Space ls The Place (1974)

Space Is The Place (1974)‘l am the Alter-Destiny, the presence of the living myth.’

Sun Ra returns to Earth in his spaceship after travelling the cosmos in search of wisdom. He duels with the mysterious Overseer whilst opening an Outer Space Employment Agency and trying to convince the black youth of America to follow him to another planet.

Sun Ra was an avant-garde jazz musician, composer, poet, mystic and philosopher. He was also leader of the Arkestra for over 40 years, an ever-changing musical ensemble that made more than 100 albums and recorded over 1,000 songs. He was also known for his elaborate stage shows, which heavily featured Ancient Egyptian iconography and outer space trappings. He was also from the planet Saturn. Apparently.

The film opens with our mystical hero on an unnamed planet making plans to visit Earth and connect with his black brothers and sisters. There are some impressively trippy visuals to enjoy in this sequence, even if the great man’s intentions might seem a little vague to the uninitiated. From there we cut to a Chicago nightclub in 1943 where his performance on the keyboard creates some kind of supernatural event and a full-blown panic. Cut from there to a face-off in the desert opposite the white-suited Overseer (Ray Johnson), which involves drawing tarot cards and playing for the future of the Earth’s black people. From there it’s a strange musical piece followed by the Overseer cruising in his open top convertible and Sun Ra’s (unconvincing) spaceship shooting coloured rays as it prepares to land in Oakland so he can deliver his plans for the future. The media wait with bated breath for his proclamations! And all this in the first 15 minutes. Yes, folks, we’re definitely on the weird end of the banana here!

To be fair to the film, although it’s obviously low-budget and stitched together from various bits and pieces, director John Coney does manage to maintain a coherent narrative throughout (just!) as Sun Ra pursues his ministry on Earth whilst Johnson attempts to frustrate his efforts. The frequent cuts back to the confrontation in the desert, where Johnson keeps a running score on proceedings, is a fairly obvious nod to the soldier playing chess with Satan in Ingmar Bergman’s classic ‘The Seventh Seal’ (1957).

Space Is The Place (1974)

‘You sunk my battleship!’

There’s an unscripted feel to Sun Ra’s appearance at a black youth club, where members dis his silver shoes, and seem less than impressed by his somewhat vague declarations. Johnson turns to The Man for help, recruiting a couple of white NASA scientists to aid his cause. In a surprisingly unpleasant scene, they beat on a couple of prostitutes after being unable to perform and kidnap our mystical hero, forcing him to listen to marching band music as a form of torture.

What is perhaps the most surprising aspect of this cosmic groove is Sun Ra himself. He has no natural charisma in front of the camera at all, delivering his lines in a flat monotone and rarely allowing an expression to cross his face. This despite writing all his own dialogue. It’s left to Johnson, who had a bit in ‘Dirty Harry’ (1971), to do all the heavy lifting in the acting stakes and his breezy performance is the film’s greatest asset. There is some subtext to the film regarding the rights of black people in a white-controlled society, but it’s not particularly insightful, original or telling. How much an audience enjoys the film will, of course, but partly dependent on how much they dig the man’s sound, but for everyone else there’s little here but curiosity value.

Su Ra last departed this Earthly realm in 1993. He is not expected to return soon.

ESPY/Esupai (1974)

ESPY (1974)‘The Prime Minister should be safe, unless an enormous amount of energy is directed at him.’

A race driver with latent psychokinetic abilities is recruited by a secret organisation of special agents with extra-sensory abilities. Their main mission is to combat a rogue group of similarly talented individuals who are trying to wipe out mankind by starting World War lll.

Fast moving Japanese spy thriller that comes with a heavy dose of science fiction and a very serious approach to its material. There are no gadgets or gimmicks here; just a conflict between two sets of super-humans who fight with conventional guns and weaponry as well as their own mental powers. The only nod toward humour comes with chief bad guy Yûzô Kayama, who is a typically caricatured Bond villain, although this is probably emphasised more than intended by the maniacal laughter on the English dub track. Surprisingly, he is given some motivation for his actions, which is quite refreshing.

The film opens with a near fatal accident on the race track for Masao Kusakari, who saves himself with a sudden, and unexpected, use of his telekinetic abilities. This draws the attention of the two star operatives of ESPY, Hiroshi Fujioka and pretty Kaoru Yumi. At the same time the ‘Counter-ESPY’ organisation (not a very original name) are busy assassinating NATO diplomats on their way to a peace conference. Their aim is to destabilise the political landscape and plunge the world into a nuclear holocaust which will wipe out normal people and leave them masters of the planet. It’s a somewhat flawed scheme in my opinion, given what little would remain after such a conflict and their own dubious survival, but they are super-humans so they’ve probably got something worked out.

ESPY (1974)

Isn’t anyone going to help me up?

