The Man from the First Century/Muz z prvního století (1962)

‘Do you know what it is to eat nothing but fungi and weeds?’

An upholsterer is accidentally launched into space in an experimental rocket. An alien race helps him to return to Earth, sending one of their own along as an ambassador to make official first contact. But five hundred years have passed, and the workman finds his home world changed beyond recognition…

The somewhat familiar ‘fish out of water’ trope is the basis for this science-fiction comedy from Czech co-writer and director Oldrich Lipský. The intention seems to have been largely satirical, but subtlety is sacrificed to a more obvious, broader approach.

It’s a historic evening at the Strakonice Rocket Factory. Their prototype of a huge cargo spacecraft is on the pad, and crowds of press and public have gathered to witness the launch. However, the Mission Commander (Bohumil Svarc) is not a happy man. All the attention has spoiled him rotten, and his latest complaint sends upholsterer Joseph (Milos Kopecký) into the capsule to provide last-minute padding for his seating arrangements. Unfortunately, the craftsman accidentally initiates the launch sequence and blasts himself off into space.

Five hundred years have passed before Kopecký returns to Earth, this time in the company of an alien companion he has named Adam (Radovan Lukavský). This extraterrestrial is a representative of a race who live on the Blue Star, who have decided to help the Earthman return home and offer the hand of friendship to his species. However, five hundred years have changed people and human society beyond recognition, making it difficult for the 20th Century man to fit in. The alien attempts to help by turning himself invisible and, together, they promote Kopecký as a scientific genius of his time.

The basic premise of a man travelling into the future can be traced as far back as some of humanity’s earliest myths and stories. 3rd Century Greek historian Diogenes Laertius recorded the tale of Epimenides of Knossos in his book ‘Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers’, and there are many equivalent tales in other cultures, such as ‘The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus’. The most obvious and well-known example is Washington Irving’s 1819 short story ‘Rip Van Winkle’. It took the rationalism and invention of the Victorian era for British author H G Wells to tie it to the scientific principle with his ground-breaking short novel ‘The Time Machine’ (1895). Wells even tipped his hat to the origin of the concept later on with ‘When the Sleeper Wakes’ (1899).

Unfortunately, accidental astronauts and time-travellers almost always have to be idiots in the film world. Apparently, it’s what makes them funny. So, as per usual, Kopecký is a complete buffoon, thrashing around in the tinfoil future, misunderstanding everything and taking pratfalls for comedy effect. His stubborn ignorance and exploitation of his alien friend also make him unlikeable, which is quite a significant problem. His character and attitude were likely intentional and part of the satire. However, it’s not easy for an audience to connect with the main protagonist of a comedy when he’s an obnoxious moron. It can work, of course, but then the humour needs to be a lot darker than it is here.

It’s a pity because some moments of the satire work well, most notably when Kopecký is taken to a store for a new set of threads that leave him looking like a cheap game show host. In some curious foreshadowing of our 21st century, he can order anything he wants from a console. Not just clothes, but a new Skoda, a custom-made place to live, even a live giraffe! Even though money has been abolished, he goes into an absolute shopping frenzy and orders multiple quantities of everything. He even goes through a dictionary, page by page, to ensure he doesn’t forget anything! This jab at consumer culture is clearly quite prescient. It may have been inspired by the Communist bloc isolationist propaganda of the time, which promoted people in the West as frivolous and obsessed with acquiring personal possessions.

Aside from that, the thin plot revolves around Kopecký passing himself off as a genius, helped by the invisible Lukavský. Engineer Petr (Vít Olmer) and scientific bigwig the Academician (Otomar Krejca) are particularly keen for details of the fuel used to power Kopecký’s rocket. Using Lukavský to calculate the formula, the upholsterer attempts to use its possession as leverage, but this just confuses his hosts. What can Kopecký possibly want when everything is freely available anyway? Even he doesn’t know, falling back on blather about enhancing his ‘prestige’. These differing points of view and the mutual inability of the principals to comprehend them hint at where the film might have gone with more sophisticated handling. Instead, director Lipský prefers to cover Kopecký with soap suds from an automatic shower machine and have him fall into an indoor pond. There is an attempt at a message late on when Engineer Olmer’s romance with brunette psychiatrist Eve (Anita Kajlichova) touches a chord with the alien, but it feels a lot like an afterthought.

The most pleasing aspect to modern eyes is the wonderfully future-retro art design by Jan Zázvorka and the costumes by Ester Krumbachová. It’s precisely the mid-20th Century concept of a silver, tinfoil future that now looks so quaint and adorable. There are huge push-button computers, a robot tour guide with waving arms, personal transport via flying bubble cars and air traffic controllers wearing one-piece jumpsuits and safety helmets. Best of all, Lukavský’s alien is tall, thin and comes with the kind of large, bulbous head much favoured by vintage TV shows like ‘The Outer Limits’ and ‘The Twilight Zone’. There’s also some more foreshadowing of modern times when Kopecký takes part in a scientific conference that looks a lot like a large Zoom meeting!

The film was moviemaker Lipský’s first venture into the fantastical arena, although he had plenty of experience with comedy. He’d worked exclusively in that field after making his directorial debut with ‘The Hen and the Sexton/Slepice a kostelník’ (1951). At the start of the following decade, he went back to the science-fiction well with time travelling farce ‘I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen/Zabil jsem Einsteina, panove’ (1970). However, he’s best remembered for ‘The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians/Tajemství hradu v Karpatech’ (1981). An adaptation of a Jules Verne novel, the film featured outstanding sets and prop designs, again courtesy of Jan Zázvorka. Leading man Kopecký was an even more regular collaborator, appearing in almost a dozen of the director’s 24 features.

There’s a seed of an excellent film here, but the decision to go for broad comedy makes for a somewhat wearing experience.

Dr Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs/Le spie vengono dal semifreddo (1966)

Dr Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966)‘Don’t be silly; I don’t want to oscillate her, I want to duplicate her.’

