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.

The Alpha Incident (1978)

The Alpha Incident (1978)‘I keep looking at my hands waiting for them to turn blue or fall off or something…’

A probe returns to Earth from Mars, bringing with it a deadly virus. The U.S. government orders the genetic material shipped to a secure facility in Denver, but the shipment is breached during transit…

The notion of a top secret alien germ being sent across country via commercial freight is somewhat hard to swallow in this late 1970s science fiction ‘thriller.’ The fact it’s being done to ‘avoid publicity’ is doubly ridiculous, as is the fact that it’s being guarded by just one man disguised as a train conductor. This government bio-chemist/hitman (Stafford Morgan) is not the sharpest knife in the drawer either as he takes a kip on the way, failing to realise that drunken train guard (George ‘Buck’ Flower) will go back to the freight car and attempt to open one of the crates. The fact that Flower has been continuously grilling him about the shipment obviously wasn’t much of a giveaway.

Once the breach is discovered, the two are quarantined, along with railway employees Ralph Meeker, Carol Irene Newell and John F Goff at the rural Moose Head station. Back at base, two top scientists search desperately for a counter-agent. It’s not that bad a setup, but when our five mismatched heroes become isolated, the film grinds to a complete halt. Goff does try to make a run for it and Morgan shoots him in the arm. However, after a quick bandage job from Newell, it heals completely as it never gets mentioned again or affects Goff in any way. Beyond that incident, there is almost no character or plot development whatsoever. It is discovered that the virus acts during sleep so the challenge is to stay awake to survive. Unfortunately, that’s something that applies to the audience as much as to our protagonists.

Producer/director Bill Rebane is somewhat of a cult figure in certain circles, his reputation mainly resting on the unintentional hilarity of ‘The Giant Spider Invasion’ (1975) which famously featured a furry Volkswagen in the title role.  He’d begun his film directing career with the wretched ‘Monster a-Go-Go’ (1965), which ran out of cash and was finished by none other than splatter king Herschell Gordon Lewis. It was almost a decade before he gave us ‘torchlight’ for aliens in ‘lnvasion from Inner Earth’ (1974), moved onto giant arachnids and then went back to an extra-terrestrial threat with this low-budget effort. All Rebane’s films were made in rural Wisconsin, usually with the assistance of the local townspeople.

Ralph Meeker is undoubtedly the biggest name ever to grace a Rebane movie. He’d played Mike Hammer in Robert Aldrich’s highly regarded noir ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ (1955), and taken prominent roles in ‘The Dirty Dozen’ (1967), and Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Paths of Glory’ (1957) among others. Unfortunately, despite a long and solid movie career, the 1970s had not been kind and he’d been relegated to guest roles on network TV shows and a handful of films including Bert I. Gordon’s woeful ‘The Food of the Gods’ (1976). He’s completely wasted here, saddled with an almost invisible character who seems barely conscious even when he’s awake.

The Alpha Incident (1978)

‘The horror…the horror…’

Having said that, the cast is far stronger than usual for a Rebane film, so we are spared the usual stilted line readings and wooden performances. These actors are professionals with other credits, rather than friends and family members. Flower appeared in over 150 films, including a couple of episodes of the ‘Back to the Future’ series, as well as for John Carpenter and other directors plying their trade toward the edges of mainstream cinema.

Rebane wasn’t finished here, even if subsequent efforts reverted to more of the ‘homemade’ kind of pictures that were his stock in trade. ‘The Capture of Bigfoot’ (1979), ‘Rana: The Legend of Shadow Lake’ (1981) and ‘The Demons of Ludlow’ (1983) followed and his last film to date is ’Twister’s Revenge! (1988), the story of a computerised monster truck. In 2002, he ran for the position of governor of Wisconsin.

A reasonably professional production sunk by a story that goes absolutely nowhere.

Operation Ganymed (1977)

Operation Ganymed (1977)‘They think we’re the little green men from Jupiter.’

