Friday, February 15, 2019

Mission Mars

Mission Mars
Nicholas Webster

Mission Mars starts out as a rote ‘Astronauts go into space movie.’ There is the joking and camaraderie of the three leads, we get a glimpse of two of their spouses so that there is some kind of emotional tension there when the danger happens. We even get the sort of gee-whiz technical jargon about the launch and a heaping of Mars factoids that might have been fresh in the 1950s but feels played out by 1968. There is a definite ‘been there done that’ feel to the first 40 minutes, but once our crew finally makes it to Mars, things get a lot more interesting.

We’re warned something is amiss when the Americans find two dead Soviet cosmonauts adrift in space. The surface of Mars is colorful, desolate, and threatening. Here they find a third cosmonaut seemingly flash frozen. There is also a strange Art Deco statue of flat panels and lights that proves to be a threat. The adventure gives way to the sinister and the unknown as it descends into horror at points. Someone is graphically blinded and burned. Mission Mars never explains its threat, is it a Martian? An explorer from somewhere else? Something even more monstrous?
Wanting sex or staring into the 8th dimension? You decide.
Our three heroes are likable enough, although a) Darren McGavin delivers the creepiest horny face I’ve seen in a long time and b) His idea of foreplay is using a towel to whip the legs out from under his unsuspecting wife. Nick Adams plays his usual low-key character, and George De Vries plays a guy with no last name or wife, so you can guess who is going to die right away. Heather Hewitt and Shirley Parker play the Earthbound wives, Edith and Alice. Wives pining for their lost husbands are rarely exciting roles, and here they are no exception.

The music is some highly groovy jazz and surf rock during the first half that gives way to more ethereal tones once the crew lands on Mars. The goofy opening theme is either highly inappropriate or a clever fake-out depending on how much trust you put into the director, Nicholas Webster. This is the same man who brought us Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964). In some ways, this plays like the flip-side to that film, for here, Mars almost certainly does the conquering.
The traffic lights of Altair 4.
Like Planet of the Vampires (1965) and The Green Slime (1968) just three years before, Mission Mars plays up the horror of space exploration. There’s no friendly alien or universal truth to discover, just something unknowable and mean. Despite this element, Mission Mars isn’t dour at all, in fact, it remains relatively upbeat for most of its running time, which creates this strange tension between what is happening to the trio of astronauts and how it is being presented. Mission Mars starts out banal and then becomes something far more odd and interesting. Its difficulty to acquire and relative obscurity only make it that much more curious. I’ve revisited this film several times and I will certainly be going back to it again. Mission Mars is an oddity that is worth exploring.

Mom warned me not to sit too close to the TV and I DIDN'T LISTEN!!!

Friday, February 8, 2019

War of the Satellites

War of the Satellites
Roger Corman

With the destruction of the tenth attempt to get a manned satellite into orbit, Dr. Pol Van Ponder (Richard Devon), the head of the project is facing pressure from the United Nations as well as the sinking feeling that powers beyond the Earth are thwarting him. Van Ponder ends up in a seemingly fatal car accident only to appear at a key U.N. meeting unharmed. Only, this isn’t Van Ponder and as he drives the next iteration of the Sigma Project towards disaster, only his colleges Dave Boyer (Dick Miller) and Sybil Carrington (Susan Cabot) begin to suspect that something is amiss.

"Murry Futterman? Never heard of him."
War of the Satellites is a surprisingly ambitious story. Roger Corman productions might be notorious for cutting corners, but this film still tries to tell a more complex story than a simple alien doppelganger  tale. The flip side of this is that it isn’t an especially focused story, alternating between United Nations meetings, gee-whiz space adventure, and some mysterious cloak and dagger activities. Another Corman film, It Conquered the World (1956) touches on some very similar ideas but keeps the whole thing on the ground level and centered on its characters which results on a much more streamlined narrative.

Being surprised while watching a 1950s SF film is a rare treat, so it was with some delight that Dr. Pol Van Ponder makes a turn to the villainous and the one only Dick Miller as Dave Boyer steps in to take the lead as the hero of the story. Dick Miller is always a fun presence, but he’s often regulated to smaller roles, so it’s great to see him get plenty of screen time and be the good guy for once. Richard Devon as Van Ponder moves between his warm human self and the cold alien beneath with a slippery ease that makes him into an effective threat. Susan Cabot turns in another great performance in a string of Corman films. Her Sybil is a strong character but relegated to damsel in distress by the 3rd act.