Evil genius Dr Goldfoot has decided to take over the world, taking advantage of his resemblance to one of NATO’s top generals. When the military men gather in Rome, he begins to eliminate them one by one, using his Girl Bombs; seductive robots who explode on command. An agent of the Secret Intelligence Command attempts to foil the scheme, with the help of two bumbling friends…

‘Dr Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine’ (1965) had been a worldwide hit for American International Pictures but had done some of its best business in Italy. After the domestic success of ‘The Amazing Dr G’ (1965) for the Italian comedy duo Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia, producer Fulvio Lucisano was looking to finance a sequel. So why not combine the two projects into one? Bring Vincent Price back as Goldfoot and star him alongside Franco & Ciccio!

Producer Lucisano had worked with Mario Bava on ‘Planet of the Vampires’ (1965), and American International were only too familiar with the horror maestro, having distributed several of his films Stateside. Some of these had been joint ventures, and Bava had even shot separate versions for the different markets simultaneously. He was also known for bringing in projects on time, and on budget. What could possibly go wrong?

Dr Goldfoot (Price) is up to his old tricks again. This time, he’s perfected a new army of girl robots. Not only do they look fabulous in gold bikinis, but they explode on contact with NATO generals! Working with Oriental sidekicks, Hardjob (Moa Tahi) and Fong (George Wang), he’s planning to take control of a nuclear missile and start another world war between the US and Russia. All that stands in his way is disgraced secret agent, Bill Dexter (Fabian), his love interest Rosanna (Laita Antonelli) and two blundering hotel doormen (Franco & Ciccio, of course).

Fabian attempts to convince his boss Colonel Benson (Francesco Mulé) of the threat that Price poses, but he’s already screwed up once too often, and he’s thrown out on his ear. The handsome young agent gets more of a sympathetic hearing from pretty secretary Antonelli, and things start looking up when a mistake allows idiots Franco and Ciccio to become registered as fully-qualified agents. Mulé gets the office computer to select the two best operatives to investigate the exploding Generals situation and, of course, it spits out the names of our gormless duo, after some tinkering from Price. Rather enjoyably, the mad genius breaks the fourth wall on a few occasion to explain his schemes to us, but the film fails to commit to the idea of the villain as narrator, which could have been interesting. And might have been funny.

The later stages opt for the same approach as the first film; an extended chase sequence, this time, mostly around a funfair. This is delivered in the style of a silent movie, complete with intertitles and under-cranking the camera to speed up the action. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work because there is no creativity behind the gags. It just falls flat. Curiously, it contains Bava’s most extended appearance in one of his films; as an agitated passer-by who gets involved in the action and, subsequently, as an angel in the clouds. There’s little other evidence of his involvement, beyond some nicely-framed shots and a sequence where the girls dance in a roomful of mirrors. It’s a hint at what the film could have been.

These shortcomings may be due to a production decision made early in the film. There were always going to be two separate and distinct cuts of the final film; one for release in America that prominently featured Price, and one for Italy which highlighted Franco & Ciccio. Indeed, a different scriptwriting team worked on each; Robert Kaufman (returning from the first film) and producer Louis M Heywood for the American version, and Franco Castellano and Giuseppe Moccia for the Italian one. How these scripts were finally mashed together is anybody’s guess.

There’s further evidence of a general downturn in quality too (and the original wasn’t that good!) The Supremes catchy theme song has been replaced by a useless effort from the slightly less famous outfit, The Sloopys and American International studio star Frankie Avalon has been switched out for teen heartthrob Fabian. He was another crooner who music moguls were trying to mould, unsuccessfully, into the next Elvis. His performance here is stiff and wooden, but at least we are spared Avalon’s tiresome mugging from the first film.

Strangely enough, the Italian cut of the film with, more Franco & Ciccio and less Price, is better. The story is more coherent and feels more fully developed. Perhaps it’s closer to Bava’s vision of the property, which makes sense as he would have been more familiar, and probably more in tune, with the humour and taste of his own country. However, there is more Franco & Ciccio, which is never a good thing.

If it seems a little baffling as to why a director such as Bava would take on such a project, there are several possible reasons, any one of which might have been sufficient on its own. To begin with, Bava was a massive fan of science-fiction, and the story falls broadly into that category. Perhaps it’s significant that his next project was ‘Diabolik’ (1968), who was a far more successful comic book villain in every sense. Also, he may have wished to try his hand at something different, and there’s the fact that Bava’s films were not all that successful on their original release, particularly in Italy. Ironically, this film proved to be his only real box-office hit domestically! In other words, he may just have needed the work.

Art fantastic Price may have thought a trip to Italy and working with Bava would be a meeting of minds. After all the director’s father, Eugenio, was a well-known sculptor and Bava himself was known for the visual brilliance of his films. However, when asked about working with the actor, Bava remarked: ‘Oh, that pain in the ass. All he did was talk about statues all the time.’

A clumsy, low-grade comedy that was undoubtedly the director’s worst work, and an experience that Price probably wanted to forget.

Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965)

Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965)‘I declare there’s something about you that makes my little old heart go flippety-flippety.’

An evil scientist is acquiring the wealth of rich men by having them seduced by his bikini-clad robots. When a secret agent is targetted by mistake, the operative teams up with one of the eligible young bachelors to foil the scientist’s evil scheme…

Good-natured lightweight comedy from American-International producers Sam Arkoff and James H Nicholson that spoofs the James Bond franchise. It brings together their usual roster of bright young talent as well as horror icon Vincent Price in the title role, and the final results are firmly tailored to the teenage drive-in crowd.

It’s not easy being Double-O and a half. Not only is secret agent Craig Gamble (Frankie Avalon) having a hard time with spy boss, Fred Clark, he’s also on the outs with girlfriend Deborah Walley. However, things start looking up once she walks out and in walks lovely brunette Diane (Susan Hart). What he doesn’t know is that Hart is one of the robot creations of evil genius Dr Goldfoot (Price) and is only interested in him because of a blunder by Price’s moronic assistant, Igor (Jack Mullaney). Soon she has her eyes on the real prize; wealthy and handsome young stud Todd Armstrong (Dwayne Hickman). After Hart gives Avalon a hand (literally), the clumsy secret agent begins to investigate and, teaming up with Hickman, vows to take the villainous doctor down.

Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965)

‘But I ordered an extra large ham…’

This is very much an assembly-line product from the AIP studio. The script was by Robert Kaufman and Elwood Ullman, who had written extensively for television and the Three Stooges respectively. The gags on display are repetitive at best, and relentlessly juvenile and silly. We know what we’re in for from the start when Hart inadvertently foils a bank robbery and jets of milk shoot out from the bullet holes in her coat when she takes a drink in the next scene. Avalon is a complete klutz, of course, keeps referring to himself as a S.I.C. agent and is demoted to ‘Double-O and a Quarter’ by an increasingly exasperated Clark.

This really would be an endurance test for audiences if it weren’t for one thing: Vincent Price. Things pick up immeasurably every time the great man is on screen, and he genuinely seems to be having fun with his role. Sporting a nifty smoking jacket and curly gold slippers, he cuts a thick slice of ham, continually berating the incompetent Mullarney with a mixture of annoyance and weary resignation that make for the film’s funniest moments. He also takes much delight in explaining his evil schemes, although they do seem to be limited to fleecing the rich rather than anything more ambitious. Would it have been so very difficult to invent some ridiculous scheme for world domination for him to explain? Apparently, the film was initially conceived as a musical, and Price was looking forward to singing, but the idea was dropped when Ullman was brought on board to give the script a rewrite and more of the flavour of a 007 parody.

Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965)

‘Have you annoyed the Costume Department again, Susan?’

In short, there is a very real sense of an opportunity missed here. With a wittier script (which would not have been difficult!), more gadgets for Price to play with and some better actors in support, this could have been a real winner. As it is, we get Avalon’s tiresome mugging, a succession of lame, predictable gags and the feel of a rushed and almost off-the-cuff production. The climactic chase scene is endless, and very poorly realised with tragic rear projection effects. The format heavily echoes the multiple-transport finale of French comic book spoof ‘Fantômas’ (1964), although, to be fair, that film had only been released in Europe and Scandanavia by the time filming began.

Perhaps inevitably, the overall results are very much rooted in the era when the film was made and, although that can make for some enjoyment, there can be marked disadvantages. The most notable here is the inclusion of Condor Club house band ‘Sam & The Apemen’. Unfortunately, they look very much like four ‘blacked-up’ white guys wearing costumes a fancy-dress shop owner might have considered traditional African daywear. Not something that would find favour today, to put it mildly.

Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965)

‘It’s not a trophy from one of my victims, honestly!’

There are some good things to note, however. There’s a cool animated opening credit sequence. There’s the insane earworm of the title song, performed by the Supremes whose fame has considerably outlived that of the film. Composer Les Baxter weaves variations on the song’s melody into his score throughout the film, and this proves a surprisingly effective device. Price’s robots cut a mean rug in their gold bikinis in his underground lab in one scene, the one girl not taking part being the only one that a modern audience might recognise. Yes, that is Deanna Lund, who was most famously a regular on Irwin Allen’s TV show ‘Land of the Giants.’

There are also some pleasing nods to the Edgar Allan Poe movies Price made with the studio. At one point, he introduces our heroes to his villainous ancestors, in a throwback to ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1960). Later on, he subjects Hickman to the second half of the torture of ‘The Pit and the Pendulum.’ He even wears a similar costume to the one from the 1961 movie of the same name so that director Norman Taurog can match some of the long shots from that film.

This was apparently American International Picture’s most expensive production to date, partly due to the cost of obtaining permissions to shoot location material on the streets of San Francisco. They promoted it with a travelling ‘Bikini Machine’ (which caught fire on the freeway!) and a half-hour TV special ‘The Wild Weird World of Dr Goldfoot’. This starred Price and Hart, and aired as an episode of the ABC series ‘Shindig.’ Ironically, the programme was more of a musical with several numbers performed by the cast including regular A.I.P. actors Harvey Lembeck and Aron Kincaid, who both had cameos in the film.

Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965)

Thing’s moonlighting from The Addams Family set had unforeseen consequences…

The advertising campaign proved a qualified success, with the film making decent box office in the U.S. and, perhaps surprisingly, becoming a much bigger hit abroad, particularly in Italy. This led to a sequel filmed in Rome with Price under the direction of horror maestro Mario Bava. ‘Dr Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs’ (1966) was definitely a career-worst for Bava and possibly for Price too, although ‘The Story of Mankind’ (1957), ‘Percy’s Progress’ (1974), and ‘Bloodbath at the House of Death’ (1984) also lay claims to that rather dubious honour.

The use of a regular cast of performing talent was par for the course for American International. Many of the faces on display would have been familiar to the drive-in audiences who had flocked to see ‘Beach Party’ (1964) and the subsequent entries in that teen-musical series. Even Price had a gag appearance in that first entry, and leading lady Annette Funicello returns the favour with a brief cameo here. Walley had starred with Avalon and Hickman in ‘Ski Party’ (1965) and with Avalon, Clark and Lembeck in ‘Sergeant Deadhead’ (1965) and with Funicello, Avalon and Lembeck in ‘Beach Blanket Bingo’ (1965). I could go on… but spare a thought for Avalon and Hickman who both having kissing scenes with Hart. She’d recently become Mrs James Nicholson, and it can’t have been easy locking lips for the cameras with the head of the studio’s new wife!

The film is very much a product of its times and the studio who made it. In this case, that’s not a good thing, but we do get Price going over-the-top as only he could, and that goes a long way to easing the pain.

Planet of the Vampires/Terrore nello spazio (1965)

Planet of the Vampires (1965)‘Apply neuro-vascular tension, suppress cortical areas X, Y Zee.’

Two spaceships answer a strange signal from the unexplored world of Aura and are forced down by sudden gravitational power. As soon as they make planetfall, crew members go berserk and attack each other with murderous intent. Surviving the madness, the Captain of the Argos and his team attempt to make repairs, reach their sister ship and find out what’s going on…

Highly influential science-fiction horror from Italian director Mario Bava, who has gained a significant cult following in recent years. Throughout his career, he worked mostly in lower budgeted genre pictures, so his talents went unacknowledged by the mainstream critics of the time, but his mastery of the visual image has led to a positive reappraisal of his impressive body of work.