The story never really develops beyond a series of action set-pieces, but at least they keep coming and, for the most part, are efficiently realised. The SFX are very much of their time, but they are some pleasingly practical stunts and explosions.

There’s also a surprising emphasis on the psychological cost of being an agent, with Kuskari seriously conflicted after he has killed an opponent, and Yumi struggling to come to terms with performing a nude striptease under hypnosis on the stage of a seedy nightclub.

The film’s main problem comes with its’ lack of definition of the protagonist’s abilities. They can see through walls, practice telepathy, move heavy objects, and even teleport in moments of great stress, but seem unable to interfere with the actions of others in any way, instead being forced into lots of gun battles and fisticuffs. There are no exploding body parts here, such as appeared in films that cover similar ground, like ‘The Power’ (1967) or David Cronenberg’s ‘Scanners’ (1981). One of the Counter-ESPY agents uses her dangly earrings to hypnotise subjects, instead of any mental abilities, and later on when Kusakari is at the mercy of the criminal gang in an abandoned warehouse, all they try is running him down with mechanical diggers and then shooting him (which they probably should have done in the first place if you think about it). But nothing more.

Director Jun Fukuda is mainly remembered for his association with the Godzilla films of the late 1960s and early 1970s; including romps such as ‘Son of Godzilla’ (1967), and the seriously funny ‘Godzilla Vs. Megalon’ (1973). Leading actors Kusakari and Fujioka are still active in the Japanese film industry as of 2016. Sequels to this film may have been intended but never appeared.

At times this plays a little like a U.S. TV pilot of the 1970s, but it’s a fairly entertaining way to spend 90 minutes if you approach it in the right spirit.

Moscow-Cassiopeia (1974)

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

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

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

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

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

Moscow Cassiopeia (1974)

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

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

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

A real chore to get through.

Prey/Alien Prey (1977)

Prey (1977)‘Could the little green men have landed at last?’

Two women living in an isolated house in the woods invite a mysterious stranger to stay the night. Unfortunately, he proves to be a carnivorous alien in disguise, who is on a survey trip trying to locate new sources of food…

The big screen in the UK was a wasteland for Science Fiction in the 1970s. What aliens there were plied their trade on television, either battling ‘Dr. Who’ or being attacked by Martin Landau on ‘Space 1999’ who always shot first and sometimes bothered with a few questions afterwards. By the latter half of the decade even Hammer Studios had shut up shop, their gallery of monsters killed off by a mixture of a dwindling box office and attempts to bring their adventures into the present day. Even the global phenomenon of ‘Star Wars’ (1977) failed to provoke much of a reaction. Enter director Norman J. Warren.

Our story opens with pretty young brunette Glory Annen waking from a nightmare to see flashing lights outside her bedroom window. Nearby, a romantic liaison on lover’s lane comes to a less than satisfactory conclusion when the man (Barry Stokes) is slaughtered after investigating the obligatory rustling in the bushes. Only he reappears a few seconds later and sinks his teeth into his girlfriend (and not in a sexy way). Yes, the aliens have arrived and they have very sharp teeth. Meanwhile, Annen has rushed to the bedroom of her lover (the older and seriously uptight Sally Faulkner), only to have her experience dismissed as a dream. Later on, the trio meet in the woods and the soft-hearted Annen invites Stokes to say, which proves to be a seriously bad idea.

Shot in only 10 days on one location and with a basic cast of three, this film neatly epitomises the challenges of low-budget filmmaking. That Warren knew how to frame a shot is not in doubt. That the cast knew how to perform for the camera and screenwriter Max Cuff knew how to pen a competent script is not in question either. Sadly, resources were obviously so limited that there is no significant story development whatsoever, and we are (mostly) stuck between four walls for 80 minutes with the shifting relationships between our principals. There are some twists to the tale but they’re not exactly difficult to spot and it’s fair to say that the results do drag a little.

Prey (1977)

‘I think this bath water may need changing…’

Stokes’ alien makeup is actually not bad (there are no other SFX) and the girls put him in a dress for a house party, his understanding of human social interactions being a little …underdeveloped. In fact, his behaviour is so strange that the women think he has escaped from a nearby asylum, which does beg the question of why they let him stay in the first place! There’s also a weird, slow-motion scene in a pond with loud electronic music that seems to belong in another film entirely.

Warren began his career directing soft core porn in the 1960s, before achieving a kind of respectability with low-budget horror ‘Satan’s Slave’ (1976). That film starred Michael Gough, who found his greatest fame late in life as Alfred to Michael Keaton’s ‘Batman’ (1989). Subsequent Warren projects included Science Fiction sex comedy ‘Outer Touch (aka ‘Spaced Out’) (1979), also featuring Stokes and Annen, as well as horrors ‘Terror’ (1978) and ‘Bloody New Year’ (1987). There was also another unfriendly ‘close encounter’ with the tasteless ‘lnseminoid’ (aka ‘Horror Planet’) (1981), which introduced the world to the concept of gory alien glove puppets.

