SF & Fantasy films


FIRST MAN INTO SPACE. MGM, UK/US, 1959. Marshall Thompson, Marla Landi, Bill Edwards, Robert Ayres, Bill Nagy, Carl Jaffe, Roger Delgado. Director: Robert Day.

   Watching First Man into Space, one cannot help but be reminded of The Quatermass Experiment, in which a rocket ship returns to Earth with an extraterrestrial menace in its midst. The same is essentially true for this surprisingly effective low-budget science fiction flic about a hubristic Air Force pilot who, in his obsessive quest to become the titular first man in space, ends up a victim of cosmic rays or such.

   And by “victim,” I mean that his endeavor in the stars transforms into a genuinely creepy looking bloodsucking monster that needs to kill and to feed in order to survive. Although First Man into Space is, at times, exceedingly talky (much like similar science fiction films from the era), it nevertheless has enough chills and thrills to keep the viewer engaged for the relatively scant running time.

   The crisp black and white cinematography, while nothing spectacular, is nevertheless much better than in many of the cheapie creature films from the same era. I can’t promise that you’ll love this movie, but I think that you’ll find that it’s a bit better than its title and premise suggest.

CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE. Howco International Pictures, 1976. Jack Elam, Dub Taylor, Dennis Fimple, John David Carson, Bill Thurman. Director: Joy N. Houck Jr.

   For a horror movie, Creature from Black Lake honestly isn’t all that good. For a spunky low-budget thriller, however, this mid-1970s creature feature really isn’t all that bad.

   While it’s hardly a classic, the movie simply exudes passion and spirit. Combining both shaky handheld camera effects with creepy music, Creature from Black Lake has campy humor, chills and thrills, and some interesting things to say about the counterculture and the place of Southern whites in American society. Ultimately, however, it’s a buddy film – the story of two University of Chicago classmates who travel down South to investigate the sighting of an apparent Bigfoot type creature in the Louisiana swamps.

   Although many of the actors aren’t particularly well known, one of them is certainly well known, especially by Western genre fans. That would be Jack Elam who, in this film, portrays a bearded and often drunk Bayou wild man who has a run in with the mysterious swamp creature.

   Elam’s presence in this film, while hardly a highlight of his career, lends the film both comic relief (Elam can be really funny!) and a sense of campy fun. Sometimes a film doesn’t need to be all that good – in a technical sense – to be enjoyable.

MILLENNIUM. 20th Century Fox, 1989. Kris Kristofferson, Cheryl Ladd, Daniel J. Travanti, Robert Joy, Lloyd Bochner. Screenwriter: John Varley, based on his short story “Air Raid.” Director: Michael Anderson.

   I wish I could say that I have read the story this movie was based on, but although I read a lot of John Varley’s work, “Air Raid” isn’t one of them. Varley is a very good science fiction writer, and no matter how much I’d like to say that this is a very good science fiction movie, I hate to tell you that I just can’t do it.

   What’s worse, I can see that this could have been a very good movie, but while it has its fans, I don’t think it did very well overall, critically or financially.

   What Millennium is is a time-travel movie, and while the “Back to the Future” series of movies show that time-travel movies can be done so that they make sense, even to a general audience, they have to be gosh darn hard to pull off, never once allowing the viewer to become confused along the way. The premise in this movie is this: Sometime in the future of our planet, life has become so bleak that they send commando squads back the present to kidnap airline passengers who about to die in an accidental crash, replace them with identical dead bodies and bring them back to the future to send them off to colonize other planets to maintain human civilization.

   The idea being that this is a way to not disrupt the true flow of time, since people about to die would not be missed, causing a different change of events to occur, rather than the present one. As anyone who has read time-travel stories knows full well, changing things in the past can seriously change things in the future.

   Kris Kristofferson plays Bill Smith, a head NTSB investigator in charge of looking into one such crash, during which he accidentally meets Cheryl Ladd, leader of a commando crew such as described above, the second time for her, the first time for him. Can one chance encounter such as this, under the strangest conditions, lead to romance? Of course it can.

