Archive for June, 2019

Concluding our look at Roger Corman’s cannibalization of Soviet SF films.

Ruble-pinching Roger got his best ROI with Pavel Klushantsev’s Planeta Bur (Planet of Storms, 1962), which he cannibalized not once, but twice.  Harrington’s makeover is far less comprehensive, adding expository scenes of Rathbone and Faith Domergue of This Island Earth (1955) fame, so Voyage to a/the [onscreen titles differ] Prehistoric Planet (1965)—sold directly to TV via AIP—is credited to “John Sebastian.”  Billed as “Derek Thomas,” Peter Bogdanovich, uh, fleshed out Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1966) with Mamie Van Doren leading the titular telepathic, amphibious Venusians; it is not be confused with Arthur C. Pierce’s forlorn Women of the Prehistoric Planet (1966).

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I’ll occasionally see an example of what I call “scholarship” (one of my highest words of praise) that begs commendation, and Retromedia’s four-film The Roger Corman Russian Sci-Fi Collection—which Professor Tom, The Host with the Most™, whipped out for our most recent Movie Night faculty gathering in Queens—is one of them.  The absence of Queen of Blood is compensated for with a subtitled print of Planeta Bur, enabling one to compare the original with both adulterated versions.  A featurette, Being Mamie, offers a career-spanning interview with Van Doren, and if you look REALLY closely, you can spot Richard Matheson’s name at the bottom of the poster for The Beat Generation (1959).

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Adapted by Klushantsev and Aleksandr Kazantsev from the latter’s novel, Planeta Bur opens with three Soviet “cosmic expedition starships” approaching Venus after a trip of some 140 million miles, only to have a meteorite destroy the Cappella, forcing a change in plans.  To ensure sufficient fuel for the return trip, one ship must remain in orbit, so—leaving love interest Masha Ivanova (Kyunna Ignatova) aloft to process data and transmit it to Earth—Ivan Scherba (Yuri Sarantsev) descends in the Vega’s glider with Allan Kern (Georgi Tejkh) and his humanoid robot, John.  Their mission is to find a suitable landing spot for the Sirius, returning therein, but they are forced down in a swamp after doing so.

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Ilya Vassilievich Vershinin (Vladimir Yemelyanov), Alexey Alyosha (Gennadi Vernov), and Roman Bobrov (Georgi Zhzhyonov) set off from the Sirius in their ATV (above) to aid them, after Alexey is saved from a tentacled plant.  Meanwhile (interestingly, in the transitions, scenes fade to red rather than black!), Ivan fends off lizard-men as Kern assembles John, and they make their way on foot, briefly sidelined by fever while taking refuge in a cave from a storm.  Beset by pterodactyl-like creatures, the Sirius team submerges their ATV and finds a dragon statue with a ruby eye underwater, fueling discussions about possible inhabitants—indigenous or transplanted—and the melodious voices heard since arriving.

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A red spot seen from orbit is revealed as a volcano, and John (above) tries to carry the men across the lava, although Isaac Asimov would cringe at the scene where they disconnect his self-protection program to stop him from lightening his load when his feet begin to melt.  The ATV arrives just in time, and—like Soviet dwarves—the reunited men sing a happy song as they return to the Sirius, quickly changing their tune as a quake threatens to undermine it.  Setting up a meteorological station while preparing to blast off, Alexey makes a crude tool out of a curious rock he had found, which breaks open to reveal a sculpted humanoid face; after they depart, we indistinctly see a robed figure reflected in the water of a pool…

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“Sebastian” Americanized the names of the astronauts, but left those of the ships and the basic narrative intact as Professor Hartman (Rathbone) calls the shots from Lunar Station 7 (in lieu of Klushantsev’s offscreen and Earthbound mission control).  Scenes of Masha were replaced by newly shot footage of Domergue (above), sporting a beehive hairdo and reeking of apathy, as Marsha Evans.  Harrington said, “all I did was just shoot a couple of scenes of somebody in a space station [below].  The totality of [Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet] is the Soviet film dubbed, so that’s why it has another name on it.  I really just did a couple of those scenes as a courtesy, but I don’t consider that I have anything to do with the film.”