This is a very minor effort; decently acted but hamstrung by its obvious lack of budget.

The War In Space/Wakusei Daisenso (1977)

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

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

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

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

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

War In Space (1977)

‘Hi Honey, I’m home…’

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

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

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

Legend of Dinosaurs and Monster Birds (1977)

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

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

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

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

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

Legend of Dinosaurs and Monster Birds (1977)

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

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

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

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

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

Space Amoeba/Yog: Monster From Space (1970)

Space Amoeba (1970)‘The bats rescued him. We were rescued when the porpoises suddenly appeared.’

A strange alien entity hitchhikes a ride to Earth on a probe being sent to Jupiter. The capsule crash lands in the Pacific Ocean near a remote tropical island where the natives still worship mythical monsters. Fusing with the local wildlife, the alien attacks their village as a giant, walking octopus, and that’s only the start…

Produced over a decade and a half after the triumphant entry onto the world stage of ‘Godzilla, King of the Monsters’ (1954), the close of the 1960s effectively marked the end of the golden age of Japan’s Toho Studios. The Big G was now a kid-friendly defender of the Earth, SFX maestro Eiji Tsuburaya had gone to the big watertank in the sky, and actors would no longer be placed under contract with the organisation. It’s a strange, muted echo of the disintegration of the studio system in Hollywood in the early 1950s. There were also major budgetary problems with this project, with location filming downgraded — twice! – from the studio’s original intention of shooting the film on the island of Guam.

There’s also a second hand feel to much of the story here. Photojournalist Akira Kubo witnesses the space probe hit the silk from the window of a commercial airliner but the authorities don’t believe him. After all, the craft was lost six months earlier. He finds unlikely allies in pretty reporter Atsuko Takahashi and brilliant scientist Dr. Mida (Yoshiro Tsuchiya) who consistently works out exactly what’s happening throughout the film, without the benefit of any evidence whatsoever. The trio make for the island crash site, joined by dubious businessman Kenji Sahara, who is involved somehow in a murky deal to turn the island paradise into a hotel resort. Luckily, this entirely pointless subplot vanishes as soon as the giant space octopus takes a stroll on the beach.

So what about the monster action then? Well, Octo is a superb creation. He walks on his tentacles, screeches like some kind of a bird, and waves his suckers around like a drunk at closing time on a Saturday night. His eyes are mostly glazed too, but, apparently that was down to expiring light bulbs and no money to replace them. But it’s tiring being Octo, so our not-so cuddly ET transforms itself into a huge crab instead, perhaps referencing one of Godzilla’s lesser known opponents, Ebirah, The Sea Monster. After that, it does a somewhat bizarre turn as a prehistoric dinosaur (identified somewhat inaccurately as a Stegosaur) and then finishes proceedings in human form. Bringing the last two monsters back from the dead to fight each other doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense, but then I guess the world domination strategy of a mysterious alien entity is far too complex for mere hoomans to understand. It probably looked good in the trailer anyway. Oh, and then the island’s obligatory volcano erupts a bit at a rather convenient moment.

Space Amoeba (1970)

‘…and the winners of the World Cup semi-final will be…’

Director lshirõ Honda was the man who brought us the first Godzilla, and many of the iconic lizard’s encounters with Mothra, King Ghidorah and Rodan. He also delivered serveral other ’Kaiju’ and science fiction films for the good folks at Toho, such as ‘Varan,’The Unbelievable’ (1962) and the very interesting ‘Matango, Fungus of Terror’ (1963). But this was his penultimate film, and the ‘giant monster’ formula was wearing a little thin after so many years in play. Still, the action moves at a good pace for the most part, although we do stop for two of the islanders to get married right in the middle of the film!

Honda returned for one last hurrah with ‘Terror of Mechagodzilla’ (1975), but that ended up with the worst box office returns of any of The Big G’s outings in his entire 60 year history, so Honda and Toho gave it up and brought the first cycle of ’Kaiju’ films to an end.

One of the most entertaining aspects for a modern audience of this entry centres on the role of heroine Takahashi. She has only two functions in the film; to act scared and cry out, and to repeat the scientist’s previous comments as a question, so he can then repeat himself again with extra emphasis. ln an inspired creative decision, the producers of the US release decided to have her dubbed by a woman with an Australian accent! This is, of course, absolutely hilarious, but her inflections noticeably diminish after the first half hour or so of the film. Obviously, someone had a word in the recording studio, but didn’t bother getting her to re-dub the earlier scenes! Pure genius.

A minor monster mash this may be, but it’s still essential for aficionados of the genre.