SF & Fantasy films

SILENT RUNNING. Universal Pictures, 1972. Bruce Dern, Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin, Jesse Vint. Drones: Mark Persons, Steven Brown, Cheryl Sparks, Larry Whisenhunt. Screenplay: Deric Washburn, Mike Cimino and Steve Bochco. Director: Douglas Trumbull.

   Silent Running is both a simplistic and spectacular view of a semi-utopian future in which the Earth is a “paradise” with a uniform temperature and only manufactured food to eat; there are no trees or animals left on the planet, only the ones temporary stored on gigantic spaceships left in orbit around Jupiter Saturn, manned only by a minimal number of bored and uncaring crew members.

   Except for Freeman Lowell, played by Bruce Dern, for a large part of the film the only character on the screen at any one time. Often wearing a robe and in semi-Messianic fashion, Lowell may be the only person alive who really cares about nature. When the order comes down from above to not only jettison but blow up the entire project, he rebels and takes it upon himself to save his own personal forest biosphere .

   Other than two surviving droids for companionship, Lowell is the only person on the screen for most of the movie. When systems begin to fail, he manages to jury rig partial fixes, but no more. It is here that the movie seems to drift a bit, with no destination for the film in sight. But wait! The ending is one well worth waiting for.

   This is definitely a movie with a message and striking visual effects, but basically a simple one that may have been premature in 1972. I suspect that the greatest success this movie may have had has been on SF films taking place in space that have followed.


SHE. RKO Radio Pictures, 1935. Helen Gahagan, Randolph Scott, Helen Mack, Nigel Bruce. Based on the novel by H. Rider Haggard. Directors: Lansing C. Holden & Irving Pichel. Shown at Cinevent 16, Columbus OH, May 1984.

   Star billing — the film festival’s much heralded centerpiece — was given to a 1935 version of H. Rider Haggard’s erotic fantasy She. It was directed by Irving Pichel (who was also busy acting that year in Dracula’s Daughter that year as Gloria Holden’s pasty-faced valet) and the enigmatic Lansing Holden, with familiar names from King Kong (composer Max Steiner and producer Merian C. Cooper) providing much of the visual and aural interest in this uneven film.

   The stalwart hero, Leo Vincey, is played in a forthright fashion by Randolph Scott, while Nigel Bruce is made to look silly in the throw-away role of the blustering English side-kick. Helen Mack has the thankless job of trying to distract the male viewers from the attractions of the good-bad Ayesha, queen/goddess of the lost city of Kor, which has been transported from Haggard’s African setting to an Asiatic ice-world which provides an excuse for the most striking set-up of the film: the discovery of a centuries-old European and a gigantic sabre-tooth tiger frozen into the ice outside the mountain entrance to the hidden city.

   Helen Gahagan, congresswoman and wife of actor Melvyn Douglas, played She with an effective mixture of icy imperturbability and melting languor. But her best moment had her still shrouded in the steamy mist to which she frequently retreated for mysterious purposes, intoning her lines in a voice that was strikingly similar to the voice of the evil, beautiful queen in the Disney Snow White.

   And this affinity was compounded by a shifting facial image like that of the mirror image in the Queen’s chambers a costume that was too similar to the costume for Disney’s queen not to have been adapted by him. This film would, I am sure, be a popular addition to Saturday afternoon and late night TV schedules, and it’s surprising that it doesn’t turn up more frequently.


THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR. Warner Brothers, 1975. Yul Brynner, Max von Sydow, Joanna Miles, William Smith, Richard Kelton, Stephen McHattie. Screenwriter and director: Robert Clouse.

   As much as I wanted to like this 1970s science fiction movie, I have to admit that The Ultimate Warrior was an ultimate letdown. Directed by Robert Clouse, the film opens with significant promise. The year is 2012 and New York City has been decimated by a plague/nuclear holocaust (it’s never revealed what actually happened). Yet, the Twin Towers are still standing, looming large above a city ravaged by death and hopelessness. It’s even creepier, since we know from the vantage point of 2016 that New York City is thriving, but the Towers are gone.