Due to a communications failure, an exploratory deep space mission is presumed lost. However, the five surviving astronauts arrive back in Earth orbit ahead of schedule, only to find they cannot contact anyone on the planet. They re-enter the atmosphere with an emergency manoeuvre and ditch in the sea, ending up on a rocky, inhospitable coastline…

Serious-minded West German science fiction that bases its spacecraft and mission procedure on existing technologies to convey a realistic and believable scenario. Our astronauts are a glum bunch led by mission commander Horst Frank. Initially he remains icy cool in the face of adversity while his men seem lacking in the sort of personal qualities that you might have thought essential for the job. It’s a wonder how they got past the original psychological evaluations, let alone get back from Jupiter after the mission went south! But eventually everyone’s on the same page, and we’re in for a gritty tale of survival as our heroes try to reach civilisation across a barren wasteland.

Unfortunately, for all the plausibility and a committed cast, there’s an unmistakable feeling around the halfway point that, just like our stranded crew, things really aren’t going anywhere. Flashback montages of their mission training serve little purpose other than flagging up what we already knew about certain characters, and there’s a suspicion is just a matter of padding out the running time. There is an extended flashback to exploration on Ganymede too, and it’s important to the story, but the sequence unfolds at a deadly pace and has a very predictable outcome. The final twist in the tale isn’t exactly overwhelming either, although there is a pleasing sense of ambiguity about it.

Operation Ganymed (1977)

The photo shoot for their latest album cover hadn’t quite gone as planned…

Director Rainer Erler had most of his experience in the TV arena and there’s an unmistakable feel of an episode from a half-hour anthology show boosted to feature length. Horst Frank was mostly known for playing villains, particularly in the Western genre, but had a prominent role in Dario Argento’s ‘Cat O’Nine Tails’ (1971). Veteran character actor Dieter Laser later found fame – or perhaps that should be infamy?! – as the mad scientist who creates ‘The Human Centipede’ (2009).

Crew member Jürgen Prochnow became a star in epic World War 2 submarine drama ‘Das Boot’ (1981), went to Hollywood and took major roles in David Lynch’s ‘Dune’ (1984),  ‘Beverley Hills Cop 2’ (1987), ‘The English Patient’ (1996), ‘The Da Vinci Code’ (2006) and many others. His career even survived an appearance in Uwe Boll’s ‘House of the Dead’ (2003)!

It was going against the trend in the late 1970s to make a reality based science fiction film, although perhaps production had already begun before the global impact of films such as ‘Star Wars’ (1977) and ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (1977). This effort simply needed far more plot and a livelier cast of characters to attain a decent level of entertainment.

The Alien Factor (1978)

The Alien Factor (1978)‘Ed’s body has deteriorated beyond old age almost to the point of being a decayed corpse.’

An alien spacecraft crashes unseen in the woods near a small town. Shortly afterwards, locals begin turning up dead, leaving the authorities baffled and blaming wild animals. The Sheriff wants to call in the state police but the Mayor is cooking up a big business deal and wants to keep a lid on things…

Don Dohler was an independent filmmaker who was behind a string of low-budget horror and science fiction pictures in the early days of the home VHS rental boom. He’d begun his career with a couple of well-regarded short subjects and a self published film magazine before moving into features. This was his first effort, a fairly generic horror/science fiction mashup featuring extra terrestrials on the rampage in a small, isolated rural community.

The film is a typical example of the genre, with the usual awkward dialogue and stilted line delivery familiar to followers of no budget cinema. We get a tried and tested cast of characters; the heroic Sheriff, the dodgy Town Mayor who doesn’t want bad publicity, the quirky boffin who fetches up on a meteor hunt. None of them have any depth to begin with and the script provides no character development that would encourage emotional investment from an audience. In fact, we find out almost nothing about anyone, besides the fact that they like all like to repeat plot points we already know.

SFX are not too bad for such an obviously cheap production, although the aliens are just tall men in costumes. Special mention must go to the musical score which mostly consists of harsh electronic noises, inserted seemingly at random. On the credit side, the snow bound forest landscapes are quite an effective backdrop to the action and Dohler at least keeps things moving, although some scenes are clearly just padding to boost the running time.

