R.I.P. John Hurt

Oh no! Not again!

Oh no! Not again!

One of my absolute favourite actors has left us. John Hurt was one of the first classically trained British Shakespearian actors to whole-heartedly embrace science fiction, as opposed, for example, to an Alec Guinness, who spent most of his life pissing on Star Wars fans. Many of Hurt’s finest roles were in sci-fi, of course who could forget the iconic chest-burster scene in Alien (1979), but he also did superb work in films like Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1984), Spaceballs (1987), Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound (1990), Monolith (1993), Contact (1997), Hellboy (2004), V for Vendetta (2005), Outlander (2008), Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), and Snowpiercer (2013), and he is memorable also for his guest appearances as the War Doctor on Doctor Who.

John Hurt always brought a warm humanity to his roles, even making his fascist dictators seem human and frail. Never as celebrated as Anthony Hopkins, Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Richard Harris or Ian McKellen, Hurt was always working, always hugely respected as an actor, often in supporting roles where he lifted any movie he appeared in by making his co-stars look better. Oscar-nominated twice, for Midnight Express (1978) and The Elephant Man (1980), he received one Golden Globe and no less than four BAFTAs. He was awarded a special Teddy at the Berlin Film Festival for his outstanding performance in An Englishman in New York (2009), others may remember him for his voice work as Vincent van Gogh in Vincent (1987), or from films like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the Harry Potter movies, The Naked CIvil Servant, A Man for All Seasons. He has played both Jesus and the devil, and long before Viggo Mortensen, voiced Aragorn in the 1978 animated film. I will always fondly remember him as the voice of the dragon in the British TV series Merlin. He is gone, but his art will never perish.

Janne Wass

King Dinosaur

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(0/10) Forget Plan 9 from Outer Space, that charmingly childish fantasy from Ed Wood. Bert I. Gordon’s super-cheap directorial (solo) debut King Dinosaur is a much better contender for the title of worst film ever made. This story of four scientists battling a T.Rex on an unknown planet is inept in every single department and doesn’t even have a redeeming amateurish charm to it. The most interesting aspect of the movie is probably the life story of one of its stars, a jazz singer who kickstarted fashion guru Mr. Blackwell’s career and almost caused a diplomatic incident in Argentina.

Douglas Henderson and Patti Gallagher flee a "Tyrannosaurus Rex" in a promo photo. The actual effects of the film never look this good.

Douglas Henderson and Patti Gallagher flee a “Tyrannosaurus Rex” in a promo photo. The actual effects of the film never look this good.

King Dinosaur (1955, USA). Directed by Bert I. Gordon. Written by Tom Gries, Bert I. Gordon, Al Zimbalist. Starring: William Bryant, Wanda Curtis, Douglas Henderson, Patti Gallagher, Marvin Miller. Produced by Bert I. Gordon for Zimgor Productions. Executive producer: Al Zimbalist.
IMDb rating: 1.9/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.

Note the dissimilarity between the lizard in the photograph above and the one on the poster.

Note the dissimilarity between the lizard in the photograph above and the one on the poster. The poster also as five people in it. That’s more than the entire cast of the film.

I had just finished my one-star review of The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955), and thought it probably couldn’t get much worse, when King Dinosaur came along and proved me wrong. It seems that 1955 was the turning-point for sci-fi cinema in the sense that filmmakers realised that by running a shrewd marketing campaign promising monsters and babes, they could really film almost anything that had a fleeting resemblance to the poster, create a script that had a beginning and an end, and preferably some padding in the middle, and get the film released. And since the movies probably didn’t cost more than 30 000 dollars, a profit was almost inevitable. Continue reading

This Island Earth

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(7/10) Dishing out the best visual effects in US sci-fi up until 1955, This Island Earth is the smartest sci-fi film of the fifties all the way to the middle of the movie, when the two hack screenwriters deviate from author Raymond Jones’ novel, and we plunge into comic book territory. However, this first space opera remains one of the best sci-fi films of the decade, despite a clumsy mutant and the fact that the writers forget to add any actual plot once we get to a distant planet. Features the first ever Miss Finland.

Jeff Morrow, Faith Domergue, Rex Reason and Lance Fuller watching Earth from afar.

Jeff Morrow, Faith Domergue, Rex Reason and Lance Fuller watching Earth from afar.