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Rathbone shot his scenes for both films back-to-back, utilizing the same set and costume.  He “was very vital.  He knew all of his lines; he was not in any way enfeebled.  He was a man of great personal charm, and I really enjoyed talking to him between takes.  It was a great privilege to work with him….[but Queen] was such a low-budget film, and we shot the whole thing in seven days.  That meant that we were shooting non-union again, and I was shooting from early morning until very late at night….[which] was a strain on him, and he wasn’t paid sufficient overtime, so he was very upset about that.  I had nothing to do with that, of course; I was just determined to shoot the film to the best of my ability…”

Prehistoric Women gets the deluxe widescreen treatment; Retromedia founder/Corman cohort Fred Olen Ray joins David DeCoteau for a commentary, and even reproduces the French photo novel La Planète des Tempêtes.  Pilfering the space-exploration prologue from Battle Beyond the Sun, “Thomas” maintains Harrington’s dubbing and names, but repurposes the Planeta Bur footage sans female astronaut, so “Marsha” is the “code name for Earth control.”  Bogdanovich narrates the film, presented as a flashback by Andre ( Alexey), while the three starships now represent separate missions, with the third sent to rescue the second, refueling at U.S. space station Texas via more chunks of Nebo Zovyot.

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It is not until 33 minutes in that we first glimpse Moana (Van Doren) and her “sisters,” including Margot Hartman—who appeared in her husband Del Tenney’s Stamford-shot Curse of the Living Corpse (1964)—as Mayaway.  They are first seen draped on a rocky shore like so much jetsam (above), clad in frilly white bell-bottoms and scallop-shell brassieres; with voiceovers instead of spoken dialogue, the actresses need do little but stare into the camera with expressions ranging from intent to vacant.  Seeking to avenge the death of their pterodactyl-like “god,” killed by the humans, they incite the volcanic eruption and the destabilization that threatens the takeoff, then erect a lava-covered John in his place (below).

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Ray’s commentary with fellow director DeCoteau is replete with entertaining anecdotes about Corman and the wild world of low-budget filmmaking, although concerning these cinematic examples of détente, it told me little I did not know.  Women occupies a modest percentage of Being Mamie, created in 2003 for a stand-alone DVD, but it’s a fun way to, um, round out the set.  The “Platinum Powerhouse” holds forth irreverently on everything from endless comparisons with Monroe and Mansfield—both of whom she has outlived for more than half a century—to her work with exploitation legend Albert Zugsmith (e.g., that Matheson misfire) and in the schlock classic The Navy vs. the Night Monsters (1966; below).

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Putting the “International” into American International Pictures, Roger Corman acquired U.S. distribution rights to several Soviet SF films, ransacked them for their impressive (or at least economically obtained) special-effects footage, and deputized three of his famous protégés to morph them into four “new” movies.  The level of insult to the original varied considerably:  Francis Ford Coppola’s Battle Beyond the Sun (1962) mostly just hacked up and redubbed Nebo Zovyot (The Heavens Call; 1959), directed by Mikhail Karzhukov and Aleksandr Kozyr.  Using the nom de cinéma of “Thomas Colchart,” he deleted all the boring Commie agitprop and inserted—as it were—monsters suggesting human genitalia.

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In 1997, Earth is divided into North Hemis and South Hemis (clearly analogs for the U.S. and U.S.S.R., respectively); learning that the latter plans to send the Mercury to Mars, or perhaps the other way around, the former gets the jump on them in the Typhoon, yet it comes to grief and is abandoned after its crew is rescued.  The Mercury now lacks enough fuel to return home, forcing them to land on the asteroid Angkor, where they set up an antenna and we dimly see the battling Genitaliasauruses.  An unmanned fuel ship crashes, but South Hemis sends a second ship, whose pilot heroically dies completing his mission, and both crews make it safely back to Mother Earth to set up peaceful coexistence, ending the bitter, years-long rivalry.  If only.

Conversely, writer-director Curtis Harrington (1926-2007) added so much—even dollops of Nebo Zovyot—to Mechte Navstrechu (A Dream Come True; 1963), which Karzhukov directed with Otar Koberidze, that Queen of Blood (aka Planet of Blood; 1966) is a “real” movie in its own right, aptly bearing his own name.  It stars Florence Marl[e]y in the title role, with genre legend Basil Rathbone, a young Dennis Hopper (with Marly below), and John Saxon.  Asked in our Filmfax interview (c. 2004) about being reunited with Judi Meredith, his co-star in Charles F. Haas’s Summer Love (1957), Saxon said, “we were friendly, and it was fun to see her again.  Her career was kind of waning….[That] lasted about seven shooting days.

