The Nights of Prague/Prazske noci/Prague Nights (1969)

‘And he has a lion in his emblem, the hairless rabbit!’

A lonely businessman in Prague meets a mysterious woman who seems to know all about him. She takes him to a cemetery, where he tries to seduce her, but she’s more interested in telling him three bizarre, supernatural stories…

An offbeat Czechoslovakian anthology film, which cheerfully mixes its horrors with romance, some comedy and even a faint whiff of science fiction. Director Milos Makovec delivers the framing story and the third tale, with the other two are helmed by Jirí Brdecka and Evald Schorm respectively.

Middle-aged executive Willy Fabricius (Milos Kopecký) arrives in Prague on the eve of closing a big business deal. However, rather than spend the evening with his prospective new partners, he begs off, claiming he needs time to study the contract on offer. In truth, he’s after some fun instead. After unsuccessful attempts to interest the pretty hotel receptionist and the female motorist who gives him a lift into town, he meets Zuzana (Milena Dvorská). She comes with a vintage car and chauffeur Václav (Jirí Hrzán) but, unfortunately for Kopecký, their first stop is not the kind of boneyard he had in mind. Instead, it’s a nearby cemetery, and all Dvorská wants to do is tell him bedtime stories.

The first tale revisits Prague’s most famous legend: the Golem. In this version, the clay statue brought to life by Rabbi Jehudi Löw (Josef Bláha) has already completed its mission and lies inert on the temple floor. However, Emperor Rudolf II (Martin Ruzek) wants to use the creature for his own purposes. Bláha explains that it cannot be revived, but the ruler has anticipated his refusal and called in the ambitious Rabbi Neftali Ben Chaim (Jan Klusák) to do the job. During preparations for the rites, the young pretender becomes inflamed with desire for a mute servant girl (Lucie Novotná). Determined to impress her, he uses a spell to grow his Golem to giant size.

The second story focuses on Countess (Teresa Tuszynska), who has made manipulating men her lifetime’s work. She’s driven them to suicide and ruin, even provoking a pair of twins to kill each other over her. Her latest plaything is the Knight Saint de Clair (Josef Abrhám), who invites her to a masked ball. She’s happy to accept as long as he can furnish a pair of party slippers made from loaves of bread. He cannot procure the unusual footwear, and she breaks with him, prompting his offscreen rendezvous with a pistol. On the evening of the ball, a Shoemaker (Josef Somr) suddenly arrives to fulfil her order. She’s delighted and sets out in a coach with a masked man she assumes is Abrhám. Of course, it’s Somr instead, and he takes her to his gothic mansion, which is staffed by mechanical servants and covered with cobwebs.

Rounding out the trio of stories is the oft-told tale of the bloody tavern. Yes, this traveller’s rest is likely to be your last, courtesy of landlady Yvetta Simonová and the elderly Attendant Prech (Václav Kotva). There’s a warm welcome waiting, accompanied by a quick dose of poison and an exit through a trapdoor to a cellar filled with corpses. At least Simonová doesn’t bother her guests with a bill, lifting their jewellery, purse and silver buttons instead. However, her perfect scheme begins to unravel when she starts to fall in love with her latest victim. When this story concludes, we go back to our modern-day Scheherazade and her hapless audience of one for a final twist in the tale.

There’s a lot to admire in this unusual collection of tales, with Brdecka’s Golem story and the activities of Schorm’s Countess being particularly noteworthy and engaging. The first of these edges the honours, with the smartest script and some striking production design. Brdecka’s economic direction also ensures that not a second of screentime is wasted, and the cast are on point throughout. Although the practical effects are crude and unconvincing, they are highly imaginative and memorable for all the right reasons.

Schorm’s segment runs it a close second, principally due to a tour de force performance by Tuszynska. Her Countess is deliciously corrupt; a sexy, blonde kitten who holds court naked in her bubble bath, fondling Chambermaid Mici (Jana Brezková) and sending men to their doom with uncontrollable glee. Her request for slippers made from bread seems an innocent piece of fun at first until a later scene highlights the plight of the local peasant population. Let them eat cake, indeed! The scenes in Somr’s mansion pile on the atmosphere impressively, and there’s even a homage to the Powell & Pressburger classic ‘The Red Shoes’ (1948). The only fault lies in its length; the final scenes are in danger of becoming too repetitious.

