out so well on the ground, either. One of the crews is stranded in a cave while their robot has a strange mental episode, and the other finds itself attacked by a large plant with tentacles and some annoying lizard men. There’s other life on the planet’s surface too in the shape of a Brontosaurus, and a very strange wailing that sounds like a woman. Worst of all though is a large rubber pterodactyl, which looks like a distant relative of that other triumph of SFX muppetry ‘The Giant Claw’ (1957).


The robot had lost his head completely.

Now, all this may not sound impressive, but there is some real quality work here. Although the film is not remotely accurate in its depiction of Venus given what we know now, the film provides a surprisingly convincing alien landscape. The rocky surface is rendered in rusty browns and deep reds, constantly in turmoil from volcanic action and extreme weather. Yes, the flora and fauna are corny, but the ambience is other worldly, and the ruins of a higher civilisation now underwater is a nice touch.

Similarly, the spacesuits, helmets and spacecraft interiors are mechanistic and functional, a world away from the tinfoil and motorcycle helmets of some of their Western contemporaries. In fact the suits look a lot like the ones in Ridley Scott’s ‘Prometheus’ (2012). Disappointingly, however, the film’s on rather too familiar ground when it comes to its attitude toward the only female member of the expedition. She gets to stay behind and man the homefires in one of the orbiting craft.

Legendary B-Movie producer Roger Corman liked what he saw and bought the film for U.S. distribution; only he replaced the female cosmonaut with actress Faith Domergue (‘It Came From Beneath the Sea’ (1955)) and added Basil Rathbone at Mission Control with footage shot on the same set (and probably at the same time) as that for ‘Queen of Blood’ (1966). Spliced in with the Russian actors and an English soundtrack, it became ‘Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet’ (1965) and was unleashed on the unsuspecting American public.

But that was not the end of the film’s long journey! Rather brilliantly, it was re-cut yet again as ‘Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women’ (1968); this time featuring 50s blonde bombshell Mamie Van Doren leading a group of hot, young Venusians in seashell bras who worship the rubber pterodactyl thing. These inserts were shot by Peter Bogdanovich, who was Oscar nominated only 3 years later for ‘The Last Picture Show’ (1971).

This slice of Russian science fiction is pleasingly practical in many ways, and provides an intriguingly alien off world atmosphere. However, the characterisations of the protagonists are paper thin, and the drama is often derailed by its more dated, and goofier, aspects. But it’s serious tone is a pleasing antidote to the ‘creature features’ that tended to still dominate the U.S. scene at the beginning of the decade.