   As it turns out, there’s a commune somewhere in midtown Manhattan led by an erudite man known simply as the Baron (Max von Sydow). He and his followers are carving out an existence for themselves in the midst of chaos and decay. Their immediate threat, however, is a gang of violent street people led by a man simply known as Carrot (William Smith). Why does Carrot hate Baron’s people so much? Is he an evil man or just a rival? Unfortunately, we never learn much about him other than that he’s a bad dude.

   And if there’s a bad dude, there needs to be a good dude to counter him. In this film, Yul Brynner’s character fulfills that role. Carson is a fighter who sells his skills to the highest bidder and eventually takes up employ in Baron’s commune. Soon, he’s tasked with not only protecting the inhabitants, but also with guiding Baron’s pregnant daughter to a protected haven off the coast of North Carolina.

   Sounds like an interesting premise, right?

   Unfortunately, the movie never develops the characters to any great extent. They are more or less the same people the moment they appear on the screen as when they leave. And without any substantial changes in their personalities, wants, or desires, they end up one-dimensional caricatures. Baron = the erudite scientist. Carrot = the bad guy. Carson = the good guy. Just because stuff happens in the movie does not mean that there’s actually much of a story.

   Despite these harsh criticisms, I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t mention how effective the movie’s soundtrack is. Indeed, the score by Gil Mellé is so thoroughly captivating that it’s a real shame that the movie wasn’t such a missed opportunity.

TRANCERS. Empire Pictures, 1984. Tim Thomerson (Jack Deth), Helen Hunt, Michael Stefani, Art La Fleur, Telma Hopkins, Richard Herd, Anne Seymour. Written by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo. Director: Charles Band.

   Opening lines:

Jack Deth: Last January, I finally singed Martin Whistler out on one of the rim planets. Since then, I’ve been hunting down the last of his murdering cult. We call them “Trancers:” slaves to Whistler’s psychic power. Not really alive, not dead enough. It’s July now, and I’m tired. Real tired.

   A corny bit of voice-over narration, perhaps, but it does two things exceedingly well. Not only does it set the scene of the story to follow, and but it also sets the tone, that of an overtly tongue-in-cheek sci-fi time travel tale in which Whistler intends to wipe out the City Council in 23rd century Angel City by traveling to the past (1985) and killing off their ancestors. (No, Whistler is not dead.)

   Jack Deth’s job: stop him. And thanks to the help of a punk rock girl named Leena (a very young Helen Hunt) who helps him find his way around Los Angeles, long ago destroyed by The Big One in his world, he does exactly that.

   After watching a short bit of a black and white PI rerun on TV:

Jack Deth: What kind of name is Peter Gunn?

Leena: What kind of name is Jack Deth?

   If Trancers was made on a low budget, it doesn’t really show. There are no expensive special effects to drive up costs, most of the players did not require large salaries, and everyday locations were all that were needed. That and a huge sense of wonderfully goofy fun, taking lots of elements from other bigger budget movies and mixing them all together into a film that no one should walk away from with a frown on their face.

PostScript: A cast and crew reunion was held last month in a store in Burbank. I’d have loved to have been there:


20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. Walt Disney / Buena Vista, 1954. Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas, Peter Lorre. Based on the novel by Jules Verne. Director: Richard Fleischer.

   Although this 1954 Walt Disney production, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea doesn’t quite hit the mark as a cinematic adaptation of a literary text, it nevertheless succeeds wildly as an auditory and visual spectacle. As the first science fiction film to be shot in CinemaScope, this Technicolor film resonates with some absolutely lavish color schemes, beautiful underwater photography, and crisp portraits of the main characters.

   Add to that the wonderful score by Paul Smith, and you have yourself a borderline operatic experience in which repetitive leitmotifs guide the viewer off the California coast, into the vast Pacific, and underneath the ocean in Captain Nemo’s proto-steampunk submarine, the Nautilus.

