The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Italian Star Trek with a smaller budget

In the last year or so since I've been doing these movie reviews, I've done more than a few spaghetti westerns and Italian crime thrillers.  In general, these movies from the Italian studios had a cheap, low-budget feel to them that worked in favor of the movie as opposed to being a detriment.  Well, they can't all be winners.  Last week TCM had a science fiction themed day, including two Italian sci-fi movies that were probably made for about $12 each.  Basically think of the original Star Trek show but with a much smaller budget and really bad American dubbing.

The two movies, 1965's Wild, Wild Planet and 1966's War of the Planets, are both really awful, bringing to mind some of the worst B-movies that came out of drive-ins throughout the 50s and 60s.  These movies have everything going for them in the 'so truly awful, they're good' genre.  For one, it's always interesting to see what script writers and set designers from the 1960s thought the future would look like.  I'm assuming because of the smallish budgets their interpretations always seem to look like the 1960s.  Interesting, huh?  The sets are awful, the scripts even worse, the costumes looked taped together, and the acting is well, it's a stretch to call it acting.  Best watched when you're looking for a good laugh.

It's sometime in the future and numbers start to roll in claiming that people are disappearing without a clue left behind.  Space Command is called in (why I don't know) to investigate, led by Captain Mike Halstead (Tony Russel) and his two ranking officers, Jake (Franco Nero) and Ken (Carlo Giustini). Investigating these odd disappearances, they discover a recurring issue, a beautiful woman traveling all over the city with a robotic-like man wearing a leather coat.  The evidence leads them to a huge corporation and one of their chemists, Dr. Nermi (Massimo Serato), who is shrinking human beings, regrowing them (it didn't make sense to me either), and using their parts to make a perfect specimen of a human.  Halstead and Co. have little time to stop the plan which includes the captain's girlfriend (Lisa Gastoni).

My favorite example of the frugal spending on effects here involves the shrinking of people.  The man in the leather coat wraps the coat around people and they shrink into what looks like Barbie dolls.  This is always with the man's back to us so all we see is his coat opening up and "overwhelming" someone.  These aliens also have a device that kills you by basically shrinking and evaporating you.  This is solved by having the victim fall below eye level on the camera.  Even saying that, compared to the next movie, some money was spent here but clearly not enough.  Some of the worst fight scenes I've ever watched and that perfect cringe-inducing dialogue.  Overall, a real winner.

War of the Planets was the second movie with the crazy, kooky crew of Gamma 1 with most of the same cast returning -- thank God.  It's New Years Eve and the crews of space stations all through outer space are partying it up.  One station, Delta 2, goes off-line with no evidence of a malfunction or anything going wrong.  Capt. Halstead (Russel) and some of his crew (including Nero) jump on a rocket and head to Delta 2 and Mars (yes, the planet) to see what they can find. They find a weird green light/smoke that paralyzes a human long enough for the light to take over, basically turning the person into a zombie. These green light/smoke monsters attack in the hundreds, and the only thing that seems to stop them is radiation, but can Halstead and his crew stop them before they take over the world?  The safe bet is on 'yes.'

The "monsters" in this gem are priceless.  In my head, I see a smoke machine blowing smoke onto the set and a green-tinted lamp shining on the smoke to make it appear green.  Very scary, needless to say, and probably a good example of the cheapest possible thing available.  But that's the whole movie, little effort for little result.  Some of that has to be chalked up to the dubbing -- which is bad even for an Italian movie -- but the script is laughable.  Halstead and Co. walk on the surface of Mars and somehow survive.  A drunk astronaut is floating around Gamma 1, and if you look close you can see the rope or string holding him up.  And then there's the miniatures of all these expansive space stations, the weapons that fire flames or nothing at all (remember, they're shooting radiation), and the overacting.  My gosh, the overacting is phenomenal.  That's what is so fun.  Everyone involved takes the subject matter deathly serious.  It's almost as if no one told the actors that 'hey, this is a spoof, so have some fun with it.'

These are the type of movies you watch with a sense of dread, always wondering what fake-looking effect or cheesy line of dialogue is going to come next.  If they weren't so unintentionally funny, they wouldn't be worth watching in the first place.  Looking these movies up, I was pleasantly surprised that two more movies were made in the series with a new cast stepping in with new characters on the same space station.  If I can track them down or TCM airs them as a double feature, I'll certainly give them a try.  These are bad movies that don't try to be anything better.  And for that reason alone, they're worth a watch.  No ratings here, just a recommendation.

Wild, Wild Planet <----trailer (1965): Greatness in visual form
War of the Planets <----trailer (1966): Pure awesomeness in a movie

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