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“Most of the footage…had all the special effects of people in these costumes, and you couldn’t see their faces.  So we just dubbed in the story with Americans, and maybe 25% or 30% of it was already there, in special effects that came from the footage that they had bought from this other film.  All I can remember was that Dennis Hopper couldn’t keep a straight face in any of the scenes, and it was one of Basil Rathbone’s last appearances [he died the following year].  He came off a spaceship in one scene and that was it.  He was old and tired and, I think, ill.  Florence Marly was intense and striking.  Curtis Harrington admired her a lot.  He [recently said] how well [it] holds up.  I haven’t seen it for years.”

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By 1990, the Moon has been colonized and expeditions planned to Mars and Venus; Dr. Farraday (Rathbone) reports that deciphered alien signals say an ambassador is en route, while a probe arrives with a video log of aliens crash-landing on Mars and sending out an S.O.S.  A mission planned for six months hence is thus accelerated, with Allan Brennen (Saxon, above), Laura James (Meredith), and Paul Grant (Hopper) aboard the Oceano, which is damaged by a sunburst.  When one dead astronaut is located in the alien wreck, Farraday posits that the rest escaped aboard a rescue craft, spotted on the Martian moon of Phobos as Allan and Tony Barrata (Don Eitner) are placing satellites in orbit aboard the Meteor.

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They find an alien queen—billed simply as “?”—alive, but with room on the Meteor only for two, Allan leaves Tony there to await the Oceano II.  The alien refuses solid food and freaks out at the sight of a hypodermic; when he sees her bloody lips after Paul is drained, Allan advocates destruction, and while Anders Brockman (Robert Boon) argues in favor of feeding her, he’s next on the menu when the plasma runs out.  The alien burns through her restraints with heat vision and is feeding on Allen when Laura sees and scratches her, but the hemophiliac queen, who bleeds to death, has left a clutch of jelly-like eggs, which Farraday’s aide (a gleeful Forrest J. Ackerman, above) preserves once they’ve returned to Earth.

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I also interviewed Harrington, who had given Hopper his first lead in Night Tide (1961), and cast Czech blacklistee Marly, briefly seen in the Twilight Zone episode “Dead Man’s Shoes” (1/19/62).  “I enjoyed doing that very much.  I devised the story and worked out using the Soviet technical footage, and I was very happy to give the key role of the alien creature to Florence…whom I had admired in her European films,” he related.  “That was a completely salutary experience, even though it was a very low budget, done in a short time, but it is the film that got me my contract at Universal Studios,” where he and Queen of Blood producer George Edwards resumed their long collaboration with Games (1967).

Trying to match the Soviet footage “was a technical challenge, but I think I did it very well.  We worked it all out very carefully.  We had a special effects company that made the space suits to look exactly like the Russian ones, and it mainly was a problem at the first in the lab, matching up the footage of the two when I would cut into close-ups of our people and so on.  But we accomplished it.”  Regarding the appearance by Ackerman, he said the literary agent and editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland (see my seminal first issue below) “had been a personal friend of mine since [the] early days…[I had first met future collaborator Kenneth Anger] when we were both quite young at a film society in Hollywood that showed old films…”

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Forry “used to come to the same film society…and I met him, and I had always had a great interest in the fantasy pulp magazines like Weird Tales and Unknown, so I found I had a great rapport with Forrest Ackerman.  Famous Monsters was well established by then, so with all of his fans in the world, and they were the kind of people—all science fiction fans—who would be seeing the film, ‘Mr. Science Fiction’ himself, it seemed a logical thing to do.  I can’t remember whether he suggested it or I suggested it, but I said, ‘Let’s do a cameo of you at the end of the film carrying the living eggs of the creature.’… Of course [he was having fun in his role].  He’s a dear man and I’m very fond of him.”

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Of the similarities between Alien (1979), his film, and Edward L. Cahn’s It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958; above), he said, “I made a habit very early on never to see any film directed by Edward Cahn, a director of no talent whatsoever.  It’s like Herbert Strock; I won’t go and see a film by him, either.  People of absolutely no talent, and I just hated their films.  So I’ve never seen that….I’m sure it’s abysmal, whatever it is.  [Yes], it’s the same story.  Whether the author of Alien saw my film, I have no idea, and I don’t know if it touched something off in him.  I think there is a strong similarity.  I wouldn’t accuse him of plagiarism per se, because I don’t even know if he saw [Queen], but I bet he did.”

To be continued.

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