This Island Earth (1955, USA). Directed by Joseph M. Newman & Jack Arnold. Written by Franklin Coen & George Callahan. Based on the novel This Island Earth by Raymond F. Jones. Starring: Jeff Morrow, Rex Reason, Faith Domergue, Lance Fuller, Russell Johnson, Douglas Spencer. Produced by William Alland for Universal International Pictures.
IMDb rating: 5.8/10. Tomatometer: 71% Fresh. Metacritic: N/A.

Poster.

Poster.

In first half of the fifties, primarily three major studios dabbled in science fiction. Paramount was the front runner, thanks to the lavish Technicolor sci-fi epics of George Pal. Warner got in it for the money when they realised there was a profit to be made from giant radioactive monsters like those in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, review) and Them! (1954, review). Universal was probably the one that made the most interesting pictures, because of their range and their quirks. And in 1955, the studio made their most expensive science fiction film to that date, This Island Earth, an ambitious space opera in Technicolor with impressive effects and artwork.

Continue reading

Cat-Women of the Moon

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2/10 In a nutshell: Surely one of the most inept productions ever to get a theatrical release, this Poverty Row film from bad movie giants Al Zimbalist and Jack Rabin steals its sets and props from other movies and throws science and logic out the window as it presents the first Amazons-in-space film. If you can forgive its ineptitude and fifties sexism, it’s a highly enjoyable so-bad-it’s-good movie. And there’s giant moon spiders.

Cat-Women of the Moon (1953, USA). Directed by Arthur Hilton. Written by Roy Hamilton, Al Zimbalist & Jack Rabin. Starring: Sonny Tufts, Marie Windsor, Victor Jory, William Phipps, Douglas Fowley, Carol Brewster, Susan Morrow. Prodcuced by Al Zimbalist and Jack Rabin for Z-M Productions. IMDb score: 3.6/10

The Cat-Women of the Moon.

The Cat-Women of the Moon.

In the fifties American manhood was threatened. When the men were off fighting WWII, women were called in to factories, retailers and institutions to take their place, and thus keep the wheels of society turning. In the process, many of them found that having a salary of their own greatly improved their freedom and made them independent of a male provider, which had been the norm up until then. As the men returned home, many women refused to let things slip back to the way it was before the war, and were backed up by a growing feminist movement. Suddenly women’s’ liberation was thing again, and companies that could hire women for a lesser salary than men, didn’t necessarily protest. But a lot of men felt threatened by the loosening of their control over women, and a lot of men dominated the media, the entertainment and the advertising industry, and this created a backlash, resulting in what we today loosely refer to as ”fifties values”, where great emphasis was laid on ”traditional” family values, Christianity, which stated that the man was the head of the family, chastity and female obedience. This was one of the driving forces in Hollywood behind an onslaught of ”Amazon Women” films, of which Cat-Women of the Moon is one of the best known examples. Continue reading

Red Planet Mars

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(1/10) In a nutshell: Jesus lives on Mars and solves all the Earth’s problems by reading aloud from the bible. That is the notion that this 1952 trainwreck of a film is trying to turn into a pathos-filled and solemn fable about politics, science and the human condition. Fairly well designed, filmed and acted for a low-budget effort, but boy, you can’t polish a turd. (1/10)

Red Planet Mars (1952). Directed by Harry Horner. Written by John L. Balderston & Anthony Veiller. Based on the play Red Planet by John L. Balderston and John Hoare. Starring: Peter Graves, Andrea King, Herbert Berghof, Walter Sande, Marvin Miller, Morris Ankrum. Produced by Donald Hyde and Anthony Veiller for Melaby Pictures Corp. IMDb score: 4.9

Walter Sande, Andrea King and Peter Graves in Red Planet Mars.

Walter Sande, Andrea King and Peter Graves in Red Planet Mars.

Red Planet Mars is – just like another film I recently reviewed, Invasion U.S.A. from the same year – a perfect time capsule of the hysterical atmosphere of the cold war. It has all the trappings of the most obnoxious, xenophobic, conservative, bible-thumping propaganda movies at the time – and then turns it up to eleven. It’s difficult to know where to start with this one, so I’ll begin with the plot. Continue reading

Flight to Mars

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(5/10) In a nutshell: Poverty Row studio Monogram jumped the bandwagon on space films in 1951 with this colour movie filmed in five days. The design and effects are not bad for a film of its budget, although much of it is scraped together from found objects, but all suspense evaporates as the space crew settles on Mars and the movie settles into a boring chamber drama with talking heads.