Approaching the planet Aura, all looks to be going according to plan for twin spaceships the Argos and the Galliot. Then, without warning, communication between them is interrupted, and a rapidly increasing gravitational force seizes the Argos. Disaster looms but, fortunately, in the grand tradition of movie spaceship commanders, Captain Mark Markary (Barry Sullivan) manages to ‘switch to manual’ and bring the ship to ground safely. Almost as soon as his crew recover, however, they begin to attack each other in a psychotic frenzy. The seizure passes with his colleagues having no memories of their actions, leaving Sullivan with a pretty big mystery to solve.

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

‘Who goes there?’

Receiving a mayday from the Galliiot, they locate their sister ship but find the crew dead, apparently victims of the same strange madness that they experienced. They bury the dead on the planet’s surface but find the corpses they saw in the locked control room have mysteriously vanished. Another mystery is the damage to their own ship that prevents them from leaving. Sullivan assigns Wess (Ángel Aranda) to supervise repairs, but later finds the technician attempting to sabotage a vital piece of equipment. When questioned, Aranda remembers nothing about what he was trying to do. If that wasn’t enough, outside the ship, the dead astronauts of the Galliot are rising from their tombs.

What sets this film apart and has ensured its celebration as a cult favourite over the years is the rich visual quality and style that director Bava brings to the story. A master of optical FX, framing, colour and lighting, he is able to evoke a truly alien landscape with little more than a hyperactive fog machine and some fake rocks. It’s staggering that the production cost only around $200,000 and Sullivan, who also hated the script, was almost at a loss for words when he saw the quality of the finished film.

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

‘I’m ready for my closeup, Mr Romero.’

The model work by Carlo Rambaldi is somewhat less successful, though, and looks rather dated. However, the takeoff and landing sequences are still impressive when you consider they were accomplished using resources such as cotton wool, tissue paper and an aquarium. Bava’s skill with trick shots also comes to the fore with some of the ship interiors, although it does have to be acknowledged that no cinematic spacecraft will ever rival the Argos for the most wasted space on a flight deck.

The script, mostly written by Ib Melchoir was adapted from a short-story by Renato Pestriniero entitled ‘One Night of 21 Hours’ and, although the basic concept remained, significant changes were made from the source material. The central idea of alien possession of human bodies harkens back to Don Siegel’s masterful ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1956) and its source novel by Jack Finney. However, Pestriniero’s story does not depict the aliens as any kind of threat. Instead, once possessed, the human ego is suppressed, allowing the id to take control, in effect turning the hosts into joyful children with no purpose but to dance and play. Sensibly, this was dropped for the film with the Aurans being given a definite, and far more sinister, purpose.

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

‘I guess he had the eggs for breakfast.’

The electronic score by Gino Maranuzzi Jr takes a nod toward the electronic soundscapes of ‘Forbidden Planet’ (1956) and helps to enhance the mood of dread evoked by Bava’s stunning visuals. The sequence where the dead rise from their shallow graves, tearing their way through their plastic shrouds is a perfect combination of Bava’s visual genius and Maranuzzi Jr’s minimalist approach. Also worthy of note are the black leather and high-collars of the crew’s uniforms designed by Gabriele Mayer. They are striking, unique and impossibly cool.

It’s not a perfect film by any means. Melchoir’s script makes almost no effort to give our principals any distinguishing personality traits beyond a half-hearted attempt to provide Sullivan with some moments of self-doubt. This shortfall would not be so noticeable if there were a little more going on with the story. Apparently, in earlier drafts of the script crew member Tiona (Evi Marandi) developed a telepathic link with the Aurans and that subplot might have gone some way to giving the drama the extra content that it needs. So there’s not a lot for the cast to work with, although Sullivan delivers a robust and authoritative performance that helps to ground the drama. The kind of on-screen chemistry necessary t to convey the inter-relationships and camaraderie of a tight-knit crew of characters may not have been possible because of language barriers. Sullivan was American, Marandi was Greek, Aranda was a Spaniard, leading lady Norma Bengell was Brazilian and the rest of the cast Italian, language barriers may have prevented the creation of

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

The temperatures with a little high for the time of year…

Production seems to have been a smooth affair, although it is curious that part-way through the picture the unidentified actor playing Commander Sallis of the Galliot is replaced in the role by Massimo Righi. This substitution does suggest that some reshoots may have been necessary. However, there is no record of this or any other such indicators in the finished film. There does seem to have been some issues with casting the lead female role, though. Studio starlet Susan Hart was apparently cast, but this seems to have caused some friction with AIP studio head Sam Arkoff, perhaps because she had just married his business partner James H Nicholson. Shooting began without an actress in the role before Bengell was eventually cast.

Many commentators have made hay with the similarities between the film and the Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ (1979), and it’s fair to say that one influenced the other to some extent. One of the shots of the exterior of the downed Argos shows the ship to be a kissing cousin to the sinister space vehicle discovered by the crew of the ‘Nostromo’. More notably, when Sullivan and Bengell explore the wreck of an extraterrestrial craft on the surface of Aura, they find two giant, calcified, alien skeletons. These are not nearly as impressive as Scott’s ‘Space Jockey’ of course, but the similarity of their find is undeniable. The film’s downbeat, ironical climax was also faintly echoed almost two decades later by the ending of John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ (1982).

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

‘I guess the orgy is off then…’

Sullivan was a Hollywood veteran who contributed fine work in many big studio productions, particularly in the Noir arena, and was a regular on Network TV in the 1970s. His credits include ‘And Now Tomorrow’ (1944), ‘Suspense’ (1946), ‘Payment On Demand’ (1951), Vincente Minnelli’s multiple-Oscar winner ‘The Bad and the Beautiful’ (1952), ‘Loophole’ (1954), Samuel Fuller’s ‘Forty Guns’ (1957) and ‘A Gathering of Eagles’ (1963). He was also terrific as the title character of the unjustly neglected ‘The Gangster’ (1947). Bengell was an award-winning actress and singer in her native Brazil who achieved worldwide notoriety and the displeasure of the Catholic church for her full-frontal nude scenes in Ruy Guerra’s ‘The Unscrupulous Ones/Os Cafajestes’ (1962).