The working title for this film was War of the Upholsterers.
You should never go into a Roger Corman film expecting great special effects, but in the scenes where Dr.  Ponder replicates himself Corman pushes things here just a little bit and they transform into interesting little moments. The launch and formation of the Sigma satellite is much less successful, but I have to admire the attempt to show three rockets transforming and merging into a single satellite in a low budget production like this.

War of the Satellites plays a like a mishmash of other SF films from the period, and attempts to knit them together with a espionage plot that mostly works. It offers a few surprises here and there and a great role for Dick Miller. It is not a film I see mentioned in Roger Corman’s body of work very often but it is a solid little film that shows off some big ambitions.

Friday, February 1, 2019

The Vindicator

The Vindicator
Jean Claude-Lord

The movie opens with scientist Alex Whyte (Richard Cox) killing a chimp so that we know for sure he is a complete asshole. He arranges for the maiming of his colleague Carl Lerhman (David McIlwraith), whom he then makes the basis for his new project, a cyborg who kills when touched. This requires that all his fellow scientist go along with his plan, which they seem to have no problem with doing. Carl aka Frankenstein awakens not happy at all about all this, kills someone with monkeys and escapes into a garbage incinerator which partially burns and melts his new robot body. The robot monster (no not you, Ro-Man), vows revenge of those who made him, but he also finds himself trying to protect his wife and her unborn twins.

Oh come on, that's pretty cool, right?
Yes, The Vindicator pre-dates Robocop (1987), but so does the Six Million Dollar Man (1973-1978). Stories of men being made into machines have long been a staple of fiction, so when calling Robocop or The Vindicator a rip-off of the other, it doesn’t hold a lot of weight. At the core of these stories is really the question of what makes us human, and while Robocop is a masterclass in addressing the question, The Vindicator is more like preschool. That is not to say The Vindicator is bad, it’s just very limited in what it does.

As The Vindicator begins, it looks like it is going to be some pretty grim stuff. Carl’s situation is dire, there is the tragedy of his expectant wife and the betrayal of his co-workers. Combine that with the fact that he will kill anyone who touches him whether he wants to or not and it looks like this is going to be a dark story. Around the half-way point, the movie switches gears to become much more of an action adventure film as Carl befriends a kid in a junkyard, and Alex hires a mercenary in the form of Pam Grier to kill the cyborg. Grier’s Hunter is an over the top collection of 1980s action tropes that lightens the mood considerably. The movie tries to swing back to something darker by the climax, but a multi-cyborg battle doesn’t quite get it there.

Jiffy-Pop Man
The look of the movie isn’t especially notable, it’s dark to the point of being under lit in scenes. It does manage to achieve a sort of grimy claustrophobia in parts. The Vindicator’s gold space suit didn’t engender much confidence in me, so it was nice to see a movie live up to the poster when he emerges scarred and smoking from the flames in one of the film’s few iconic shots.

The Vindicator is an entertaining if flawed riff on the man or machine science-fiction story. It seems largely forgotten despite being a syndicated TV staple in the 1990s. If you are interested in seeing a low-budget cyborg action film that doesn’t come anywhere near the razor sharp satire of Robocop or the kookiness of R.O.T.O.R. (1987), this is not a bad one to seek out at all.

Any excuse to post of a picture of Pam Grier you take it.

Friday, January 25, 2019

War of the Planets

War of the Planets (aka Cosmos: War of the Planets aka Anno zero - Guerra nello spazio)
Alfonso Brescia

After a mysterious explosion that turns out to be an image from the past and has nothing to do with anything, brash Captain Layton (John Richardson) smacks a fellow officer because he doesn’t like being bossed around by a computer named Wiz. Command scolds Layton, but soon he is sent to explore an unstable planet. After a fight with some UFOs, the ship and its crew land on the planet and wander around. There they find a race of green humanoids who live in fear of a killer computer and a giant robot. Planets, people, and computers all get blown-up and then everything ends.

Hot off the massive success of Star Wars (1977), Alfonso Brescia threw together a series of cheap science-fiction films that borrowed a few elements from it and other popular SF films.. These films reused plots, actors, sets, and costumes. The titles were largely interchangeable, War of the PlanetsWar of the Robots (1978), Battle of the Stars (1978), Star Odyssey (1979), and The Beast in Space (1980) or the method I use as I struggle to remember which one is which: The one with the green guy, The one with the gold guys, The one that wasn’t dubbed into English, The one with the robot suicide pact, and The one with the robot satyr that has a giant boner. War of the Planets is probably my favorite of the lot because it is the weirdest which is no easy feat considering the competition.