   The idea of time-travel paradoxes is well explained — for example, what would happen if you went into the past and killed your grandfather before you were born? — but even the best attempts to present the same on the screen can easily go awry.

   It may have helped if they had asked me — should I go back in the past and offer my services? — but when scenes shifted in this movie, a caption of what time and year it was would have helped. I had to back up once to start over again myself to make sure when it was that what on the screen was happening. Luckily with modern technology (a DVD player, not a time machine) I could do that easily.

   If the presentation hadn’t been so confusing, this would have been a very enjoyable movie, with one more caveat: If you watch this movie and start to get worried about timequakes, with a paradox caused in the past rippling its way through to the present, shaking the furniture around like an earthquake was happening, you needn’t. You’d never know.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:

UNTAMED WOMEN. United Artists, 1952. Mikel Conrad, Lyle Talbot, and a lot of people whose names would mean nothing to you. Look ’em up at IMDb if you want to satisfy your morbid curiosity; do I have to do all the work around here? Written by George Wallace Sayre. Directed by W. Merle Connell.

   An adolescent-dream film, written by a B-movie veteran and directed by a maker of early Nudie Flicks.

   The story opens with a military doctor of some sort (played by that bad-movie stalwart Lyle Talbot) explaining Mikel Conrad’s case to an Archaeologist (?!) then shifts to a hospital room where the kindly Doc shoots Conrad full of some kind of drug that triggers a flashback to the rest of the film: Four men from a WWII bomber crew shot down and cast up on an uncharted island that turns out to be populated by beautiful women in skimpy outfits — why can’t I have flashbacks like that?

   All is not sweetness and spice here, however; it seems the High Priestess of the nubiles is mistrustful of our lucky heroes, although the rest of the tribe can’t wait to get their hands on them. Complications ensue, including mild bondage of the sort you used to see on the covers of All Man magazine, dinosaurs, invasive hairy cavemen, earthquakes and an Oedipus complex. There’s also a “comic relief” who will remind you irresistibly of that irritating guy in your barracks who never shut up.

   The Dinosaurs in this film are “borrowed” from One Million B.C. (1940) using the same stock footage that appeared in so much low-budget film and TV of the 1950s, from Jungle Jim to Rin Tin Tin. Indeed, it cropped up so often in those days that I feel I grew up with it; the lizard monsters have become like old friends for me, the caves and cliffs as familiar as the scenes of my childhood, and the volcano erupting has assumed the status of a perennial treat. Untamed Women thus became for me not just another silly movie, but a nostalgic revisit to my tawdry youth.

   Be that as it may, I would estimate that of Untamed Women’s 70-minute running time, 20 minutes are courtesy of One Million B.C. The sad part is that they constitute the most interesting parts of the movie. The rest is taken up in talk, a long walk around Bronson Canyon, more talk, a bit of cheesecake and a lot of plain damn silliness.

   The acting… well my first impression was that it seemed pretty bad, but on reflection, it may be the only dramatically valid response to a script that includes lines like “The strange-tongued one speaketh in riddles.” And “Shoot anything with hair that moves!”

   Okay, Untamed Women may not be quite as enjoyably bad as some other films I could name, but I’d have to say it has a solid place in the ranks, and fans of this sort of thing should put it on their lists.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

WILD, WILD PLANET. MGM, Italy-US, 1966. Original title: I criminali della galassia. Tony Russell, Lisa Gastoni, Massimo Serato, Carlo Giustini (as Charles Justin), Franco Nero. Director: Antonio Margheriti.

   Directed by Antonio Margheriti (under the name Anthony Dawson), Wild Wild Planet is a low-budget Italian science fiction movie with some ridiculously stilted dialogue, silly miniatures for special effects, and a plot that defies credulity, even for outlandish science fiction.

   Yet, for those fans of campy and dare I say it – cheesy – movies, it’s not without its charms. Much like Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965), it’s the atmosphere, rather than the plot, that counts. With a skillful use of color and costumes and a hint of grotesquerie here and there, there’s just enough pizazz to keep the viewer engaged throughout. Plus, there’s cult film favorite Franco Nero – a quite young and clean-shaven Nero, I should add – in an early supporting role.