Model-maker Rambaldi went on to work with John Huston, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento before relocating to America and winning Oscars for his visual effects on ‘Alien’ (1979) and ‘ET the Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982). Melchior is fondly remembered for screenwriting on science-fiction projects such as fan-favourite ‘Robinson Crusoe On Mars’ (1964), ‘Reptilicus (1961), ‘Journey to the Seventh Planet’ (1962), ‘The Time Travellers’ (1964) and ‘The Angry Red Planet’ (1959), also directing the last two. Roger Corman based his cult classic ‘Death Race 2000’ (1975) on a short story by Melchior. 

An important work in both the history of big-screen science-fiction and the career of director Mario Bava. An essential watch for lovers of cult cinema.

Flight That Disappeared (1961)

Flight That Disappeared (1961)‘We cannot destroy you for as yet we have no existence.’

A commercial flight from Los Angeles to Washington DC vanishes from radar when it mysteriously begins gaining altitude. The crew and passengers pass out, except for a scientist, his assistant and a political lobbyist. Eventually, the flight ends and the trio have the opportunity to leave the aeroplane…

Curious cold-war era science fiction piece that takes a solemn tone and boasts none of the typical tin foil/rubber monster aesthetic common to the genre at the time. The apparent lack of budget limits the scope of the film and the story development, and the results resemble nothing so much as a minor episode from a TV anthology shows such as ‘The Twilight Zone’ or ‘The Outer Limits’.

It’s just another day on the skyway for Captain Henry ‘Hank’ Norton (John Bryant), Co-pilot Jack Peters (Brad Turnbull) and flight attendants Barbara (Nancy Hale) and Joan (Bernadette Hale, apparently no relation). Unfortunately, things start to get weird when Bryant finds his controls locked and the aircraft rising. Meanwhile back in business class, smooth talker Tom Endicott (Craig Hill) is chatting up brain box Marcia Paxton (Paul Raymond). She’s a mathematics wiz and right hand of atomic scientist Dr Carl Morris (Dayton Lummis) who is a few rows back in the cabin due to a seat misallocation.

Flight That Disappeared (1961)

‘We go above and beyond.’

When the flight reaches an unreasonable altitude, the engines give out, but the aircraft keeps rising, and everyone passes out due to oxygen deprivation. Some unknown time later, Hill, Raymond and Loomis come to their senses, finding everyone else still out and the plane apparently on the ground. It’s here when we get our first clue as to what’s going on. Hill is not the political lobbyist he claimed to be, but a top rocket scientist. He’s on his way to DC to present his plans for a revolutionary new missile, while Lummis is on a similar mission to deliver his designs for a bomb of almost unlimited destructive power. When they leave the craft, they find themselves in a strange cloud-like limbo, which turns out to be inhabited by the architects of this strange incident.

This is a little bit of an odd project in many ways. It’s difficult to identify who the intended audience was supposed to be. The sparse action and drama are designed with just one purpose in mind; to deliver the film’s anti-war message of peace and tolerance. By the time of production, the so-called ‘Red Scare’ of the 1950s had lost most of its impetus. The censuring of Senator Joseph McCarthy by Congress in 1954 had taken the wind out of his sails, and his mission to root out Reds in Hollywood was over. However, the unofficial blacklisting of members of the film industry with suspected communist sympathies was still in force until at the least mid-1960s, so credit must be given to the cast and crew involved in this film. In all likelihood, the subject was still a highly sensitive area.

Flight That Disappeared (1961)

‘I guess the foot’s on the other hand now, isn’t it, Kramer?’

Having said that, it’s hardly subtle in its presentation of its argument. Shortly after takeoff, Lummis is buttonholed by passenger Walter Cooper (Harvey Stephens) who is travelling with his blind wife, Helen (Meg Wylie). He’s been ‘writing to the papers’ about the threat from the Soviets and wants Lummis to ‘bomb them before they bomb us’. The fact that the character is portrayed as borderline unhinged hardly provides for a reasoned debate about the issues and comes over as forced and needlessly melodramatic.

The scenes in the cloud country are far better and, although minimal in scale, effective in their simplicity. They prove the highlight in a picture that otherwise remains almost exclusively stuck in business class and the flight deck. There’s some effort made to interest the audience in the characters; Bryant is about to transition to flying jets, there’s a generic romance between Turnbull and Nancy Hale, and comedy relief from pushy passenger Floyd Jameson (Roy Engel). But it’s all woefully underdeveloped and half-baked, and the fact that Engel’s character recognises Lummis begs an obvious question. If the scientist is so well-known as the father of ‘The Beta Thermonuclear Warhead’ what on earth he’s doing travelling on a commercial flight with no security? If the bomb is such a game-changer, that doesn’t seem like such a great idea.

Flight That Disappeared (1961)

Village of the Damned: The Teenage Years

Director Reginald LeBorg delivered some far more interesting projects over the years, although he often seemed to lack the necessary skill to overcome budgetary restrictions. Never was this more evident in dreary horror flick ‘Voodoo Island’ (1957) with Boris Karloff, leftover British noir ‘The Flanagan Boy’ (1953) or the massively disappointing ‘The Black Sleep’ (1956) which wasted the talents of Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi and a gallery of former horror stars. However, given studio backing from Universal, he was able to deliver probably the best two films in the ‘Inner Sanctum’ series with Lon Chaney Jr, ‘Calling Dr Death’ (1943) and ‘Weird Woman’ (1944).

Hill enjoyed a long career in film and television, beginning with bits in films such as Oscar-winner ‘All About Eve’ (1950) before graduating to supporting roles in Samuel Fuller’s ‘Fixed Bayonets’ (1951), John Ford’s ‘What Price Glory?’ (1952) and ‘Tammy’ (1957) with Debbie Reynolds. In 1957, he embarked on what is probably his best-remembered role; as helicopter pilot P.T. Moore on ‘Whirlybirds’ which ran for 111 episodes until 1960, Nancy Hale joining him as a series regular from the second season onwards. Although he never gained such popularity again, he regularly worked up until his death in 2014. Cult movie fans may remember him for his leading role as Inspector Tobermann in bizarre ‘cut and paste’ Euro-Horror/Science-Fiction mash-up ‘Los monstruos del terror/Assignment Terror/Dracula Versus Frankenstein’ (1970).