"I'm here to kick Santy Claus' ass."
Watching War of the Planets feels like being home from school with the flu while slipping in and out of consciousness during simultaneous viewings of Star Wars and Star Trek. It barely makes sense, the colors are a little nausea-inducing, but its entertaining when things come into focus. There is an air of mystery that pervades the whole thing and it tosses in just a hint of horror too. My favorite science-fiction movies make space at least a little bit scary, and War of the Planets does just that, whether it be dying in the vacuum of space or getting your head crushed by a giant robot.

There is also plenty of head-scratchingly funny things too. The crew's spaceship has a machine for couples to have sex in called the Cosmic Love and it comes complete with a transparent Death Star in the middle. The Earth uses a supercomputer called Wiz (make your own joke here), and possibly my favorite moment comes when Wiz predicts the best way to destroy the evil supercomputer will be a giant red button somewhere.

"I am the Atomic Powered Deathbot. Give my worst wishes to everybody!"
War of the Planets does have some groovy analog synth music and about 3 seconds of a song called ‘Here in Space.’ All of which just adds to its very strange atmosphere.

War of Planets has about a hundred stolen ideas and doesn’t seem very concerned about joining them into a coherent narrative. That is both its strength and its main flaw. Despite this it manages to be silly surreal adventure. Check it out... Earthling.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Spectrum (Beyond the World's End)

Spectrum (Beyond the World's End) aka Espectro (Más allá del fin del mundo)
Manuel Esteba

Spectrum falls directly into one of my favorite niches, 1970s nihilistic eco-horror (Idaho Transfer (1973), Phase IV (1974). The genre existed as one the many ways for people to expresses their disillusion with hippie movement of the 1960s as it dove into the moral greywaters of the 1970s. It felt like humankind was destined for failure in one fashion or another. These types of films also contain a heavy dose of psychedelia although it is often more turned towards creating an unsettling mood rather than any sense of freedom or enlightenment.

Anton del Valle (Eduardo Fajardo) and his brother Daniel (Daniel Martin) try to put their antagonistic relationship aside to perform a series of experiments in a deep cave over a three month period. A sudden jump in the temperature of the cave causes them to surface looking for answers. What they find is an Earth that has no night thanks to a strange light in the sky and no living people, only husks with strange blanked out eyes. While the Earth begins to freeze around them, the pair battles their fear and each other. Only the arrival of an unexpected visitor offers them any hope, but their own dark relationship threatens to undo everything.

Wario and Waluigi (Beyond the World's End)
Spectrum works best during its scenes of the del Valles exploring their altered world. The mystery is foreboding and strange with no appreciable answers. It is a curious post-apocalypse like nothing I’ve seen before. The way that all the people are intact, just still and lifeless with their strange eyes is an eerie image. There are also small touches that add to the horror, such as the canned food turning into a black liquid. Eventually, we do get a gobbledygook explanation, but it’s so nonsensical as to not resolve the mystery of what has come before.

The second half of the film moves to a single location, the real star here is the gorgeous and surreal looking Brutalist architecture. These are vast spaces that almost swallow up these characters. Spectrum even indulges in some weird body horror at its dour climax. I was surprised at how much more the film leans towards horror over science-fiction.

"Did I sleep with my contacts in again?"
The music of Spectrum might be one of the most unsettling elements of it, filled with atonal synthesizer stabs and ambient washes of sound, it feels like a Boards of Canada album made into a film (or perhaps vice versa).

If the film has one major flaw it is making it’s the leads thoroughly unpleasant. Even if it is the end of the world and these two are brothers, I can’t imagine them wanting to be within a hundred feet of one another. Daniel is ineffectual to a fault, and Anton is aggressive and whiny from the moment you meet him. This might be a way to immerse the viewer in the idea of being stuck with someone when there is literally no one else around, but it makes their constant bickering more irritating than sobering.

Spectrum is a marvelous little post-apocalypse tale from Spain, it doesn’t seem to have garnered much notice, but if you are in the mood from something strange and grim, it is definitely worth seeking out.

Friday, January 11, 2019

The Sound of Horror

The Sound of Horror (aka El Sonido de la Muerte)
José Antonio Nieves Conde

Dr. Asilov (James Philbrook) and his friend Andre (Antonio Casas) are treasure hunting in a cave in Spain. Their partner Dorman (José Bódalo) along with his driver Pete (Arturo Fernández) and Pete’s girlfriend Sofia (Ingrid Pitt) arrive. Soon after the trio blows open part of the cave, they find not only some strange egg-like rocks but a mummified Neanderthal… oh, and there is a lot of screeching and blood as they become the targets of an invisible dinosaur that also there.