Flight to Mars (1951). Directed by Lesley Selander. Written bu Arthur Strawn. Starring: Marguerite Chapman, Cameron Mitchell, Arthur Franz, Virginia Huston, John Litel, Morris Ankrum, Richard Gaines, Lucille Barkley, Robert Barrat, Trevor Bardette, Tristam Coffin, Music: Marlin Skiles. Cinematography: Harry Neumann. Editing: Richard V. Heermance. Production design: Ted Haworth. Art direction: Dave Milton. Production management: Allen K. Wood. Sound recordist: John K. Kean. Visual effects: Jack Cosgrove, Jack Rabin, Irving Block. Produced by Walter Mirisch for Monogram Pictures. IMDb score: 5.2

Production still and PR poster from Flight to Mars.

Production still and PR poster from Flight to Mars.

1951 was a tremendous year for science fiction films in Hollywood, especially for films concerning space travel and aliens, subgenres that had only found their way into full-length cinema the previous year. In 1950 producer George Pal had tried to depict a scientifically accurate flight to the moon in Destination Moon (review), and Lippert Pictures had jumped on the wagon with a voyage to Mars in Rocketship X-M (review). In the first two thirds of 1951 spacemen came to Earth, first in The Man from Planet X (review), then in The Thing from Another World (review) and later in The Day the Earth Stood Still (review). Continue reading

Rocketship X-M

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(6/10) In a nutshell: First serious American motion picture to go where no man has gone before. This 1950 Poverty Row movie was rushed into production to beat the lavish Destination Moon to cinemas and take advantage of the media buzz surrounding it. However, in some regards the cheap ripoff actually surpasses the ”original”, thanks to an Oscar-winning screenwriter, one of Hollywood’s greatest cinematographers, good acting and a movie with a good deal of heart and soul.

Rocketship X-M (1950). Directed by Kurt Neumann. Written by Dalton Trumbo, Kurt Neumann, Orville H. Hampton. Starring: Lloyd Bridges, Osa Massen, John Emery, Noah Beery Jr, Hugh O’Brian, Morris Ankrum, Judd Holdren, Barry Norton. Produced by Kurt Neumann, Murray Lerner for Lippert Pictures. IMDb score: 4.9

Osa Massen, John Emery, Hugh O'Brian and Lloyd Bridges in Rocketship X-M.

Osa Massen, John Emery, Hugh O’Brian and Lloyd Bridges in Rocketship X-M.

Poster.

Poster.

After the abysmal sci-fi decade that was the forties, fans of the genre finally got to look forward to well-made, original, lavish, high-quality – actual – science fiction films. The spark that ignited the explosion of A-list science fiction films about space travel in the early eighties was a costly gamble of 600 000 dollars, in lavish colour, co-written by author Robert A. Heinlein, that won an Oscar for special effects and was nominated for another for art direction – the first American moon landing film that strived for scientific accuracy. Except that was not this movie. That movie was George Pal’s Destination Moon (review). This film is the low-budget, black-and-white quickie produced by Poverty Row studio Lippert Pictures about a rocketship that accidentally end up on Mars instead of the moon and meet the family from The Hills Have Eyes. Continue reading

Captain Video and His Video Rangers

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(3/10) In a nutshell: The first science fiction TV show, the first TV show to feature a robot, spaceships, aliens and ray guns, the first TV show to be adapted for the big screen. This live broadcast kiddie show aired six days a week in the US for over five years between 1949 and 1955 and had a number of prolific sci-fi authors as screenwriters. It was hugely popular and created an avalanche of similar shows. It was also very shoddily made, extremely cheap, sometimes mind-bogglingly dumb, badly directed, awfully acted and had unrelated clips of old western films spliced into the action to pad out time, save cost and allow for set changes.

Captain Video and His Video Rangers. (1949-1955). Created by Lawrence Menkin and James Caddigan. Directed by Steve Previn et. al. Written by Maurice C. Brachhausen, Jack Vance, Damon Knight, James Blish, Isaac Asimov, Cyril M. Kornbluth, Stephen Marlowe, Wabrocklter M. Miller Jr, Robert Sheckley, J.T. McIntosh, Robert S. Richardson, et. al. Directed by Steve Previn, et al. Starring: Richard Coogan, Al Hodge, Don Hastings, Ben Lackland, Brain Mossen, Hal Conklin, Fred Scott, Ed Condit, Edward Holmes, Jack Orrison, Mary Vallee, Dave Ballard, Ernest Borgnine, Arnold Stang. Produced by Maurice C. Brachhausen, Olga Druce, et. al. for DuMont Television Networks. IMDb score: 7.2

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The opening shot of the early Captain Video episodes, showing the Video Ranger Headquarters.