Flight That Disappeared (1961)

‘By the way, is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?’

Lummis did quite a number of features in small roles, sometimes uncredited, but found his home on the small screen where he played guests slots on numerous network shows, including Irwin Allen’s ‘Voyage To The Bottom of the Sea’ and ‘The Time Tunnel’. Of course, Raymond had a ringside seat when sharpshooter Lee Van Cleef took out ‘The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms’ (1953), helped rewrite history in the ridiculous ‘King Richard and the Crusaders’ (1954) and tried her best to avoid John Agar’s ‘Hand of Death’ (1962). But mostly she worked on television, running up such a huge amount of credits that it almost beggars belief, sometimes appearing in different guest roles in the same series on multiple occasions. Two of her last parts were on the big screen, however, as Dracula’s other half in ‘Blood of Dracula’s Castle’ (1968) and in western ‘Five Bloody Graves’ (1969), both for notorious schlockmeister Al Adamson. She retired at the end of the decade, although she took a small walk-on part for director Fred Olen Ray a decade before her death in 2003.

Curious science-fiction picture with a message but without the resources or script to deliver it in a truly dramatic or compelling way.

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.

Autopsy of A Ghost/Autopsia de un Fantasma (1968)

Autopsy of a Ghost (1968)‘The meat taste like meat, and the hell ham taste like a bunch of devils!’

A lost soul trapped in the dungeon of his ancestral home is given a final chance at redemption by Satan. If he can persuade a woman to lay down her life for him, he will be allowed to ascend to heaven. The devil arranges for a mad scientist and his extended family to come and stay at the spooky old house, thereby providing some possible candidates…

Demented, anything goes, relentlessly juvenile comedy cocktail from south of the border, courtesy of director Ismael Rodríguez. It’s a frenetic, hyperactive mix of knockabout humour, slapstick gags and pure, uncut silliness that almost has to be seen to be believed. At times it seems to have been aimed at children, but at others has a more adult tone to its attempted laughs. What’s truly amazing about it is the presence of notable Hollywood names Basil Rathbone, John Carradine and Cameron Mitchell.

Rathbone is the spirit of Canuto Pérez, a suicide from 400 years earlier who hangs about in the basement dungeon of his old dark house, arguing with his own skeleton (heroically played by an unconvincing life-sized puppet). However, his centuries of anguish could soon be over. Satan (Carradine in a red bodysuit with horns and a spiked tail!) offers him a way out, and he’s arranged for crazy inventor Mitchell (who wear two pairs of spectacles at the same time) to rent the old pile and bring some eligible females along. These include his lovely daughter Galena (Amadee Chabot), who seems to have been shortchanged by the wardrobe department and wears a bikini throughout. Can Rathbone’s get one of the ladies to fall for him and make the ultimate sacrifice?

You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.

‘It’s still better than a real job.’

Mitchell also has his problems. His crackpot inventions aren’t making any money, and his large family have been evicted from their last home. He’s put his faith in new mechanical man Caruso, but when he’s activated all he can do is make fart noises! It’s because he’s the victim of an act of sabotage perpetrated by older robot Vitola (Famie Kaufman in a cardboard costume, ginger wig and short skirt).

And if there weren’t enough characters and plot already, Rodriguez chucks in the idiot son of Mitchell’s former business partner (whose brain is tilted sideways apparently), his annoying little brat of a son and various other stooges and hangers-on. To make things even more complicated, a gang of useless criminals have hidden half a million dollars in the property and want it back, but agent Jaime Blondo (Carlos Piñar) is hot on their trail.

So the scene is set for an endless series of misunderstandings, pratfalls, frantic running about, loud screaming and general pantomime. Rathbone attempts to seduce various women with little success, the matriarch of the criminal gang falls in love with his skeleton (yes, really!) and Carradine hangs around in the background smirking a lot and breaking the fourth wall by twirling his tail and literally winking at the audience. Director Rodríguez never pauses to take a breath, rushing from scene to scene with reckless abandon, sometimes even speeding up the footage so we can arrive even earlier. Sometimes it’s all quite baffling. But too often it’s just the comedic equivalent of nails down a chalkboard.

Autopsy of a Ghost (1968)

‘You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.’

If you’ve read Rathbone’s autobiography ‘In and Out of Character’ (1962), you’re probably aware that he had no illusions about his immense talents as a thespian(!), and his place in the pantheon of great classical actors. However, you can’t deny his commitment to the cause here. He throws himself around the cheap sets with abandon, quotes a little Shakespeare and even does a few dance steps.

Rathbone was always the consummate professional in a film career that began in 1927, saw him Oscar-nominated twice, teach Errol Flynn how to fight with a sword and create the screen’s greatest Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, this was to be his last performance. He died of a cardiac arrest in a New York shortly afterwards. The film was shot in Mexico City, and Carradine always maintained that the altitude had been too much for Rathbone’s heart.

Curiously enough, the film seems to possess two endings. On this occasion, I was finally able to watch a print with English subtitles, but previously I’d seen one without a translation. That version had an ending featuring Carradine spinning around at high speed in a chair being splattered with faeces and an ‘A’ bomb explosion. This version did not. Perhaps I just dreamed it. Bad movies can do that to you.

An exhausting, knockabout farce with infantile humour that tries the patience from beginning to end.

Panic In The City (1968)

Panic In The City (1968)‘So far, nothing has been difficult, but my time as an American citizen.’

A man collapses on the sidewalk and is hospitalised. It’s quickly established that he has received a near-lethal dose of radiation, and a desperate race against time begins. Who is he and how has he been contaminated? A special agent begins to suspect that foreign operatives are building a nuclear bomb on American soil…

Flat, conventional and ultimately mediocre Cold War adventure with a science-fiction gimmick directed and co-written by Eddie Davis. Although not a direct remake of the similar ‘Seven Days To Noon’ (1950), this plays like a made for television equivalent, with all the talent in front of the camera familiar to small screen audiences of the time. But it’s the distinct lack of ambition, creativity and, in the final scenes, credibility, which makes for an underwhelming and forgettable experience.