The remaining sections of the film fail to scale these heights. Humour has been present throughout the first hour of the film, but director Makovec opts for far broader comedy in both the tavern segment and the wrap up of the framing story. These create a serious clash of tone. The handling of the former is particularly jarring as it’s shot without dialogue or synchronised sound. Instead, the plot is conveyed courtesy of offscreen singers, who seem to have wandered onto the film’s soundtrack from an operetta taking place next door! As of in itself, it’s a creative idea, and the sequence is entertaining; it just doesn’t fit well with what the audience has been watching. Similarly, subtlety goes out the window, along with the cast, when the fate of amorous businessman Kopecký is revealed. It’s played for big laughs and is accompanied by some (intentionally?) terrible SFX.

Ultimately, the theme that ties these stories together is man’s inability to resist a beautiful woman. Even when the female concerned is not actively deadly, she’s still a trap that leads to man’s ultimate destruction. The apple offered by Eve is still a temptation that cannot be resisted. Not an original notion, of course, but one that’s examined here in a pleasing variety of ways and with genuine creativity and imagination. There are some lovely quiet touches too; it rains indoors when the Golem is brought to life, and its feet break the stone slabs of the floor when its walks, Tuszynska gives a quick shrug of indifference when she finds the silver snuff box of an old lover in her bed, and Somr takes a peek at the cogs and wheels inside the head of one of his mechanical servants by lifting the top of its head like the lid of a coffee pot.

Of the three directors, Makovec has most feature films to his name, although he was not prolific, with just 15 credits in 25 years. Although this may not seem a bad strike rate by modern standards, many of his contemporaries in Western Europe ran up far higher totals in comparison. Brdecka often worked as a writer on his projects and was also a prolific director of short films, as was Schorm, making them the perfect collaborators on an anthology. Little of their work is known outside Eastern Europe. Still, Brdecka was the principal script collaborator on writer-director Oldrich Lipský’s bizarre Jules Verne adaptation ‘The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians/Tajemství hradu v Karpatech’ (1981).

Overall, an uneven effort thanks to its late swerve into overstated comedy. Still, there’s a great deal to admire and enjoy in this unusual production.

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.

Frankenstein Meets The Space Monster (1965)

Frankenstein_Meets_the_Space_Monster_(1965)‘We must begin phase two of our plan: capture of the Earth women!’

The U.S. launches a new deep space rocket manned by an experimental cyborg. What the boffins don’t know is that aliens are already in orbit and focusing their greedy eyes on Planet Earth.

This 1960s feature plays like it was made at least a decade before, if not earlier. Our heroes are James Karen and Nancy Marshall, two colourless scientists who have persuaded General David Kerman to go along with their scheme of space exploration by cyborg. The quartet travel to the launch site in the least convincing vehicle interior since the airliner cockpit in Ed Wood’s ‘Plan Nine From Outer Space’ (1956).

In orbit are Princess Marcuzan, Dr Nadir and various flunkeys who are looking to relocate after an atomic war on their own planet. They dress and act like a pair of villains from a 1930’s serial and provide the only real entertainment we get, Lou Cutell in particular investing Dr Nadir with serious pantomime relish. He also looks like a shaven headed Peter Lorre with Spock ears, which is rather brilliant.

And now... maximum energy!

And now… maximum energy!

The film attempts to use more library shots and stock footage than any other in history. We get rockets, jet planes, tanks, bi-planes, soldiers, motels (really!) and some murky planets. Mission control is manned by the two scientists and the General sitting around a TV set. A press conference is so important that it’s attended by 4 journalists.

The scientists fix the damaged cyborg using crocodile clips (attached to something or other) and the Space Monster is a large bloke in a hairy suit and ugly mask. At one point he’s shot from below so we get a good look at the flourescent strip-lights on the ceiling in the alien spacecraft. Access to this wonderful piece of advanced technology is via a ladder leaned up against its side.

One of bikini-clad women submits to a leering verbal examination by the alien Princess without a word of protest, putting me in mind of that disturbing scene from the ‘Atomic Brain’ (1963) when the old lady checks out her prospective new body. It helps when you steal from the best I guess. As momentum builds towards the end of our story, the two scientists jump on a scooter and ride through the Puerto Rican streets accompanied by a drippy 60’s love song. For about five minutes. It’s so wonderfully out of place that it’s almost a stroke of genius.

So what has all this to do with Frankenstein you ask? Not a lot really. After being damaged on crash landing, one of the scientists suggests that the cyborg might ‘turn into a Frankenstein.’ Oh, and the mechanical man’s first name is Frank. That’s all folks.