The Alien Factor (1978)

Their first dance was not a massive success…

As is par for the course in the circumstances, many of the crew did double duty on the technical side, fulfilling multiple roles. Many of them were still on board with Dohler when he did the whole thing again with remake ‘Nightbeast’ (1982) and ‘The Galaxy Invader’ (1985), which covered much the same  ground. Ernest D Farino didn’t stick around for long though; next up was work on John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ (1982) and a little number called ‘The Terminator’ (1984) for James Cameron. Here he’s credited with designing the opening titles, which are pretty good, considering he probably only had limited resources at his disposal, and the stop-motion monster at the climax, which isn’t. 

‘Nightbeast’ (1982) has another name you might recognise on the crew: J J Abrams! It’s his first professional credit in any capacity – and his only one – for providing ‘Sound Effects.’

A minor science fiction programmer, let down by an uninteresting script that fails to add any wrinkles to a familiar idea, and a cast who lack the ability to inject any life into their cardboard characters.

Message From Space (1978)

Message From Space (1978)‘You don’t believe in these silly nuts. A nut is a nut, after all.’

The intergalactic raiders of Gavanas conquer the peaceful Jullicians. The leader of the subjected people sends eight mystical seeds out into the cosmos to search for the eight heroes who will deliver them from their enemies. A trio of young punks and an idle rich girl are four of the recipients, along with a grizzled old General and his pet robot. Can they possibly succeed?

The global impact of ‘Star Wars’ (1977) created a cinematic science fiction bandwagon in the following decade that filmmakers from all around the world were only too eager to join. This particular effort originated in Japan, which is not surprising given their cinematic history. Actually, sources differ concerning the origin of this project, some claiming the film was already in the can prior to the unleashing of the George Lucas phenomena. What does seem clear is that the release of ‘Star Wars’ (1977) was delayed in Japan so this effort could reach the big screen first.

lt does seem rather hard to believe that this film was created independently of its far more famous US counterpart. It’s not the main story so much as the trappings that come with it. We get a Jullician Princess-heroine in a white bedsheet with an interesting hairdo (involving a lettuce, by the looks of it), a ‘cute’ robot bearing more than a resemblance to R2D2, and main villain Emperor Rockseia Xll in a strange silver mask, who wouldn’t have looked out of place on TV fighting The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Although he does take orders for his old mum in a wheelchair. It’s hard to imagine Darth Vader putting up with that. It’s also curious to note that the concept of the eight heroes is highly reminiscent of ancient folklore and also ‘The Seven Samurai’ (1954), a film cheerfully ripped off in its turn by producer Roger Corman in his own totally unconnected space epic ‘Battle Beyond the Stars’ (1980).

Recruited for American audiences are veteran character actor Vic Morrow, who had become a star on TV show ‘Combat!’ in the early 1960s, and hot shot heroes Philip Casnoff and perky Peggy Ann Brennan. For hometown audiences, there’s martial arts legend Sonny Chiba, who had form in cheap science fiction after headlining ‘Invasion of the Neptune Men’ (1962). He’d obviously not learned his lesson. Morrow’s career was none too healthy by this point, and he must have been pleased to pick up an easy paycheque. Ironically, his star was on the rise again only a few years later when he met with a deadly helicopter rotor blade on the set of ‘The Twilight Zone —The Movie’ (1982), a tragic accident that went on to prove that big Hollywood directors can afford really expensive lawyers. Casnoff went on to win a Golden Globe for his performance as Frank Sinatra in a TV biopic in 1993.

Message From Space (1978)

This film was made before ‘Star Wars’ right?

Sadly, the greatest cast could not have saved this. lt’s hopelessly cheesy. To begin with, our heroes are ‘chosen’ by glowing walnuts. Yes, I know they’re magical seeds that have scoured the cosmos, but they look a lot like walnuts. One turns up in Morrow’s drink when he’s at a bar with his ‘cute’ little robot. By the look on his face, you can tell it’s not ‘Happy Hour’. Aside from Morrow, everyone overacts dreadfully, probably just trying to get some life out of the damp, ‘dead on arrival’ script.

What makes things immeasurably worse is the bargain basement SFX. The spaceship models are probably the best element, but even they are obviously models and wouldn’t fool a 5-year old. Everything else looks cobbled together from cardboard and sellotape, and there are typically bad examples of ‘laser’ effects that are supposed to put the audience in mind of lightsabres.

All in all, a truly hopeless effort, redeemed by a few, scattered laugh-out loud moments.