It’s a typical day at St Generic General for practising physician (and radiation expert!?) Linda Cristal. Well, it is until she waves her Geiger Counter in the vague direction of a new admission (standard medical procedure, I guess). It turns out that this guy is hot, and not in a good way. Isolation of the patient follows, and the authorities arrive in the hunky shape of special agent Howard Duff of the N.I.B. (National Bureau of Investigation). Our golden couple engage in some lame late 1960s sexist banter. ‘You don’t look much like a N.I.B. agent,’ she smirks. ‘Well, you don’t look much like a doctor,’ he counters brilliantly. But, not to worry, there’s no confusion because Cristal’s boss offers to show Duff her qualifications and certificates to back up her outrageous claim. She’s only a woman, after all.

Panic In The City (1968)

‘What a stupid place to put a petrol cap!’

On the other side of the street, we find Fanatical Foreigner with A Dodgy Accent (Nehemiah Persoff) whose dastardly crew are assembling an atom bomb in the basement of a suburban family home on Your Street in Your Part of Town. This involves activating ‘sleeper’ scientist Oscar Beregi who, rather than just do the job in his spare time, quits his high-level research post in a blaze of publicity.

Duff attends the resulting press conference and brilliantly asks a spectacularly stupid question that lets the bad guys know he’s onto them. But not to worry, enemy agent and femme fatale Anne Jeffreys is also there (for no reason at all as far as I could see), and gets spotted by super spy Duff. You just can’t put one over on him! This blows her cover completely, and so puts the villains’ entire operation at risk. With this standard of espionage expertise, it’s a wonder that the world made it out of the Cold War at all!

From there the picture rolls predictably on. Duff and Cristal decide to get married after a couple of aborted dinner dates and a quick snog. N.I.B. boss Stephen McNally sits behind his desk and worries a lot. Various minor supporting players get knocked off in bloodless gunfights. Then we get to the ending. Faced with needing to haul a ticking nuclear device a couple of hundred yards to a waiting helicopter, Duff refuses all offers of help. After all, when you have no idea when a bomb is going to explode and decimate a city of millions of people, it makes perfect sense to take as long as possible, doesn’t it? Hell, why not even waste a few minutes calling up your girlfriend on the telephone before you start?

Perhaps the most dispiriting thing about the experience is watching how the supporting cast is wasted in a series of nothing roles. McNally had some heavily featured performances under his Hollywood belt, and was particularly notable in edgy crime dramas like ‘No Way Out’ (1950), and ‘Violent Saturday’ (1950). He also starred opposite James Stewart in classic Western ‘Winchester .73’ (1950). John Hoyt (who gets a couple of brief scenes as a scientist here) had shared the screen with Alan Ladd, Bob Hope, Marlon Brando, Stewart Granger, George Sanders and many others. But at least we do get to see celebrated ‘gorilla suit’ actor George Barrows in his own skin and a young Dennis Hopper as a hitman! There’s also ‘blink, and you’ll miss ’em’ cameos from TV’s Deanna Lund (a regular on ‘Land of the Giants’) and Mike Farrell, who found fame as B.J. on M*A*S*H*.

Panic In The City (1968)

‘Hey, what’s this? No smile for Frank?’

Duff enjoyed a successful movie career after first finding fame on the radio as Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. A debut in classic film-noir ‘Brute Force’ (1947) was followed by plaudits for his role in ‘The Naked City’ (1948). Although he never really capitalised on that success, a steady stream of decent film parts followed before he embraced TV in the mid-1950s. Decades of guest roles followed on too many hit shows to name. He was still a familiar face on the small screen in 1990 when he died.

The Argentinian-born Cristal also had her greatest success on television, appearing memorably as the feisty partner of rancher Leif Erickson for four seasons on hit show ‘The High Chaparral.’ Later on, she worked in both Mexico and her homeland, as well as in America, probably finding that her ethnicity was an obstacle to more regular work for the networks. Director Davis worked almost exclusively in television, a regular contributor to shows such as ‘The Rough Riders’, ‘Highway Patrol’ and ‘Tombstone Territory.’ This was his first feature film, and he directed three more times, including thriller ‘Color Me Dead’ (1969).

Unremarkable espionage antics that have a distinct made for television feel.


The Three Stooges In Orbit (1962)

The Three Stooges In Orbit (1962)‘We’re rounding up a herd of man-eating caterpillars from Venus that are trying to crush City Hall!’

Repeatedly evicted from lodgings for cooking in their rooms, the Three Stooges accept a job looking after an eccentric old scientist. He’s been working for many years on a multi-purpose military vehicle that can travel on land, underwater and through the air. His invention is now almost complete, but he fears that his work has come to the attention of Martians, who see it as an obstacle to their invasion plans and want to steal it…

Three years had passed since the Stooges last explored interplanetary space in ‘Have Rocket Will Travel’ (1959), which was the first of half a dozen low-budget features designed to cash in on the trio’s newfound fame due to television re-runs. They began life as a comedy act on the vaudeville stage in the 1920s but enjoyed their greatest popularity from 1932 to 1946 when the trio of Moe, Larry and Curly starred in almost a hundred short films for Columbia Studios. After a series of enforced lineup changes, surviving Stooges Moe and Larry were joined by Joe DeRita, whose slight resemblance to the original Curly was accentuated by a shaven head. At this point, the Stooges were experiencing a sudden renaissance in popularity, due to their short films playing to a new generation on television.

Here, our heroic trio take a gig as bodyguards to the brilliant, but slightly kooky, Professor Danforth (Emil Sitka). He’s worried that aliens have targeted his brand new invention, but no-one in authority will take him seriously. The Stooges think he’s got bats in his belfry too, but it turns out that his snooty new butler Williams (Norman Leavitt) is actually a Martian! Yes, the occupants of the Red Planet are desperate to get their shaggy paws on this revolutionary vehicle. The Air Force also express a surprising interest, and handsome Captain Andrews (Edson Stroll) is only too happy to set up a demonstration for the top brass after he gets eyes on Sitka’s beautiful daughter Carol (Carol Christensen). Of course, he has a beautiful daughter. No self-respecting scientific genius can be without one!