   Based on the eponymous Jules Verne novel, this Richard Fleischer directed movie features James Mason as Captain Nemo, a mysterious man who is a renegade madman/visionary. He and his crew have been sailing underneath the Pacific in a (for its time) technologically advanced submarine, destroying warships in its wake. On board are his three captives, all survivors of an American naval vessel that he ordered destroyed. The three men could not be more different, in both personality and temperament. There’s the brawny Ned Land (Kirk Douglas); the erudite scientist, Professor Pierre Aronnax (Paul Lukas); and his neurotic, stout assistant, Conseil (Peter Lorre). Of all three four leads, it is Mason and Lorre who steal the show.

   Unfortunately, the film takes its slow time in revealing the thrust of the story; namely, that Captain Nemo was once enslaved on a penal colony and is now seeking revenge against the “hated nation” that persecuted him and was responsible for the death of his family. He’s learned to love life underneath the sea, finding it a palatable alternative to man’s humanity to man on the surface. Problem is: Nemo has become so filled with bitterness and hatred that he doesn’t realize that he’s not all that different from the warmongers he so dramatically opposes.

   But it’s not really the slow moving and predictable plot that makes 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea an enjoyable moving watching experience. Instead, it’s the spectacle of it all. This is a movie in which special effects really are indeed quite special. Case in point is the famous sequence in which Ned Land (Douglas) battles a giant squid. As a Disney film, there are naturally some family friendly moments, such as when Ned sings a seafaring ditty, “A Whale of a Tale,” and a few lighthearted moments with a seal.

   All told, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a work of movie magic, one that I am sure is a completely different experience watched in a theater.


PANIC IN YEAR ZERO! American International Pictures, 1962. Re-released as End of the World. Ray Milland, Jean Hagen, Frankie Avalon, Mary Mitchell, Joan Freeman, Richard Bakalayan, Rex Holman, Willis Bouchy (as Buchet). Screenwriters: Jay Simms (story), John Morton, based on the short stories “Lot” and “Lot’s Daughter” by Ward Moore (uncredited). Director: Ray Milland.

   It’s not that often a really low budget film over-performs as much as this one does. Maybe it’s the cast, maybe it’s the time it was written in, maybe it was sheer luck, but this little post-apocalyptic thriller is relatively smart, thoughtful, and even insightful.

   Milland and family, wife Hagen, son and daughter Avalon and Mitchell, are off on a weekend fishing trip when Los Angeles is obliterated by a sneak nuclear attack. Mom is in shock, the kids are in panic mode, and Milland, the ultimate fifties early-sixties father figure, goes into full survival mode, willing to do whatever it takes for his family to survive.

   There are no mutants, no invaders, the threat is other people trying to survive and lowlife types willing to kill, rape, and revert to animals in the subsequent chaos. As the father, Milland holds up a store for supplies as they race just ahead of the flood of refugees fleeing devastated L.A., and heads for a cave to wait out the fallout. Along the way he becomes more than a little ruthless and severe and gets little help from Mom, who is in shock, or the children who don’t understand what he does about human nature.

   The tension in the film is as much from character development as incident.

   Hagen and Milland raise the level of this, a solid little post holocaust film in the tradition of Pat Frank’s Alas Babylon, Philip Wylie’s Tomorrow, or, minus the polemical arguments and nasty bits Heinlien’s Farnham’s Freehold. In fact it poses a lot of the same questions as the Heinlien novel while coming to altogether different conclusions.

   There is a novelization of this by Dean Owen (Brides of Dracula) under the title End of the World, the one which was used when the film was re-released (Ace, 1962).

   This is probably the best of the films Milland directed. It has flaws, low budget, likely too quick shooting schedule, but it stays with you, and you may be impressed how logically the film develops considering other movies of the genre. I first saw it in a theater at age twelve and was surprisingly not disappointed when I saw it again as an adult. Not many low budget films of this sort survive that test.

   I’m not sure, but this may be the last film where Milland played the leading man and the hero.


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.

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