The Sound of Horror engages in the most cost-saving kind of monster, the invisible kind. In this case, it is a dinosaur that has some ability to blend into its surroundings, but functionally it’s completely invisible. The movie does not spend a lot of time on gimmicks like objects floating through the air or seeing something slowly become transparent. The dinosaur is invisible for 99% of the movie and that’s just how it’s going to be. Sure there is a short reveal at the very end, but it is so underwhelming that I would caution you from putting any expectations on it.

Los pies del sonido de la muerte.
The Sound of Horror might shy away from shoving a dinosaur in your face but it does not skimp on the gore. Faces are slashed, blood is spilled, and it feels like intense stuff especially coming from something released in 1966. Engaging in some brazen violence really helps push the monster as an actual threat rather than just watching a bunch of actors react to nothing. There is a delightful tension from seeing characters in danger from something that is right in front of them and could strike at any moment. The invisible beast sparks the imagination more than a rubber-suited monster could ever do, which another reason why the final reveal is a letdown.

The Sound of Horror starts as a mystery and slowly becomes a siege movie as the characters find themselves trapped in their house against a foe they can’t see. I found the solution to combating the dinosaur pretty clever, and their (almost) final showdown with it is a cool little moment in a film that didn’t try to do too much with its own invisible creation.

When shaving your chest goes horribly wrong.
The version I saw was dubbed into English from the original Spanish, so I find it difficult to say much about the performances. All the of the characters are likable enough. Pete (Arturo Fernández)  the young driver who is pushed into the leading role by the end is a fun goofball, singing the charms of his favorite vehicle whom he has dubbed Diana. Horror icon, Ingrid Pitt makes an early career appearance as Sofia and even manages to get showcased in a slinky dance number about half-way through the film.

The Sound of Horror sounds like a silly premise and with only a few missteps it could have turned into a blunder. It wisely plays to the inherent strengths of its own premise and offers some gruesome sights to go with the pressure cooker situation. It is a weird film, but it is a weird film that works very well.

Friday, January 4, 2019


Jonathon Baker, Josh Baker

Eli (Myles Tuitt) is a young kid adopted into a family with some problems. His older brother Jimmy (Jack Reynor) has just gotten out of prison and is trying to get his life together. Complicating that is Taylor (James Franco), the leader of the gang that protected Jimmy in prison but now wants their due. While Eli is poking around an abandoned building looking for scrap to sell, he find a strange box that turns out to be a powerful weapon. Soon Eli and Jimmy are on the run not only from Taylor but also from a couple of strange armored figures who want their gun back.

Kin initially feels like it is going to be a modern-day take on Laserblast (1978) with a marginalized kid who is given a piece of technology that can put him over on the people who’ve hurt him. A film with more pulp aspirations would have turned this into a revenge film, but Kin is much more interested in its characters than its hyper-technology, perhaps to a fault. This is first and foremost a character-driven drama and a science-fiction film second, but don’t let that stop you, there are some interesting things going on in this unjustly ignored film.

"Do you have to saw 'pew pew' every time I pull the trigger?"
Myles Tuitt as Eli is an easy character to like. He’s in a much worse situation than he realizes for most of the film thanks to his brother hiding to the truth. It is interesting that after he finds the ray-gun, he strikes a few cool poses with it, but it does not fuel any macho power fantasies. His brother Jimmy immediately comes to realize the weapon’s potential and isn’t above using Eli to meet his ends. Jimmy is a troubled guy who constantly makes rash choices. I found it difficult to sympathize with him, but that is part of his journey as a character from an wreckless bad guy to a bad guy who takes some responsibility for his actions. Zoë Kravitz plays Milly who is mostly along for the ride with these two. Her character feels underdeveloped especially as she all but vanishes during the 3rd act. James Franco is the antagonist Taylor, and he’s greasy and awful, but Franco never completely disappears into the character, so it is often distracting.

If the film has one major flaw is that it hangs on its interpersonal drama just a little too long, making the science-fiction elements seem almost forgotten before we get around to the conclusion. I think audiences going in expecting a glorified action movie with a laser gun are going to be tested by the pacing, but if you can accept what the film is trying to do it succeeds.

Special appearance by Daft Punk.
The gun and the gadgets employed by the two mysterious figures are fun and show some thought behind their design and function. There is nothing groundbreaking in their execution, but they offer some visual punch to what threatens to be an otherwise mundane looking crime drama. When the ray-gun comes out the film takes on a decidedly 1980s slickness with glowing lights and a pulsing synthesizer score. This film serves as a great example of how to tap into the 1980s aesthetic without making it a pastiche. The finale goes all out with some decent action pieces and a satisfying conclusion that thematically and narratively ties things up pretty well.