   The plot, such as it is, is something straight out of the serials. A diabolical scientist named Nurmi (Massimo Serato) is engaged in a sinister plot to create a master race of humans. Sounds typical enough, right? Oh, did I mention that Nurmi has some affiliation with a sinister sounding entity called “the corporations” and that he utilizes female robots to kidnap persons he wants to use for his experiments? Of course, it’s up to the movie’s hero, Commander Mike Halstead (Tony Russell) to stop him and to rescue the beautiful Connie Gomez (Lisa Gastoni) from Nurmi’s evil grasp.

   As I said earlier, it’s not the plot, but the borderline psychedelic atmosphere that counts and makes the movie worth watching. Sometimes the special effects are just plain silly, but every now and then, they work and create an indelible impression on the viewer.

   I wouldn’t dare suggest that Wild, Wild Planet is a great science fiction movie. Not by any means. At the end of the day, here is a film too ambitious for its comparably low budget, making it simultaneously an example of clumsy filmmaking and unleashed creativity. That’s got to count for something.

THE REMARKABLE ANDREW. Paramount Pictures, 1942. Brian Donlevy, William Holden, Ellen Drew, Montagu Love, Gilbert Emery, Brandon Hurst, George Watts, Rod Cameron. Story & screenplay: Dalton Trumbo. Director: Stuart Heisler.

   A mildly amusing and engaging comedy-fantasy about several of this country’s forefathers (among them George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and more) coming to life from the past to assist a mild-mannered town accountant (William Holden) in his time of need. First and foremost among them is Andrew Jackson (Brian Donlevy), however, returning a favor — Andrew Long’s great, great grandfather at one time saved Jackson’s life.

   It seems that Andrew Long has discovered some discrepancies in the town’s books, and when he won’t go along with hushing it up, the political elite of the city decide to frame him for embezzlement. Convinced by these illustrious guests from the past that an honest democracy is worth fighting for, Andrew Long gives a courtroom speech almost worthy of a Gary Cooper (Mr. Deeds) or Jimmy Stewart (Mr. Smith), but somehow it never caught on. No one’s heard of this movie today.

   What is even more interesting is to see William Holden as an actor when he was only 24. Even though he had been picked to star in Golden Boy three years earlier, his acting skills as displayed in Andrew seem rather limited — just suitable enough to play a mild-mannered boy-next-door sort of guy who’s been engaged to a girl for five years waiting for a raise of $2.50 per week before they can get married. There’s nothing in this film to suggest in the slightest that he’d grow up to be an Oscar contender every time the nominations came around.

   And oh, yes, one more thing. You may have noticed Rod Cameron’s name in the credits. I’d forgotten he was in the movie while I was watching it, and didn’t even recognize him, not all dressed up as Jesse James the way he was, complete with a wide bandito mustache. I don’t really know why Jesse James was in this movie, but he was.


FROM HELL IT CAME. Milner Brothers/Allied Artists, 1957. Tod Andrews, Tina Carver, Linda Watkins, John McNamara, Greg Palmer. Written by Richard Bernstein and Jack Milner. Directed by Dan Milner.

   Actually, the best reviews of this film have already been written, including the six-word classic, “And to Hell it can go.” But From Hell is not without a certain charm once it gets around to the Monster.

   Before that though, there’s a lot of talk in this movie. And I mean whole great big long stretches of it, as the principals in the drama explain the plot to us — talk is always cheaper than action, after all. So the film opens on an island somewhere in the South Pacific (Hey, that’s a good title for a movie!) with native Prince Kimo lying staked to the ground, about to be executed for the murder of his father the King, who was actually killed by the local Witch Doctor and an ambitious usurper (Are there echoes of Hamlet here?) and everyone tells how he got into this awkward quandary.

   Before he dies, Kimo argues his innocence, and come to think of it, there are echoes of Hamlet, because there’s an awful lot of debate about the ethics of the thing before they get around to killing him and he swears to return from the grave, whereupon the scene shifts (uncomfortably) to the American Research Station elsewhere on the island, where we get another talk-fest as two Government Scientists exchange dialogue about who they are and what they’re doing here.