You won’t see me reviewing many TV shows, since this blog focuses primarily on sci-fi films. But occasionally I will pick up one or two TV shows, as I have done with film serials, if they have an especially important role in the history of the sci-fi genre. Ultimately you can’t pretend to give any cohesive resumé on the history of sci-fi films unless you at least mention TV shows like The Twilight Zone, Star Trek and The X-Files. Now, granted, Captain Video and His Video Rangers aren’t perhaps quite all the way up there with those shows, but it is central to the history of sci-fi as the first science fiction TV show in the world. Continue reading

Superman

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(5/10) In a nutshell: The low-budget production of Superman’s first live-action film serial is obvious and hurts credibility, but this 15-part serial from Columbia manages to stay respectful towards the source material and is without doubt one of the best serials produced in the forties. Kirk Alyn is a believable Superman, but the real star of the show is Noel Neill as Lois Lane.

Superman (1948). Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennett and Thomas Carr. Based on characters created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. Starring: Kirk Alyn, Noel Neill, Tommy Bond, Carol Forman, George Meeker, Jack Ingram, Pierre Watkin, Terry Frost,  Produced by Sam Katzman for Columbia Pictures. IMDb score: 7.8

The opening titles of the 1948 film serial Superman starring Kirk Alyn.

The opening titles of the 1948 film serial Superman starring Kirk Alyn.

I don’t regularly review film serials on this blog, but I have done so in the past when I’ve deemed them of such importance to the the cinematic sci-fi genre that they deserve at least a shoutout. There are few that deny the importance of Superman to the canon of science fiction. And even though this 1948 film serial may not have been that hugely influential on later film adaptations, it was at least a big happening when the first live action Superman graced the screen. Continue reading

Flash Gordon

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(7/10) In a nutshell: This hugely influential 1936 film serial was more or less the first American outer space adventure brought to the screen. It is high camp, silly and loads of fun, and boasts high production values for a serial, as well as an unusually imaginative and original script, derived straight from the pages of Alex Raymond’s comic strips. That the spaceships are obviously held by strings and the dragons look just like men in rubber and cardboard suits just adds to the fun.

Flash Gordon. 1936, USA. Serial film. Directed by Frederick Stephani, Ray Taylor. Written by Basil Dickey, Ella O’Niell, George H. Plympton, Frederick Stephani. Based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond and Don Moore. Starring: Buster Crabbe, Jean Rogers, Frank Shannon, Charles Middleton, Priscilla Lawson, Richard Alexander, Jack ”Tiny” Lipson, James Pierce, Ray ”Crash” Corrigan. Produced by Henry McRae for Universal. IMDb score: 7.3

Buster Crabbe (middle) and Charles Middleton (right) as Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless on the cult classic serial Flash Gordon frpm 1936.

Buster Crabbe (middle) and Charles Middleton (right) as Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless in the cult classic serial Flash Gordon from 1936.

The story of one of the most influential science fiction adventures of all time – Flash Gordon – starts in 1928 with the pulp magazine Amazing Stories. In particular the short stories Armageddon 2419 A.D. and The Airlords of Han, which featured a central character called Anthony Rogers. In 1929 Philip Nowlan and Dick Calkins adapted the character, renamed Buck Rogers, as a comic strip, that soon featured in many of the prominent newspapers in the US, quickly becoming one of the most successful comic strips of all times. The futuristic world of the 25th century with its strange space crafts, jet packs, weapons, robots and designs, the outlandish and quite politically incorrect Mongolian villains, and of course the handsome, brave hero Buck Rogers instantly inspired a whole range of similar science fiction comics. Some failed, others, like Brick Bradford, became highly successful. But few were able to touch the popularity of Buck Rogers – save one, which came hurtling along like a runaway planet Mongo on a collision course with Earth in 1934. Flash Gordon quickly surpassed the popularity of Buck Rogers, and stands to this day as one of the most highly regarded and influential comic strips of all time. Note: I will not be reviewing the 1938 Buck Rogers serial, as it is basically just another Flash Gordon season under a different name – it even starred Buster Crabbe. Continue reading