The Three Stooges In Orbit (1962)

‘Blimey, I thought the budget was low, but…’

What follows are some of the usual, predictable comedy tropes. In the film’s best scenes, the Stooges create havoc at an airfield when they deliver the vehicle (a submarine-like craft that runs on tank tracks and has a helicopter rotor on top of the conning tower). These merry scenes of destruction are well realised by director Edward Bernds and, along with the construction of the craft itself, probably took up a hefty percentage of the film’s budget. This rampage includes an excursion into space, but it was probably only included to justify the film’s title; it really is just a matter of moments before they have thrown some levers and are attempting re-entry. Martian enforcers Ogg and Zogg (George N. Neise & Rayford Barnes) are also no match for the Stooges, and in the process of all this craziness, our heroes also manage to save their television show as well!

The gags here are well signposted, and anyone familiar with the Stooges output will know what to expect. When the air force cook lays out rows of brand new cream pies on an outside table before the Stooges take to the field in the Professor’s craft, it doesn’t take a genius to work out what’s going to happen next. There’s also plenty of the Stooges creeping through the dusty corridors of Sitka’s mansion; impressive sets that were obviously a holdover from a far better-budgeted film. This action gives it more of the feel of an ‘old dark house’ comedy than anything approaching science-fiction; the Martians filling in for the usual fake spooks and escaped gorillas. There’s also little logic in Leavitt adopting a human disguise to be Sitka’s butler, and then dressing up as a Martian to try and frighten everyone!

The Three Stooges In Orbit (1962)

‘I’m sorry, sir, but you name does not appear to be on the guest list.’

Not surprisingly, aside from Leavitt, the Martians are just bit players in capes and cardboard masks, which look suspiciously like joke shop versions of Karloff’s iconic Frankenstein’s Monster (copyright alert!) For once our alien friends haven’t been watching our television broadcasts so they don’t speak English and their dialogue is subtitled. This gives rise to the film’s best joke when Larry works out what’s happening by looking down toward the bottom of the screen and reading the captions! More off the wall humour like that would certainly have helped.

Director Bernds was the man behind the megaphone on some cult science-fiction pictures of the 1950s, including ‘World Without End’ (1956), ‘Return of the Fly’ (1959) and ‘Queen of Outer Space’ (1958). This was his last feature, although he went onto work extensively with the Stooges on their final project, the animated ‘The New 3 Stooges’ show, which premiered in 1965.

A formulaic and predictable comedy. Harmless enough, but not really memorable in any way.

Omicron (1963)

Omicron (1963)‘They receive images through balls of jelly and through a single crater make noises and feed.’

A factory worker is found apparently dead under mysterious circumstances. Later on, his body comes back to life on the autopsy table, but now it’s under the control of a visiting alien intelligence…

Surprisingly amusing Italian science fiction satire from director Ugo Gregoretti, who examines the relationship between workers and management using the presence of an invading alien as both catalyst and commentator. It’s a familiar enough plot device now, of course; the unseen alien struggling to understand mankind’s bizarre foibles, conventions and habits, but it’s pretty original for the early 1960s.

It seems like factory worker Renato Salvatori was a pretty ordinary sort of a fellow; popular with work colleagues but a little shy and retiring, unable to engage in anything more than a mild flirtation with canteen cutie Rosemary Dexter. But after he’s found stretched out one morning apparently dead, things begin to get more than a little unusual. His body’s been taken over by intergalactic entity Omicron who is the vanguard of an alien invasion; his mission to report back to his masters with information on the human condition, society and government. Unfortunately, operating his new host proves a problem as he struggles to ‘wake up the centres of intelligence.’ This leaves him unable to speak, and somewhat hampers his investigations.

Omicron (1963)

Omicron’s taste in literature was a little questionable…

What follows is initially somewhat reminiscent of the late Robin Williams breakout TV show ‘Mork and Mindy’ with Salvatori struggling to adapt and understand everyday situations, but there’s a far darker undercurrent to proceedings here. The workers at his factory are on the verge of a bitter labour dispute with the management and neither side is prepared for Salvatori’s superhuman performance on the production line

In fact, he proves so efficient that every foreman wants him on their work gang, but it’s not long before he’s not so popular. Workmates start to believe he’s a management stooge, planted there to break up their impeding strike, whereas the factory owners want to exploit his abilities so they can be replicated in the rest of their workforce. In a very smart parallel, Omicron is himself at loggerheads with his superiors. Mission control is represented by a disembodied voice that demands more and more intel and threatens him with disintegration if he leaves his post early. Apparently, he’d been punished for a similar transgression on a previous mission when he‘d been left trapped in a Martian body for 217 years!

This setup creates some very good opportunities for black comedic satire and, for the most part, director Ugo Gregoretti hit his targets well. Omicron reports that the only humans the invaders need to concern themselves with are the rich and powerful because no-one else matters. Omicron spends the night speed reading dozens of books including Dante’s Inferno and Last Year at Marienbad but only keeps a photo book of Brigitte Bardot. Omicron is the perfect consumer because he can smoke an entire cigarette in five seconds flat.

Omicron (1963)

The choice of the new James  Bond was likely to be controversial…

But the film is far from flawless. Omicron realises that he can return home early if his host body dies, so attempts to orchestrate his own demise in a way that seems accidental. This scenario has comic possibilities, but instead Gregoretti has him kidnap Dexter and plan to rape her after reading a newspaper story about a man who was killed for committing the same crime. Thankfully, this doesn’t really go anywhere but it strikes a false note nevertheless.

Elsewhere, Gregoretti’s script is smart and often funny, walking a tightrope of humour that is juvenile at times but also quite knowing and sophisticated. Helping bring his ideas to life is Salvatori, who gives an excellent, well-judged performance; the actor creating a character that seems pleasingly deranged at times but retains audience sympathy throughout. After all, Omicron may be an alien invader, but he’s just a working stiff like the rest of us. On the debit side, however, the climax is mishandled and far from satisfying. Given what’s gone before, it’s quite a disappointment.

Comedy sometimes struggles to cross international boundaries, but here’s an example which is witty, engaging and also has something to say. Quietly recommended.