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.
Despite living in New York for some fifteen years now, and despite the iconic nature of this particular attraction, I had never been on — nor indeed even seen — the Roosevelt Island Tram. Somehow, despite countless trips up and down the FDR Drive and occasional trips back and forth across the Queensboro Bridge, I never once caught a glimpse of that bright red skytram being tugged across the East River on suspended cables. It could possibly be because I was, you know, driving, and if you’ve ever been in that particular part of town you know that it does not usually work out very well to distract oneself from the road. Eventually though, and probably after staying up late watching Nighthawks yet again, it was determined that enough was enough. High time to get suspended high above the river en route to a river island about which I know very little and which is visited rarely by anyone who does not live there.