Studies of Russian cinema tend to be studies of Soviet cinema — classics from the glory days (such as they were) of the communist powerhouse. Russia has moved on, though, both cinematically and culturally (though Vladimir Putin would love if that wan’t the case), and modern Russian cinema is a very different beast than the cinema from which it has grown. And what could be more different from Soviet era cinema than being almost exactly like modern American cinema? Or maybe, if we don’t want to stick with the usual Cold War comparison, let’s say modern South Korean cinema. Oh wait…there’s a Cold War connection there too, isn’t there? Anyway, the point is, modern Russian cinema — at least the big budget version — is highly polished, very slick, slightly soulless, and if you replaced the Russian language with English, you’d be hard-pressed to tell that Apocalypse Code wasn’t a minor Hollywood blockbuster.
After the global success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, to say nothing of the Harry Potter books and movies I hear were mildly popular for a brief period, most everyone assumed the world was ready for a glut of big-budget fantasy films full of heroic posing and dodgy CGI effects. While there were attempts — The Golden Compass, a few Chronicles of Narnia films, that lavish epic In the Name of the King from Dr. Uwe Boll and featuring King Burt Reynolds — most of those attempts fell flat on their face, and the cash-in trend died before it took off.
In the spirit of sleazy old “true confessions” magazines, here’s my confession: I am a life-long easterner, raised in Kentucky, schooled in Florida, happily living the rest of my life in New York City. All three locations are awash in hardboiled, noirish, and/or Southern Gothic credibility. And while I have no intention of leaving New York, and even less intention of moving to the West Coast, I never the less have a strange fascination with Los Angeles. Granted, this fascination is built entirely on assumptions I know to be wholly inaccurate — that L.A. is or ever was the L.A. of Philip Marlowe, seedy detective magazines, and faded Hollywood glory. Residents of Los Angeles, feel free to do the same with New York. I would love to, but I deal with the city on a daily basis so my image of Gotham as Gotham, full of Prohibition-era suits and Weegee crime scenes is too often undercut by the reality of pleated Dockers and people wearing sweatpants. In my misconception of L.A., there is no room for what Los Angeles actually is. And since there is an entire country between it and me, I am going to ignorantly cling to my illusion of a city designed entirely by Raymond Chandler and David Lynch, safe in the knowledge that it makes no difference to me what L.A. “is really like.”
When one possesses tastes such as I do, one often assumes that one will find oneself standing alone in a vast sea of people who think one is mad, completely mad. If the Internet has taught me one thing other than there are a lot of blogs maintained by people’s house cats, it’s that you’re never so alone as you think you are. No matter how obscure or out of the mainstream your affection for a particular something may be, chances are very good there are multiple discussion boards, tumblrs, and websites dedicated to defending and celebrating whatever that thing may be. Heck, by Internet standards furries, scat freaks, and people who like to watch monkeys stick their fingers up their butt then sniff them and fall over are mainstream. And yet even in this glorious netherworld where everything is acceptable and nothing is beyond the realm of defensibility, there are rare occasions when I still feel cold and alone in a world that regards me with a suspicious and disgusted eye. Such is the case when I offer up the opinion that Italian science fiction films are “pretty good.”
One of the things I love about these Eastern Bloc science fiction films from the early 60s is the air of moment that hangs around them. Unlike American sci-fi films of the era, which were more often than not throwaway drive-in fare, these movies were a major undertaking for the countries that produced them, and were not only intended to be an expression of national pride, but also a source of it. Of course, you wouldn’t know that from the versions of them that eventually made it to theater screens here in the U.S. Radically edited to eliminate all evidence of their communist origins and frequently retaining little of their original footage beyond their special effects sequences, such films became the building blocks for cut-rate titles such as Roger Corman’s Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet and Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (both fashioned from the Russian Planeta Bur) and Crown International’s retooling of East Germany’s The Silent Star, First Spaceship on Venus.
Mission Stardust is the only film to be based on the long running and voluminous series of German pulp novels featuring the science fiction hero Perry Rhodan. It is universally hated by Perry Rhodan fans for the very good reason that it is quite terrible — that is, if you’re definition of “terrible” can be stretched to encompass a film featuring amusingly smarmy, two-fisted astronaut heroes, a truly swankadelic soundtrack, some quite good looking women, pop art set design, and a climactic sequence that finds sexy nurses with machine guns doing battle with robots who shoot lasers out of their eyes. In other words, having never read any of the Perry Rhodan books, and thus being free from having to judge Mission Stardust in terms of its faithfulness to them, I found it to be flirting with perfection.
If you’ve ever encountered someone from my generation grumbling about flying cars and nightclubs on the moon as if they were some kind of denied birthright, it’s films like Wild Wild Planet that are largely to blame. The movie was a staple of Saturday afternoon TV at a time in America when the idea that the space program would someday slow to an underfunded crawl was beyond imagining, and, along with similarly groovy sci-fi pictures like The X From Outer Space, was responsible for inspiring a generation of young boys whose visions of adulthood were inseparable from thoughts of martini-fueled day trips to Mars and compliant lady robots.
Although Hammer was best known for horror films, their entry into horror actually came by way of science fiction. Up until the 1950s, Hammer was pretty much your average low-to-medium budget production house, cranking out a lot of comedies, adventure, and war films. In 1955, however, the studio released a film featuring a popular sci-fi television series character by the name of Professor Quatermass. The movie, known as either The Quatermass Xperiment or The Creeping Unknown, was a blend of science fiction and horror, as was popular at the time, and it ended up being a big hit for Hammer. Encouraged by the film’s success, they dabbled in a few more sci-fi horror films, including X: The Unknown in 1956 and a second Quatermass film, Enemy from Space, in 1957. Like The Creeping Unknown, both of these films featured elements of sci-fi and horror. But then the studio released Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, and The Mummy in quick succession, and before you could blink twice, Hammer was the House of Horror. Their previous, largely successful forays into science fiction were all but forgotten as the studio repurposed itself to produce almost nothing but Gothic horror films for the next decade. Eventually though, even Hammer couldn’t ignore that the space race had sparked interest in science fiction.
I spend a lot of time, perhaps too much time, waxing poetic about the golden cliches of yesteryear that seem to have disappeared from everywhere except Univision. Grown men dressed in those little sailor boy outfits holding oversized lollipops. Quicksand gags. So many lost greats. One of my favorite forgotten cinematic trends is the “scientist of everything.” Back in the 1950s, these guys were everywhere, and they were usually played by John Agar. Anyone familiar with old sci-fi films knows these guys. They are identified as “professor” but it’s never really clear what exactly they are professors of. At any given moment, they will prove themselves geniuses in the realms of physics, history, chemistry, geology, geography, aerospace engineering, paleontology, auto mechanics — you name it and these guys will show off their knowledge of it, usually at the belittlement of their clueless sidekick scientist, who is more than likely being played by Hugh Beaumont.
The Cultural Gutter invited me and my monsters over for a cup of tea and a conversation about The Monster in Me, during which I wax philosophic about the history of horror film ghouls and the lack of “human” monsters in modern chillers.