   Turns out there was a recent nuclear test a few hundred miles away, followed by a freak monsoon that blew radioactive dust this way, and our heroes are here to monitor radiation levels. There’s also been an outbreak of disease on the island, but that couldn’t possibly be related, they assure each other.

   The movie doles out these first twenty minutes like a miser at a fun-fair, ringing in comic relief, romantic interest, internecine politics, and generally dispelling insomnia till Kimo finally emerges from his grave and things start to get interesting, because he has come back as a killer tree, known as Tabanga.

   Critic Michael H. Price has pointed out that trees have been used for scary effect quite well in The Wizard of Oz and sundry old cartoons, and maybe that was the inspiration here, but when it came to actually realizing the Terrible Tree Tabanga, it looks like they splurged about Fifty Bucks on the whole thing.

   The Tabanga is a creation of legendary low-budget monster-maker Paul Blaisdell, whose work includes Attack of the Crab Monsters, The She Creature and the memorable turnip-monster in It Conquered the World. Blaisdell’s work was rarely convincing, sometimes laughable, but always imaginative — the She Creature is even rather effective. But as the scowling stump (no relation) toddles about striking terror into the hearts of all, he looks less like something from Hell than like a fugitive from Captain Kangaroo.

   For one thing, Trees are not known for mobility, but Blaisdell’s Tabanga get-up seems restrictive even for a tree. Lacking long limbs for grabbing, he tends to just lumber about (get it?) until he gets close enough to crush anyone conveniently looking the other way or paralyzed with fright for plot purposes.

   One has to commend the cast and director for getting through all this with a straight face and as much speed as a moving tree will permit, but as THE END finally came across the screen, I had to conclude that From Hell It Came was unforgettable for all the wrong reasons.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

ATTACK OF THE ROBOTS / CARTES SUR TABLE / CARTAS BOCA ARRIBA. Spéva Films / Ciné-Alliance / Hesperia Films S.A., French-Spanish, 1966. Eddie Constantine, Françoise Brion, Fernando Rey, Sophie Hardy. Written by Jean-Claude Carriere. Directed by Jesus Franco….

   …which I guess answers the question, “What would Jesus direct?”

   Actually this is a surprisingly light and enjoyable thing to come from Jesus (aka “Jess” for American consumption) Franco, who more typically did sex-and-gore epics like Revenge of the Alligator Ladies and Lust for Frankenstein. It helps that it was written by Jean-Claude Carriere, a frequent collaborator with Luis Bunuel and the screenwriter of such trifles as Borsalino and Viva Maria.

   It also helps that Eddie Constantine stars, and lends his compelling screen presence to a role suited perfectly to him. For those of you not in on it, Constantine was an American actor who hit the big time as a night club singer in France and went on to star in a whole bunch of “B” action movies, usually as Lemmy Caution and most famously in Jen-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965).

   Here he plays a retired Secret Agent named Al Pereira (or Carl Peterson, depending on the dubbing) called back into the field by his superiors to check out assassinations committed by individuals apparently under the influence of what’s known in the genre as Some Diabolical Mind Control. And he isn’t on the job for much longer than a few bites of popcorn before he’s run into oriental masterminds, seductive ladies, furtive guys-who-know-too-much and the odd bruiser just looking for a fight.

    All this comes off much better than it deserves, thanks mostly to Constantine’s brutal charisma. Projecting a screen persona somewhere between Humphrey Bogart and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, he lumbers gracefully across the screen, and somehow convinces you that yes, he really is that tough.

   The story lumbers a bit too, I’m afraid — not so much a story as a succession of fights and chases, but writer Carriere does what he can with it. Some of the repartee is genuinely funny, there are a couple of amusing twists (as when a squad of killer robots and a gang of Chinese assassins prepare to ambush our hero in his room and suddenly discover each other’s presence) and we even get an oriental mastermind with a sense of humor.

   Perhaps no film should need so many redeeming features, but this one somehow carries it off, and if you’re in the mood for something mindless, it fills the time very pleasantly.

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